Coil Whine is a Problem for Everyone

And not just Nvidia…

Credit: NVIDIA

Credit: NVIDIA

Recently there’s been quite a bit of talk about users reporting coil whine issues with retail GTX 970’s. For those of you that are unaware of the existence of coil whine its best described as a high pitched noise typically produced by graphics cards or power supplies. It can be an intermittent or constant noise, but by all accounts it’s extremely annoying.

There’s a variety of components that are capable of producing the noises commonly associated with coil whine from VRMs to fan motors. More to the point though, coil whine has really turned into a catch all for unusual noises coming from a GPUs or PSUs. I say that not to belittle the problem but rather to highlight the fact that coil whine has been plaguing PC hardware enthusiasts for such a long time now that it’s become a catch-all phrase.

Speaking of time, how far back can we trace reports of coil whine problems on GPUs?

Starting with the AMD/ATI side of the story:

And now for the Nvidia side:

Coil whine is an industry problem and is not an ailment specific to one GPU vendor or another. As this list demonstrates coil whine is also not a new problem, but it is a problem that GPU manufactures and their AIB (Add-in-board) partners have yet to develop a consistent and effective solution for.

Some owners experiencing this problem have gone as far as covering the VRMs on their graphics cards with clear nail polish or glue to stop coil whine. Of course end users shouldn’t be fixing manufacturing defects in products that they paid hundreds of dollars for. After more than five years of reports about and RMAs for coil whine issues it’s hard to fathom that we’re still having these problems.

AMD initially contacted us about the reports of coil whine issues with Nvidia’s GTX 970 cards. So we asked AMD what they do to prevent the presence of coil whine on their graphics cards.

“You could say there are three ‘opportunities’ for us to do so and we use all three of them, where applicable:

  • At the design stage – Layout of the PCB and components is carefully considered with design rules that reduce emissions in the audible frequencies.
  • Selecting quality components – Improved components are selected which are manufactured to minimize the effect of audible emissions.
  • Manufacturing – During production and manufacture boards are rigorously tested and screened.

Of course for number 3, our efforts only have an effect if the AIBs take our board design guidance into account when doing their own – AIBs of course are free to design their own boards.”

Thus by AMD’s own account coil whine could be the product of loose design guidelines sent to AIB partners which would make these problems the fault of the GPU manufactures or it could be from poor quality control on custom designed PCBs from AIB partners.

Whatever the root of this on-going coil whine issue is it needs to be put to rest. Ending the scourge of coil whine is going to take a concerted effort by GPU manufactures and their partners. AMD at least seems to know what needs to be done to stop coil whine, but the proof is in the pudding and even with that knowledge coil whine is still an issue on AMD and Nvidia’s most recent products.

I have a dream that one day we’ll live in a world without coil whine; but something tells me that with a problem that’s been around for this long it’s going to be quite a while before we see any meaningful change. At the end of the day if there is one place where coil whine can be stopped in its tracks its back at the factory when our graphics cards are undergoing quality assurance testing. If the AIB partners don’t catch the issue, then it will be up to end-users to RMA their cards or fix the issues them themselves.

Coil whine is a complex problem and so far the solutions that manufactures and users have offered have been ineffective. This is an issue that needs leadership. This question now is will it be AMD, Nvidia, or the partners that take the lead on solving this problem.S|A

UPDATE 11/5 @ 8:13 PST: Added subtitle.

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Thomas Ryan is a freelance technology writer and photographer from Seattle, living in Austin. You can also find his work on SemiAccurate and PCWorld. He has a BA in Geography from the University of Washington with a minor in Urban Design and Planning and specializes in geospatial data science. If you have a hardware performance question or an interesting data set Thomas has you covered.