How to Stress-Test Graphics Cards (Like We Do)

Readers often ask us which applications are best for stability and temperature testing, and why we use some, but not others. In response, we generated some results to help quantify our choices for measuring power, heat, and the usefulness of overclocks.

Why Do We Need to Run Stability & Stress Tests?

As enthusiasts, we're always eager to figure out more about how new graphics hardware works at a technical level. Theoretical performance is easy to calculate based on the speeds and feeds AMD and Nvidia give us. But those numbers aren't always practical, particularly once we bolt our cards in and close up our cases. Even the best reviews don't reflect the exact conditions in your specific chassis. Perhaps even more important, when it comes to dialing in an overclock, you're left to your own devices. What we see from one sample rarely applies exactly to other cards. Last, but not least, new builds and upgrades often present unexpected issues that have to be diagnosed. Knowing how to run your own stability tests helps push through them to ensure everything operates the way it should.

Whether your goal is to uncover thermal or power problems during normal operation, or determine how far components can be pushed before causing crashes, you have to use the right software. In this way, weak spots can be identified, fixed, and optimized.

So, we're compiling a two-part software round-up designed to give you a detailed overview of necessary tools, each with its own list of pros and cons.

  • Part 1: How to Stress Test Graphics Cards (Like We Do) (This Part)
  • Part 2: CPU Stability Testing and System Stress Testing (Coming Soon)

Important Warning about All Stress Tests

Before we begin, we need to warn our readers about the inherent dangers of running stress tests. The software that we’re presenting might not just produce a full graphics load, but also potentially push beyond manufacturer-defined power limits. Using these so-called "power viruses" can result in damage to the system, especially if they're used for extended periods of time.

Those who want to use these applications assume all responsibility for the outcome. Be sure to continuously monitor relevant parameters, including temperatures, with accurate and up-to-date utilities. At least you'll be able to abort your testing immediately if it becomes necessary.

Choosing the Right Monitoring Application

GPU-Z is the established go-to application for graphics card monitoring. It’s free, doesn’t take up a lot of resources, and displays each board's most important parameters. It can also write a log of those parameters in real time. GPU-Z is continuously updated and improved, making it a great choice for beginners (even though it doesn't provide an in-game overlay). In addition to temperatures, a number of loads, limits, fan speeds, and power/voltage values can be displayed and logged. Download GPU-Z here.

MSI Afterburner has even more bells and whistles. It’s not just an overclocking tool, but also includes many monitoring functions. In addition, it provides an in-game overlay that displays whatever real-time measurements you choose.

AMD’s Radeon software can do this as well these days, but Afterburner is easier to configure and more flexible in the variables shown on-screen (not to mention their fonts and colors). Download MSI Afterburner here.

HWiNFO64 can do more than just monitor graphics cards, but it’s still a good choice even if that’s all you need it for. The software reads practically any sensor output, and can write it to a file in real time. However, the sensor loop tends to lag due to its sheer number of readings. Even one-second intervals don't always prevent a lag in the time stamps. 

Consequently, our recommendation is to not just hide unnecessary sensor readings (network, system, drives, etc.), but to exclude them from the loop altogether. This makes for a less cluttered display and gets rid of the aforementioned lag, even using 500ms intervals. Download HWiNFO64 here.

We’ll see in the second part of this article that HWiNFO64 is also a fantastic tool for reading motherboard sensors.

Choosing the Right Graphics Card

For this article, we're deliberately using a lower-end graphics card with a 100W power limit because we’re also interested in exploring its individual component temperatures. Asus' ROG Strix Radeon RX 560 does the job nicely. Neither its memory modules nor its voltage converters make contact with the cooler, meaning they can't affect each other. They are also placed apart on Asus' PCB, allowing us to draw more confident conclusions.

We did conduct some spot tests with significantly larger graphics cards (Sapphire's Radeon RX Vega 64 Nitro+ and the Galax/KFA² GTX 1080 Hall of Fame). These confirmed what we suspected: due to the issues mentioned above, high-end cards heat up completely after ~30 minutes, obscuring the most important details.

Test System & Methodology

We introduced our new test system and methodology in How We Test Graphics Cards. If you'd like more detail about our general approach, check that piece out. We've adjusted the CPU and the cooling system to better suit this article.

The hardware used in our lab includes:

Test Equipment & Environment
System
Intel Core i7-8700 ($312.00 On Amazon)
MSI Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC ($199.99 On Amazon)
G.Skill Trident Z 16GB (2 x 8GB) ($163.95 On Amazon)
Crucial MX300 1TB ($189.99 On Amazon)
be quiet! Dark Power Pro 11 850W ($199.00 On -)
Cooling
Alphacool Eisblock XPX ($73.99 On Newegg)
Alphacool Eiszeit 2000 Chiller ($1076.29 On Newegg)
Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut ($11.99 On Amazon) (Used when Switching Coolers)
PC Case
Microcool Banchetto 101
Graphics Card
Asus RX 560 Strix OC ($139.99 On Amazon)
Monitor Eizo EV3237-BK ($1695.36 On Newegg)
Power Consumption MeasurementContact-free DC Measurement at PCIe Slot (Using a Riser Card)
Contact-free DC Measurement at External Auxiliary Power Supply Cable
Direct Voltage Measurement at Power Supply
2 x Rohde & Schwarz HMO 3054, 500 MHz Digital Multi-Channel Oscilloscope with Storage Function
4 x Rohde & Schwarz HZO50 Current Probe (1mA - 30A, 100 kHz, DC)
4 x Rohde & Schwarz HZ355 (10:1 Probes, 500 MHz)
1 x Rohde & Schwarz HMC 8012 Digital Multimeter with Storage Function
Thermal Measurement1 x Optris PI640 80 Hz Infrared Camera + PI Connect
Real-Time Infrared Monitoring and Recording
Operating System
Windows 10 Pro USB ($199.99 On Amazon) (1709, All Updates)

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