Graphics card dissection: We dismembered a video card to show you how it works

R.I.P. Radeon R9 290.

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Thomas Ryan

Game on

Your computer processor may be the heart of your PC, but your graphics card is the parallel processing monster that powers your gaming adventures. Producing digital worlds that run without stuttering and stopping is no easy feat—it takes a lot of cutting-edge hardware and technical design to meet that demand.

We’ve already shown you how to set up a new graphics card. Now, we’re dismembering an old AMD Radeon R9 290 that died when a power supply gave up the ghost during a firmware update. There’s a practical reason for ripping apart this beast screw-by-screw: to give you a better understanding of its workings. You’ll often hear complaints that some GPUs run too hot, or too loud, or are too expensive. If you want to understand why, then tearing down a graphics card is a great place to start.

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Thomas Ryan

Back in black

Let’s first take a peek at the exterior package. The Radeon 290 we’re mutilating measures a hair under 11-inches long, a little over 4-inches tall, and about 1.5-inches wide. Examining the back of the card reveals the black printed circuit board and many smaller components that help regulate power delivery to the larger chips on the PCB. You’ll also see small lines running all over the board, connecting the tiny components together. These copper lines, dubbed “traces,” carry electrical signals for communication and power.

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Thomas Ryan

Shrouded in mystery

One major way graphics card manufacturers differentiate their products is in the design of the fan shroud, which we’ve removed here. On a more practical level, the purpose of a fan shroud is twofold: It hides and protects the internals of the graphics card, and channels the air flow into and out of the GPU, over its heatsinks.

This Radeon R9 290 features a reference design that was produced in limited quantity by AMD itself, rather than a hardware partner like Sapphire, Asus, or Visiontek. To push the Radeon branding—remember, that’s a big factor in shroud composition—AMD colored its hard plastic fan shroud matte black and glossy red.

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Thomas Ryan

Fins and fan

With the fan shroud removed, you can see the large aluminum fins of the heatsink that covers the silicon GPU die. (The Radeon R9 290’s GPU was code-named “Tahiti” by AMD.)

Dislodging the shroud also reveals the large red fan that blows air over the heatsink and out the I/O panel at the opposite end. This cooling configuration is, fittingly, called a “blower-style” design. Alternatively, some graphics cards feature an “open air-cooling” design that utilizes multiple fans and smaller fan shrouds to disperse heat from all around the graphics card and into your PC’s case, rather than forcing hot air out through the I/O panel.

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Thomas Ryan

A panel of choices

With the fan shroud as well as the I/O panel bracket removed, you can see the display connectors on the end of the graphics card. From left to right, there’s a full-size DisplayPort, an HDMI port, and two single-link DVI ports. The I/O panel bracket attaches to the graphics card via the three screw holes on the far left.

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Thomas Ryan

Taking the heat

Behold the underside of the heatsink mounting plate. This black plate’s crafted from aluminum and helps dissipate heat from the memory chips and voltage regulator modules (VRMs) on the graphics card. It also attaches the cooling fan to the graphics card, and holds the large main heatsink for the GPU die at the correct height so that it can juuuust barely touch the top of the die without crushing it.

The squishy, light colored thermal pads tranfer heat from the card's GDDR5 memory, while the gray material in the center of the large copper heatsink is thermal paste that transfers heat from the GPU die. The holes you see around the perimeter are for screws that secure the plate to the graphics card.

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Thomas Ryan

Baring it all

Now we’re getting to the good stuff: the bare printed circuit board of our graphics card.

Starting from the left, you can see the display output ports, then the XDMA CrossFire chips (which enable AMD multi-GPU setups) covered by a small thermal pad near the upper-left corner of the board. The large Tahiti GPU die is sitting pretty in the center of the board and covered in thermal paste. It's surrounded by 16 black GDDR5 memory chips that endow the Radeon 290 with 4GB of RAM over a 512-bit memory bus. Distributed about both sides of the board are VRMs, capacitors, chokes, and other circuits that regulate and deliver power to the rest of the GPU.

Finally, the upper-right-hand corner houses the 8-pin and 6-pin PCI-E power connectors. These supply most of the electricity needed to keep your graphics card churning out new frames.

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Thomas Ryan

Silicon needs support

Here’s a closer look at the silicon die beating at the heart of the graphics card—or at least the layer of thermal paste that covers it.

Zooming in reveals additional details. The die sits on a small green PCB of its own that connects to the main black PCB via tiny balls of solder. Graphics cards will occasionally fail when these solder balls get too hot and melt. That’s why you’ll sometimes see people on YouTube baking their dead graphics cards in the oven in an attempt to melt the damaged solder balls back into place. The thick metal bracket that runs around the edge of the die’s green PCB is a shim designed to support the weight of the heatsink so that it doesn't crush the die. The support shim’s adorned with AMD’s logo, an identifying code, and info on when and where the GPU was produced. In this case, TSMC built the chip in Taiwan.

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Thomas Ryan

We need more power, Captain!

Much of the PCB’s most important power circuitry resides to the right of the die, including the PCI-E power connectors, a collection of VRMs, and (most importantly) the digital power controller—the small chip with the magenta dot, right of center in the image. This chip controls the delivery of power to the GPU by regulating the VRMs. It’s produced by International Rectifier.

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Thomas Ryan

Cleaning up for a close-up

Cleaning time! Here are the GPU die, memory chips, and VRMs free of thermal paste. The bare die features a highly reflective surface with a mirror finish. If you peer closely enough, you can read some of the markings on the memory chips and VRM heat spreaders.

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Thomas Ryan

The glory shot

This one’s for the enthusiasts—a close-up of the bare GPU. (I placed a red sheet of paper above the die to hide my reflection, which is why there’s a red hue to its mirrored surface.) Underneath that mirror lies the Tahiti die, complete with 6.2 billion transistors and 44 compute units. Despite those lofty numbers, the die itself is merely the size of a potato chip—but it takes about three months from start to finish to produce.

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Thomas Ryan

The final pieces

Finally, the unsung heroes that hold it all together! I extracted 26 screws of six different types from the Radeon 290 and—get this—managed to misplace only one during the making of this article. That big chunk of metal is the I/O panel bracket, while the square in the upper right is the heatsink retention bracket that secures the large heatsink to the GPU from the back of the main PCB.

Enjoy this article? Be sure to check out PCWorld’s similar deep dives into the inner workings of CPUsmemory, and a motherboard.

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