My Personal Crusade: Acoustics
Beyond the good looks and impressive performance we saw from Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 690 and Titan, I was equally impressed by how unobtrusive the cards were, even under load. If there’s one thing that’ll kill a piece of hardware for me before I start benchmarking, it’s too much noise. AMD’s Radeon HD 6990 was so bad that I felt obligated to record video, lest you guys think I was exaggerating. When the reference Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition showed up exhibiting acoustic issues of its own, I wondered how such an important characteristic could have gone unnoticed a second time. Finally, when my Radeon HD 7990 showed up, AMD’s team made it a point to mention that the card was designed carefully to operate quietly. And in a single-board configuration, it certainly does.
Nvidia’s record isn't spotless in the quest for quiet computing, though. It has the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra as a reminder of that. But the GeForce GTX 480 seemed to…let’s say encourage a renewed verve for the user experience, and not just frame rates.
You might think that’d be a simple matter of picking the right fan technology, perhaps spending more on a higher-quality blower, dialing in a smooth ramp, and hoping the engineers who designed your GPU kept efficiency in mind. But it’s not; there are trickier scientific forces at play. A few years ago, the board team decided to do something about squealing power circuitry and loud fans, kicking off two distinct efforts: component acoustics and fan acoustics.
The former required specific hires and specialized equipment for analyzing how the board and its on-board components move. Of course, when Nvidia chose to go down this path, it didn't know where the noises were coming from. The engineers figured out that there were two sources. First, they identified a ton of inductors that were put together poorly. As their glue let go over time, you’d end up with squealing. But even with good inductors, the board itself resonates. The SLI connector, for example, flaps around. At a certain point, that frequency ends up in an audible range and we hear it. So there are folks responsible for screening each product that gets built to catch those noises.
Interestingly, most of the prototypes that come back do make noise. When a power supply responds to a GPU idling at 25 W and jumping up to 250 W, a lot of those on-board components start moving, causing the board to flex, which you sometimes hear. Sometimes a few pieces can be relocated to fix this, but other times the whole layout has to change.