If you want games, graphics, and other multimedia programs to run faster, upgrading to a more powerful graphics card should be your first priority. And Microsoft's Windows Vista, with its 3D-accelerated Aero interface, gives you another reason to upgrade. To run Aero, you'll need a DirectX-9-capable graphics chip and at least 128MB of dedicated memory.
What Kind of a Graphics Card Should I Buy?
If you want to play the latest games, get the best card you can afford. Serious gamers with big budgets will want a dual graphics card setup using either NVidia's SLI or ATI's Crossfire technology and should expect to pay premium prices for both the graphics cards and a new SLI- or Crossfire-compatible motherboard.
Budget-minded users don't need to spend big money for better graphics. Even midrange graphic cards can deliver a substantial performance boost over older graphics cards--especially if you're adding a card to a budget system with integrated graphics. For more advice on what features to look for on a new graphics card, read "How to Buy a Graphics Card."
What Kind of Graphics Card Works on My PC?
Make sure you know what kind of card will work in your PC before you go shopping. You can still wring a bit of performance out of some older PCs with AGP connectors, but for the most part, any PC worth upgrading will use a PCI Express x16 slot for its graphics board.
Many of today's high-end graphics cards connect directly to the power supply. Make sure you have a connector and any necessary adapters available. Also check to see if you PC's power supply has the wattage to support your new card, because some of today's fastest cards can pull well over 100 watts. Overheating is also a concern when adding powerful cards; make sure your PC has adequate case cooling. And you'll need sufficient room in the case: The cooling system on a high-end graphics card usually takes up the space of two expansion slots.
If you're adding a new card to a budget system with integrated graphics, and especially if the PC uses its RAM for both graphics and normal processing duties, check the computer manual or the manufacturer's online support site to confirm that the system will accept the new graphics card you've selected.
What Do I Need to Install a Graphics Card?
Tools: In addition to the graphics card, you'll need a small, nonmagnetic Phillips screwdriver and a simple antistatic grounding strap that attaches to your wrist. Look for one at your local computer store for less than $15.
Drivers: Have the CD with the driver and installation software readily available. It's also a good idea to download the latest version of the drivers from the graphics card manufacturer's Web site; graphics cards are notorious for shipping with not-ready-for-prime-time drivers.