Graphics cards are your computer's strongest workhorses, especially if you play a lot of games. Game enthusiasts can assume that they need to upgrade their graphics card every two or three years, although you can certainly use a card for longer than that. Installing a graphics card has become easier over the years, and installing the drivers is often done automatically. Once you've picked a graphics card and opened up your computer, you can usually install a new card and get it ready for use within a few minutes.
Part 1 of 3: Choosing a graphics card
Step 1. Make a trade-off between budget and power
The graphics card can quickly become the most expensive component in your computer, but it doesn't have to be. Many of the mid-range or cheaper cards can still show great performance, depending on what you need. If you're a game enthusiast who absolutely wants to be able to play the latest games at the highest settings, you'll need more powerful and more expensive cards. If you only occasionally game and don't worry too much about the latest in gaming, or don't mind sacrificing graphics, you can get more bang for your buck by to seek refuge in the middle segment of video cards. If you just want to watch HD video or play a few 2D games, most budget cards will do.
- Do some research before spending your money. Websites like Tom's Hardware (tomshardware.com) and PCWorld (pcworld.com) regularly test and compare the most popular and latest graphics cards. These test results can help you quickly get an overview of the available options and how they relate to each other.
- Don't worry too much about the size of the memory (RAM) of a graphics card. Inflated numbers of memory are often used to make bad cards more attractive. However, what is important is the bandwidth of the memory. This is the speed at which memory can move data to and from the computer. GDDR5 is the current leader in this category, and it is four times faster than the older generation (GDDR3) memories.
- If you have a mid-range CPU, you probably won't be able to take full advantage of a high-end graphics card. The graphics card is an important factor in performance, but games depend on all the components in your computer to a greater or lesser extent, including the CPU, system memory, and even the read and write speed of the hard drive.
- 4K gaming is becoming a reality, but it does require a top-of-the-line graphics card (or two) to show satisfactory performance at such resolutions. Keep that in mind if you're also looking for a 4K monitor.
Step 2. Open the case of your computer
Before you buy the new video card, you will have to check a number of things on the inside of your computer case, or read it in the documentation. Remove the side panel from your computer by loosening the thumbscrews or Phillips screws on the back. Usually you will remove the panel opposite the motherboard input/output panel on the back of the computer.
- Except in very rare cases, it is not possible to upgrade a graphics card in a laptop. Consult your laptop's documentation to find out, and how to proceed in that case.
- When opening the case, and while you are working in your computer, make sure that you are properly grounded. This helps to prevent electrostatic discharge that can damage the components of your computer. You can ground yourself by using an electrostatic wrist strap, or by touching a water tap, before using the computer.
Step 3. Examine your diet
Graphics cards are the biggest drainers of power in your system, so make sure your power supply can handle the power requirements of the new card. Different cards require different amounts of power, so check the specs of the card you want to buy, as well as the specs of your computer's power supply.
- There are a number of power calculators online that you can use where you can input all your components and see what the recommended minimum wattage is. You do need a little more than the minimum to prepare your computer for the future. Another general rule is that you need a power supply that can provide double the wattage required by the graphics card.
- If you install multiple graphics cards in one computer, you probably need a power supply that has at least one kilowatt of power.
- There is no way to find out the wattage of a power supply without looking at it. There is no software that can read the wattage. Almost all power supplies have a sticker that is clearly visible on the side, from which you can read the specifications of the power supply. You can usually remove the side panel of your computer and view the sticker.
- Many of the more powerful graphics cards require one or two 6-pin connectors (PCIe) from the power supply. Most newer power supplies should have these cables, but older power supplies don't. You can get adapters to connect one of the other cables, but if you have an old power supply, it's better to buy a new one.
Step 4. Measure the space where the graphics card will be placed
Graphics cards have gotten very large, and if you have a small case with limited space, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to fit the card you want. Use a tape measure to measure the space where you want to place the card. Compare this data with the specifications of the graphics cards you have in mind. Be sure to pay attention to width too, as many of the powerful cards can be quite wide.
A graphics card can be the width of two PCIe slots, but you only need to put it in one slot
Step 5. Check whether the motherboard is suitable for the card
Almost all modern graphics cards require a PCIe interface, replacing the outdated AGP method. If your computer is less than 10 years old, chances are you'll find a PCIe in it. If you want to upgrade the graphics card of an older computer, you may have to do it with AGP, unless you also upgrade the motherboard.
- PCIe and AGP slots are both color-coded differently on the motherboard. AGP has a darker color, such as brown, while PCIe is usually white, yellow, or blue. There is no standard though, so check your motherboard's documentation, or look at the labels next to the slots.
- PCIe slots are usually closest to the CPU on the motherboard.
Part 2 of 3: Installing the new map
Step 1. Turn off your computer
Make sure your computer is completely turned off before opening the case. Remove the plug from the socket when it is completely switched off.
Step 2. Detach the monitor
The monitor is probably attached to your old graphics card, so disconnect it from the back of your computer before removing the old card.
Step 3. Ground yourself
When opening the case, and while you are working in your computer, make sure that you are properly grounded. You can ground yourself by using an electrostatic wrist strap that you attach to the case, or by touching a running water tap before working on the computer.
Step 4. Remove your 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're using the motherboard's on-board graphics card, you may not have a card to remove.
- Use a Phillips screwdriver to remove the screw that secures the old card.
- Disconnect all cables from the old graphics card.
- Release the catch on the back of the old graphics card (PCIe). This tab will help secure the graphics card, so open it up before removing the old card.
- Carefully pull the old card out of the slot. Pull the old card out of the slot. You may have to use some force to do this, but don't force anything. If you are unable to remove the card, double-check that the clip is open and that the screw is removed from the sliding tray.
Step 5. Remove any other slot covers (if necessary)
Many newer graphics cards require two enclosures on the back of the computer. You may need to remove the protection from the next case if you haven't used it before. These panels usually come off easily, but this depends on your computer case.
Step 6. Insert your new card
Make sure there are no cables that get in the way of the graphics slot and that there are no cables that are stretched from the back of the card. Push the card firmly into the PCIe slot until you hear it click into place and it is firmly seated. Secure the card to the case using the Phillips head screws (most cards will require several). If the card uses multiple drives, be sure to screw on each mounting bracket.
Step 7. Reconnect the power cables
Most new graphics cards require at least a 6- or 8-pin connector from the power supply, usually along the top of the graphics card. Be absolutely sure to connect all cables, as your computer probably won't boot if your graphics card isn't supplied with enough power.
Due to the way the pins are made, the plug will only fit one way. Do not try to force the connection, but make sure that it is firmly attached
Step 8. Close the cabinet again
With the graphics card securely attached and connected to the power supply, you can now close the case and proceed with installing the software.
Step 9. Connect your monitor to the new graphics card
Make sure the monitor is plugged into one of the ports on your new card, along with any other cables. If your monitor is very old and your graphics card is new, you may need an adapter to make that connection. Most graphics cards come with such an adapter.
Part 3 of 3: Installing the drivers
Step 1. Start up Windows
Before you do anything with drivers, it is important that your computer is fully booted. If the computer will not start or displays errors immediately after turning it on, the graphics card may not be seated properly or may not be receiving sufficient power from the power supply.
Windows will likely boot in a low resolution after inserting a new card. At this point, ignore the notifications to detect new hardware
Step 2. Uninstall old drivers
If your old card was AMD/ATI and you now have NVIDIA or vice versa, install the old drivers first to avoid conflicts. If you keep the same brand, it is still recommended that you remove old drivers so that you can start with a clean slate. You can uninstall 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 "Install or Remove Programs".
- Find the graphics drivers in the list of installed programs. For NVIDIA, this is usually "NVIDIA Graphics Driver XXX.XX". If you are uninstalling AMD/ATI drivers, look for the "AMD Catalyst Install Manager".
- Follow the prompts to uninstall the drivers. For NVIDIA, select the driver, then click Uninstall and follow the prompts. For AMD, select "AMD Catalyst Install Manager", click Change, then select "Express Uninstall ALL AMD Software". Follow the notifications.
- Restart your computer after removing the drivers. This completes the uninstallation.
Step 3. Download the latest drivers from the card manufacturer's site
Now that the old drivers are gone, you can install the drivers from the new card. Ignore the drivers on the supplied disk as they are already outdated. Go to the AMD or NVIDIA website, depending on the card you have, and find the model of your new graphics card. Download the latest drivers that are suitable for your video card model.
The driver files are on the large side (about 300MB), and may take a while to download depending on your connection
Step 4. Run the installer for your new drivers
Follow the prompts to install the drivers on your computer. Most users can opt for the "Express" option. During the driver installation, your screen will likely flicker a few times, and switch to a better resolution.
You will probably be prompted to restart your computer after the driver installation is complete
Step 5. Use the new card
With the newly installed drivers, you can put the card to work. Load your favorite game or another program that has heavy graphics demands and see how well the card performs!