How long do graphics cards last? As with anything computer-related, it depends. But as long as the card isn’t abused, it’s not uncommon at all for the card to be obsolete before it stops working.
What causes graphics cards to fail
In a word, heat. The most common cause of death for a graphics card is a component, usually the GPU, overheating. This will either cause the chip to fail, or in some cases, can cause solder joints to melt. Under normal usage, and especially under casual use, cards rarely go into the danger zone.
If you do long gaming sessions playing visually intense games and you overclock your GPU to maximise your performance, then you may be putting your card at risk of failing more quickly. Realistically, the card will probably still last three years, or even more. But if you don’t overclock the card, you can reasonably expect it to last 10 years, if not more.
I’ve never had a card fail. Here’s why.
I started building PCs in the mid 1990s. The only trouble I ever had with a graphics card was one time when I overclocked a GPU past it’s limits in a Crossfire array and happened to fry the GPU in the process. I’ve learnt to overclock a GPU‘s safely since then! I always make sure my systems have sufficient cooling but I don’t take it to extremes. Most of my cards went obsolete before they failed. By obsolete, I mean they outlived their usefulness and the slot they plugged into changed.
These days I prefer to pick up a scrapped office PC, then install memory, an SSD, and possibly a graphics card in it, whatever it takes to meet the user’s needs. It’s extremely cost effective and environmentally responsible. You might be surprised to hear you can game on £150 worth of salvaged PC parts.
Why I’ve previously bought a used graphics card
The last graphics card I bought, prior to my main machine, was a used one. I wanted a graphics card to pep up one of our PCs a little. But I didn’t want to spend a lot. The card I ended up getting is probably around five years old. It’s a Dell-branded Radeon HD 7870, so odds are it was used in an office, probably salvaged from a low-profile Dell Optiplex. I paid around £45 for it. A new Geforce GTX 660 card would cost about £30 more, but the 7870 is a bit faster card.
The card probably lived a pretty easy life. So it’s relatively safe to assume it has a good five years left in it, if not more. It probably spent its previous career running Microsoft Office endlessly, after all. Its pedigree makes you question whether it can even be overclocked. And the Dell-provided drivers its previous owner likely used certainly didn’t expose that capability, if the card has them.
Never buy a card from a crypto-currency miner
There’s a saying that goes to never buy a graphics card from someone you think was or is a crypto-currency miner. The thought is the card spent its whole life running at 100% utilisation and ran 24 hours a day, so the card will have less life in it than a card previously owned by a gamer. It’s certainly the opposite of the buttoned-up corporate card I bought.
That said… If you can get the card at a decent discount, it may have a couple of years left in it.
Why it might be OK to overclock
Some cards outlive their usefulness as they age, particularly enthusiast-grade cards. So if you pay a lot of money for a power gulping enthusiast grade card, it may make sense to overclock it a bit even if it reduces the card’s life expectancy. Games get more demanding with time, so it may very well be that in three years, you’re only concerned about the card’s potential resale value. And if you’re concerned with resale value, you’ll want to sell the card while it still has some useful life left in it. As long as you keep the card at a reasonable temperature, if the card is more useful to you with a slight overclock, it’s probably worth doing.
The reason for this is that enthusiast-grade graphics cards don’t age nearly as well as other enthusiast-grade components. A decade-old card that doesn’t require any PCIe power connectors is arguably still useful to someone. It’s low performance by modern standards, but it also doesn’t use a lot of power. You can at least put it in a system that doesn’t have any integrated graphics. It’ll work fine for anything that doesn’t require 3D rendering.
A power-gulping graphics card that turns your computer into a space heater, on the other hand, has outlived most of its useful life.
How to know when a graphics card is obsolete
Case in point: Take a card based on an AMD Radeon 4830. This card from 2008 falls between an entry-level Geforce GT 710 and a Geforce GT 1030 in performance. But the 4830 gulps 250 watts of power. The newer Geforce cards each use less than 30 watts. So while a 4830 can still outperform an entry-level graphics card today, the electricity it uses costs £25 per year more to run, assuming you use it 4 hours per day. A Geforce GT 710 only costs £35, while a 1030 costs closer to £80. So the 1030 will give you an upgrade in performance and will pay for itself in power savings in about 30 months.
So if you have a monster graphics card from a few years ago, you might not want to use it every day anymore. Even if it still works. A modest card from today can give you a slight bump in performance while giving you a big bump in power savings and noise reduction. While some of these Geforce cards have fans, not all do.
My main machine is currently using a Radeon R9 390 which is now around 4 years old, but while some may say this card will be obsolete by today’s standards, every game I throw it’s way, runs perfectly playable and fine at around 60-75fps in resolutions ranging from 1080p to 1440p. The draw back here though is it’s power-consumption, and constant heat generating cycle.
What to do with these old monster graphics cards? Trying to predict future collectables is always difficult. But they weren’t made in super large quantities and many of them will overheat, break, and get discarded. They’re automatically more interesting than my Radeon 7870. Graphics cards from the 1990s are collectable today, so perhaps today’s cards will be collectable in about 15 years too.
So how long do graphics cards last? As long as you’re not crypto-mining, and you take it easy on the overclocking, it will probably last longer than you need it.