Your computer's graphics card isn't just for gaming. Here's how to upgrade it. | Popular Science
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Your computer's graphics card isn't just for gaming. Here's how to upgrade it.

For everyone from amateurs to expert PC builders.

Graphics card

You don't need to build a computer to improve its graphics.

Nvidia

If you want to boost your computer's visual performance, you need to improve its graphics. Although the primary application is running more powerful games at a better image quality, upgrading your graphics also helps with image modification, video editing, and playing high-resolution video (think Netflix in 4K).

But there are tons of upgrade options out there, which can make the whole process seem too daunting to attempt. We're here to simplify it, laying everything out so you can make the best choice for you. Gamer or casual viewer, laptop or desktop owner, first-time modifier or seasoned PC builder—here's the background information you need to upgrade your computer's graphics.

Review the graphics basics

Your computer powers its on-screen visuals with two parts: the central processing unit (CPU) and the graphics processing unit (GPU). Although both of these perform similar tasks—working through a bunch of math to help your machine function normally—their structures differ slightly, the GPU specializes in the type of calculations that intense visuals require. (These calculations also come in handy for cryptocurrency mining and artificial intelligence, which is why graphics giant Nvidia can enter the self-driving car business.)

All computers come with a CPU, and in the early days of computing, it handled all the graphics (which at the time were very basic) together with the motherboard. Even today, if you buy a computer without a graphics card—hardware that includes a GPU, storage space dedicated to graphics, and on-board cooling—you'll still be able to see movement on screen. That's because every computer comes with the essentials needed to show Windows or macOS operations. However, a powerful graphics card can help the CPU calculate the movement of all those pixels, providing a video quality with higher resolution and more detail.

In the past, you could split computers into two groups: those with and without dedicated graphics cards separate from the CPU. Machines without cards had so-called "integrated" graphics, meaning the graphics-processing power was built into the CPU or the motherboard. That remains the case today, but as processors have become much more powerful, integrated graphics have also improved in performance. As a result, a separate graphics card has become less vital, because modern computers with integrated graphics are now capable of gaming, video editing, and more.

Still, you'll still get the best graphics performance from a separate (also called a "discrete") graphics chip. If you want to add this yourself it can vary in difficulty—it might mean slotting a card into your desktop's motherboard or connecting an external graphics solution via USB. The last option won't work quite as fast, but it's much easier and more convenient to install. Deciding which process suits you best will depend on your comfort tinkering with electronics—and on your computer itself.

Check on your computer's limitations

Before you decide how to upgrade your computer, you need to review that particular machine's options. For example, if you're hoping to improve a laptop, you'll need to plug in an external graphics processor, so make sure the system supports this, the way recent MacBook Pro models do. With a desktop machine, you could either opt for that external processor or install a graphics card—for the latter, you'll need a motherboard with a spare PCI-Express (also called PCI-E) slot or two.

To find out what your computer can handle, check the documentation that came with it or run a quick web search of the model's name. If that fails, try checking with the manufacturer or the retailer where you bought it. The location that sold it might also be able to suggest some upgrades you hadn't been considering.

For more help, check for advice on forums. Members of communities like Tom's Hardware and Neowin won't bite if you ask for some pointers—especially if you make your questions clear and specific. When you're having trouble figuring out what your computer can do, most users will be happy to help explain its various upgrade options.

A few extra pointers: Some high-end cards require an extra connection to your computer's power supply unit (or PSU), in addition to the power they draw from the motherboard. This shouldn't be a problem on most modern systems, unless you're putting a really powerful card inside a mid-range or compact desktop. To make sure, this online PSU calculator can double-check for you. Also, be wary of putting a top-end card in an older, mid-range system—it will still work, but performance might be reduced if the other components in your computer (like the RAM) can't keep up. Bear these bottlenecks in mind if you plan to pair a very good card or external GPU with a middling computer. Again, the forums we mentioned previously can offer helpful advice.

Finally, if your computer is getting older—say you've had it for at least five years—consider upgrading the whole system rather than limiting your changes to the graphics. This provides one way of avoiding bottlenecks, but of course, it will cost a lot more.

Choose your hardware

There are two big names in computer graphics: Nvidia and AMD. However, many different manufacturers produce graphics chips and cards based on their technologies. Ultimately, the ideal graphics card or external GPU for you will depend on your computer's specs, operating system, and the type of installation you want to perform.

For example, these high-end cards are ideal for Windows operating systems, and these external processors are best for Macs. Buyers' guides like the ones at those links can help lead you toward the right device—just make sure the guide is recent, since new graphics cards come out on a fairly regular basis.

Once the buyers' guide narrows down your list of options, you can further compare cards by looking at the performance benchmarks available online. If you're in a hurry, try a shortcut to work out the merits of the various graphics cards or processors you're considering. Because more powerful devices generally cost more, you could compare prices as a rough guide. Another handy shortcut: Decide what you want to do with your computer and go from there. Say there's a game you're dying to play or a VR headset you want to buy—check the recommended graphics specs, and then choose an upgrade that will satisfy those requirements.

Speaking of specs, don't be daunted by the jargon associated with graphics cards. Here are the key items to consider: amount of memory on board, memory speed, and clock speed (basically how quickly the device can chew through calculations). You can also check the model number of the device: Generally speaking, a higher number will be better.

It's no exaggeration to say you can spend weeks poring over graphics configurations, but don't feel like this is obligatory—choosing your upgrade can take much less time. Consult a recent buying guide, check the recommendation on the forums mentioned earlier, and you should quickly get a feel for a graphics device that will take care of your needs.

Install the device

If you've selected an external device, connecting it will be easy: Plug it into a port (depending on the device, that might be USB, USB-C, or Thunderbolt), install any software or drivers bundled with the hardware, and you're done.

Installing a graphics card in a desktop computer will take a little more work. Before you start, the usual rules for working inside a PC apply: Power down and unplug the machine, remove peripherals like the mouse and monitor, and then carefully remove the sides of the case to access the motherboard. To avoid causing electrostatic shocks, wear an anti-static wrist strap just in case you touch a metal part of the case or power supply unit.

Check for an existing graphics card and if you find one, remove it: Unscrew the card's bracket from the case, and then unhook the plastic holders at the side of the slot itself. Some cards require a separate connection to the computer's power supply, so if you spot one, disconnect this too. Slowly remove the card and put it in an antistatic bag or replace it in its original packaging (if it's in good working order, you might want to sell it on eBay).

Now take up the new card and fix it into the vacant PCI-E slot, holding the card by its sides to keep your fingers away from all the circuitry. Fasten the brackets where needed. You'll need to screw the new bracket against the case, connecting it in the same way as the old one. Then, if the card requires a power connection to the PSU, go ahead and make it. Consult the supplied manual to figure out whether the additional power connection is necessary, and to see a few more pointers on installation.

Close up your PC again, reconnect your monitor to the new graphics card, and hook up your peripherals again. Connect the PSU to a power socket as before, switch the computer back on, and boot up the operating system. Finally, make sure to download the latest graphics card drivers for your new component. These are available on the Nvidia and AMD websites—just choose your card and your operating system from the list to find the right ones. These drives will make sure your card works to its full potential.

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