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Airflow: Ventilate Graphics Cards Well

How To: Properly Plan And Pick Parts For An Air-Cooled PC, Part 1
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Graphics Card Ventilation and Cooling

Before you hop online and buy the fastest graphics cards you can get your hands on, make sure you're picking the models (and motherboard) that facilitate proper airflow.

Your best bet is on a card able to exhaust the heat it dissipates straight out the back of your chassis, even if its blower-style cooler tends to generate more noise. Typically, the reference models designed by AMD and Nvidia are good examples, though the Radeon HD 6990, GeForce GTX 590, and lower-end GeForce cards are guilty of deviating from our direct-exhaust preference.

This is what happens when too much heat builds up. A mesh grill where those closed slot covers are seen might have prevented the card's label from getting so hot that it warped. Learn from this mistake, though. Eight hundred watts of heat dissipating in this chassis was bound to have adverse effects.

Schematic Illustrations

As long as the graphics card can get the heat out of the case, temperatures will stay at acceptable levels. Even a multi-GPU array has access to enough airflow to operate within safe tolerances, so long as there's room to breathe between the GPUs. If you want to exploit the value benefits of CrossFire or SLI, buy a motherboard with at least one expansion space between installed dual-slot cards (that's two vacant slots between the two end up using).

If the cards are too close together, as in the image above, it's easy for the board blocked off to overheat under even moderate duress. After all, its fan can't draw in enough air to keep the graphics processor cool.

The situation is similar when it comes to dealing with graphics cards sporting axial fans. Though they're quiet, they end up blowing hot air around inside of your case, rather than out of it, leading to undesirable heat build-up.

In many cases, a side fan can help. Even though they're continually criticized in our forum, a side fan's effectiveness (and the subsequent improvement to graphics card cooling) is both measureable and tangible:

Optimization Options

There are interesting alternatives to simple slot covers if you find yourself in a thermal quandary. With the help of a slot cooler, heat build-up can be minimized somewhat, even after you've already constructed your system.

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Top Comments
  • 18 Hide
    Mark Heath , November 8, 2011 4:39 AM
    Good timing as the Australian summer approaches. You guys in the US think you have it hot :S
Other Comments
  • 1 Hide
    compton , November 8, 2011 3:39 AM
    After reading the charts of PSU placement and the GPU cooling diagrams, I'm even more convinced that my Lian Li PCA05-NB is a great solution. The motherboard is upside down, so that GPUs (In my case an axial fan gpu) faces towards the top. The CPU is now at the bottom back of the case and with the rear fan acting as an intake and not exhaust, you get great CPU cooling. The PSU mounts in the bottome front as well. The great part of this design is all the heat ends up in the top. As an option, you can vent the top to release the heat rising from the GPUs, but I like the case because it has very little venting. Through unusual case design and careful component selection I have an almost silent system - but with overclocked CPU and GPUs. The front fan is the exhaust, but has a bezel over it. With a few bucks worth of acoustic dampening material I can even hear myself think sometimes. I regard low temps and low noise output to be two sides of the same coin, but I know that many seem to not mind loud systems and mainly just care about temps. It's never been easier to build a near-silent system, even with high performance gear.

    If you plan ahead of time, you can make a super quiet and cool running system. It's easier to build a cool and quiet system from the start than retroactively go back and try to make a noisy (and/or hot) system quiet with great temps.

    I'll be waiting for article 2.
  • 18 Hide
    Mark Heath , November 8, 2011 4:39 AM
    Good timing as the Australian summer approaches. You guys in the US think you have it hot :S
  • 0 Hide
    buzznut , November 8, 2011 4:55 AM
    Guten hunger YAH!
  • -4 Hide
    JOSHSKORN , November 8, 2011 4:57 AM
    I want my next PC to be able to play Crysis AND make me hot dogs and Iced Frappuccinos.

    All kidding aside...curious though, the test setup is on AMD CPUs. What about Intel CPUs? I would assume many of the concepts are similar.
  • 8 Hide
    100100 , November 8, 2011 5:02 AM
    Finally! A definitive article on how to air cool effectively! :D 
  • 7 Hide
    frostmachine , November 8, 2011 5:05 AM
    Great guide. I live in a perpetually hot n dusty place. This will come in handy.

    Would be better if there's some tips on dust management.
  • -7 Hide
    beetlejuicegr , November 8, 2011 5:45 AM
    heh i am just showing you a pic from my pc that the airflow is totally different because there is a watercooling system on the cpu, i hope that the picture is self explanatory for all.


  • -3 Hide
    amirp , November 8, 2011 5:46 AM
    Hey I have a question... for the PSU you say to not put it in upside down (ie. with it's opening facing up into the chassis..) but this is how I have mine in my ANTEC300 case since there is little room between bottom of case and the PSU if mounted right-side up. So what should I do?!!
  • 2 Hide
    BulkZerker , November 8, 2011 6:15 AM
    amirpHey I have a question... for the PSU you say to not put it in upside down (ie. with it's opening facing up into the chassis..) but this is how I have mine in my ANTEC300 case since there is little room between bottom of case and the PSU if mounted right-side up. So what should I do?!!


    PSU's don't pull that much air, normally. So unless your Unit kicks it's fan speed way up there then don't royy abotu it and do as suggested. If it doesn't work then you can always just flip it back to where it was.
  • 5 Hide
    darkrydr3 , November 8, 2011 6:20 AM
    BeetlejuiceGr, your cpu core temps are pushing 70 or 90 degrees C... thats hot!
  • 6 Hide
    MAGPC , November 8, 2011 6:44 AM
    Mark HeathGood timing as the Australian summer approaches. You guys in the US think you have it hot :S


    LOL, you both in the US and Australia think that it is hot at your home.
    Come taste the hot weather + high humidity in the Gulf countries.
  • 7 Hide
    marraco , November 8, 2011 7:07 AM
    Great article. It would be good to have also words on noise and dust (filters)
  • 1 Hide
    amk-aka-Phantom , November 8, 2011 7:54 AM
    MAGPCLOL, you both in the US and Australia think that it is hot at your home.Come taste the hot weather + high humidity in the Gulf countries.


    Seconded :D 
  • 2 Hide
    ickarumba1 , November 8, 2011 8:19 AM
    This is a decent article.

    However, the compilation of articles on Silent PC Review provide much more thorough details on air-cooling effectively. SPCR also comments on noise characteristics, with detailed comments on specific component selection. It makes this article kind of redundant.
  • -2 Hide
    v73 , November 8, 2011 8:33 AM
    So how is cooling in system with bottom PSU, downdraft cooler, top and rear exhaust and NO side fans (without any holes for silent system)?
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , November 8, 2011 8:42 AM
    Based on this the tower format is a heat failure as the best orientation would be for the motherboard to be laid on the floor of the case. One other aspect that wasn't mentioned and I don't know how much of an affect it would have, is Bernoulli principle that dictates moving air to have reduced pressure and temperature over surrounding static air. Tunnel structures for airflow to assist air speed inside the case?
  • 2 Hide
    jemm , November 8, 2011 8:46 AM
    Great work! As someone pointed out, dust intake is a problem when you have lots of fans pulling the air inside the case. While not all places are dusty, my place sits behind a school and there are dust everywhere. So my solution come from Organza, a thin, plain weave, sheer fabric traditionally made from silk. I fixed the fabric outside the case, and it works to filter the air.
  • 3 Hide
    ojas , November 8, 2011 10:40 AM
    great article, was going to revamp my cooling system in december anyway, this article helped a lot, and confirmed a lot of my suspicions (like the side fan).
    only prob with the side fan is that most manufacturers don't include dust filters on the side went, even if the front and psu intakes have it. you can always make/buy one though...

    MAGPCLOL, you both in the US and Australia think that it is hot at your home.Come taste the hot weather + high humidity in the Gulf countries.

    i was going to make a similar comment regarding Indian summers :D . I only see my hard drive below 30*C during winter!
  • 3 Hide
    Anonymous , November 8, 2011 11:06 AM
    You did not address or test air pressure. I spent many days testing multiple formats such as the tests above at my previous position and when I included air pressure, the whole story changed.

    Positive air pressure in a case, that has optimal channels for air movement, will cool components better than neutral, or negative pressure.

    All else equal, the positive air pressure creates more small eddies that pull more heat from the surface of components, which would otherwise be missed.

    You can test this, grab a good tower case, with a bottom mounted PSU, well groomed cabling, and make sure the case has no perforated walls (which defeats the purpose of air pressure testing). If you have 6 fans, 3 point in and 3 point out, in any configuration, it will cool less effectively than arranging the same 6 fans in a 4 in 2 out configuration.

    Try it and see if you get the same results...also any thermodynamic engineers care to join in? I am no engineer, just interested.
  • -6 Hide
    ramicio , November 8, 2011 11:30 AM
    A 60 watt light bulb emits approximately 90% of its energy through heat, so about 54 watts of heat. A computer drawing 60 watts at idle isn't going to be a particularly warm one. The power supply alone is 80%+ efficient. You just can't compare a light bulb's heat output to a computer's. Plus, a computer's heat is spread out over a higher area.

    As for the case you're working with in this article...I would not recommend it to anyone. These cases with the hard drives mounted sideways may be slightly handy, but there is basically no airflow over them. I don't see why a person with a simple tower would need quick removal. If you want server-type features, man up and buy real server hardware. Hard drives don't need much airflow to stay cool. There is no need to add anything to a hard drive to cool them, they should be properly cooled in the first place.
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