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Thermal Throttling Explained [CPUs And GPUs]

We explain when thermal throttling starts to occur, what its signs are, and how you can prevent it.

Have you ever started to face sudden FPS drops and stuttering while playing a graphics-intensive game? What you were facing is likely thermal throttling. 

Key Takeaways

  • Thermal throttling is caused when a CPU/GPU starts overheating and drawing less power (thus reducing performance) to cool down. 
  • Every CPU and GPU starts thermal throttling at a specific temperature called TjMax or Maximum Junction Temperature. This varies from 85°C-105°C for CPUs and 90°C to 110°C for GPUs. 
  • The key signs of thermal throttling are drops in performance and stuttering. At the same time, CPU/GPU clock speeds and power consumption will be reduced.
  • Thermal throttling doesn’t damage your CPU or GPU – it’s intended to protect them. However, continuously running them at TjMax or beyond can damage them.
  • Thermal throttling is caused by many factors, including dust buildup on your components, drying thermal paste, and inadequate cooling in general.

Thermal Throttling (Or Dynamic Frequency Scaling)

Firstly, it’s important to note that the thermal throttling of the CPU and GPU are almost entirely similar processes; that is: both components lower their power consumption to lower heat production.

Thermal throttling occurs when your CPU/GPU starts producing more heat than it can dissipate, so it lowers the amount of power it receives. Lower power also means lower core clock speeds (also memory clock speed for GPUs). This usually occurs when running a graphics-intensive game or performing rendering workloads. 

Overheating CPU
Overheating CPU – Image Credits (BLKStudio / Shutterstock)

Thermal throttling also occurs with RAM, typically when the RAM is overclocked.

At What Temperature Does Thermal Throttling Start To Occur?

The temperature at which thermal throttling starts to occur is called TjMax (or maximum junction temperature). It’s also called maximum operating temperature. The value varies with different CPUs and GPUs. This temperature is generally between 100°C-105°C for Intel CPUs and 85°C-95°C for AMD’s Ryzen CPUs. While for graphics cards (Nvidia and AMD), it varies from 90°C-110°C.

Also Read: GPU Idle Temperature

For laptop CPUs and GPUs, the maximum junction temperature limit is typically lesser than their desktop counterparts. This is because they typically have less efficient cooling and less room to dissipate the heat. 

To find the TjMax rating of your particular CPU/GPU, refer to the specs sheet for it on the manufacturer’s website. You might also be interested in learning about the CPU temperature while gaming

What Are The Signs Of Thermal Throttling?

There are two key signs of thermal throttling. Note that both these signs are correlated to each other. If you’re facing FPS drops or low FPS in general, but your CPU/GPU temperatures and clock speeds are normal, you’re not facing thermal throttling. 

Performance Drop 

Thermal throttling protects your hardware from critical damage but comes at a cost. When thermal throttling occurs, your CPU and GPU are forced to reduce performance because they receive less power. As a result, you’ll face sudden FPS drops in games. Your average FPS may drop significantly depending on the game, and the game will stutter almost constantly. 

The impact on performance depends on how much load is on your CPU/GPU and, consequently, the amount of power it draws. It also depends on your cooler in the case of CPUs.

In more extreme cases, the game might crash, the graphics on your monitor might become distorted, or your system may straight-up shut down to protect your CPU/GPU. If you’re rendering a video, the rendering speed might slow down dramatically, and your PC may eventually shut down.

High Temperatures (Plus Lower Power Consumption And Clock Speeds)

The heading is self-explanatory; you’re likely facing thermal throttling if you see:

  • Temperature is close to or exceeding TjMax value.
  • Decreasing power consumption.
  • A drop in core clock (and memory clocks for GPUs) frequencies.

High temperatures mean your CPU/GPU fans will start spinning at maximum RPM, so expect noise from your fans too. Learn more about how to lower GPU temperature and CPU temperature

To keep an eye on these figures, you’ll have to turn on in-game monitoring of these particular figures. You can do that by using MSI Afterburner

How To Keep An Eye Out For Thermal Throttling

You can watch out for thermal throttling in advance by monitoring your CPU/GPU temperatures. If the temperature hits 80°C and still keeps gradually increasing, you will eventually face thermal throttling.

Is Thermal Throttling Bad For Your CPU/GPU?

Thermal throttling in itself is not a bad thing, as it’s simply a mechanism to protect your CPU and GPU from damage.

However, thermal throttling indicates that your CPU/GPU is running too hot. And even though your CPU/GPU can run perfectly fine below the TjMax, temperatures near the thermal throttling limit generally indicate something is wrong. Optimally, both your CPU and GPU should be running at under 80°C, even at 100% load. 

If your CPU/GPU is thermal throttling, you should look to pinpoint the problem causing high temperatures and fix it. Refer to the heading below for common issues that lead to overheating and what you can do about them.

Continually running your CPU/GPU after it hits the maximum junction temperature can shorten its lifespan.

How To Prevent Thermal Throttling

Thermal throttling can be caused by a variety of reasons. These include but are not limited to dried-out thermal paste, dust buildup inside your case, and an inadequate cooling solution. Here are a few fixes that might fix your thermal throttling problem:

Remove Excess Dust From Your Case

Even if you have a triple-fan GPU or a beefy CPU liquid cooler, dust will prevent it from running optimally and cause thermal throttling. Use a compressed air can or an air blower to get rid of excess dust inside your PC case, and make sure to target all the fans. We also have a detailed guide on how to clean your PC without compressed air

A PC case
A PC case free of dust – Image Credits (Tech4Gamers)

Reapply Thermal Paste

Good quality thermal paste can last up to 5-7 years, so if you recently applied thermal paste, this step won’t help you. To reapply it, you’ll need to learn how to properly remove it first.

Dried thermal paste on the GPU is a more likely scenario. Whether you bought a used GPU or a new one, it’s highly likely that its thermal paste has never been changed. So if you have been using your current GPU for a few years, replacing the thermal paste might be a good idea. However, it’s much more complex than replacing it on the CPU, so proceed cautiously. 

Reverse Any Overclocking Changes

If you have overclocked your CPU (manual overclocking or Intel Turbo Boost) or your GPU and are dealing with thermal throttling, turning off overclocking will likely help.

Get A Better Cooler (For CPUs)

You may be facing CPU thermal throttling simply if your present cooler is inadequate to cool your CPU. This might especially be the case if you have a high-end CPU (such as an Intel Core i7 or an AMD Ryzen 7) and the ambient temperature in your room gets too high in the summer.

CPU cooler inside case
The Noctua NH-D15S Chromax.Black inside a case – Image Credits (Tech4Gamers)

Install Case Fans / Improve Airflow

You should ensure optimal airflow inside your case. For this, you should have at least two fans inside your case – one for intake and one for exhaust. Ideally, though, two fans in the front for intake and one in the back for exhaust is enough for most mid-to-high range systems.

Undervolting Your CPU/GPU

Undervolting is somewhat of an extreme measure and should only be done as a last resort. It lessens the amount of voltage (and consequently heat) received by your CPU or GPU. Undervolting may take some time of trial and error before you can find a stable value. In any case, lessen the voltage by very small bits and test it out. Once you hit failure, go back to the value you set before that. 

Ensuring Your PC Is Running In An Air-Conditioned Room

You should use your PC in an air-conditioned room if you live in an area with a warm climate where temperatures can shoot too high for comfort (35°C or higher).

A Larger Case (For GPUs)

If you have a large GPU in a small case, especially a mini-ITX one, then going with a larger case may solve your problem. A small case can “choke” your components for room, and they may not be able to dissipate heat quickly enough due to lack of room. Using a large GPU in a small case can impact both GPU AND CPU temperatures. Learn more in our guide on how to choose a PC case.

Final Thoughts

Thermal throttling may seem daunting when it initially occurs, but it’s a very important measure to protect your CPU and GPU from damage. It is simply a sign of overheating, which is where you should turn your attention and follow the steps I’ve mentioned to try and lower those temperatures.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does thermal throttling affect FPS?

Yes. Thermal throttling reduces FPS in games as the CPU/GPU starts drawing less power and lowers its clock speeds.

Can thermal throttling damage my CPU/GPU?

Thermal throttling does not damage your CPU or GPU – it protects them. However, if you continue to run your CPU/GPU at such high temperatures, then there’s a possibility of damage.

How do I stop my CPU/GPU from thermal throttling?

Depending on the root cause, you can try different things to fix thermal throttling. These include cleaning your components of dust, reapplying thermal paste, and upgrading your cooling solution.

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