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Baking A Video Card -- A magical fix for hardware failure

No, my video card is not trying to deal with glaucoma, although its behavior over the past few weeks might be interpreted as such. Stay with me here and I'll tell you how my gas oven fixed it. :)

The Backstory

I've been running an Asus EN9800GT Ultimate graphics card for several years, paired with a Core2 Quad Q6600 and 4GB of memory. There's nothing special about the system, although when I built it it was further up the price/performance curve than it is today. Nevertheless, the Asus card has always performed admirably, running quite well for the hoops I put it through on a daily basis.

Until some weeks ago. :| The video started stuttering and hanging when doing graphics intensive things, like running World of Warcraft, or StarCraft 2 together with VMWare Workstation and Windows Media center. Yes, all at the same time.

I had begun to think that recent updates to these programs had made changes to their video requirements. Or maybe it was the latest NVidia drivers; they had had some recent issues. In any case, two days ago the video choppiness was reaching a state where I thought it was going to induce an epileptic fit

This was all the more strange because the frame rates reported by the program I was running (OK, it was World of Warcraft) were from 30 to 100 fps. The obvious choppiness was confusing, if those numbers were to be believed. I looked for IRQ conflicts, disk access conflicts, and all sorts of other things that could cause the program driving the video to stutter.

Nada. No joy.

The Failure

Yesterday I tried rolling back my video drivers but got no improvement. Upon reinstalling the latest NVidia drivers and undergoing the requisite restart, I could no longer even get a valid video signal. Nothing. Not even the boot text, just colored blocks, or weirdly noisy colored lines.

Things looked grim. I tried resetting the CMOS on the motherboard. Still no joy.

Now, over the years I've let the magic smoke out of many a PC component. Those are inevitable war wounds when you have a penchant for building your own systems and experimenting with hardware. My past overclocking adventures killed off many disks and several motherboards, but never a video card.

Besides, those days are behind me. My system today is all stock parts --  no mods, no overclocking (at least, not on my own). No shenanigans. Also, I had paid for top-notch gear -- no off brands -- and it was all sourced from a vendor I trust and recommend. I've been buying all the important stuff from them for 10 years. No, if there was a problem, then it was a manufacturer issue.

Stay with me, I'm getting to the part where I put my the Asus video card in the oven!

And yes, technically my Asus card is an "overclocked" card, but that was done at the factory and is really just a marketing scheme. All chips come with varying tolerance produced by the fabrication process. All the vendor needs to do is test them and separate out the high performers, bump up the clock on those cards, and charge more.

The Eureka! Moment

The symptoms were familiar -- I suspected either the motherboard or the video card was going bad or gone. I crossed my fingers and hoped it was the video card. Testing the Asus card in another machine rewarded my wish -- the system wouldn't even boot with the Asus video card in it. :)

At this point I quickly put my wife's system back together, made sure it still worked, wiped my prints off the keyboard, and quietly slipped out of her office.

The smile on my face as I went back to my office lasted a few seconds, right up to the moment I contemplated the need for a new video card and the new lack of access to my working system.  My search through a fairly large pile of out-of-favor gear produced no workable spare to use in the mean time. I was SOL.

As circumstance would have it, I had been window shopping for months, now, in anticipation of upgrading my system, and I had already decided which video card was at the right price point. Interpreting these events as a kick in the pants to do my planned upgrade, I fired up my dinky laptop, surfed over to Newegg, and ordered a new GIGABYTE GV-N465UD-1GI GeForce GTX 465.

Then I sat down to wait. I twiddled my thumbs. I was starting to go stir crazy even though I only had to wait one day -- I paid extra for overnight shipping.

The Surprise Fix

My laptop was still on so I began searching to see if anyone else had had similar problems with their NVidia 9800's (Asus or other vendor). Good old Google quickly brought me to www.hardforum.com and a thread that described exactly the same issue on a 9800GT (brand unknown). The thread included links to photos of identical visual phenomena as well as a wildly unbelievable method for possibly fixing the card.

I read the thread. Twice. And the reason why the solution might work made sense -- solder joints can age and become brittle, creating microfractures leading to intermittent and increasingly bad failures. Those microfractures can be resolved if you heat them up so that the solder remelts.

Here is the recipe that worked for me as derived from the thread linked to above:

  1. Remove the fan assembly down to the bare PC board
  2. Clean off the thermal paste
  3. Get a cookie sheet and cover it with tin foil
  4. Use more tin foil to create two 1/2 inch "logs" to hold up the card
  5. Place the card across the "logs" like plywood across two saw horses (GPU UP)
  6. Preheat my gas oven to 385 degrees Fahrenheit
  7. Bake the video card @385F for exactly 8 minutes (using the baking timer, of course)
  8. Take the card out of the oven and let it cool
  9. Apply the recommended film of Arctic Silver 5 to the GPU surface
  10. Reassemble the fan and cover and pop it back into the system

Viola! My system was working again, modulo the clock reset that I caused by clearing the BIOS.

Epilogue

I doubt this sort of failure, and the corresponding solution, will be necessary for many folks. Nevertheless, it was an interesting solution to a sad problem. That being said, if you do this, don't expect the fix to last, or so I am told.

And don't go sell the card to someone else. The problem will probably come back, and you don't want that bad karma.

I just hope the fix lasts until my new card arrives tomorrow. In the mean time I can work while the first component of my newest system makes its way to my doorstep. :)

*twiddles thumbs*

*fires up World of Warcraft*

 

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