The GPU is arguably the most important component for us gamers, and learning how to install graphics cards is the first step on the road to being a full-fledged PC tech guru. It’s also hands down the simplest and most effective gaming upgrade you can perform on your rig.
So, which one should you be looking to stick in your gaming PC? Check out our guide to the best graphics cards available today.
If anyone tells you gaming on the PC is an endless nightmare of complicated upgrades, or some elitist master-racer wants you to think it’s some exclusive club, only open to those with an honorary engineering degree because they once replaced a stick of RAM, tell them to shove it up their exhaust vent.
Getting down and dirty with your PC has never been easier or safer. You’re less likely to brick your PC by installing a new graphics card than you are upgrading to the latest Windows 10 update.
And it can take a matter of minutes to get yourself an immediate gaming frame rate boost too.
- Step 1 - Preparation
Check PSU specs and cables. Maybe benchmark… nerd.
- Step 2 - Driver clean sweep
Wipe out all trace of your old drivers.
- Step 3 - Installation
Out with the old and in with the new. Make sure it’s all connected and secured.
- Step 4 - Boot up and game
Check GPU cooler’s working, install new drivers. Maybe benchmark again… nerd.
As they say, it prevents piss-poor performance, and can save you wasted hours and wasted cash too. Before you bankrupt yourself dropping a grand on a Titan Xp you need to know what sort of upgrade your current machine is capable of supporting, and that’s all down to your PC’s power supply unit (PSU).
Once you take the side panels off your case it should become obvious how much juice your PSU is capable of delivering to your components. Nine times out of ten it’s name will say it all; the numbers will generally indicate the maximum Wattage it will provide. And if not there will be a sticker on one side saying precisely what that is.
This is important because, out of all your components, the graphics card will likely add the most extra Wattage to your PC’s overall power draw. If you’ve got your heart set on a particular new GPU check out its specs on the manufacturer’s website, and that will indicate the minimum recommended PSU requirement for that card.
Ideally, you’ll want your new card to sit within your current PSU’s maximum rated Wattage, otherwise you’ll also need to buy a new power supply, and that means rather more invasive, long-winded PC surgery.
You’ll also want to check to see what graphics card power cables you have coming out of your PSU. It may be that your current card draws all its power from the motherboard, like a GTX 750/Ti or 1050/Ti, in which case it won’t have anything else plugged into it. Most modern PSUs will hav e at least a six-pin PCIe power cable, more likely it will have a couple with the extra attachments to convert them into eight-pin connectors.
If your PSU doesn’t have one of these cables you don’t have to panic just yet. So long as your power supply is capable of delivering enough juice you can use an adapter to convert two old Molex-type power cables (used on old hard drives and CD ROMs - look ‘em up, kids) into one six-pin connector. Most graphics cards still come with such adapters in the box.
If you’re a massive frickin’ nerd like me, you’ll also want to do some pre-emptive base level benchmarking with your old card so you test your new one, once it’s installed, to see what sort of performance boost you’ve got from all your hard work. Check the options screens on your favourite games to see if they have any built-in benchmarking tools, or you can activate the FPS counter in the Steam Overlay in-game settings and just take note.
Completely removing the old drivers is more relevant if you’re switching between GPU manufactures - from AMD to Nvidia or Nvidia to AMD - as the rival graphics card makers’ software can interfere with the workings of the other. Even if you carry out a standard driver uninstall, before you stick in your new card, there may still be errant entries left over in Windows configuration files and the OS registry.
If you’re sticking within the confines of either Team Radeon or Team GeForce it can still be worth taking this step just to make sure you’re starting with a blank driver slate once you’ve got your new GPU sitting pretty inside your rig.
I’d recommend downloading Display Driver Uninstaller before you do anything else. It’s a simple program that will perform the complete removal of AMD, Intel and Nvidia graphics drivers, and has saved me many hours of frustration when testing armfuls of graphics cards throughout my career.
Install DDU, boot it up and it will recommend rebooting your system into Safe Mode. Once your system does reboot into Safe Mode DDU will automatically restart. From here you simply select the existing drivers you want rid of, and hit the ‘clean and shutdown’ button when you’re ready to install your new graphics card.
This is the fun bit, where you get to pull out your screwdriver and feel all super techie. On a philosophical level, this is also where your bond with your gaming PC will grow. This is where you start to really make it your own, where it becomes more than a magic closed-box you use to play games.
But first, static! When you’re ready to install your new graphics card unplug all the cables from your rig, flick the power switch to the off position on the back of the PSU, and depress your PC’s main power button. This will discharge any residual power that’s floating around in your machine, and will help avoid any chance of sparking your machine because you’ve a penchant for shuffling around on nylon carpets.
Now, it’s just a case of removing the screws from the retaining bracket of your old graphics card and gently removing it from your system. Don’t just brute force it out - there will be a clip on the PCIe socket the card plugs into on your motherboard. It will either need shifting sideways, or pushing down, to release the old GPU.
Be careful here, because you don’t want to damage the socket on your motherboard, or your old graphics card. If there are any problems with your new GPU you’ll want a backup option.
You can now slot your new GPU into the vacant PCIe slot, fix it in place with the same screws you removed earlier, and plug in the relevant PCIe power cables. The card should slot in easily, there will be no need for serious force to get it in place. If there is resistance, check there’s nothing in the way before trying again. Likewise don’t force the power cables in, they will only go in one way round, so make sure they’re properly lined up.
Don’t shut your PC case up just yet, because there’s one more step to go…
You should leave the side panel of your case off your machine for the first time you boot it up with a new graphics card in place, so you can make sure the fans spin and there’s nothing like loose cabling getting in the way. This probably seems like digital suicide, but as your rig starts up you can gently use your finger to test whether the GPU cooling fans are working. Or, y’know, get up close and use your eyes or something equally boring.
Don’t be too concerned if the fans spin and then stop, or operate intermittently, once you boot into Windows, as many modern graphics cards now use what are designated as 0dB coolers. The large heatsinks on today’s GPUs are enough to cope with the heat generated when sat pretty much idle on the Windows desktop, and generally only spin into life when the temperature ramps up during gaming.
Now it’s just a case of downloading the relevant drivers from either the AMD or Nvidia websites (I’d always recommend going direct, rather than to partner websites, for simplicity’s sake) and installing them. You may, or may not, need to reboot to finalise the driver installation, but after that you’re good to game.
Or you can do a little quick benchmarking to give you that warm and fuzzy feeling of knowing exactly how much extra performance your techie toil has delivered. If you’re a geek like me...