So, you’re planning on upgrading your computer’s graphics card. That’s great. A new graphics card can help speed up older systems tremendously, under the right circumstances. A new graphics card can also make your system compatible with newer displays, provided you can make everything work.
But to avoid disappointment you have to approach the upgrade process with logic and common sense. You also have to have a good reason to upgrade the graphics, and not just because you think it will make your system run better.
Upgrading a graphics card is easy enough, provided you have no fear of opening up your desktop system. It has to be a desktop system because notebook computers are much more difficult to upgrade, and in some cases it simply can’t be done. If you want to upgrade the graphics card in a notebook computer, you should contact the manufacturer to find out if it’s at all possible, and what your options are. You might have to purchase the upgrade from the manufacturer.
Desktop systems are easy to upgrade because slots in the motherboard allow the easy installation and removal of expansion cards. But again, you have to have a good reason. If you need to run a program that requires a specific graphics card, that’s a good reason. If you want to use a newer display, perhaps a widescreen model, that doesn’t have an input that matches your graphics card, say HDMI, then that’s a good reason. If you have a program that runs painfully slowly, or doesn’t display graphics properly because of your old adapter card, that’s a good reason. But keep in mind that your old system might still run painfully slowly, even with a new graphics card.
A good rule of thumb is never to expect state-of-the-art performance from any tired old system. You have to weigh the positives of having a new graphics card with the negatives of cost and the performance penalties of running it in an old system. Graphics cards can cost between tens and thousands of dollars. If you need a graphics card that costs more than, say, $200, you should simply buy a new system that contains the type of graphics card you need, rather than be disappointed by its hampered performance when installed in a platform that’s just too old.
Rules of thumb aside, you must study the hardware and software requirements of a new graphics card before buying, and also scrutinize the requirements of any software you’re trying to gain compatibility with. For example, a particular game or image-processing suite that might require a certain type of processor or better, might need more free space than is left on your hard drive, or perhaps more memory than your system offers. It might also need a newer operating system. If your system doesn’t meet all of requirements of the new graphics card, you will have to upgrade whatever falls short, and you could end up spending more to upgrade your old system than it would cost to buy a new one.
When upgrading a graphics card, as mentioned above, you should have a good reason to do so; perhaps you need a specific type of graphics processor, a certain amount of graphics memory, a specific type of output connector, compatibility with OpenGL or DirectX, or whatever. Once you find a card that has all the features you require, it also has to fit into a slot in your motherboard.
The slots in motherboards have evolved over time, and you won’t even find a new card that fits motherboards that are too old. B&H carries more than a hundred different graphics cards, but only a handful of them are PCI and fewer still are AGP. The vast majority of graphics cards sold today are made to fit PCI Express slots.
Some desktop systems have integrated graphics, meaning that graphics are processed by a chip soldered to the motherboard and not by a card you can remove. Some systems with integrated graphics also have slots for adding better graphics cards and some don’t. If your system has no appropriate slots, then you’re out of luck; you need a new system. If it does have an appropriate slot, then you can install a new graphics card and simply disable the integrated graphics in BIOS during boot-up.
On top of everything else, you have to find a graphics card that includes drivers for your operating system. Most of the graphics cards sold by B&H are compatible with Windows only. Some are compatible with Windows and Mac and others only Mac. There are also cards that are compatible with Linux and Solaris.
If you can find a card that meets all of your needs, as well as those of your computer, then it shouldn’t be difficult to install it. Basically you just shut down your system, unplug it from the AC outlet and disconnect the monitor. For optimal performance from your new card, try to make sure your system is a properly ventilated one specifically for gaming applications. A fan blowing heat around inside your general purpose desktop computer casing may not be ventilating efficiently enough.
Your old card will be held in place by a screw or latch. Just remove the old card and install the new one in its place. Then reconnect your monitor and plug the system back into the outlet. To accomplish this task, a small screwdriver is priceless—the variety on a Leatherman Multipurpose tool could smooth the process, especially if you own the Leatherman Bit Kit. If you need better illumination to see inside your computer's casing, a bright LED flashlight is invaluable as well.
When you reboot, your system should detect the new card, at which point you should insert the disc that came with the card or go to the card manufacturer’s website to install the new drivers. If all goes well, your computer will be running happily with its new graphics card, and any incompatibilities with your old card will be history.