If you plan to play intensive gaming, GPU computing, graphics rendering, Folding @ home or crypto mining on your graphics card, you may be worried that your GPU will be depleted due to heavy use. But will it? We’ll investigate.
Yes, but it’s complicated
Most of the information on the lifespan of graphics cards you will find online is anecdotal, with numbers that can vary dramatically depending on who you ask. With hundreds of different graphics card models published in the past decade, it is difficult to reduce the data on such completely different cards into simple generalizations.
For now, we know this: according to a report by a German retailer from 2020, the latest graphics cards have a failure rate of around 2-5% (measured by the return to the retailer) in total. And in 2021, Nvidia continued to provide driver updates for cards around 9-10 years old (such as the GTX 600 series), so you can expect a decade of using a well-treated GPU card — although it could be outliers, such as we’ll see ahead.
Regardless of the numbers, heavy physics is at work. The materials and components used in GPU cards are not magical: the more you use them, the faster the parts degrade and the more likely they are to fail completely. Thus, heavy use affects life expectancy.
Whether you notice a malfunction on your GPU card depends on very different variables, including exactly how much GPU was used, the nature and degree of temperature changes in the circuit, how many times the card was turned on and off, and how clean the operating environment is.
Because a GPU card is a complex device with many parts, each of them can break down or degrade in different ways. We will go through a few main parts of the GPU card and examine how they can wear out from heavy use over time.
First up: cooling fans
Of all the graphics card parts that are likely to fail first, we should point to cooling fans (or fans), which are physically moving parts. The fans keep your GPU cool by removing hot air from the GPU chip (with heatsink) so it can continue to run.
Why is the heat bad? With enough heat, the transistors don’t work properly, which means the GPU card won’t work. With even more heat, the transistors in the chips on the card can be permanently damaged.
Over time, cooling fans often become clogged with dust, reducing their ability to move air efficiently. Or the fans could fail completely if the internal lubricant breaks down. Both scenarios will raise the GPU temperature.
Each GPU is protected from overheating by using thermal attenuation, which slows down the operation of the GPU to lower the operating temperature. This severely limits performance. So, if you have a GPU that is suddenly noisier than usual (the fan spins faster) or works worse, thoroughly clean the GPU cooling fans and the compressed air cooler.
If the GPU cooling fan completely fails, you can usually replace it if you find an equivalent fan at your computer parts supplier.
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Another suspect: Defective thermal connection
Between each heatsink and GPU chip is a layer of thermally conductive material, such as a putty or paste pad that helps transfer heat from the GPU chip to the heatsink.
Over time, thermal paste may crack or lose potency. When this happens, the heatsink does not cool as efficiently, and the GPU temperature will rise. As we saw in the fan section above, high GPU temperatures result in thermal attenuation, which will slow down your GPU.
The best solution in this scenario is to replace the thermal paste yourself. You can buy thermal paste from computer parts retailers.
Defects in other components, soldering
In addition to the GPU chip, the graphics card will include dozens of other electronic components such as capacitors, resistors, memory chips and more. Any of them could potentially fail due to heavy use or exposure to excessive heat. Some are more likely to fail than others.
Capacitors are particularly prone to failure over time. They are sensitive to frequent temperature changes, and some are defective when first manufactured. If you are handy enough to troubleshoot the capacitor, you can potentially replace the bad capacitors on the GPU card if you can find equivalent replacement parts.
Also, the solder that connects chips and components to your GPU card board may age and crack over time due to frequent temperature changes, rough physical handling, improper storage, or overheating. So, yes, high GPU usage can increase the risk of solder joint failure. Repairing bad solder joints can be technically difficult, but not impossible.
Defects in the GPU chip itself
So the question remains: can a GPU chip eventually wear out from heavy use? The answer is yes, theoretically, under extreme circumstances. But you will probably see a malfunction of some other component on the graphics card long before that time.
The GPU chip on your graphics card contains millions or billions of transistors, cut into a piece of silicone. Transistors age over time, affecting their performance. When enough transistors misbehave, the chip will fail.
According to Semiconductor Engineering, there are several main reasons why transistors do not work over time due to aging (one of them is heat), and errors are more likely the smaller the size of the characteristic on the chip. Experts suspect that computer chips made today will not last as long as chips made in the 1990s, but predicting the exact lifespan is still speculation because the technology is so new.
Currently, NVIDIA does not publish MTBF estimates (mean time between failures) for its consumer graphics cards, but the company publishes them for some of its industrial and business graphics accelerators. For example, the data table for the Tesla K20X GPU Accelerator states that the MTBF for the card (at 35C / 95F) is 14.7 years for the “uncontrolled environment” and 23.8 years for the “controlled environment”. (Note that industrial graphics hardware is generally expected to be more robust and more durable in intensive use than consumer graphics hardware.)
It is interesting that this theoretical number can be compared with solid data from the field. One of the few empirical studies on GPU lifetime comes thanks to a 2020 paper entitled “GPU Lifetimes on Titan Supercomputer: Survival Analysis and Reliability” by Oak Ridge National Labs. The paper reports on the reliability of 18,688 Nvidia K20X Kepler GPU cards used in the now retired Cray XK7 Titan supercomputer for a period of almost 7 years (2012-2019).
After some initial downtime due to connection issues, they discovered relatively high reliability with XK7 graphics cards until 2016 (around 3-4 years), when many began to break down. But guess what? They traced most of the failures in the first series of cards (before replacement) to a faulty resistor on the graphics card board, not the GPU chip itself. Overall, the study’s authors found that the average MTBF of K20X’s highly used GPU cards is about 3 years (not 14-23 years, as listed in Nvidia’s data table), with some of the hottest cards in the core failing first . They concluded, “GPU reliability depends on heat dissipation.”
So there is a good chance that if you use your graphics card as intensively as one of the world’s largest supercomputers (at the time), it will wear out faster and that other components such as fans and resistors will fail long before the GPU chip itself. Exactly how much you will get depends on factors that we cannot predict.
After all, heat is the enemy
Finally, from every source we read, the most important factor that decides how long a GPU card will last is how long it works. The warmer the card, the faster all its components degrade. Also, the warmer the card, the more it reduces performance to prevent a catastrophic malfunction. Good cooling extends the life of your card and increases its performance.
So, whether you’re mining cryptocurrencies or playing games, if you keep your GPU card relatively cool with clean, working fans and efficient thermal paste, you’ll probably have a high-performance card that, if you’re lucky, could last and become up to date.
If you are planning to buy a used GPU, you should definitely consider its history, including the way the owner treated and used it. Heavier-used cards (which now work) are likely to work well in the short term, but are more prone to failure in the long run. We can’t determine the exact number of card life, but heavy use definitely consumes graphics cards faster.
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