How to Upgrade/Install a GPU

Looking to upgrade or install a brand new graphics card? This can be a pretty big decision for a computer.  This means the unit is giving a computer the ability to run games in ultra settings with little to no fps drops. The best part about deciding to upgrade/install a GPU is that it’s easy to do. The difficult part comes with actually making the decision on which card to get. 

The primary choice in graphics cards is between the two major makers of graphics cards, Nvidia and AMD.  So once the decision of which brand to get is made the next choice will come down to how much power is necessary for the graphics card. After narrowing down the options, we’ll find that there are lots of manufacturers are making different cards revolving around Nvidia and AMD.

Brands of GPUs
image credit: Nvidia and AMD

In the end, there are tons of models available to choose from. In particular there will be a need to check for some basic compatibility issues with the PC however. Does the motherboard have the right kind of slot for a modern graphics card? Will the card fit in this specific computer case? Can the power supply handle a card with higher power demands? Keep these questions in mind as we go through the steps to upgrade/install a GPU.

Keep following along as I walk through answering those questions, narrowing down the graphics card choices, and then installing a brand new graphics card. In these next steps it is imperative that all the guidelines shown later should be followed as it will give the best chance for success. My goal is to give everyone the most educated decision on choosing a graphics card and then showing how to upgrade/install a GPU.

Steps to Upgrade/Install a GPU

  • 1: Check for Compatibility
  • 2: Choose New Card
  • 3: Prepare to Install New GPU
  • 4: Remove the Existing GPU
  • 5: Install New GPU
  • 6: Install Drivers If Needed

Let us dive into the steps and get this show on the road to help you upgrade/install a GPU!

Step 1: Check for Compatibility

Before shopping for a new graphics card, it is a basic concept to limit the parameters of this search to the cards that a system can actually run. This isn’t as big a deal as one might think. If a computer has a PCI-Express (PCI-E) slot and a solid power supply, it can probably run the majority of modern graphics cards. 

Make Sure The Motherboard Has the Correct PCI-E Slot

Now in today’s age all graphics cards use the PCI-E standard for plugging into a computer’s motherboard. This standardized slot gives high-speed access to the PC’s processor and RAM, and its position on the motherboard allows easy access to the rear of the case. This can allow the plug of one or more monitors directly into the card itself.

PCI-E and PCI slots on motherboard

Almost all modern graphics cards require a PCI-E x16 slot, and almost all motherboards that feature a PCI-E slot should have the sized slot that is being looked for. For instance, if only having an x8 speed slot, this will work too, though performance on more graphic intensive games might be a little limited. The important part to all this is that is that a full-sized slot(PCI-E x16) is required and not one that’s designed for smaller x1, x2, or x4 cards.

The other thing to keep in mind is that a lot of the higher powered graphics cards are wide enough that they take up the space of two slots. For instance if there is already another type of card plugged in next to the slot that’s being used for the graphics card, notably take into account of the amount of space limitation.

Make Sure the Card Fits in the Computer Case

Most full-sized tower cases can fit even the biggest graphics cards. As it happens if owning a smaller case (like a mid-tower or compact), as a result there will be fewer choices to have. So make double sure that the case isn’t a smaller version of what is being looked for (such as a micro ATX computer case). 

Micro ATX computer case
Image Credit: Corsair

The more thorny issue is the card length. While low end and mid tier cards are generally short enough to fit most cases, more powerful cards tend to be much longer. And in some cases that available space might be further limited by where hard drives are installed, where cables are plugged into the motherboard, and how power cables are run.

Also some very small PC cases might also limit the height of the card that can used. Steer clear of the micro ATX case if looking to purchase a more modern card.

The easiest way to handle all this is to pop open the case and measure the space that is available. When shopping online for cards, the specifications should list the measurements of the card. If purchasing parts for the first time, just look at dimensions if at all possible. Personally, I would go as far as searching for people who use that specific case and see what graphics card they use in it. There could be some more useful information out there!

Micro ATX computer case
Image Credit: Newegg

There’s also one more factor to consider: the card’s power inputs. Mid and high end cards require a dedicated electrical connection to the computer’s power supply. The plug for this cable is either on the top of the card, or on the end of it.(which would be located on the side opposite to the monitor connections) There will usually be an extra half inch or so of clearance for this plug, in addition to the dimensions of the card itself.

Make Sure the Power Supply Can Handle the GPU’s Power Requirements

In particular there will need to be enough power coming from the power supply unit to feed the new graphics card. In addition to all of the current computer components. It is a good idea to measure all of this out before purchasing any graphics card or if building a personal computer for the first time. Usually the power requirements for parts shows on the specs for it. This way, there is a chance to plan ahead to make sure the power supply can fully power up the computer.

Most of the time this isn’t an issue. A relatively inexpensive 600 watt power supply can handle all but the most power hungry graphics cards. Plus, all the standard PC components that go with the computer usually don’t require too much power. Again, and I cannot stress this enough check all of this on the parts specifications page to see all of this. But if it includes upgrading/installing a GPU, higher end or lower always and I mean alyways check the power supply.

Specifications for graphics cards list their estimated power consumption in watts. Make sure the power supply has at least that much available (it is a good idea to have a 30-40w safety margin) before making the final choice. If it doesn’t, think about choosing a less powerful graphics card or just upgrade the power supply.

Ways to Check Power GPU requirements

If not 100 % sure on how much the other computer components are taking up, use this handy online calculator. Find the power consumption of other components, add them all up, and see if there’s enough left in the power supply to comfortably operate a new card.

If the current PSU(Power Supply) can’t power the card that is wanted, and not able to upgrade on the power supply, then there will be no choice but to have a less powerful card. There is nothing wrong going with a lower end graphics card. The biggest difference will end up being a slight change in the shadows when it comes to gaming. Even seeing a brush of graphics in scattered locations as opposed to everywhere. Don’t let lower end graphics cards shy anyone away from obtaining personal goals. 

The other thing that should be checked on is whether there is an available power cable of the right type. Some low power cards can run from the electricity supplied by the motherboard alone, but most cards need a separate input straight from the power supply. Just make sure to double check this as it could be frustrating to get the card installed and realize it needs an extra cord!

Check the specifications on the card that is being purchased. If the card needs a separate input, it will require either a 6 pin or an 8 pin plug. Some more powerful cards even require multiple connections. Make sure that the power supply has the right cables and plug types for that chosen card. On many modern power supplies, those plugs are even labeled PCI-E.

pins location on GPU
Image Credit: Graphics Card Hub

If not seeing the right types of plugs, but the power supply is otherwise powerful enough for that card, there is a chance to be able to find adapters (like these 6 pin to 8 pin adapters). There are also splitters (like these that can split a single 8 pin plug into two 6  or 8 pin plugs.

Make Sure the GPU Can Connect to the Monitor

Of course, there needs to be a monitor that can actually accept the video output of the graphics card. This usually isn’t a big deal as most new cards come with at least one DisplayPort, HDMI, and DVI connection. If the monitor doesn’t use any of those, adapter cables are cheap to buy. I would highly recommend looking more into this ahead of time if planing to use multiple monitors.

What If it isn’t Possible to Upgrade GPU?

If not able to upgrade the motherboard, power supply, or case to work with the specific graphics card that is wanted, or if just using a laptop and wanting more power than is available, there is also another option of using an external graphics card. These are basically external boxes into which plugging a PCI-E into a graphics card*?. They have their own power supply and a way plugging into a PC (usually by a USB 3.0 or USB-C). Some come equipped with a graphics card already; some are empty enclosures for plugging in whatever card.

They aren’t the best solution. They do require an extra power outlet and a high speed connection to the PC. Plus, they don’t offer the same level of performance as an internal card. In addition, these start at about $200 (without the graphics card itself). At that point, it’s a good time to start to consider whether or not to upgrade/install a GPU to a PC is worth it. If not, maybe looking into a lower budget graphics card. But for laptop owners or those who want an easy way to add more power to the graphics card, it is an interesting way to do so.

Step 2: Choose The New Card

newer GPU
Image Credit: Nvidia

Once you’ve figured out what the PC can handle, it’s time to choose the new card. And there’s a lot to choose from. The first thing to take into account is the budget, and then narrowing down the specifics from there. Again, as this topic was talked about in (link to budget creation for computer), this will be no different even if it is only for one part of the computer. The main focus should be on setting a price range on setting a price range as it could lead directly to the kind of power that is being looked for in a graphics card.

Set Your Budget

The graphics card market is fairly competitive, and as a general rule, the more money that is spent, the more powerful the graphics card. Choose the best card that fits into the personal budget. 

AMD Radeon RX 580 GTS GPU
Image Credit: AMD

The AMD Radeon RX 580 GTS is a solid graphics card going for just under $200. It is sitting at $189.99 which is not too bad if looking for a graphics card that will output solid graphical powers.

Of course, there’s a difference in how much one can actually afford and how much a person will want to actually spend. As a rule of thumb, any card above the $250-300 point (as long as it’s installed in a capable PC) should be able to handle almost any new game that comes out. It’s obvious that anyone can get extra power and additional features when spending more.

Some Price Ranges

But a typical goal is 60 frames per second in whatever type of game that is likely to be played. However, once getting past the $500-600 range, there are very minuscule improves compared to the $300-400 range. The top tier $800 and up graphics cards can handle pretty much any game at 60 frames per second on a typical 1080p monitor. 

This $160 AMD Radeon RX 580 GTS can comfortably handle new 3D games, though some might need low visual settings. The latest Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti graphics card, normally a must for high end gaming PCs, is now going for hundreds of dollars over the majority of graphics cards. Again if wanting the best, it comes with a price.

At lower price points (the $130-180 range), there are most games that can still be played with only a few compromises. In exchange for the lower price, having to lower the resolution setting or the graphical effects for newer games. But anything designed with a lower hardware tier in mind (like Rocket League or Overwatch) will still look great. And of course, older games (like Terraria or Minecraft).

Check the Reviews and Benchmarks

Even in a particular budget range, there will be an abundance to find and a lot of choices between different brands and configurations. Here’s where it will be tricky and need to dive into the subtle differences to make the final decisions.

Unfortunately I can’t cover every card in this guide, however the internet can. Read professional reviews of the graphics cards when looking them up, and check out user reviews from places like Amazon and Newegg. These reviews often point out little features or problems that won’t be found or read about elsewhere. Also search for benchmarks to see how different cards compare, and sometimes how well those cards run particular games. This step is important when looking into an upgrade/install on a GPU.

Consider Other Scenarios 

A few other general things to consider include:

  • VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive need even more power than playing with a standard monitor, because they are constantly rendering two video streams at once. These headsets generally recommend a GTX 970 card or better.
  • Choosing between AMD Radeon and NVIDIA GeForce cards isn’t typically all that important. Both companies offer designs at various price points and compete well with each other. But they do have frame syncing technologies that are incompatible with each other. These are software and hardware tools that reduce stuttering graphics and frame loss, making the hardware intensive V-sync setting unnecessary. AMD uses free sync while NVIDIA uses G-sync Both require monitors that are explicitly compatible with each system, so if you have a FreeSync or G-Sync monitor, you definitely want to get an AMD or NVIDIA card, respectively.
  • High end gaming motherboards still offer multiple 16x PCI-slots, and both ATI and NVIDIA offer multiple card connection setups. But in the last few years, advances in hardware have made these setups more or less unnecessary. You almost always see better gaming performance from a more expensive, more powerful single card than any combination of cards such as in Crossfire or SLI configurations.
  • Almost all card manufacturers and retailers have surprisingly generous return policies. If you accidentally order the wrong card, you can usually return it within 14 days, so long as you keep your receipt (or confirmation email). Of course, this doesn’t apply if you buy your card from secondary markets like eBay or Craigslist.

Step 3: Prepare to Install The New GPU

After finally getting a new card, it’s time to get that graphics card plugged in. After the headache of sorting through reviews, choosing a new card, and parting with all the money in savings, this part is easy.

Here are a few ways you can prepare to install the new GPU:

  • Gather Tools Needed(tools such as screwdrivers, pliers to grapple small objects such as screws)
  • Small bowl or tray to hold loose screws
  • Create a safe workspace
  • Have an anti-static band(optional unless you are nervous about shocking the computer parts)
  • Remove fuzzy clothing and socks(especially if you have to work on a table with carpet under you)
  • If you don’t have an anti-static band you can use a grounding mat
  • Unplug everything that powers the computer

Now, it’s time to remove the cover from the case. On most full size PCs, all that’s needed is to remove a side panel to get to the card slots usually on the left side of the PC if facing its front. On some computers, the whole case will need to be removed. And sometimes a few manufacturers make this harder than others. When in doubt, check the manual or just search the web for “how to take the case off your computer model.”

After getting the cover off, lay the PC down on its side. From there it should be easier to now look down at the computer’s internals. If having a current graphics card that will need to be upgraded, the first thing is to remove it. 

Step 4: Remove The Existing GPU

The graphics card should be pretty obvious. It’s plugged into one of the slots on the motherboard. Usually the one farthest from us if facing the bottom of the computer and has its monitor connections sticking out the back of the PC. It may or may not have cables from the power supply plugged into it. Just make sure to double check this as not wanting to pull out the graphics card only to rip the cord going to the power supply.

GPU location in computer
Image Credit: Towards Data Science

Location of GPU

The picture above indicates the usual location where the GPU is placed. Just make sure to be looking at the GPU and not another part of the computer. I would assume if anyone is to upgrade/install a GPU, they are wanting to know what it looks like. This would be a great way to start. If not, I have placed a few pictures to get a good grasp of the location of where the graphics card should be.

Power Connection

pins where power supply plugs into GPU
Image Credit: Nvidia

First, look for a power connection on the installed graphics card. This will be a black plug with multiple pins, plugged into either the top or rear of the card. Unplug the cable and set it aside. If not able to see one, don’t worry about it. It just means the existing card doesn’t need separate power. Just make sure to double check before moving on. The cord could just be hiding and it needs to be unplugged, otherwise it could be ripped out the cord and ruin the pins on the hardware. 

Securing GPU

Screws that secure the back of GPU to computer case
Image Credit: Digital Trends

Now, look at the metal piece where the graphics card touches the back of the PC. There as seen above are one or two screws (depending on whether it’s a single or double slot card) securing it to the case. Remove these screws and set them aside they will be needed for the new card.

This graphics card has two screws holding it into place on this case. They both will have to be removed.

Now, this next part can get a little tricky, depending on how crowded a case is. The card likely has a little plastic tab that holds it securely into the slot on the motherboard. Following that last step will be reaching under the card and push that tab to release the card. Sometimes, pushing the tab down; sometimes to the side. And with bigger cards and more crowded cases, that tab can be hard to reach.

PCI-E Slot Plastic Tab to Secure GPU

PCI-E Plastic tab to secure GPU
Image Credit: PCWorld

If having trouble with this, just be patient and make sure not to force anything. Also check  out YouTube videos of people demonstrating this on different types of rigs. Again, do not force anything! It could break the hinges that secure the graphics card and it will lead to having to upgrade to a new motherboard!

Push down on this plastic tab to release the card from the PCI-E slot.

PCI-E Plastic tab to secure GPU
Image Credit: Game Debate

Now, be ready to pull the card out. Gently grasp the card with right (or left if left handed) hand and pull up, starting with the side closest to the back of the case. It should come free easily. If it doesn’t, it’s more than likely that the plastic tab didn’t get pushed all the way. Just try the steps above again till the hinges get the card to be released. 

Sounding like a broken record, but please be patient with it. Do not try to rush and force the card out. I can’t begin to explain the horror of realizing of needing to upgrade to another motherboard because patients was not implemented!

Now it’s time to plug in the new card, which is basically the same process but in reverse!

Step 5: Install The New GPU

If just wanting to remove an existing card, know where the new card goes. If installing a card where there wasn’t one before, find the PCI-E x16 slot on the motherboard. Remove the corresponding “blank” metal piece from the case’s expansion slot, or two if it’s a double-width card. As a result it might be needed to remove some screws to do this—set them aside.

PCI-E Slot
Image Credit: MageWell

Gently slide the card back into place on the PCI-E slot. As it’s going in, be sure to align the metal piece that connects with the case with the tab that accepts it.

When it’s in and perpendicular to the motherboard, push down gently. Do this until you hear the plastic tab at the end of the PCI-E slot “pop” into place. Again it may need to be pushed with a light touch to make sure it’s physically locked into the receiver slot on the card. It does not take much force to get the card into place. If a pop is not heard just feel along the receiver with the pads of the fingers to indicate that the card is truly secured.

Next, use the screws that were set aside to put the graphics card back on the metal piece at the back of the case.

back of computer case where GPU connects
Image Credit: Corsair

And finally, connect the power cable if the card requires one. Whether if using a 6 pin connector, an 8 pin, or multiple power connectors on a high powered card, the plugs should only be able to fit in one way.

Troubleshoot if GPU was installed correctly

Double check all the connections and screws. You want to make sure they’re firmly in place, and then replace the side panel or case cover. Finally, be ready to move the PC back to its usual spot. Plug in all of the power and data cables, and turn it on. Make sure to connect the monitor to the new graphics card, and not to the video out connection on the motherboard itself!

If the display is blank on the screen after turning everything on, go back through this guide. Because it’s possible that the card was not installed correctly. The most common troubleshooting problem is a card that’s not fully inserted into the PCI-E slot; double check the plastic tab and make sure it was locked into place.

Another cause for this happens when installing a new card on a system where it previously used the internal graphics built into the PC’s motherboard. Most PCs automatically detect whether there was a discrete video card installed and make it the default display. Some systems may not. Check the BIOS and there it’s easy to find the settings that sets up the default display.

If the monitor still isn’t showing the boot screen, there might be more of a serious compatibility issue. This step is purely through troubleshooting the problem with research and process of elimination. It can be frustrating, but it is a necessary evil.

Step 6: Install Graphics Card Drivers If Needed

When a PC starts, everything will probably look fine. Windows includes basic drivers for most video cards. To get the most out of a new card, though, will have to download and install the correct drivers.

Luckily, this is pretty simple these days. NVIDIA and AMD both offer downloads directly up on their website, separated into card and operating system directories. Also, there will be options for automatically detecting the card and showing the drivers that is needed. Just select whichever ones apply to your personal system and download them in the web browser. This might take a few minutes to complete the graphics suites which are generally a few hundred megabytes.

That is all the steps needed to upgrade/install a GPU for your computer! Just make sure to take things slowly as rushing forward could lead to disastrous results. I hope this guide has helped you and wish you the best with your new upgraded/installed GPU.