Graphics cards are a critical component of any personal computer, and a graphics card failure can make a PC unusable. Fortunately, the graphics card is also a component that it is fairly easy to diagnose with problems. Graphics cards can fail in a number of different ways, but there are usually warning signs that give you plenty of time to line up a replacement. In this article, I’ll show you how to spot the signs of an impending problem, how to troubleshoot existing problems, and how to figure out what’s going wrong with your card.
Every computer has a graphics subsystem whether it’s the integrated graphics on a tiny little netbook or a $1000+ graphics monster running a giant multi-monitor setup. For some computers, this is an integrated section of the motherboard; these graphics setups are often labeled as “Integrated graphics,” “Intel graphics” or “Intel HD graphics”. More advanced systems come on their own card, or even as enormous double-slot cards that dominate the inside of a PC case. The graphics subsystem is what generates the text and pictures on your computer screen(s); Because the graphics card controls what is on your system’s display, the warning signs that the card is failing tend to be pretty obvious. Here are some early warning signs of video card failure.
- Stuttering: When a graphics card starts going bad, you might see visual stuttering/freezing on the screen. However, malware, a dying hard drive and even RAM problems can all cause the same kind of behavior, so don’t jump to conclusions. If you get stuttering along with other warning signs, there’s a good chance it’s your graphics card.
- Screen glitches: If you’re playing a game or watching a movie and suddenly start seeing tearing or weird colors appearing all over the screen, your graphics card might be dying. Sometimes if you restart your computer, the screen will go back to normal, but expect the same problem to come back if you have a faulty graphics card.
- Strange artifacts: Similar to screen glitches, a bad graphics card can result in strange artifacts all over your screen. Artifacts can be caused by excessive overclocking, heat problems and even dust buildup. This can sometimes be fixed by a restart, but once again, if you have a faulty graphics card, expect the problem to come back.
- Blue screens: Everybody with a Windows background is familiar with the blue screen of death. A computer can blue screen for any number of reasons, whether that be problems with RAM, hard drives, graphics cards or other components. But, if the system crashes and/or blue screens when you start doing some graphic intensive tasks (e.g. playing video games, watching movies, etc), this could be an indication that your graphics card is on its way out.
- Fan noise: This does not necessarily correlate to needing to replace your graphics card, but keep an ear out for a louder-than-normal fan noise. If the fan on the card malfunctions it could indicate card is getting too hot. If it’s getting too hot, you’ll want to stop what you’re doing and try and clean it out as best as possible. If you can’t get the fan to quiet down, it’s possible that something is internally wrong.
As we always mention in our troubleshooting guides, finding out what’s wrong and diagnosing a problem is usually a process of elimination. Start with checking your connections. Loose connections can cause a lot of problems, especially with a graphics card. Make sure it’s solidly seated in the motherboard and that any secondary connections are also secure.
In some cases, you won’t be able to check connections, particularly if you have a laptop and especially if you have a laptop from specific manufacturers like Alienware who make it more difficult to access components. Generally speaking you won’t have an issue with loose connections in a laptop. With laptops, more often than not, the problem is dust due to it being in such an enclosed space. If you can open it up and clean out as much dust as possible, that would be the first place to start. If dust or lint has been in there for an extended period of time, it can easily fry a component or cause the machine to overheat by not allowing proper airflow.
The next thing you can do is run some software tests. Run GPU-Z and watch the real-time temperature for any oddities. For actually testing the card, there’s nothing like putting it through some real-world use. Use the Heaven Benchmark tool to test your card. Run it for a couple hours — it should be able to handle it without crashing or causing any graphical errors like strange artifacts and stuttering.
It’s also worth noting that if you don’t have a graphics card and are using a motherboard’s integrated graphics, then problems could be a sign of motherboard failure rather than a graphics issue. Be sure to check out our troubleshooting guide for motherboard failure.
Next, make sure the drivers on your graphics card (and monitor) are all up to date. You can also try uninstalling the ones you already have and then re-install them to ensure there aren’t any problems there. It’s worth noting that you can uninstall your drivers without losing video. Once uninstalled, Windows will use some very basic drivers to display video to your monitor so you won’t actually lose video functionality or cause any harm to the card. But, as always, be sure to consult your video card’s manufacturer for specific uninstall/reinstall instructions. You can find some specific instructions from NVIDIA and AMD here and here, respectively. AMD actually has a free cleaning tool to automatically do this for you. Before you make any changes to your driver software, you should save your system state to a restore point. We have a how-to article on how to roll back a driver update if this makes things worse and you need a reset.
One of the easiest, and yet most powerful, techniques is to simply swap out the graphics card for another one and see if the problems go away. If the new graphics card works without an issue, it’s obvious the old graphics card needed to be replaced. If you don’t mind fiddling with components at home and have an extra or cheap graphics card lying around that will fit your computer, you can conduct this test process, or you can get a repair shop to do it.
While you have your machine open, it’s worth checking for any physical problems. If the fan has stopped working on the video card or you see any leaking or bulging capacitors, it’s time for a replacement. In cases of this happening, usually the video card will stop working almost immediately.
Sometimes the problem lies with a virus or piece of malware on your computer. That’s likely not what’s causing strange artifacts or screen glitches, but if you’re getting some stuttering or experiencing frequent crashes, there’s a good chance malware is the culprit. Be sure to run your anti-virus software, and to be extra sure it’s not something in the system files, you should run some bootable anti-virus software (Bitdefender has an excellent tool for just that).
Another thing to test: disable your sound card. This sounds counter-intuitive (what does the sound system have to do with the video card?) but sometimes interactions between these two systems can make the whole computer unstable. If turning off the sound resolves the problem with your graphics, then the problem may actually be in your sound system and not on the graphics card itself.
If your computer has an AGP graphics card (an older standard, but one that many computers are still running on), then you might try slowing down the AGP ports to see if that resolves the issue. For an NVIDIA AGP graphics card, you can use RivaTuner to slow down your card; non-NVIDIA owners can use PowerStrip. Either way, try turning down the speed multiplier on the card from 8x to 4x or even 2x and see if that helps with the problem.
It’s also possible that your video card might be running too fast. Some cards may be rated for a particular GPU speed, but in reality can’t consistently run at that speed. You can try underclocking your GPU, which puts less stress on the video card as a whole and may solve the problem. If you are using an ATI video card, try the ATITool program to slow down your video card. NVIDIA cards can use RivaTuner, and other card owners can use PowerStrip.
What causes video card failure?
Video cards can fail for so many different reasons. Not properly installing the component in the computer can lead to video card failure, but more commonly, dust and lint are the culprit. Dust itself generally isn’t the problem, it’s more that it blocks fan vents and prevents proper cooling. In some cases, if bad enough, dust can actually insulate a component and cause overheating.
Some other things that can cause video card failure is too much overclocking. Overclocking at the stock voltage is more than safe but if you push the card to its limits with high voltage, that will kill a card sooner than normal but even that will take months or years to kill a card. It’s also worth noting that many modern cards are pretty resilient to excessive heat, but do keep in mind that this can put extra wear and tear on the card, and even eventually fry it if the heat output is greater than what your heat sink can handle.
Aside from that, the last thing that can kill your video card is the standard electrical outage. Blackouts, brown outs and power surges can fry all of the components in your computer — even the graphics card. In most cases, if you have some extra cash to spare, you can prevent this situation. All you’ll need to do is invest in a quality surge protector as well as a Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). As you know, the primary role of a UPS is to provide temporary power in case the source is cut off so that you can properly shut down your machine; however, it’s also able to help prevent damage from things like power surges. You can read more about what a UPS and surge protector does here.
Ultimately, the video card is subject to as much wear and tear as anything else. If your card fails, it may have just been time for the card to fail. In that case, a replacement is your only choice.
Replacing your video card
Now, if you’re finding yourself needing a replacement, we have quite a few options. Depending on the type of work you’re doing, you don’t necessarily need a super expensive video card. If you’re on a budget, we’ve got a great guide on buying a graphics card for almost any price range. But, before going out and buying a new card, there are a few things to look at and find out what you need, such as clock speed and memory size – check out this article on the things you should be thinking about for your own build.