When Vapor Chambers Fail

Looking a little bloated in the middle…

Vapor Chamber Fails (4 of 5)

How do you know it’s time to replace your old graphics card? Back in the day they would just quit working. But we’ve entered a new and modern era where ever more reliable graphics cards are held to higher standards for build quality and performance. One of the most marvelous innovations in heatsink design to go mainstream in the last decade is vapor chambers. But sometimes good technical solutions have a way of doing thing that you didn’t expect.

Vapor Chamber Fails (1 of 5)

Take for instance this old entry level graphics card from AMD. Thanks to the use of vapor chambers a tiny, low cost, mostly aluminum, and passive heatsink was all that was required to cool this GPU under full load. Until one day. When it quit working and it’s heatsink bloated up and developed a new kind of curvature that its designers never intended. Or maybe they did. Either way, I doubt we’ll get answer on the record.

Vapor Chamber Fails (5 of 5)

Heatsinks, specifically, cheap passive heatsinks are designed to be flat, square, blocks so that it’s easy to machine them. When your heatsink suddenly has curves, you know you’ve got a problem. The above images are all hilarious because they illustrate the new found and death inducing curvature of the heatsink on this graphics card. What do we have to thank for this entertainment? Vapor chambers. Or more specifically the physical deformations that occur when a vapor chambers fails.

Vapor Chamber Fails (2 of 5)

When I unscrewed this heatsink from its spring loaded mounts on the back side of this graphics card the heatsink was launched into the air and landed on the other side of the room. The amount of pressure that the failed vapor chamber was exerting on the PCB was enough to permanently warp it and kill what should be an otherwise functional Radeon HD 6450.

Vapor Chamber Fails (3 of 5)

Although we’re just looking at one graphics card here we’ve also seen failed vapor chambers on other, newer, products. Of course a cursory search of Dell’s website revealed that failing vapor chambers on this specific graphic card are not an isolated problem. There’s a full two pages of people with this same failed vapor chamber problem. Including someone who piled five of these failed graphics cards next to each other on a table. Apparently loosening the retention screws can restore life to them in some cases.

Thanks to Dell, AMD, and the heatsink manufacturer that made failing vapor chambers a thing. Hide your graphics cards, there’s a new kind of killer on the loose.S|A

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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.