Make your old GPU run like new
A little TLC can breathe new life into your aging graphics card.
Your PC deserves every neat-freak tendency you can muster. Neglect your machine, and over time its fans will get dirty, its heat sinks will become clogged, and the thermal paste will break down. Heat will begin to build up, which can lead to instability or even failure.
No component of your PC is more vulnerable to heat than your graphics card. Even relatively affordable midrange cards sport complex graphics processing units that consume a lot of power and pump out quite a bit of heat. But if you take the time to refurbish your graphics card safely, you may be surprised to see it running like new--or in some cases, better than new.
Tools of the trade
To start, you need a few tools and a bit of know-how. Generally you need a screwdriver (or two) to help with the disassembly, plus cleaning materials such as canned air, alcohol, and cotton swabs. You want a small brush to wipe away dust and old thermal interface material, and some replacement thermal paste.
I'm using a Radeon HD 5870 graphics card for this project, a decent GPU that's a few years old at this point. (Although your card may be different, the instructions that follow should work with appropriate adjustments.) This ATI card uses three different sizes of Phillips-head screws to secure its case bracket, heat sink, and fan shroud, and it features an additional heat/reinforcement plate on the back.
Its barrel-shaped fan and relatively long heat sink--with densely packed fins--are prone to dust buildup. Plus, since this was a powerful GPU in its time, it can get really hot when playing games.
When it was brand-new, this card's GPU temperature usually hit around 172 degrees Fahrenheit (78 degrees Celsius) under load. But since it has gotten so dusty and dirty, it's reaching temps closer to 185 degrees Fahrenheit (85 degrees Celsius) now. The card's fan is not only louder, but it also spins up more quickly and more frequently--working overtime to manage the heat.
To clean and refurbish the card, you first need to disassemble it. Begin by removing the screws holding the card's rear heat/reinforcement plate in place. Next, remove the two smaller screws that secure the case bracket to the fan shroud. Finally, remove four even smaller screws that hold a spring-loaded heat sink mount.
With all of the screws removed, you'd think the card would just fall apart, but that doesn't always happen. Most graphics cards are covered with sticky thermal pads and other thermal interface materials that can act as adhesives. My Radeon HD 5870, for example, had thermal pads between the reinforcement plate and the rear-mounted RAM chips, between the main heat sink and the front-mounted RAM chips, and between the heat sink and the GPU.
Be especially careful when pulling the card apart so as to not damage any surface-mounted components or the thermal pads themselves. I gently pried the reinforcement plate off the card, using steady, even pressure. I then did the same for the fan shroud and the heat sink. After pulling off the shroud, I also had to unplug the cooling fan from a port on the PCB.
After I pulled the card apart, it was immediately obvious why the card was getting so hot: Its heat sink and fan were filthy. There was way too much thermal paste installed on the GPU, as well, and to make matters worse, the thermal paste had begun to dry and crack.
I used canned air and a small brush to remove the gunk from the cooling-fan heat sink. With cotton swabs and a small amount of alcohol, I cleaned the older thermal paste from the GPU and the base of the heat sink.
We can rebuild him
After cleaning the graphics card's heat sink and fan, and removing its subpar thermal paste, I reapplied fresh thermal paste and put the card back together. I also took a couple of additional steps to make sure that the card's cooler would perform at its peak.
On the Radeon HD 5870, a metal clip with four springs serves to attach the heat sink to the GPU and apply enough downward pressure to ensure good contact and thermal transfer. Over time, that clip and the four springs can become deformed or compressed, which ultimately lowers the contact pressure. To remedy that, I carefully flexed the bracket upward and slightly stretched the springs back out. With the bracket and springs stretched out, they would apply the pressure necessary to hold the heat sink tightly against the GPU.
When you're applying new thermal paste, the goal is to use the least amount of paste necessary to produce an ultrathin layer over the surface of the chip you'd like to cool. I doled out a drop of thermal paste the size of a BB, and spread it outward until the surface of the GPU was covered. I then reassembled the card, confirming that the heat sink was installed properly and making good contact with the GPU.
Don't forget a fresh coat of software
Now that you've cleaned and reassembled the graphics card, it's ready to go back into your machine. But don't forget the software! Download new drivers while you're thinking about it.
Though flashing a newer vBIOS on an older card is not usually necessary, doing so can help to increase its performance, as was the case when AMD introduced Boost on the Radeon HD 7950. A new vBIOS can also enhance your card's stability or fix compatibility issues, as was the case with a recent vBIOS update for GeForce GTX Titan cards that enhanced their compatibility with tiled 4K displays.
To flash your graphics card's vBIOS, check the card manufacturer's website to see if an update is available. If so, simply download it and follow the instructions that the manufacturer provides. The more daring can use tools such as NVFlash or ATI Flash to experiment with alternative vBIOS files. Tread lightly, though.
The end result
All of this effort paid off for my aging GPU. Now it rarely hits 167 degrees Fahrenheit (75 degrees Celsius) under load, and the fan doesn't produce nearly as much noise. My PC runs more quietly, and I know that my GPU probably just got another year or two of life out of the deal.