A dedicated graphics card, or a GPU is not an essential hardware component. Computers are perfectly capable of running without them using just the on-board graphics card. In fact, you will find plenty of systems available today that do not have a dedicated GPU but come with SSDs and the latest processors. That said, if you need to play games, you cannot do without a GPU.
Games always tell you what the best and what the minimum hardware requirements are to run them. If your hardware lies within the recommended hardware range, you’re good to go but, your current GPU might be capable of delivering a better gaming experience. The only way to find out is by stress testing it.
GPU Stress Test
A GPU stress test forces your GPU to work at maximum capacity for an extended period of time. Normally, a GPU is only in use when a specific app e.g., a game is running. During that time, it may be running at low or moderate levels, or it may be running at a high level. It’s at this high level that the GPU may be considered under stress but it’s not the same as a stress test.
When you play a game that has high graphics requirements, your GPU may cycle through high and moderate use. Even if it is consistently running at a high rate/speed, it won’t be working as hard as it would under a stress test.
A GPU stress test will run the GPU at its maximum capacity and see how well it works. If your system continues to run without trouble i.e., crashing, it means it can work well when pushed. If the system crashes, that means you’ve found the upper limit to your GPU’s capabilities.
About GPU stress testing
Before you start a GPU stress test, you should know that;
- A stress test can last as long as 30 minutes or 8 hours. Choose a tool that lets you pick how aggressively the GPU is tested.
- Your GPU and/or system may crash during a stress test (so save everything and close apps you don’t need).
- You can stress test a GPU regardless if it’s underclocked, overclocked, or running at factory-set levels.
- A stress test may, in rare cases, damage hardware.
- Your system will get hot during a stress test. If your system temperature approaches 100°C, or more, abort the test.
- During a stress test, your GPU will use more power so make sure you do not stress test it on battery. Your system may crash and it won’t be because of the GPU being unable to perform but because it was unable to get as much power as it needed.
- Stress testing should be done without any parallel tasks running so run a test when you know you won’t need to use your system.
GPU stress testing tools
There are lots of great GPU stress testing tools that you can use on a Windows 10 system. Many of them have their own system monitoring tools as well which show you how your system is holding up under the stress. If your tool of choice doesn’t have a system monitoring tool, give either HWiNFO or MSI Afterburner a try.
The two parameters that you absolutely need to keep an eye on are temperature and GPU usage. With temperature, you should know that if a system gets too hot, but doesn’t crash, the sustained heat may still damage it.
OCCT is a free app that can test different hardware components on your system, the GPU is one of them.
A good reason to use this app is that it has system monitoring built-in, it allows users control over how long a test is run, and the UI presents results that are easy to understand even if you do not know much about a GPU’s performance metrics.
FurMark is best used for moderate level testing. It stress tests against OpenGL benchmarks and is a good tool to check how well your GPU is working. You can run the test on various resolutions, and the tool can test both the GPU and the on-board graphics card. It also has a built-in temperature check which will sound an alarm if your system is too hot. The temperature check can be configured from the app’s settings.
3. Unigine Heaven
If you’re looking to put your GPU through its paces, Unigine Heaven is the tool to use. It will put the chip under as much stress as it possibly can. The tool does have hardware limitations i.e., it requires ATI Radeon HD 4xxx and higher, Intel HD 3000 and higher, or NVIDIA GeForce 8xxx and higher.
If your GPU chip is older than these models, this tool is not for you.
The tool also requires 512 video memory and 1GB free disk space but those two are normally available on low-end systems. Once installed, you will run the Heaven Benchmark tool. It will walk you through a game-world that is built to test your GPU’s capabilities and is easily one of the most fun tests you’ll ever run. For a more demanding test, try Unigine Superposition by the same developer.
Graphics Card stress test duration
We’ve mentioned that the stress test for a GPU is timed and the longer it runs, the more you know how stable it is. That said, use the following as a reference when you run a stress test.
- 30 minutes – 1 hour: Basic stability testing. Useful to run after overclocking or undervolting a GPU.
- 1 hour – 2 hours: Highly stable if the GPU or system or something else does not crash. Use if you think your GPU isn’t working as well as it should or if you’re thinking of upgrading the chip.
- 8 hours: Extremely high-level of stability. Use if you’re thinking of mining bitcoin or something similar.
Stress tests shouldn’t be run casually. They do have the potential to damage hardware however, any time you’re thinking if replacing your GPU or if you’ve overclocked/underclocked/undervolted it, running a stress test is a good idea.
If the new settings of the GPU render it unstable when it is forced to work faster, it’s good to know beforehand so you can fix it and avoid a system crash at the wrong time.