Cracking open a desktop computer and tinkering around like a delicate surgeon, or mad scientist, is a great joy. But the first or second time you do crack open a computer? Slightly alarming.
You might be itching to update your graphics card for better gaming or video editing, but, I mean, how to change a graphics card anyway? So a hardware upgrade is necessary, but what’s going on software-wise?
For the uninitiated, we’ll get you and your graphics up to speed.
A Refresher on Graphics Cards
How to install a graphics card is relatively simple. If you’ve successfully done it before, you can probably do it again, so we’re assuming no seasoned pros are here.
For the rest of us new to building or modifying a PC, installing the card will be the easiest part. Understanding the terminology, product choices, and reasons, why you would upgrade, is a much more nuanced conversation.
What Does a Graphics Card Do?
A graphics card allows your computer to render visuals. When you install a separate one, it contributes to processing power as well. They’re also referred to as:
- Video cards
- Display cards
- GPU (graphics processing unit)
Technically, a GPU is a specific component of a graphics card. It computes the graphics, while an entire graphics card unit has its own memory, processors, and cooling elements. But since GPUs and graphics cards are a packaged deal, the terms are used interchangeably.
How Does Graphics Card Hardware Work?
All computers run with at least integrated graphics. They’re directly tied into the motherboard (the main circuit board of a computer) or CPU (central processing unit) itself. A discrete graphics card is a separate piece of hardware that you can plug into an expansion slot in your motherboard.
These days, the slots are a PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) standard and come in varying sizes up to x16, the size relevant for how to install new graphics cards. There are four versions of this standard (1.0 to 4.0), but they’re forwards and backward compatible; however, the capabilities of a powerful PCIe video card will be limited by the capabilities of the version.
When you consider how to change a graphics card, consider changes to your machine’s temperature, noise, and power requirements.
- Display card units generate more heat, and consequently, more noise as they run their own cooling fans.
- A power supply (PSU) with at least 500 watts is suggested, and you’ll need to be able to hook up inner power connectors. (If you’ll be working with a pre-existing tower rather than a new build, here’s a guide to checking PSU wattage.)
- You can also opt for a low watt card that will just draw power through the PCIe slot.
The two major players in this space are Nvidia with GeForce and AMD with Radeon. Though they certainly aren’t the only brands making video card units, it’s their trusted GPU technologies that underpin most.
- Generally, GeForce is known for performance, while Radeon is regarded as affordable with mid-range specs.
- But both produce a wide range of GPUs and support a couple of different features on the high end, so you’ll need to be mindful of your use cases and budget.
Why Would You Install a Graphics Card?
If you want to play modern games seriously, there is no substitute for a dedicated video card, of course. It will allow a higher frame rate for fewer visual stutters and greater visual rendering for textures and assets. Higher-end models support 4k.
But if you don’t game on PCs or render older games just fine, a graphics card also has overall performance benefits. By moving graphics rendering to the processing and memory of the card, you free up your computer’s main CPU and RAM (random access memory).
Both attributes make a display card excellent for photo and video editing purposes. And without increased graphical rendering going on, that added processing power can go straight into computational tasks.
With all that out of the way, let’s get around to actually installing a new graphics card.
How to Install Graphics Cards
These instructions are for home use, but you can forego all this and take your computer to an in-store installation. Best Buy offers such a service, and you could call any local computer shop and ask if they do, too. The professionals will know how to install a graphics card quickly and painlessly, and you won’t have to worry about it.
Before You Open the Chassis
1. Ensure you have adequate space, light, and time to do the internal work — plus a screwdriver.
2. Save a Windows backup as a precaution (there’s an Nvidia GeForce “preparing to install” bug occasionally, where driver installation gets stuck. In a worst-case scenario, you could need to put back the old card and/or load a save file).
3. Speaking of drivers — use this guide if you’re wondering, well, what graphics card do I have now? Windows 10 and previous versions are covered.
This is important because if a discrete card is already installed, you’ll need to uninstall the old AMD or Nvidia drivers beforehand and download (without yet installing) the appropriate new drivers. Uninstallation may help prevent a compatibility or GeForce Game Ready Driver “preparing to install” error while having the files saved will speed up completion later.
If you’re running an integrated GPU, you can leave the drivers alone.
4. Power down the computer, toggle the power switch at the back of the machine to off, then unplug the computer entirely.
Opening the Chassis and Installing the Graphics Card
1. Unscrew and remove your computer case’s side panel. Locate the PCIe slots — usually found in the vicinity of the motherboard’s little round backup battery. Or you can just find a currently protruding display card.
How to remove an existing graphics card if it’s in there? Unplug any power connectors, then unscrew the bracket that holds it in place at the side or rear. A snap clip holds it in place as well, so toggle that open and then just pull or wiggle the card out.
2. Only need to know how to install a new graphics card? You’ll still need to remove the screws from the bracket near the topmost x16 PCIe slot and toggle the clip open. But then you just line the card up and firmly push it into place.
The clip should snap closed automatically. Give a little tug to check, and if it didn’t clip and the card isn’t locked into place, simply reach back and snap it into the closed position. Screw back in the support bracket.
3. If your video card has additional power requirements, make sure each onboard outlet (there may be more than one) has the appropriate PCIe power cable (6- or 8-pin) plugged in.
After Installing a New Graphics Card
1. Ensure everything is returned to its original position. Put back on the side panel and hook back up your computer. Power it on to see if you have a visual on success, literally. If it won’t power on, reopen and double-check your work for any problems.
2. Boot up and install the drivers you downloaded earlier (or get them now and install them). Wait for the installation to properly complete, then restart your machine.
Should you encounter an error or freeze, cancel or force close the installation and start over. Troubleshoot with Windows and online — it’s almost assured you can find a workable solution.
Congratulations! You now know how to upgrade graphics cards on a PC. We told you actually doing it might be the easiest part of the whole process.
Hopefully, aside from installation, you now also understand a big helping of the jargon and specs surrounding graphics cards. You’ll know how to pick out the right one — and how to push it into place.