Graphics cards are one of the most important workhorses in a computer, especially when gaming a lot. Gaming enthusiasts should anticipate having to update graphics cards every two to three years, although it can certainly take a longer time to use a card. Graphics card swapping has been greatly simplified over the years, and installing drivers is practically a zero-touch process. Generally, once you've chosen the card and have your computer open, you can install the new card and have it ready to go in a matter of a few minutes.
Part 1 of 3: Choosing a graphics card
Step 1. Balance budget with power
Graphics cards can easily become the most expensive component in your computer, but they don't have to be. Many of the low-budget and mid-range cards can even provide substantial performance, depending on your needs. If you are a video game enthusiast who has to play the latest games at the highest possible settings, you will need to look for the most powerful and expensive cards. If you only play once in a while, don't care about new releases, or don't mind sacrificing some graphics tweaks, you can get a lot more performance for your money if you're looking for mid-range cards. If you only want to watch high definition (HD) video or play some 2D games, then most budget cards will work just fine.
- Do your research before you drop the money. Sites such as Tom's Hardware (tomshardware.com) and PCWorld (pcworld.com) regularly test and provide comparisons on many of the latest and most popular graphics cards. The results of these tests can help you quickly see how all the available options stack up against each other.
- Don't worry about how much memory (RAM) your graphics card has. Inflated amounts of memory are often used to make poorer cards look more attractive. What "is" important, however, is memory bandwidth. It is the speed at which the memory can send and receive data from the computer. GDDR5 is the current leader in this category, significantly exceeding four times the amount of old GDDR3 memory.
- If you have a mid-range CPU, you probably won't get the most out of a high-end graphics card. The graphics card is an important factor for performance, but games depend on "all" the components of the computer in different capacities, including the CPU, the RAM of the system and even the speed of reading and writing of the hard disk.
- Gaming in 4K is increasingly a reality, but requires a high-end graphics card (or two) to get satisfactory gaming performance at that resolution. Keep this in mind if you are also looking to buy a 4K monitor.
Step 2. Open the computer case
Before buying the new graphics card, you will need to check a few things inside the case or in the computer documentation. Remove the side panel from the computer by loosening the thumbscrews or regular Phillips screws on the back. Typically, you will need to remove the panel opposite the motherboard input / output panel on the back of the computer.
- Except in very rare circumstances, it is not possible to upgrade a laptop's graphics card. Check your laptop's documentation to determine how to update the graphics card if possible.
- When you open the case and work inside the computer, make sure you are properly grounded. This will help prevent electrostatic discharge that can damage computer components. You can ground yourself by using an electrostatic wrist strap or by touching a running water tap before working on the computer.
Step 3. Examine the power supply
Graphics cards are one of the main devices that draw power from the power supply, so you will need to make sure that the power supply can handle the power requirements of the new card. Each card consumes a different amount of power, so check the specifications of the card you want to buy, as well as the specifications of your computer's power supply.
- There are a variety of power supply calculators online that you can use to enter all the components and see the minimum recommended watts. You will need a little more than the bare minimum to make your computer future-proof. Another general rule of thumb to follow is that you will typically need a power supply that supplies twice as many watts as the graphics card needs.
- If you are installing multiple graphics cards in a single computer, you will likely need a power supply that supplies at least one kilowatt of power.
- There is no way to determine the wattage of a power supply without physically looking at it. There is no software that can report wattage. Almost all power supplies have a clearly visible label on the side that will indicate the specifications of the power supply. You can usually remove the side panel of the computer and visually inspect the label.
- Many of the more powerful graphics cards require one or two 6-pin connectors (PCIe) from the power supply. Most of the newer power supplies come with these cables, but older power supplies do not. You can get adapters to connect to one of the other cables, but it may be best to replace the power supply anyway if it turns out to be very old.
Step 4. Measure the space where the graphics card will go
Graphics cards have become quite large, and if you have a small case with tight spaces, it can be difficult or even impossible to insert the card you want. Use a tape measure to measure the space where the graphics card will be installed. Compare this space with the specifications of the graphics cards you are going to review. Make sure to pay attention to the width as well, as many of the more powerful cards can be quite wide.
A graphics card can occupy the width of two PCIe ports, but will only need to connect to one slot
Step 5. Check motherboard compatibility
Almost all modern graphics cards work with the PCIe interface, which has replaced the outdated AGP method. If the computer has been bought or built in the last ten years or so, it most likely uses PCIe. If you are trying to update the graphics card on a fairly old computer, you might get stuck with AGP unless you also update the motherboard.
- The PCIe and AGP slots have a different color on the motherboard. The AGP slot is typically a darker color similar to brown, while the PCIe slot is generally white, yellow, or blue. However, there is no standard, so check your motherboard documentation or look for labels next to the slots.
- The PCIe slots are usually located as close to the CPU on the motherboard as possible.
Part 2 of 3: Install the new card
Step 1. Turn off the computer
Make sure the computer is completely turned off before working inside. Unplug it from the wall once it's completely turned off.
Step 2. Unplug the monitor
The monitor is most likely connected to the old graphics card, so unplug it from the back of the computer before removing the old card.
Step 3. Ground yourself
Whenever you work inside your computer, you must make sure you are properly grounded. An electrostatic wrist strap attached to the metal of the case is the most convenient way to ground yourself when working inside a computer. You can also ground yourself by touching a metal tap under running water.
Step 4. Remove the old graphics card (if necessary)
If you are upgrading, you will need to remove the old graphics card before installing the new one. If you've used the graphics card from the motherboard, you may not have a card to remove.
- Use a Phillips head screwdriver to remove the screw that secures the old card to the case.
- Disconnect any cables connected to the old graphics card.
- Unhook the latch under the back of the old graphics card (PCIe). This latch helps secure the graphics card, so be sure to unhook it before removing the old card.
- Gently pull the old card straight out of the slot. Pull the old card straight out of the slot. You may need to be firm, but don't force her out. If you can't remove the card, make sure the latch has been released and the Phillips screw has been removed from the card holder.
Step 5. Remove any additional port covers (if necessary)
Many newer graphics cards require two ports on the back of the computer. You may need to remove the protective panel from the next port if you haven't used it before. These panels are usually easily removed, although this varies by computer case.
Step 6. Insert the new card
Make sure there are no cables obstructing the slot and that none extend below the back of the card. Firmly push the card down straight into the PCIe slot until you hear it latch and insert evenly. Secure the card in the case with Phillips head screws (most cards come with a pair). Make sure to secure each bracket if the card occupies multiple ports.
Step 7. Connect the power supply
Most newer graphics cards require at least one 6 or 8 pin connector from the power supply, usually located on the top of the graphics card. Make sure to connect all of these, as the computer will probably not start if the graphics card is not powered properly.
Due to the way the pins are configured, the plug will only fit one way. Don't force the connection, but make sure the connection is secure
Step 8. Close the case
With the graphics card firmly seated and connected to the power supply, you can close the case and move on to the installation software.
Step 9. Connect the monitor to the new graphics card
When you reconnect the computer cables, make sure the monitor is now connected to one of the ports on the new card. If the monitor is very old and the graphics card is new, you may need an adapter to connect the monitor. Most graphics cards come with these adapters.
Part 3 of 3: Install the Drivers
Step 1. Run Windows
Before doing anything with the drivers, make sure the computer starts up properly. If the computer cannot start or has errors immediately after starting, the graphics card may not be seated properly or may not be receiving enough power from the power supply.
Windows will likely start in a low resolution mode when it starts up with the new graphics card. Ignore the prompts to detect new hardware for now
Step 2. Uninstall the old drivers
If the old card was an AMD / ATI and you are installing an NVIDIA, or vice versa, you will need to uninstall the old drivers first to avoid conflicts. If you stick with the same manufacturer, it is still advisable to delete the old drivers so you can start over. You can uninstall the drivers from the Control Panel.
- Open the Control Panel and select "Programs and Features" or "Uninstall a program." If you are using Windows XP, select "Add or Remove Programs."
- Find your graphics drivers in the list of installed programs. In the case of NVIDIA, this will normally be "NVIDIA Graphics Driver XXX. XX". If you are removing the AMD / ATI drivers, search for "AMD Catalyst Install Manager".
- Follow the prompts to uninstall the drivers. For NVIDIA, highlight the driver, click Uninstall, and follow the prompts. For AMD, highlight "AMD Catalyst Installation Manager", click Change, select "Quick Uninstall All AMD Software" and follow the prompts.
- Restart your computer after removing the drivers. This will complete the uninstall process.
Step 3. Download the latest drivers from the card manufacturer's site
Now that the old drivers are gone, you can install the drivers for the new card. Please ignore the drivers included on the disc that came with the card, as they are already out of date. Visit the AMD or NVIDIA website, depending on the card you have, and enter the new graphics card model in the search tool. Download the latest functional drivers depending on the card model.
The driver files are quite large (around 300MB), and may take a while to download depending on the connection
Step 4. Run the installer for the new drivers
Follow the prompts to install the drivers on your computer. Most users can select the "Express" option. During the driver installation, the screen will likely flicker a few times and switch to a more suitable resolution.
You will likely be prompted to restart your computer once the driver installation is complete
Step 5. Start using the new card
With the new drivers installed, you can start getting your graphics card up and running. Load up your favorite game or graphics-intensive program and see what kind of performance you can get!