Single slot cooling is a dream…or a nightmare?

In the world of graphics cards, one of most debated arguments is just how the fat cooler is. In almost every debate I saw, single-slot was touted as “the” cooling to go for. In arguments between X800 and 6800, X1800/1900 vs. 7800/7900, 3870 vs. 8800GT – every time I saw discussions about how great the single-slot cooling is, how that means that the chip is cooler etc.
However, there is also a question of maintenance. Single slot boards are more prone to accidental deaths (overheating “accidents”), thus those boards have to be kept clean, or spew or RMAs is ahead (GeForce 7800GTX, 8800GT).

Spankin' new Atomic 3870... elegance of single-slot is just there...

Sapphire's Atomic was the highest clocked 3870.. and it was occupying just a single slot.

Fast forward to January 2008 – I’ve received Sapphire Atomic 3870 graphics card (www.sapphireatomic.com) and what made this card special is single-slot vapor chamber cooling, meaning this is the only air-cooled single-slot Radeon 3870 board out here.
After six months of working without a hitch, card suddenly started to overheat… you had 10 minutes of gameplay and the driver would crash. But before I thought about RMA, I’ve decided to void my warranty and disassemble the cooler to see if single-slot may be the cause of problems.

Dismantling the board...

Dismantling the board...

Fat layer of dust blocked the airway...

You can see just how fat the layer of dust was... I opened the right corner, whole board was completely blocked

As you can see on the pictures, complete cooler was blocked, with roughly 5mm of dust, meaning thin aluminum fins could not dissipate heat… at all. Now, what made this case particularly interesting is the fact that this card was housed in a case protected with dust filters, and the cleaning of inside would happen every month or so. Every cleaning included a visit to the card’s fan and cleaning it – yet, there was no way in seeing that the cooler will become clogged.
Sapphire is currently developing its solutions for 4800 generation of products, but I can’t help but feeling that future single-slot cards should have see-through cover, so that every user could see if the board became clogged with dust or not.
See-through acryl may not look attractive as a black plastic, but at the end of the day, these babies are race cars, not bikini-wearing models. Just a thought.