Give my Dustbuster a dial, please

During my early days as a PC enthusiast, we didn’t really care about noise. The howl of a stack of high-speed fans was the mark of a powerful system, like the throaty exhaust of a badass custom chopper. Perhaps because we really didn’t have a choice, we embraced the din and used it to intimidate lesser PCs.

Today, silence is golden. CPU makers are increasingly focused on lowering power consumption, and everyone seems to have embraced the idea that computers should be as quiet as possible. Enthusiasts still have an insatiable desire for moar power. We’ve just combined that thirst with the pursuit of quiet cooling systems and smart fan control algorithms.

CPUs used to be the biggest consumers of power within PCs. As such, they required the most aggressive—and noisiest—cooling. These days, however, GPUs consume much more power than CPUs. The Core i7-2600K, which sits atop the Sandy Bridge lineup, has a 95W thermal envelope. Nvidia’s mid-range GeForce GTX 560 Ti has a much higher 170W TDP, and power consumption only increases as you climb up the GPU ladder. Even the most power-hungry desktop CPUs of the last couple of years have topped out in the 125-140W range.

Graphics coolers are adding fans and heatpipes to handle rising thermal envelopes

If you look at the chips themselves, it’s easy to see why. Graphics processing is an inherently parallelizable task, making it relatively easy to increase performance by cramming more cores into each slice of GPU silicon. With core counts in the hundreds, modern GPUs are made up of many more transistors than desktop CPUs. The GF114 GPU behind the GeForce GTX 560 Ti, for example, has twice the number of transistors as a quad-core Sandy Bridge chip.

I’ve long been a vocal proponent of robust, user-configurable fan speed controls on motherboards. With that horse beaten to within an inch of its life, it’s time to saddle up a new pony: graphics cards are long overdue for better fan speed controls.

To their credit, modern graphics cards are much quieter than the noisy Dustbusters of old. They’re also smart enough to change fan speeds intelligently based on GPU temperatures. Users don’t have much control over the fan control logic, though. Drivers and tuning applications sometimes give you a slider to change the fan speed, but that usually turns off temperature-based scaling and locks on a single speed, which is no good if you alternate between gaming and mundane desktop tasks. Unlike the best fan control options for CPUs, you can’t set temperature thresholds, targets, or corresponding fan speeds. There’s no way to dictate how aggressively your GPU cooler responds to changes in temperature, either.

AMD’s drivers serve up clock and power controls but only a basic fan speed slider

Thanks to the popularity of custom cooler designs, there’s often a wide range of noise levels and GPU temperatures between different graphics cards. Some cooler designs are simply better than others. Manufacturers often have different tolerances for GPU temperatures, and their propensity to tweak clock speeds adds another wrinkle to the cooling equation. Take the GeForce GTX 560 Ti, again. We tested four flavors of the card in our initial GPU review, and each had very different noise levels and GPU temperatures. Noise levels ranged from 38-43 decibels under load, while GPU temperatures were spread between 56 and 70°C. There certainly seem to be differing opinions on how to best balance GPU temperatures and fan speeds, so why not let end users decide for themselves?

As long as safe limits are taken into consideration, there’s really no good reason to prevent users from fiddling with whatever variables are offered by a graphics card’s fan control intelligence. Besides, some GPUs already feature built-in throttling mechanisms that serve as a last line of defense against overheating.

After all the ranting I’ve done about motherboard-based fan speed controls, I feel a little silly for neglecting graphics cards for so long. The loudest component in the average enthusiast’s PC is likely to be the graphics cooler, and we should have just as much control over it as we do the CPU cooler—if not more.

Ideally, I’d like to see graphics drivers allow users to shape the fan’s speed profile by dragging multiple points along a line graph with temperature on one axis and fan speed on the other. If AMD and Nvidia aren’t going to step up, there’s no reason why card makers shouldn’t offer similar functionality through their own tweaking software. Just about anything would be an improvement over the manual sliders we have now.

Comments closed
    • irvinenomore
    • 8 years ago

    The particular model of GPU I last bought was based on the reviews listing it as being quiet. However I still replaced it with an Arctic Cooling after market cooler. Now the thing is basically inaudible with the fan set at 5v.

    In future I will probably look for cards that have compatibility with Arctic or Thermalright after-market coolers.

    • d0g_p00p
    • 8 years ago

    I have been using EVGA’s Precision tool to setup good fan profiles. It does everything listed in the last paragraph of this blog post. So far it seems to work with any GeForce card. I find the interface much better than RivaTuner, which it’s based off of.

    • Ryu Connor
    • 8 years ago

    Meh.

    I rescind.

    • Buzzard44
    • 8 years ago

    Perhaps it isn’t so much that PC enthusiasts are now focused on low noise over power, but that you and a lot of people on here have gotten older, and y’all’s preferences have changed. I personally don’t mind a bit of noise, as long as I have the power that accompanies it. Perhaps you’ve just switched from a chopper personality to a convertible personality.

    Something to think about.

      • UberGerbil
      • 8 years ago

      Maybe so, but since “get young again” is not an option….

      • bored_and_agitated
      • 8 years ago

      I’m 20 and I avoid noise as best I can. After having a noisy VAIO desktop for four years, I’m done with jet turbine PC’s

      • burntham77
      • 8 years ago

      True. As a younger guy I never cared much about the noise. But now that I am married, having quiet computers is important because the television watching and computer computing happens in the same room.

    • Mystic-G
    • 8 years ago

    As a owner of a MSi GTX 460 Afterburner, I have to admit, I have no desire to play with my GPU’s fan speed. It is noticeably quiet, my exhaust fan and hard drive (during read-times) make more noise than it.

    • dpaus
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<]"...everyone seems to have embraced the idea that computers should be as quiet as possible"[/quote<] You obviously never watched early popular sci-fi, where the sheer power of vessels like The Enterprise, The Seaview, etc., were directly proportional to the numbers of continuous beeps, chirps, whistles, pops and crackles that the command centre made. In fact, that paradigm didn't change until the introduction of the first truly silent computer: HAL9000 (and we all know how well that turned out; in an eerie echo of unstable humans, we learned that 'it's always the quiet ones....')

      • UberGerbil
      • 8 years ago

      Actually, if you listen to the background in later shows like ST:TNG, it’s clear all those noises have just been drowned out… by the whir of the cooling system

        • dpaus
        • 8 years ago

        Yeah… Remember that episode where a fan failed, and Geordi had to eject the warp core before it blew up the whole ship? Or that one about the [i<]U.S.S. Yamato[/i<] where they foolishly surfed an alien website with IE6 (Astrometrics was still running XP), and the resulting virus shut down all the cooling fans just as they rendevoused with the [i<]Enterprise[/i<]??

          • UberGerbil
          • 8 years ago

          Alas, [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkBws1yx5HA<]this[/url<] was their biggest threat. (Seriously, though, listen to the background noise behind the dialog. They clearly wanted to give the impression of the enterprise as this powerful machine but the net effect is "giant HVAC system" ... all to cool those HPUs {Holodeck Processing Units})

            • BobbinThreadbare
            • 8 years ago

            I thought the background hum was supposed to be the life support system.

            • yogibbear
            • 8 years ago

            Which is basically HVAC… except instead of drawing air in from the atmosphere you produce/recycle it yourself

    • Stargazer
    • 8 years ago

    A thousand times yes.
    Better control of the fans (along with lower idle power usage) is something I’d very much like to see in future graphics cards.

    • moremi87
    • 8 years ago

    power to the people

    • Sunburn74
    • 8 years ago

    More interested in a mobo that wil allow a user to control all his case fans rather than auto controls for my gpu. Gpus are pretty quiet these days at idle. Case fans are still noisy things.

      • travbrad
      • 8 years ago

      Case fans are only noisy if you get a noisy case fan. The big 120mm ones usually push lots of air with very little noise. My PSU is louder than my case fans.

      I agree having control over all of your fans would be ideal though.

    • Meadows
    • 8 years ago

    [quote<]With that horse beaten to within an inch of [u<]it's life[/u<][/quote<] *gasp* Geoff! Edit: like others have pointed out already, MSI Afterburner (basically a licensed, skinned version of the best-in-class RivaTuner engine) supports what you need, fan speed curves, even easy voltage tweaking with no CPU/RAM cluttering crappy UI like Taiwanese attempts of the past, and naturally a detailed monitoring of various values. You can set it to start automatically (minimised on the taskbar) every time your computer boots, and it prompts for no additional elevation, unlike how the older versions of RivaTuner used to do.

      • willmore
      • 8 years ago

      EVGA’s Precision tool is the same.

        • Meadows
        • 8 years ago

        I believe MSI’s variant is the one the maker updates most often of them all, so it’s usually preferable.

        • dashbarron
        • 8 years ago

        ^This. I like EVGA for their lifetime warranty, sound products, and now the precision tool which does what Geoff is asking, with the little line graph and everything! It’s nice being able to tell the fans not to come on full blast until the side of my case starts to melt.

    • normalicy
    • 8 years ago

    Wow, it’s like you’re reading my mind. I was just sitting here thinking how my CPU cooler was so quiet & yet my fancy cooler on my GPU totally overpowers anything else in volume when under load. It’s almost enough to make me switch to water-cooling (been avoiding it for years).

      • Rakhmaninov3
      • 8 years ago

      I’m still drooling over that single-slot, water-cooled 580 that was in the ‘bread a couple weeks ago.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 8 years ago

    With as hot as nVidia and AMD allow their GPUs to get with stock setups, I have to think that you’re not going to eek much extra peace and quiet out of your video cards without aftermarket coolers with aftermarket fan speed controls.

      • Meadows
      • 8 years ago

      You should try to [i<]eke out[/i<] things sometime. 😉

      • Farting Bob
      • 8 years ago

      Not under load, but most people dont mind a load GPU fan when killing zombies at 4MP.

      When idle though, most GPU’s come nowhere near their max temperature, in that case the fan can be fiddled with a fair bit, when you want the silence most.

    • tbone8ty
    • 8 years ago

    I love how afterburner allows you to tweak the fan profile curve.

      • Jigar
      • 8 years ago

      X2, Best in the business, i have tweaked the fan profile using that curve as per my requirement and it keeps my HD5850 extremely cool.

      • Stargazer
      • 8 years ago

      Is it possible to use it to turn the fans off below some temperature threshold too?

        • Goty
        • 8 years ago

        You could probably set the fan speed to zero (or close enough that the fan couldn’t continue spinning, anyhow), but you wouldn’t be able to maintain that temperature passively with any decent modern GPU, so you’d end up listening to the fan spin up and down continuously, which I think would be more annoying than just setting the fan to some continuous low speed.

          • Stargazer
          • 8 years ago

          That would depend on what GPU you’re using, what other cooling solutions you have, and the ambient temperature. There are cards that can handle being passively cooled at load (though they might have better heat sinks), and power usage at idle tends to be quite a bit lower.

          Fans spinning up and down is a general problem with temperature thresholds, so you need to set the limits appropriately. Spinning up from zero to some low speed would probably be something I could live with if it only happens every few minutes or so.

          On a similar note, does the fan control support any sort of hysteresis?

        • kiwik
        • 8 years ago

        Stock 5850 could have the fans roll at 10% in Afterburner and the temp in normal usage would not go over 55C.

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