Shopping Used Graphics Cards
The most expensive component of a system is most often the graphics card, and as such it’s one of the most common components bought used, doubly so after a few years of tumultuous graphics card pricing (which we’ll touch upon on
the next page). While they usually do offer much better performance per dollar over a new card, GPUs generate a lot of heat and are susceptible to damage by neglect or misuse.
Older GPUs are susceptible to having been run beyond their means as they’re the easiest components to overclock - adjusting a couple sliders in Afterburner is usually all it takes to unlock more power than a GPU had when it left
the factory. When a graphics card is pushed beyond its limit, if it doesn’t crash then it’ll show signs of artifacting first, indicating the overclock is too aggressive.
But what if the card is artifacting at stock speeds? If the card can’t run at its factory base and boost clocks without artifacting, the card is either overheating or defective. New thermal paste may reduce or eliminate the artifacting, as may some more aggressive GPU recovery methods such as “baking” the card (which we don’t recommend as this rarely gives a long-lasting fix), but the fact of the matter is the GPU is not in good condition if it’s artifacting at stock speeds and should be returned to the seller.
Much like a CPU needs thermal paste to transfer heat to the CPU cooler, a GPU also needs to dispel the heat it generates under load, and will be thermally connected to its cooler. Most thermal pastes will break down over time and
should be reapplied every few years. Cards with old thermal paste will run hotter and need a more aggressive fan profile to compensate for the poor heat transfer, leading to earlier throttling and potential performance loss.
Used graphics cards more than a generation old should be re-pasted. Doing so will involve removing the cooler from the graphics card entirely, which is a prime opportunity to blow out any lingering or hard-to-reach dust that can degrade cooling performance. Sellers sometimes list whether they’ve done this recently, and there’s nothing wrong with asking (though in the case of a screaming deal, it might be best to buy and just assume you’ll be re-pasting after arrival).
Fans and Dust
While we’re on the topic of cooling, non-spinning fans are 50/50. Some cards allow for fan replacement and have headers on their PCB to let you do so, while others will have them soldered into a single fan connection. With hundreds
of different GPU designs out there, it’s impossible to say definitively. You’ll need to research the specific model you want to buy to determine whether the fans can be easily replaced or if it’s a task better suited to people
who are more comfortable with a soldering iron than a search bar.
It goes without saying that any GPU with a broken fan should be considered (and priced) “for parts only.” You can of course homebrew a cooling solution, such as removing the cooler shroud and zip-tying high static pressure fans directly onto the cooler, or even purchase GPU-specific aftermarket coolers like the Accelero to mount to compatible cards. Again, you’ll need to research the GPU model to determine if this is viable, but reference designs are in general the most compatible with third-party solutions.
Of course, where there’s a cooling solution, there’s a propensity for trapping dust. No matter who you buy from, it’s worth taking some compressed air and blowing out the card from all angles once you get it. If the seller’s photos show an inordinate amount of dust, consider passing on the card altogether as it was likely run very hot for a long time. Remember - if the seller couldn’t be bothered to do something as simple as clean out the dust prior to putting it up for sale, they probably couldn’t be bothered to do it while they used it daily, either.
Capacitors and voltage regulators play an important role powering most the components in your PC. All the power needed to run a GPU has to filter through these tiny electronics much like they do to power the CPU on your motherboard,
but the limited space on the graphics card’s PCB means GPU manufacturers may need to lean harder on fewer components. NVidia’s Maxwell (GTX 970, 980, etc) GPU generation brought coil whine front and center in the gaming community,
as add-in board partners who strayed from Nvidia’s reference board designs changed the count and quality of these electronics, pushing them much closer to their limits.
Coil whine occurs when a small PCB component is fed electricity, causing it to vibrate with electromagnetic energy (all electronics do this), and those vibrations occur at or near the device’s resonant frequency. It’s a similar concept to how people make wine glasses sing - a person’s fingers are making a thin layer of water vibrate across the rim at the resonant frequency of glass. The high-pitched noise from graphics card electronics are generally much louder than those of other components to the point where they can sometimes be heard outside the case.
Coil whine is a nuisance more than it is a concern for the card’s health. Some cards may exhibit them only in certain situations, and others may develop a coil whine over time as they begin to wear. Unfortunately coil whine is difficult to get rid of outside of completely replacing the noisy component, but undervolting and different cases may reduce the noise. If it’s an egregious whine that’s exhibited at all times, it’s worth asking the seller for an exchange or refund, but bear in mind it’s impossible for a seller to test all the scenarios you’ll expose the card to.