How to Upgrade Your Graphics Card

Choosing the best graphics card for upgrading your aging board is difficult. Ultimately, you want a balanced setup: Too much power, and the graphics processing unit just sits idle in a game, waiting for the CPU to finish whatever it's doing. Too little power, and the CPU waits for the GPU to wrap up its tasks. In either case your game won't look or play as you want it to.

The good news is that both AMD and Nvidia have rolled out their second-generation DirectX 11-compliant graphics cards in the past several months. These revised GPUs offer improved performance, as well as more-robust feature sets. In some instances the new midrange cards (which fall into the $200-to-$300 price range) outperform older graphics boards that were priced at $500 or more only a few years ago.

For the example in this article, I'm upgrading a desktop system running an Intel Core 2 Quad Q9650 processor. This CPU was one of the faster models available during the previous Intel Core generation, but today it's average at best. That means a good midrange graphics card ($260 or less) is the appropriate fit for this PC; anything more expensive is overkill. This computer got an upgrade to Windows 7 at the time of that operating system's original release.

Install the new card in the correct slot; here, the turquoise slot is too small.
The platform is also a concern. Some of the newer graphics cards, such as AMD's Radeon HD 6900 line, can be quite long, and may not fit in certain PC cases. The chassis for my example desktop is an older Antec Sonata Designer 500, which lacks the internal depth needed for longer cards. Consequently a midrange card becomes a matter of necessity.

The third issue to consider is the power supply. If you're already running a 900W monster, you can upgrade to just about any graphics card you desire. But if you're running a less formidable power supply--a 500W or 600W unit, for example--your graphics options will be more limited. Some high-end graphics cards consume significant amounts of current at startup as well as under load, which can overstress a modest power supply.

However, even within such constraints, your graphics-card choices are numerous. I tend to opt for newer midrange cards, which can offer impressive performance particularly on single monitors running at the now common 1920-by-1080-pixel resolution. At prices closer to $200, I would probably go with an ATI Radeon HD 6870. At $250 to $270, I'd likely choose an Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti. Both boards get the job done at 1080p. In the end, it depends on your budget.

In my example PC, I'm upgrading from a GTX 260 card to an Asus-made GTX 560 Ti. By today's standards the GTX 260 is pretty anemic. Asus's GTX 560 Ti DirectCU II, which currently costs around $250 to $270, is much stronger and should substantially improve performance.

Basic Install Toolkit

  • Battery-powered headlamp
  • Assorted screwdrivers
  • Retractable pincers

Install toolkit: headlamp, screwdrivers, retractable pincers

Upgrading Tips

1. Before you buy a graphics card, make sure that your machine's power supply is up to the task. My example PC has a robust 750W Corsair power supply, which should be sufficient. Check the manufacturer's specs for minimum power requirements before you take the plunge.

2. Ensure that the case has enough room for the new card. Graphics boards have become longer over the years, and the space in older cases may be a little tight. In my example PC, the GTX 560 Ti just barely fits inside the older Antec Sonata Designer 500 case.

3. Download the latest driver for the new graphics card. Don't install it yet.

4. Uninstall the older graphics drivers. Even if you're installing a GPU of the same brand as before, removing the older drivers prior to installing the new card is a good idea.

5. Power down the system.

Carefully disconnect the power cables from the old card and remove the screws holding it in place.
6. Remove any power connectors from the old graphics card. Also remove the screws that attach the connector bracket to the case.

7. Ensure that no clutter--cables or wiring--surrounds the card. In addition, large CPU heat sinks can interfere with physical card removal or installation, so you may need to remove the heat sink. Be sure to detach the monitor cable from the old graphics card's outside connector, too.

You might need to hold a latch down with one hand while removing the old graphics card with the other.
8. Most motherboards have a little latch that locks the graphics card securely into its slot. You may find it necessary to hold this latch down (or aside) while removing the card with your other hand.

9. If the amount of room inside the case is too constricted, you might have to preattach the PCI Express power connectors to the new card.

10. Install the new graphics board, first making sure that no small wires are overhanging the PCI Express slot. If the card seems difficult to push down, check to see whether the connector bracket is sliding in properly.

11. Once the card is firmly in place, replace the connector-bracket screws.

12. Attach the monitor cable. If you've been using a VGA cable, and your monitor has a digital input (DVI, HDMI, or DisplayPort), now is a good opportunity to switch to digital inputs with the right cable.

All done! Organizing cables makes it easier to access the PC's insides later.
13. Double-check to confirm that the graphics card's power connectors are in place. Additionally, verify that no small wires or cables will interfere with any of the cooling fans.

14. Power up the PC. If you hear any rattling, it indicates that something is rubbing against the fans; power down and check to make sure that no fans have become blocked.

15. Once the system is powered up and running normally, install the latest drivers for the graphics card. One more reboot, and you're good to go.

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