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Why Is My GPU Utilization So High?

A not-so-often discussed topic when it comes to graphics cards is GPU usage or GPU utilization. On the surface level, we know enough that a GPU will run hotter than normal when it’s put under heavy load like gaming, rendering, video editing, and graphics design to name a few.

Close up of Graphics Card GPU Utilization

Regardless of how much memory your GPU has, your GPU performance will still diminish once it’s past certain limits on how it’s operating. When your graphics card overheats, it will immediately throttle its performance to give itself room to cool down. So if you’re into a heavy gaming session and the frame rate drops from 60 to 30 real quick, then that’s an indicator that the card is overheating.

However, it’s a different story when GPU utilization spikes for no reason at all. This would result in overheating and then throttling, and then sooner or later, your GPU’s durability and performance will be compromised.

In this article we’ll discuss the common reasons why your GPU utilization spikes for no reason and how to prevent this from happening.

What Are The Common Reasons For Spikes in GPU Usage?

Why does GPU usage spike for no reason? Well, it may be caused by one of these factors:

Malware

Malware Icon GPU Utilization

Malware, or malicious software, can spike GPU usage for no reason. Malware often affect CPU usage more than GPU usage, but it doesn’t mean that it won’t affect other components.

Some malware would hide in GPU memory which go undetected by anti-virus software, and that would probably be too late already by then. Malware like rootkits, trojans, and keyloggers will tend to hide in GPU memory, and cause severe damage.

In your performance tab, you’ll see unrecognized tasks running and eating up a lot of your GPU memory. This will cause the physical GPU to overheat and throttle, and then repeats the process all over again.

When your malware is infecting your GPU instead of the CPU, it becomes difficult to detect, but thankfully Windows has a feature to help you. Your Windows operating system will come with a pre-installed Virus and Threat Protection feature, which should help you detect and eliminate the malware GPU.

If you detect malicious apps or processes taking up GPU resources in the performance tab on Windows Task Manager. You should be able to stop these processes in the performance tab, but it’ll be tedious.

Background Apps Slowing Down GPU 

Sometimes, it’s your legitimate or regular software that end up taking a chunk out of valuable GPU resources for no reason.

If you purchase a brand-new laptop with a pre-installed Windows OS, it’ll come with some bulkware. Bulkware is considered harmless and are usually software from the laptop manufacturer to help your laptop “run smoothly”, when in fact, it doesn’t.

Normally, only applications that require graphics processing will run on the GPU, like gaming, graphics design, or video editing. But when normal apps take up dedicated GPU resources, that’s when it becomes a problem.

If you’re running Nvidia GPUs, then you can use the Nvidia Control Panel to make sure that the only apps to use the GPU are the apps that need a GPU.  

Problematic or Outdated Drivers 

Believe it or not, your graphics card driver might cause high GPU utilization. A driver is software that helps computer hardware, like GPU, to work with software. And drivers need to be updated as constantly as you’d update software.

When a GPU driver is outdated, then it might cause some problems albeit not so serious ones. Your GPU may not run optimally at this point, so it’ll end up using more GPU resources than it should.

Sometimes, we’ll update our GPU drivers, but more often than not, we don’t. For Nvidia GPUs, updating a driver is made easy with either Nvidia Control Panel or Nvidia GeForce Experience. The latter is a lot easier to use because every time you open it, it prompts up the latest version of the driver for your Nvidia GPU.

When it does prompt, you just click on the button to start the updated driver installation and you’re done. You just need to open the Nvidia GeForce Experience app every now and then to check if there are new driver versions.

Games Running At Higher FPS Than They Should

Witcher 3 GPU Utilization

GPU engines are meant to run video games at certain resolutions. An older GPU running a newer video game will result in higher GPU utilization than a newer GPU running an older video game.

Now video games don’t necessarily require a lot of graphics processing power, but you’ll find that AAA games like Witcher 3 are one of those that’ll push your computer graphics card to the limit when you go for higher frame rates.

As long as your GPU can handle higher frame rates and higher texture quality, there shouldn’t be an issue tied to overheating caused by excessive GPU utilization. But running a game that’s way past your hardware specifications might cause issues, specifically with GPU utilization.

Graphics Intensive Software

GPU utilization for running software intended for graphics design, video editing, 3D rendering, and game development will always be at its highest because these programs need the GPU’s processing power.

When a GPU maxes out its resources on these applications, it means it’s doing its job and that the application is performing as it should. How much memory your graphics card has will determine how high the temperatures will go up. GPU temperatures shouldn’t go higher than 185°F (85°C).

If you find that your GPU is overheating when using graphics-intensive software, then you might need to purchase a decent cooling system.

Software Updates Running In The Background

If you’re running Windows 10 or 11, then you’ll know that one of the most annoying things that it does is when it updates in the background without prompting you. Sometimes, it’ll also be your anti-virus software doing this too.

When they update their software without prompting you, that means they’re running their updates in the background. Usually, you’d download the update and then install it when it’s finished.

But since this update did not prompt you, it meant that it was consuming resources, resulting in a spike in GPU usage. As long as the GPU does not overheat when there’s an update running in the background, then there shouldn’t be any issue.

However if there are instances of overheating, you might want to invest in a cooling system.

Web Browser Activity Might Cause GPU Usage Issues

Browser Activity GPU Utilization

Web browsers can also cause GPU usage issues, specifically those with hardware acceleration. When this feature is enabled in browsers, the GPU is used to speed up the browser performance.

Disabling this feature won’t hinder you from using your browser to its full potential, but it does get a huge workload off the graphics card.

But take note. Even without hardware acceleration, browsers might still use GPU, especially when it’s doing something that requires graphics processing. But the GPU usage will be relatively lower.

High-Performance Power Plan

While a common feature in laptops, most of the newer gaming PCs are equipped with Power Plans to help you balance power output and performance.

GPU utilization is at its highest when you go for High Performance settings, meaning it will allow you to run both CPU and GPU to its highest capacity without disregard for power consumption.

You’ll also have power modes that are economical, so CPU and GPU performance are intended to be lower than intended to help with power consumption.

GPU utilization might be affected by both high performance options or economical power options. Just go to System and then go to Power & Battery to change your settings. If the presets don’t work for you, you can create your own.

How High Should GPU Utilization Be For Gaming?

GPU usage will depend on a lot of factors, but for this section, we’ll assume that you want maximum GPU utilization for best performance possible.

If your game is running at a capped frame rate or refresh rate, then you’ll probably don’t need to worry about max GPU usage.

But…

It’s another story when the game itself is graphically intensive. Running a game capped at 60FPS won’t really do much in terms of reducing GPU usage because the graphics card is already struggling to power through that game.

For example, running The Witcher 3 at ultra settings on an Nvidia GeForce 1050Ti might cause some issues. Your frame rate might drop immensely, so much so that it’ll probably be unplayable.

Thankfully, Nvidia and AMD have provided us with their software that allows us to run games at optimal performance. You can use the Nvidia GeForce Experience to automatically set the graphics for any game that should make it run optimally.

The Wrap Up

RTX 30 Series GPU Utilization

GPU utilization only ever becomes noticed when things start to heat up, literally. GPUs are meant to handle excess heat, but it doesn’t mean that you should be pushing for that limit all the time.

Your GPU memory can only go as far as tell you how far you’d be able to push this limit. Modern graphics cards like the Nvidia GeForce RTX 30-series might handle temperatures higher than 85-degrees Celsius without compromising its durability.

Once you understand how one GPU differs from another in terms of GPU usage, then you’ll never look at graphics cards the same way ever again.

James Stephenson

james stephenson profile picJames is a gaming and tech enthusiast. He has been playing computer games since the Commodore 64 days in the 80s. He has worked as a Broadcast Engineer with BBC News and knows a thing or two about building, fixing, and playing with PCs.