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A Troubled King
For years, Nvidia was the uncontested king of PC graphics hardware. But you know how the saying goes - when it rains, it pours. So seems to be the case with Nvidia. During the later half of 2008, Nvidia's core business came under heavy assault from the traditional underdog, AMD. Without warning, AMD released a highly competitive GPU capable of coming close to the performance available from Nvidia's brand new architecture, for less money. Meanwhile, rumors about Intel's new graphics chip, the Larrabee, have become the darling of the PC hardware press, putting pressure on Nvidia to show that it will be able to respond. And then, Nvidia's 8-series mobile GPUs began to fail.
The news came first in early July, when Nvidia cut its revenue forecast. Part of that revenue cut was due to a one-time charge which had occurred because of a higher than expected failure rate among its mobile 8-series chips. This one-time charge, to the tune of $150 to $200 million dollars, hit Nvidia's bottom line hard. But that is nothing compared to what its done to the faith of many consumers in Nvidia's mobile products.
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Am I At Risk?
The problem with Nvidia's 8-Series GPUs is a serious one, as it is causing complete failure of Nvidia's 8-series mobile GPUs. Symptoms leading up to failure include the usual signs of GPU over-heating, such as artifacting, image corruption, and inexplicably slow performance. At the moment, there is no recall, and at this point it time, it appears unlikely that one will ever be issued. While Nvidia has acknowledged that there is a higher than expected rate of failure occurring in some 8-series mobile GPUs, it has not acknowledged that the problem is so severe that a recall needs to be issued.
Since no recall has been issued, detailed information about what parts may be at risk is unknown. It may be that Nvidia itself does not know what parts could be affected. Nvidia makes its GPUs at a third-party production facility. It is possible that the problem is due to the manufacturing process, but also possible that it is due to a design error on Nvidia's end. Since Nvidia has only acknowledged the potential for a problem in its mobile 8-series GPUs, it is only accurate to say that mobile 8-series GPUs are undoubtedly at risk. This includes older Macbooks and a great number of laptops from Dell and HP. Finding out if you have a mobile 8-series GPU shouldn't be difficult, as most Nvidia powered laptops have badges somewhere on their exterior.
There are some reports of the problem occurring in desktops. However, Nvidia has denied that there is any problem among its desktop GPUs. Unfortunately, without concrete evidence from either those alleging failures of desktop GPUs or from Nvidia, its impossible to make a judgment either way.
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What Can I Do?
As stated, Nvidia has not issued a recall of any sort, and it appears that laptop manufacturers have followed suit by not recalling any products using 8-series GPUs. All laptop companies involved have, of course, kept their word regarding products normally under warranty, but products outside of warranty haven't officially been give any particular protection. Because there is no recall, there is only so much that the consumer can do, as the lack of a recall essentially means that while a problem is acknowledged, it isn't considered severe enough to give consumers extraordinary compensation.
Dell and HP are the only companies that have come up with any form of solution, and their solution comes in the form of a BIOs update. It can be downloaded from Dell's Direct2Dell from Dell computers and from the HP warranty website for HP computers. It has been theorized that heat triggers the failures in the defective GPUs, and that keeping those GPUs cooler may make them last longer. The BIOS updates seem to confirm that. They change the way the system fans operate in order to increase airflow over the GPU, prolonging its life at the expense of being louder. The BIOS updates will not help systems which are already showing symptoms of a failing GPU.
Unfortunately, the lack of solutions, driver updates, or recalls for this issue means that anyone with a currently defective GPU is effectively out of luck. Contacting the customer service line of your laptop's manufacturer can't hurt, but they are not required to make repairs or refunds. If you have a 8-series GPU but have not seen symptoms, it is highly recommended that preventive actions be taken. Although only Dell or HP have made BIOS updates, users of other laptops may be able to prevent failure by reducing GPU use or by attempting to make fan speed modifications with third-party fan control software. A more daring solution, for those still under warranty, might be to get some free 3D benchmarking software and run it for an extended period of time (overnight). Pushing the GPU hard for a long time could reveal a heat related weakness. But without knowing what is wrong with the chips or having seen cases proving this would work, we can't recommend it.