One of the more curious trends emerging from last week's Starcraft II launch is people alleging that the game kills graphics cards. There is no way for a game to physically damage hardware; instead it's a symptom of old and/or poorly cooled hardware rather than some sort of Blizzard-based death touch.
What happens is that the between-mission scenes onboard Jim Raynor's ship aren't framerate capped. These are fairly static scenes, and don't take much work for the graphics card to display them. Because of this, the card renders the scene as quickly as possible, which then taxes your graphics card as it works to its full potential.
It may sound illogical, but redrawing the same image over and over again can put just as much stress on a graphics processor as running a game like Crysis with everything cranked up. As the pipelines within your graphics card work overtime, the card will heat up and if it can't cope with that heat it will crash.
Ironically it seems that this is a side effect of Starcraft 2 being a PC (and Mac) title - similar screens in games ported from consoles usually have their framerates capped at 30 or 60fps.
Until the game is patched to stop the framerate woes preventative measures are called for.
Blizzard has posted a fix that will stop your graphics card overheating as a result of this problem:
Screens that are light on detail may make your system overheat if cooling is overall insufficient. This is because the game has nothing to do so it is primarily just working on drawing the screen very quickly. A temporary workaround is to go to your Documents\StarCraft II Beta\variables.txt file and add these lines:
You may replace these numbers if you want to.
This highlights an issue that enthusiast gamers already understand, namely that the harder one's graphics card works the more heat it generates. This is usually not an issue because graphics card manufacturers design cooling around certain reference temperatures. If a card runs hotter than it should, it will throttle back speed or shut down completely to avoid damage.
Where this can become a problem is when cooling isn't as efficient as it could be and the graphics card shuts down prematurely. Surprisingly, the most common cause of overheating is dust. If your computer is designed properly it sucks air in through the front of the case and expels it from the rear and/or the top. With that air comes dust, which builds up inside your case.
By their very nature PCs fill up with dust. It is very, very hard to prevent this from happening, but regular cleaning can improve airflow and heatsink performance.
Because heatsink fans are designed to force air down through the heatsink you will find that dust builds up quite quickly. It happens with CPUs and can happen with graphics cards as well. Heatsinks are made of thin fins of metal, designed in a way that they heat up when the processor does and are cooled when air flows over them. Dust tends to accumulate between these fins, and over time can completely block the air gaps. Dust also has a nasty habit of building up between the fan and the top of the heatsink as well. When either of these things happen the cooling efficiency of the heatsink drops dramatically and overheating can follow.
The easiest solution is to open up your case and using a can of compressed air (be sure to use compressed air designed for cleaning computers or electronics) to blast the dust away. If there is a dust buildup inside the heatsink then fixes will be fruitless until you remove this dust. Once you are rid of it you'll notice things running a lot smoother (we here at PC Authority tend to open up our cases and remove the dust on a regular basis).
Once the dust is gone take a look at the airflow in your case. Case fans can often end up jamming dust against the fan grills, which in turn can reduce the volume of air flowing in and out of the case. Some systems actually include filters near the case fans, which need regular cleaning in order to stay effective.
The grill on this intake fan has collected a thick layer of dust. This severely reduces the amount of air that can flow through the grill and is easily fixed.
Also look at the cabling. Any half-decent system builder will have tied the cables into neat little bundles, although these often get cut apart when you upgrade components and need to access cables from the bundle. Generally speaking you want to make sure that cables aren't blocking the flow of air through your case.
One thing you shouldn't do to improve airflow is remove the side of your case. Modern cases are designed as air tunnels and actually need the side on in order to maintain proper airflow. If you remove the side you mess with the air pressure and flow. It is best to clear out the dust and keep your case sealed.
Following these simple steps should eliminate many issues with graphics card overheating. It isn't a failsafe solution - sometimes overheating is just a sign that the product is old and worn out (a fan cannot spin forever after all).
Compressed air designed for cleaning electronics can be found many stores, including chains like Officeworks ($19.95) and Jaycar ($17.95). New fans can be purchased from most computer shops, or online at places like PC Case gear. For more cooling information check out the reviews from our sister publication Atomic.