If you’re using an older computer or a computer that came without a dedicated graphics card (GPU – Graphics processing unit), you may have considered getting a more powerful GPU. An upgraded GPU will let you:
- Play games at higher resolution, detail, and frame rate
- Play HD video without stutter
- Use two or more monitors (helpful if you can only use one with your current setup)
- Speed up photo and video editing
In this guide, I’ll show you the basics of finding out what your upgrade options are and how to install a new graphics card.
Research Your Upgrade Options
Before you purchase an upgraded GPU, you should first gather some information:
- Find your hardware capabilities:
- Motherboard graphics interface type
- Current GPU model (if any)
- Power supply
Find Your Hardware Capabilities
Before you look for a graphics card, you’ll need to know which interface(s) your PC’s mother board supports. You should also know the model number of your current GPU (if you have one) so you can research the differences in capabilities between your current GPU and the one you intend to buy.
The easiest way to find the graphics interface type and current graphics card on your PC is to use a utility called CPU-Z:
1. Download CPU-Z here (the download links are in the right-hand column)
2. Install and launch CPU-Z
Note: CPU-Z comes bundled with the Ask Toolbar, which is optional during installation.
3. Click on the Mainboard tab and make note of the Graphic Interface:
4. On the Graphics tab, make note of the installed graphics card (if any):
I’ve noted that I have a PCI-Express x16 interface and my current graphics card is an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 460.
If the Graphic Interface is greyed out (see screenshot below), it’s unlikely your PC supports a dedicated graphics card (some low profile desktops fall into this category as well as most laptops.) Your best option from here is to search the web for the make and model of your PC and add the words “graphics upgrade” i.e. “HP Pavillion a1310n graphics upgrade”. There is still hope you can upgrade and that someone has listed the available options online.
If you haven’t opened your PC’s case before and you don’t know the peak power output of your power supply unit (PSU) (not something usually listed on a spec sheet for an off-the-shelf PC), now is a good time to open your PC and take a look around.
Note: Before you open your PCs case: power down your PC, disconnect the power cable, and hold the power button for a few seconds to remove any residual power from your PC’s components
Locate your PSU (where the PC power cable connects) and check the labels for the maximum (peak) power output. If you don’t find the power output of your PSU, check the manual that came with your PC or search online.
Most good retailers and products list the minimum PSU wattage required to operate their card on a standard PC setup (motherboard, hard drives, optical drives etc.) so knowing your current limitation will help you determine whether you want a more powerful card (and have to upgrade your PSU) or a less powerful card that will happily run on your current PSU.
As an example, a 450W minimum power supply is recommended for the GTX460. I’m using a 550W power supply so an upgrade to this card is within the limitations of my power supply:
Physical Space in Your PC
While you have your PC open from the previous step, you should check how much room you have for a graphics card. I recommend this because some graphics cards are big! Most desktops, built in or after 2004 have at least one PCI-express slot and I suspect that’s what your data gathering led you to find out you have in your PC. This diagram should help if you have more than one spare slot when you open up your PC:
Over the slot you plan to use, measure the distance between the case edge and the first obstacle. In the Gateway PC I am using for this example, I have 255mm (~10 inches) of space. That might seem like a lot of room; however, knowing the maximum length of a card may save you a trip back to the store/return shipping when you find the card is too big for your PC. When you start to narrow down your options, look for size specifications to ensure the card will fit in the allotted space.
Find the Best Value Upgrade within Your Price Range
As technology changes quicker that I can even write this guide, I may make a suggestion now that’s outdated by the time I publish this guide. However, here’s a list of a few things you should always look for when purchasing a graphics card:
- Narrow your search by interface type
- Will it fit in my PC? (see above)
- Does my current PSU have enough headroom to support this card? Am I willing to spend more money on an upgraded PSU? (see above)
- What kind of warranty comes with the card?
- Does the retailer/vendor provide good customer support? i.e. returns policy and warranty coverage
- If I’m upgrading my card, what gains will I see from the upgrade?
- Will this card work for the games I want to play/software I want to use?
If you’re in the US, sites like NewEgg.com do an excellent job of helping you narrow down your search results. They also provide a 30-day exchange policy for most items sold on their site. Outside the US, I recommend using a local store. Often stores will run sales that outperform online retailers and it’s a lot easier to return the card should you run into issues.
To see expected performance gains from your graphics card, search the web for benchmarking tests. i.e. if you’re upgrading from a GTS 250 to a GTX 460, search the web for “GTS 250 vs GTX 460 crysis”. That search result came up with a helpful chart showing I can expect to go from 15 FPS average with the GTS 250 to 31 FPS average with the GTX 460 (at 1680×1050 “Enthusiast” settings.) In other words: from unplayable to pretty smooth playing. Running a few searches like this should give you the confidence your upgrade is worth the expense.
If you’re upgrading from integrated graphics, any card will likely make a big difference!
If you still don’t know what graphics card to purchase, stop by Windows Forums and ask the community. We can help you find an option that suits your needs and budget.
Note: Systems are only as strong as their weakest link (known as a “bottleneck”.) If your budget for a graphics card is $300 but you’re running older hardware that might not benefit from such a gain, consider splitting your purchase and buying a lower priced graphics card and an SSD—for example. To get an idea of what other upgrades are useful, check out Mike’s article on the best bang for your buck upgrades.
Install Your Graphics Card
Now you’ve chosen the graphics card that’s right for you, it’s time to install it. First, I recommend you run a benchmark of your current setup. You can either use the Windows Experience Index (instructions) or a tool like FurMark.
To install your graphics card:
1. Power down your PC, disconnect the power cable, and hold the power button for a few seconds to remove any residual power from your PC’s components
2. Open your PC’s case
3a. If adding a new card (if upgrading skip to step 3b.) locate the open slot in which the graphics card will reside (mine’s a PCI-E x16, which is the green slot):
3b. If you’re upgrading your card, disconnect the power supply from your current card:
4. Remove the slot’s retaining screw on the outside of the case:
5. Place the card carefully in the slot
6. Connect the power cable(s) to the card. If you’re not upgrading, look for a spare connector coming from the PSU or if you’re using a modular supply, check the box for additional cables
Note: Refer to the installation instructions of your new graphics card at this point. Some graphics cards use a separate, smaller power supply for the fan that usually connects to the motherboard
7. Secure the new card in place by tightening the retaining screw
8. Ensure no cables are obstructing the fans and power on your PC to test it under the new configuration
Here’s my before and after score when upgrading from a GTS 250 to a GTX 460:
Having trouble upgrading? We’re ready to help over at Windows Forums.