If you want to improve the visual performance of your computer, you need to improve its graphics. While the main app runs more powerful games with better image quality, upgrading your graphics also makes image editing, video editing, and high-res video playback easier (think Netflix in 4K ).
But there are tons of upgrade options, which can make the whole process too daunting. We’re here to make it simple, putting everything in place so you can make the best choice for you. Casual gamer or viewer, laptop or desktop computer owner, beginner modder or seasoned PC builder, here’s the basic information you need to upgrade your computer’s graphics.
Review the basics of graphics
Your computer powers its on-screen visuals with two parts: the central processing unit (CPU) and the graphics processing unit (GPU). While these two perform similar tasks – working on a bunch of math to help your machine run smoothly – their structures differ slightly, the GPU specializes in the kind of calculations required by intense visuals. (These calculations are also useful for cryptocurrency mining and artificial intelligence, which is why graphics giant Nvidia may enter the self-driving car business.)
All computers have a processor, and in the early days of computing, it managed all the graphics (which at the time were very basic) as well as the motherboard. Even today, if you buy a computer without a graphics card (hardware that includes a GPU, dedicated graphics storage, and built-in cooling), you will still be able to see movement on the screen. Indeed, every computer comes with the essentials needed to display Windows or macOS operations. However, a powerful graphics card can help the processor calculate the movement of all those pixels, delivering video quality with higher resolution and more detail.
In the past, you could divide 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 motherboard. This remains the case today, but as processors have become much more powerful, integrated graphics have also improved their performance. As a result, a separate graphics card has become less vital, as modern computers with integrated graphics are now capable of gaming, video editing, and more.
Nonetheless, you’ll still get the best graphics performance from a discrete (also called “discrete”) graphics chip. If you want to add it yourself, the difficulty may vary. This could be inserting a card into your desktop computer’s motherboard or connecting an external graphics solution via USB. The last option will not work so quickly, but it is much easier and more convenient to install. Deciding which process is best for you will depend on how comfortable you are with tinkering with electronics and your computer itself.
Check your computer’s limits
Before deciding how to upgrade your computer, you need to look at the options for that particular machine. For example, if you’re hoping to upgrade a laptop, you’ll need to hook up an external graphics processor, so make sure the system supports it, like recent MacBook Pro models do. With a desktop computer, you can either opt for this external processor or install a graphics card. For the latter, you’ll need a motherboard with one or two PCI-Express (also called PCI-E) slots.
To find out what your computer can handle, check the documentation that came with it or do a quick web search for the model name. If that fails, try checking with the manufacturer or retailer where you purchased it. The location that sold it might also be able to suggest improvements you hadn’t considered.
For more help, see the tips on the forums. Members of communities like Tom’s Hardware and Neowin won’t bite if you ask for advice, especially if you ask clear and specific questions. When you’re having trouble figuring out what your computer can do, most users will be happy to walk you through its various upgrade options.
A few extra tips: some high-end cards require an additional connection to your computer’s power supply (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 very powerful card in a mid-range or small form factor desktop computer. To make sure, this online PSU calculator can check for you. Also beware of putting a high-end card in an older mid-range system – it will still work, but performance could suffer if your computer’s other components (like RAM) can’t keep up. Keep these bottlenecks in mind if you plan to pair a very good card or external GPU with an average quality computer. Again, the forums we mentioned earlier can offer helpful advice.
Finally, if your computer is getting old (say you’ve had it for at least five years), consider upgrading the entire system rather than limiting your changes to graphics. This provides a way to avoid bottlenecks, but of course it will cost a lot more.
Choose your material
There are two big names in computer graphics: Nvidia and AMD. However, many different manufacturers produce chips and graphics cards based on their technologies. Ultimately, the ideal external graphics card or GPU for you will depend on your computer’s specifications, 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. Buying guides like the ones in these links can help you choose the right device. Just make sure the guide is recent, as new graphics cards come out quite regularly.
Once the buyer’s guide has narrowed down your list of options, you can further compare the cards by looking at the performance criteria available online. If you’re in a hurry, try a shortcut to determine the merits of the different graphics cards or processors you’re considering. Since more powerful devices usually cost more, you can compare prices as a guideline. 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, then choose an upgrade that will meet those requirements.
Speaking of specs, don’t be intimidated by the jargon associated with graphics cards. Here are the key things to consider: amount of onboard memory, memory speed, and clock speed (essentially how fast the device can perform calculations). You can also check the model number of the device: generally a higher number will be better.
It’s no exaggeration to say that you can spend weeks poring over graphics configurations, but don’t feel pressured to choose your upgrade can take a lot less time. Check out a recent buying guide, check the recommendation on the previously mentioned forums, and you should quickly get an idea of a graphics device that will meet your needs.
Install the device
If you selected an external device, connecting it will be easy: plug it into a port (depending on the device, which may be USB, USB-C, or Thunderbolt), install any software or drivers that came with the hardware, and you have finished.
Installing a graphics card in a desktop computer will take a bit more work. Before you begin, the usual rules for working inside a PC apply: turn off and unplug the machine, remove peripherals like the mouse and monitor, then carefully remove the sides of the case to gain access to the motherboard . To avoid electrostatic shock, wear an antistatic wrist strap in case you touch any metal part of the case or power supply.
Look for an existing graphics card and if you find one, remove it: unscrew the card bracket from the case, then unhook the plastic brackets on the side of the slot itself. Some cards require a separate connection to the computer’s power supply, so if you spot one, unplug it as well. Slowly remove the card and put it in an anti-static bag or put it back in its original packaging (if it’s in good working order, you might want to sell it on eBay).
Now take the new card and secure it into the vacant PCI-E slot, holding the card by its sides to keep your fingers clear of any circuitry. Attach brackets where needed. You will need to screw the new bracket against the case, connecting it the same way as the old one. Then if the board requires a power connection to the PSU, go ahead and do that. Consult the included manual to determine if the additional power connection is required and to see some additional installation tips.
Shut down your PC again, reconnect your monitor to the new graphics card, and reconnect your peripherals. Connect the power supply to a power outlet as before, turn the computer back on and start the operating system. Finally, be sure to download the latest graphics card drivers for your new component. These are available on the Nvidia and AMD websites. Simply choose your card and operating system from the list to find the correct ones. These discs will ensure that your card performs to its full potential.