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UPDATED: Nvidia’s “deadly” flaw and how to fix it – no more squealing!

It is no secret that I am huge fan of Folding@Home project, or that I love to play computer games (when I find time :-(. Both of these activities put high amounts of strain on components inside the computer, and any weakness in product design can be easily discovered.

This tale speaks of a company that makes great chips, but also has a serious design flaw: PCB design. As long as story about “Built by Nvidia” components was told, there were isolated cases of “squealing”. This squealing is caused by vibration of copper coils, and is not present on products designed by people that take attention at these things. Read: if your card has Digital Voltage Regulation Module (DVRM, as Iwill originally called it – Digital PWM is more popular these days) or all solid-state caps and shielded chokes, no sound should be produced. But, if your part has coils or non-shielded capacitors/chokes, you could be “enjoying” in squealing sounds of electronics.

To make the matters clear, certain products from BOTH ATI and Nvidia can squeal under load. ATI moved to clear the issue, Nvidia didn’t. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to record squealing with any of my microphones (upcoming test lab will feature ultra-sensitive microphone equipment), but in a silent computer with three Noctua fans, any non-standard behavior is noticeable. This high-pitched noise is often eaten by the sound of fans, but if you have a silent rig, it gets really, I mean REALLY – annoying.

The squealing is only appearing when the GPU is cranked all the way up, in Folding@Home, Far Cry 2, Crysis: Warhead – the same cards that squealed like pigs in Crysis didn’t do the same in Unreal Tournament 3, Fallout 3 or Race Driver: GRID.

After experiencing squealing with my reference Nvidia GTX280 card in the past month or so, I’ve thoroughly checked following products:

  • ATI Radeon X850XT
  • ATI Radeon X1800XT CrossFire Edition
  • ATI Radeon 2900XT 512MB
  • ATI FireGL V8600 1024MB (2900XT)
  • ATI Radeon 3850 256MB
  • ASUS EN9800GX2 1024MB TOP
  • ASUS EN9800GTX 512MB TOP
  • EVGA GeForce GTX260 Core 216 896MB x2
  • EVGA GeForce GTX280 SuperClocked 1024MB
  • EVGA GeForce GTX280 SSC 1024MB x2
  • Gainward GeForce 8800GTS 640MB
  • Gainward GeForce 8800GT 512MB
  • Palit Radeon 4850 512MB x2
  • Palit Radeon 4870 512MB x2
  • Palit GeForce 9800GX2 1024MB x2
  • Palit GeForce GTX280 1024MB
  • Sapphire Atomic 3870 512MB
  • XFX GeForce 8600GTS 256MB XXX Edition

“Squealing” appeared on several Nvidia and a single ATI board – and on EVGA 680i motherboard. On EVGA’s 780i and 790i FTW boards, where Nvidia design was replaced with EPoX engineering brilliance, no squealing appeared. I never noticed any squealing on following motherboards:

  • ASUS M3A78-T (AMD 790GX+SB750)
  • ASUS Maximus Formula (X38+ICH9R)
  • ASUS Maximus II Formula (P45+ICH10R)
  • ASUS P5E Deluxe (X48+ICH9R)
  • GigaByte MA-790GX-DQ6
  • MSI K9A2 Platinum (790FX+SB600)

Since squealing is coming as a consequence of a high-amp 12V rail, I decided to test the cards with several power supplies:

I also had that luck of testing the 9800GX2, GTX280 and ATI Radeon 2900, 3850 and 4850/4870 cards on two continents. First place where I did the test was Livermore, CA, using standard US 110V/60Hz current. Second location was Zagreb, Croatia, using standard Euro 220V/50Hz current.
This is the list of products that squealed in Crysis/Crysis: Warhead/Far Cry 2/Folding@Home:

  • ATI Radeon X850XT
  • ATI Radeon X1800XT CrossFire Edition
  • ATI Radeon 3850 256MB
  • ASUS EN9800GX2 1024MB TOP
  • EVGA GeForce GTX280 SuperClocked 1024MB
  • Gainward GeForce 8800GT 512MB
  • Nvidia GeForce GTX280 1024MB
  • Palit GeForce 9800GX2 1024MB
  • Palit GeForce GTX280 1024MB

As you can see, quite large number of cards produced some sort of noise, but with different variations. Most irritating were ASUS/Palit 9800GX2 and Nvidia’s GTX280, while other cards produced more subtle, but still high pitched noise. Power hogs like ATI Radeon 2900XT and new babies such as Palit Radeon 4850 and 4870 didn’t squealed. The reason is very simple: ATI pioneered the usage of digital power management (excellent design by Volterra) with 2900XT/V8600, went back to cost-effective analog capacitors/chokes on 3800, saw squealing re-appearing and again went digital with 4800 series. Result is very simple – no squealing under any circumstance.

If you own a card that squeals, you might ask yourself what to do. At present, only EVGA makes its own custom design cards with GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 and latest GTX 280 designs. All other partners are forced to use Nvidia’s reference design and well, squealing may or may not appear on your setup.

If you own a card that squeals, you should do following things:

  • Change the power cable. Incredible, but it did work on some cases reported by my friends.
  • Is your power clean or “dirty”? Putting a power-filter such as UPS might help.
  • If these two fail – mod the board.

Note that for instance, one Palit 9800GX2 squealed, two didn’t. After the mod, not a single one did. EVGA GTX280 Superclocked board (nV reference design) squealed, SSC ones (EVGA design) were good as gold. Gainward’s 8800GT continued to squeal after the mod.

We’re not talking here about “if you get Nvidia card, it will squeal”, but rather this issue is an isolated one, or “just how lucky you are”. However, this does not absolve board designers from full blame on this issue, since the “slaughtered pig squeal” issue could have been avoided by using digital circuitry.

Personally, I decided to go with warranty-voiding “coloring” of the board using color-less nail polish. For this experiment, we took Palit’s GTX280 and dismantled it. Daniela took each and every power component and soaked it with polish, and where she could, Daniela filled the inside of the capacitor/choke. We also removed all the factory-default thermal paste from the GPU and replace it with Gelid’s GX-1 compound. That reduced load temperature by 3 degrees, as we wanted to lower the thermal load of the PCB.

After putting the card back in the system, we turned Folding@Home back on and saw that squealing was almost gone and we only had a CPU and PSU fans on (OCZ Vendetta + Thermaltake Toughpower). It is not a 100% solution, but with all the fans back in the system, the board continued to fold and rock in games.

This issue is only the latest in history of recent scrutiny on Nvidia parts. Personally, I do not understand a dumb move done by circuitry designers who decided to continue using old, analog power management in time when Digital PWM is becoming more and more available. It is not true that Nvidia didn’t knew about the issue, since the first reports about squealing are traced back to nForce 680i and GeForce 8600GTS cards. Nvidia’s GTX200 series debuted at $449 and $649 price points and there is no explanation why more expensive digital circuitry could not be used. ATI introduced digital PWM with 2900XT, went back to analog with 3800 series, saw squealing re-appearing and went fully digital with the 4800 series. Case closed as far as Red Team is concerned. I spoke with several sources inside Nvidia’s and ATI’s partners, and they all moved forward to clear the squealing issue in their own custom designs, such as EVGA’s FTW series of motherboards of latest GTX200 cards.

We hope that GT206 and GT212-based cards will feature digital circuitry and that Nvidia will move in 21st century, as far as PCB design is concerned. Nvidia, here’s a free hint. If you need a contact in Volterra, I know a guy that knows a guy, we can make GT212 work all nicely, and SILENT!

P.S. I wish to thank Ivan and his girlfriend Daniela for all the help and dismantling their own GTX280 board. BTW Ivan, sorry to put it in public, but the digital camera on Sony Ericsson P1e sux. I wasn’t able to kill the noise even after 20min per picture in Photoshop. Grrr…

UPDATE February 1, 2009 00:40AM CET: I decided to update this article with a detailed picture of GeForce GTX280 and markings where nail polish or hot glue should be applied. Note that I haven’t tried the hot glue method myself. What needs to be isolated are the caps (marked with red line), but in case of Palit GeForce GTX280, squealing didn’t stop until Daniela put nail polish on the remaining power distribution elements as well (blue line).

Caps should be the ones producing squealing sound, but in case of our card, nail polish was needed elsewhere as well.

Caps should be the ones producing squealing sound, but in case of our card, nail polish was needed elsewhere as well.

Picture is provided courtesy of TechPowerUp! Thanks guys.