Some enthusiasts will undervolt their GPU to save heat, reduce power consumption, and make their system run quieter. But does undervolting damage your GPU?
Undervolting can lead to stability issues, but when you get it right, it can actually be good for your GPU. Running cooler generally leads to longer life expectancy for the GPU chip and the graphics card as a whole.
Undervolting as a practice
Undervolting isn’t a new concept in the enthusiast community. Back in the Socket 7 days, CPUs came in a variety of voltages, and a lot of enthusiast motherboards allowed you to use voltages that were outside of what the manufacturer recommended. Typically enthusiasts would use these settings to increase the voltage so the could overclock their CPU. I wasn’t interested in overclocking–here’s why–but I liked the idea of undervolting to try to run my CPU a bit cooler.
I found I could run my 3.45-volt CPU at 3.3 volts without any issues.
A more common application of undervolting is in retro computing. When a system has been sitting for decades, it’s a good idea to power it on at very low voltage and slowly increase the voltage. This helps you to avoid damaging components. The system may or may not come up in a usable state, but you’ll usually be able to see if it at least produces a display. Then you can perform a warm boot to see how well it functions.
So undervolting isn’t a bad practice at all.
Why undervolting a GPU works sometimes but not always
Undervolting a GPU won’t damage it, but it won’t necessarily result in desirable operation either. Chips are usually manufactured with a fair bit of tolerance, about 5-10 percent in either direction. Frequently our power isn’t as clean as it could be, so this tolerance helps our systems to deal with the normal fluctuations we get from our power grid.
The tolerance means we have some margin to play with under normal circumstances. It also means the chip will have less tolerance when the power does fluctuate. And since you can’t count on two chips being absolutely identical, one GPU might work fine at lower voltage while another one needs a bit more.
You won’t damage your GPU by undervolting it, but you do risk losing a bit of stability. You’ll have to decide if the power savings and cooler operation is worth the slight risk of instability.
If you do decide to undervolt your GPU, stress test it for a few hours to make sure it holds up. Many GPU benchmarking tools also include a stress test. If it holds up for a few hours or better yet, overnight, then you can be reasonably certain it will hold up under use as well.
If it crashes, don’t worry. You didn’t cause any permanent damage. Just reboot, increase a voltage closer to stock, or slow down your clock rate a bit, and try again. Overvolting can cause damage, but undervolting won’t.
Benefits of undervolting a GPU
There are some potential benefits of underclocking a GPU. The increase in life expectancy is probably negligible. But it will save you some power and let the GPU run cooler. That means your fans won’t have to spin as fast to keep the GPU and the rest of the system cool, which will make your system quieter.
You may have to decrease your clock speed a bit to run stable at a lower voltage, but if you can find a slightly slower setting that doesn’t affect your FPS rate more than you can stand, you may be able to decrease your power draw by several watts with a very tolerable trade-off.