Maximum GPU utilization becomes a problem when it causes your GPU to overheat or when you can’t explain the usage spikes that likely indicate something’s wrong.

If GPU overheating is left unaddressed, the durability and performance of your GPU will take a nosedive. 

Below are 9 common reasons why GPU utilization spikes: 

  1. Malware 
  2. Background apps using too much GPU 
  3. Outdated or problematic drivers 
  4. Graphics-intensive software
  5. Updates running in the background
  6. High FPS settings in games 
  7. GPU overlays and instant replay features
  8. Web browser activity  
  9. High-performance power plans 

In this article, I’ll discuss the above reasons in more detail. I’ll also suggest ways to diagnose your GPU usage spikes and how to bring them down to normal levels. 

GPU Utilization Spiking.

1. Malware

Having malicious software (“malware”) on your computer can cause unexplained GPU usage spikes. Malware can affect your GPU in various ways. 

For example, it can hide in GPU memory where standard anti-virus programs can’t detect it. From there, it can run and spike your GPU utilization. 

Malware that can run from your GPU includes specially made keyloggers, rootkits, and trojans. 

Some malware can use your GPU for intensive unauthorized tasks. For instance, malicious actors can use your GPU to mine bitcoin in the background, causing a significant spike in usage. 

Dealing with GPU malware

When malware uses your computer’s GPU instead of the CPU, it’s less likely to be detected by antivirus software. 

Still, GPU-based malware needs access to your CPU to operate. Fortunately, accessing the CPU leaves traces that host-security systems can detect. 

Using high-quality security software can help you detect and deal with GPU malware.

On Windows, scanning your computer using the pre-installed Virus & Threat Protection feature can help you eliminate the malware. 

You can also reduce the likelihood of your computer being infected with GPU malware by always turning on the following Windows Security protection features: 

  • Real-time protection.
  • Tamper protection.

Additionally, you might be able to detect malicious apps by analyzing system resource usage on Windows Task Manager.

If you see any strange application using up a lot of GPU resources, you can disable it directly from Task Manager. 

You can also use the Startup Applications tab to identify strange applications that launch whenever you start your computer.

Some of those applications may be disguised malware. Disabling them can help deal with your high GPU usage problem. 

Of course, you should take care not to disable system tasks or tasks you use, such as processes that are part of your gaming applications. 

2. Background apps using too much GPU 

An abstract image of background apps running on a computer.

Sometimes, regular programs use up a huge chunk of GPU even though they’re not supposed to. 

Only applications that perform graphics processing are supposed to run on the GPU. The GPU is a dedicated processor that accelerates graphics processing applications like gaming. 

When normal apps use the dedicated GPU, they hog resources intended to improve graphics processing software, degrading their performance. 

Examples of apps you could find running on your GPU include: 

  • Applock.exe 
  • Yourphone.exe 

You can prevent an app from using the GPU through the app’s settings. If that’s not possible, you can use the Nvidia Control Panel instead. 

If you experience high GPU utilization problems, the following process may help disable non-graphics processing apps from using the GPU: 

  1. Go to the Nvidia Control Panel
  2. Look for Manage 3D Settings
  3. Select Global Settings
  4. Change the Preferred Graphics Processor to Auto-select
  5. Select Apply before closing the Control Panel and reboot your computer. 

Using Safe Mode to diagnose high GPU usage

Booting your device in safe mode can help you narrow down the cause of your GPU usage problem.

Safe mode only loads basic drivers and accesses limited files. If you run your computer in safe mode and your GPU usage problem disappears, you can be sure there’s a non-essential app causing the problem.

You can then boot your computer in normal mode and try to identify the culprit, which could be a program or driver. 

If you’re using Windows 11 or 10, here’s an article from Microsoft on how to boot your computer in safe mode.

Resolving high GPU usage caused by Windows apps

Windows Stock Apps could be to blame if your GPU utilization is higher than it should be when your computer is idle. These apps don’t do any graphics processing and have no business using the GPU. 

They include: 

  • Calculator.
  • Calendar.
  • Alarms and Clock.
  • Mail.
  • Settings. 
  • Skype.
  • VLC media player. 

These apps might run in the background and cause your GPU usage to shoot up. 

With the Task Manager app, you can confirm whether stock apps are using up your GPU resources. If they are, closing them from the Task Manager should reduce GPU utilization. 

However, there’s a chance you’ll find the same apps running in the background and hogging GPU resources when you start your computer again. 

A more permanent solution would be to disable background apps from running on your device. To do this: 

  1. Open the Settings app. 
  2. Go to Privacy
  3. Select Background Apps
  4. Toggle the Let apps run in the background option to Off. 

If you’re dependent on some Windows apps that run in the background, the above may not be a feasible solution for you.

In that case, you have to make do with disabling unwanted apps via Task Manager every time your GPU utilization goes above normal levels.

3. Outdated or problematic drivers 

Windows auto-updating drivers.

A driver is a software application that helps your computer hardware (such as the GPU) work with software (such as games or video-editing software). 

An outdated driver could cause numerous issues (no pun intended), including GPU utilization spikes.

These issues can also arise when there are problems with driver installation, even when the driver is up to date. 

Therefore, updating your monitor driver and other relevant drivers could boost your GPU performance. Reinstalling the drivers might also help. 

A common culprit in GPU utilization issues is the graphics card driver. To reinstall this driver: 

  1. Search for your computer’s Device Manager and open it. 
  2. Go to the Display Adapters section. 
  3. Select either AMD or Nvidia.
  4. Select Uninstall
  5. Restart your device. 
  6. Install the driver from either the AMD or Nvidia website. 

If a problematic driver is the issue, your GPU usage should return to normal after updating or reinstalling it. 

4. Graphics-intensive software

A graphics design app on a computer using high amounts of GPU.

When running graphics-intensive software, your GPU utilization will probably max out.

When your GPU maxes out while running a graphics-intensive application, it means you’re getting the most out of your resources.

It also means the application is likely to perform at its peak. 

You should only be concerned about maxing out GPU utilization if it causes overheating. As I’ve mentioned, overheating can reduce the lifespan of your GPU. 

Ideally, your GPU’s temperature should not exceed 185°F (85°C). If you find your computer overheating when you’re using graphics-intensive software, it might be a good idea to invest in a cooling system that works with your specific computer.

5. Updates running in the background

A recent system or software update could also cause your unexplained GPU utilization spikes.

Updates to drivers or security software are often downloaded before being installed in background processes. This installation process could be lengthy and resource-intensive. 

Once the updates start running in the background, they can also cause extra GPU utilization. 

As with resource-intensive apps, if your computer tends to overheat after an update, investing in a cooler for your PC might be for the best. 

6. High FPS settings in games

A first-person shooter video game is running on a PC.

Some games are highly graphic-intensive. With these games, GPU utilization will always be at the maximum.

If you need to reduce GPU usage while playing resource-intensive games, your best bet is to lower the quality of the game.

The higher the frames per second (FPS) setting of a game, the smoother the visual experience during gameplay. At the same time, a higher FPS setting translates to higher GPU usage. 

Reducing the special effects displayed in a game can reduce GPU usage. Having lower FPS settings will have the same effect. 

You could also enable Vsync. Vsync limits the frame rate, so it doesn’t exceed your screen’s refresh rate. Limiting the frame rate will lower GPU utilization.

7. GPU Overlay and instant replay features

Enabling GPU overlay and instant replay in Nvidia and AMD can increase your GPU utilization. 

The GPU overlay feature allows you to monitor performance metrics while playing a game. You can monitor parameters like CPU and GPU utilization without leaving the game. The feature displays a window that draws over your game. 

Instant replay allows you to continuously record and store gameplay. It is handy if you want to review and share your game footage. 

Both the overlay and auto replay features can contribute to high-GPU usage problems.

You can confirm that overlay and autoplay are increasing GPU usage by consulting Windows Task Manager.

If they are, under the GPU column in the Processes tab, you’ll see a high percentage of GPU use attributed to Radeon Settings Host Service or Nvidia Container.

You can reduce GPU utilization by disabling them. 

To disable instant replay on Nvidia: 

  1. Launch the GeForce Experience app
  2. Under the General tab, open Settings
  3. Select the Disable Instant Replay button. 

To disable instant replay and overlay on AMD: 

  1. Launch the Radeon Software Manager
  2. Under the General tab, disable the autoplay and in-game replay options. 

Some of the overlay-related features you can disable to reduce GPU utilization include: 

  • Desktop capture.
  • Instant GIF.
  • Instant replay.
  • Record desktop. 
  • Show indicator.
  • Borderless region capture. 

8. Web browser activity

Sometimes, high GPU usage may be due to web browsers. Modern web browsers come with the hardware acceleration feature.

When this feature is enabled, the GPU is used to speed up the browser. This feature comes enabled by default. Disabling hardware acceleration takes some of the load off your GPU. 

But even without hardware acceleration, browsers still use the GPU, especially when handling any graphics-intensive process. However, GPU use is lower when hardware acceleration is disabled. 

9. High-performance power plans

Your power plans also affect GPU utilization. Setting your power plan to High Performance delivers better performance at the expense of increased GPU use. 

You can slightly reduce GPU utilization by choosing the Power Saver or Balanced power plans. 

To change your power plan: 

  1. Launch the Control Panel app
  2. Go to Power Options.
  3. Go to Change Plan Settings
  4. Choose your preferred power plan and save your changes. 

What to do to deal with GPU utilization spikes

GPU utilization spikes are represented on a graph.

So far, I’ve covered the reasons why GPU utilization spikes. Usually, high GPU utilization results from an app using more GPU resources than it’s supposed to.

It could also be because an app that’s not supposed to be using GPU resources is using them. If you can find the offending app, you can solve your problem. 

Below are some of the ways you can use to find or deal with apps hogging the GPU: 

  • Use the Nvidia Control Panel.
  • Use Process Explorer to find the offending app.

Using the Nvidia Control Panel 

If high GPU utilization is due to Windows apps, you can go one of two ways. 

You can disable all background apps, which would disable the offending apps. But it would also disable other apps that you might find helpful, which could be inconvenient. 

The other option is to use the Nvidia Control Panel to disable the offending apps. 

To do this: 

  1. Access the Nvidia Control Panel
  2. Go to Manage 3D Settings
  3. Add the Windows Apps that were hogging GPU resources. 
  4. Change the Power Management Mode of the apps you’ve added to Adaptive

Using Process Explorer to find the offending app

It can be challenging to pinpoint the specific app-hogging GPU resources. Microsoft’s process explorer app can help you find the software running a certain process.

You can then disable or uninstall that software to prevent it from causing GPU usage spikes. 

To use the app:

  1. Download Process Explorer
  2. Install and run Process Explorer. 
  3. On the View tab, select Columns and then GPU
  4. Check the boxes corresponding with GPU usage parameters you’d like to monitor. For example, select GPU Committed Bytes and GPU Usage

Following the above steps should reveal the app hogging your GPU. Better still, it’ll show you where it’s located.

You can then find and delete the app, likely solving your GPU utilization issues.

Conclusion

GPU utilization spikes can cause your computer to run slowly and even crash.

I provided some ways to diagnose your GPU usage spikes and how to bring them down to normal levels, and hopefully, you found something that worked for you.

And it’s also my hope that you now have a better understanding of what causes these spikes and how to fix them.