Graphics Card Coil Whine; An Investigation

Author: SKYMTL
Date: November 8, 2014
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Coil whine. It’s long been the bane of graphics cards and judging from the reaction on many forums the current darlings of NVIDIA’s lineup, the GTX 970 and GTX 980, may suffer from the same nagging issue as previous Radeon and GeForce products. Multiple posts and retailer feedback sections show a number of coil noise complaints but how widespread is it? There are plenty of frustrated, vocal folks out there who spent plenty of money for a brand new GPU and have been beset by high electrical noise footprints.

Before we continue too far down this path, it’s important to discuss coil whine from a slightly less emotional perspective. It typically happens when a high amount of stress is put on the PWM, causing the inductors to vibrate within their housings. Many companies have begun to combat so-called coil whine with measures that include but are not limited to concrete-core chokes and isolated inductor housings.

Typically those upgrades are present on higher-end products that cost a premium while reference-based examples are more likely to have baseline components. However, based on our testing (more on this below) less expensive cards seem to be no more susceptible to this phenomenon than many of their expensive siblings.

Another facet is the whining’s presence in higher load scenarios. This means it will typically be apparent in game menus, FurMark, folding and other situations where the card is being asked to run at extremely high framerates or process a large amount of parallel information. Within games themselves (again, provided the title isn’t throwing a ton of frames at the card) the noise will either be lessened or reduced to a “chugging” sound while multi card setups will accentuate the noise due to their relative ability to boost framerates. We also can’t forget that some people are more susceptible to hearing the higher octave “whining” sound than others.

This isn’t an NVIDIA board partner exclusive issue either. Far from it actually. From day one AMD’s R9 290X and R9 290 had issues with wailing, screeching and chugging noises and if Google’s search is any indication, these problems continue to this day across several of their partners’ designs. We actually started logging coil whine in cards due to our experience with the HD 7990, a card that squealed like a pig in heat.

For brevity’s sake, we’ve published a chart below which reflects our notes of each card dating back to the HD 7990’s launch. They show both AMD and NVIDIA cards along with their subjectively measured coil whine output (none, mild, moderate or extreme) in Hitman Absolution at 1440P and within FurMark. The results are pretty straightforward.

Ok, so the chart is a bit long but that’s what we get after reviewing over 50 separate graphics cards over the last year and a half, some of which will be covered in articles that haven’t even been posted yet.

Despite the information overload there are a few clear trends here. First and foremost, whining is more likely to occur in those aforementioned situations where loads are extreme and framerates high such as in FurMark. When using that program, GPUs that were typically silent in regular gameplay could sometimes exhibit mild to moderate whining. Even heavily upgraded cards could start getting bent out of sorts. Unigine Heaven's loading screen is another good litmus test of this as well.

NVIDIA’s reference platforms tended to be quite well behaved and we were just as likely to encounter issues with their board partners’ custom designs. The same can’t be said about AMD since their reference R9 290X and R9 290 should be avoided if you’re at all concerned about squealing or any other odd noise a GPU can make. Stick to the custom Radeon-branded SKUs, of which there are plenty and only a handful present excess acoustical profiles.

Now on to the real question: how do the new GTX 980 and GTX 970 stand up? In our testing of twelve cards thus far, only two exhibited a slight amount of whining during standard testing. That figure did climb to six when they were pushed with FurMark but of those, just two showed levels that could be deemed annoying. Now this isn’t empirical evidence given the relatively small cross section of cards but it does point towards a trend of the whining "problem" being limited in scope or at the very least fixed in some designs.

With that being said coil whine was certainly a problem on certain GTX 970 and GTX 980 models, particularly those from EVGA, ASUS and MSI according to numerous forum posts. That fact can’t be pushed aside but some which have already been implemented. For example, in our conversations with them EVGA has readily admitted they experienced widespread problems with early GTX 970 shipments. However, they have since addressed these problems and eliminated the whining so all cards in the retail channel should be whisper quiet.

While the amount and intensity of coil whine (or lack thereof) largely seems to boil down to luck of the draw, most board partners are quite transparent regarding their return policies concerning it. EVGA, GALAX (the former Galaxy), ASUS, PNY, PowerColor and Gigabyte have all stated to us that excessive coil whine is grounds for an RMA. We expect other board partners have similar policies.

That some of NVIDIA’s board partners have had problems with coil noise is undeniable. That AMD’s reference cards and some of their custom products have coil whine is undeniable. However due to a high amount of sample to sample variance, it is literally impossible to point a finger at one vendor and claim the phenomenon is widespread. Coil whine is simply a fact of life in this industry and can appear in an almost random fashion regardless of whom you end up sending your money to or how much cash is spent on a purchase. Luckily, other than some noteworthy examples the true number of cards affected looks to be minimal now that some vendors have rectified their initial teething problems.

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