Computer graphics are incredibly complex these days. Especially in video games, some of which are almost photorealistic! This is all thanks to a dedicated hardware component known as the GPU or GPU. A sophisticated microprocessor whose design is very different from a CPU (central processing unit) that performs all general-purpose processing tasks.
While the CPU can act like a GPU, it’s terrible. The GPU uses thousands of tiny processor cores that work together to perform very, very quickly on a relatively narrow set of graphics tasks.
In this article, we will show you how to choose the right graphics card and how to replace the graphics card in your desktop PC. We’ll also touch on several upgrade options that laptop users may have.
Graphics Cards vs. Embedded GPUs vs. Discrete GPUs
You will hear the terms “graphics processor” and “video cards” used interchangeably, which is fine in most cases. However, the term graphics card refers specifically to removable, independent GPU cards that can be upgraded.
“Embedded” GPUs are built into the processors or are part of a single “system-on-chip” like a smartphone or tablet. “Discrete” GPUs in laptop computers are generally equivalent to graphics cards, but are built into the system in a way that often prevents them from being upgraded.
We’ll look at some of the exceptions below, though.
What you need to know about specifications
A video card is very similar to a whole specialized computer. It connects to the rest of the computer through a high-speed physical connection, usually using the PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect eXpress) protocol. At the time of writing, PCIe 3.0 is the latest version of this protocol.
On desktop PCs, these cards use a long slot, usually a PCIe x16 slot. This indicates that the slot has 16 “lanes” available for data transmission. Many motherboards can have multiple slots, some with fewer lanes, to enable multiple graphics cards in a single system. We will not discuss this here as it is irrelevant for the vast majority of users.
When browsing the specs to select the right graphics card, you will usually see the following terms:
- Number of cores / processors
- Memory capacity
- GPU speed is measured in GHz
- Power Requirements
When it comes to the details of GPU speed or core count, you don’t need to pay much attention. As these numbers don’t really tell you how well the video card in question will perform.
Instead, it is much more efficient to search the Internet for benchmarks for that particular map. You also need to contextualize the results for yourself. For example, if you are a gamer, decide which games you most want to play. Note which resolution your monitor is using and decide which frame rate is right for you.
Now look for the performance metrics of the card in question that match your situation. Can the card play titles at the desired speed, detail and resolution settings?
Make a short list of cards that seem to provide what you are looking for, then take price into account. While you can dig into the finest details, this short and sweet approach will work for most people in most cases.
The rest of the characteristics are worth your time. It is imperative that you comply with the minimum power supply requirements specified by the card manufacturer. If this means buying a new PSU, consider this in the total cost!
The last important characteristic is the amount of video memory. This is where data is stored for quick access by the GPU. If you don’t have enough memory, the information will have to be moved to other forms of storage, which completely drops the frame rate. In 2019, 8GB of storage is a good target to strive for, with 6GB being the absolute minimum but with a limited lifespan.
There are two GPU brands in today’s market that really matter: Nvidia and AMD. The level of competition between the two varies from generation to generation, but Nvidia has a significantly larger market share and generally more powerful GPUs. AMD competes strongly on price, in the mid to low price segment. This makes their maps especially interesting for casual users.
As of this writing, Intel is gearing up to release its own competitive GPU products. Intel is a major player in the embedded GPU market, with most of their mainstream processors having an integrated graphics core.
Should you care about choosing a specific brand of video card? Not really. The best strategy is to find a card that offers the best combination of performance, noise, power, and price. Sometimes it will be an AMD card and sometimes an Nvidia card.
How to change the graphics card in your desktop computer
If you replace the card with a card of the same brand, most likely the already installed software will work automatically. Just make sure your software is up to date
If you have changed the trademark, simply uninstall the software like any other software on your computer and download the correct software for your new card. Uninstall the old software BEFORE replacing the graphics cards and install the new software AFTER the change is complete.
We can now proceed with the physical installation of the graphics card.
If you have a desktop computer with a discrete graphics card or an open slot on your motherboard to house it, you can improve your computer’s graphics performance.
Make sure the card you are going to install:
- will work with your current PSU.
- fits into your case.
Make sure your computer is turned off. However, if possible, leave the computer connected to the network so that it acts as a ground. Alternatively, buy a grounding strap or, as a last resort, ground yourself to something before handling any components.
- First, open the computer case according to the manual that came with it. Usually you only need to remove one side panel to expose the top of the motherboard and all the card slots.
- If you already have a video card installed, disconnect the power cables from the video card, if any.
- Next, remove the retaining plate screw that secures the graphics card to the back panel.
- The next part can be tricky, depending on how cramped your suitcase is. There is a small retainer on the back of the graphics card slot.
- The design of these boards differs from one brand of motherboard, so refer to the manual if you cannot figure out how to free it. Release the clip.
- Now carefully remove the graphics card from the slot. You may need to wiggle it slightly to release it. Try to grasp the board by the edges and avoid touching bare copper connectors with bare skin. You should now have a free slot.
To install a new graphics card, simply reverse these steps or read our detailed guide on installing a new graphics card
- Now shut down your computer again and turn it on. If all goes to plan, you’ll be back into Windows, albeit with potentially low-resolution graphics. It’s time to install new software if you need to. If not, the new card should be detected and automatically configured. Done!
Laptop Graphics Upgrade
If you have a laptop with a Thunderbolt 3 port that supports external graphics, you can buy an eGPU case and connect your graphics card that way. Some are more portable than others, but cheaper than buying a brand new laptop.
Some laptops have updatable graphics, often referred to as “MXM” modules. Check with your laptop manufacturer or refer to the documentation to see if this is right for you. If so, then most likely these special update modules can only be purchased directly from them.