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VIDEO CARD UPGRADE - DEFINING REQUIREMENTS

Before beginning your search to upgrade and replace a video card, it is helpful to define your requirements as specifically as possible Answering the questions listed below should help to ensure the purchase meets all of your needs and expectations, that it has the features you want, and that it is compatible with your system.

Personal Upgrade Choices

HD 5750 Video Card

AMD Radeon HD 5750 Video Card

1.  What are you looking for in a new, upgrade video card?
Define your personal requirements for the upgrade as specifically as possible.  Identify how you want to use the new card – the key games or applications that you will use and the equipment (monitors, TV, etc.) you want to use.

2. How long will you use the video card?
The average life of a video card is generally two to three years, and sometimes can be stretched a little longer by the budget minded.  Things to consider include:

Generally it is a good idea to buy a little more video card when you upgrade, or sometimes to get special new features like HDMI connectors, to accommodate later game or equipment changes.  The longer you intend to use the card, the more headway you might want to purchase now when you upgrade.

3. What is your upgrade budget?
Do you have a set budget, a range in mind, or will you spend whatever reasonable amount it takes to achieve a specific objective or targeted level of play?

4. Do you want an especially quiet video card or one that generates less heat than others?
Generally the larger or faster the video card, the more energy it requires and the more heat it generates, although some newer models are reversing the trend.  More heat may require larger fans to dissipate it, increasing fan noise.  Fans and heatsinks are one of the few items that can vary significantly between brands.  So both model and brand choices can significantly affect both noise and heat levels.  Heat issues might be more significant if you have a case that is not well ventilated, in which case you might want to favor graphics cards that expel heat directly out of the case – not all do. Noise is generally more of an issue with faster gaming cards, but might also be important if you are next to a PC that is running all day or if the PC operates your home theater system and you don’t want PC noise interfering with your quiet enjoyment of movies. You can generally compare card performance for potential upgrade options in both areas by looking at graphics card reviews. 

System Capabilities and Requirements Affecting an Upgrade

man looking at computer and pulling out his hair

Man Not Happy With Computer

Your upgrade options are limited by some features of your current system, including the type of graphics card slot, the power supply, physical room, and monitor, as described in more detail below.  Generally the required information can be gleaned from system documentation (for example your computer or motherboard manual).  If you don’t have a manual, you can often go online to the manufacturer’s site to retrieve an electronic version.  If you have an existing card that works well, you can check its specifications to learn at least a specific amount that should work.  To check the existing graphics card or other features inside your computer, you will, of course, have to open it up, which is fairly easy to do.  If necessary, see the directions on the page about installing your graphics card. The key questions are:

1. What type of card slot does you motherboard have?
The card slot on the motherboard determines the type of upgrade card you can get. There is no way around this limit other than replacing the motherboard. Your video card could be one of the older versions, AGP or PCI, or the newer PCIe 1.0 or 2.0. Your system manual should provide an easy answer.  Otherwise, if you have an existing card, check the specifications for it.  If it is PCI or PCIe, the slot should match one shown in the picture on the PCIe card page, although it might be difficult to tell just from inspection if it is PCIe 1.0 or 2.0.  If the slot is brown, it is AGP.

2. What size is your power supply unit (PSU)? Will it support an upgrade and how large a card?
An upgrade is often limited by the size of the PSU, since bigger, faster, and newer cards normally require more power.  This is particular true for many computer systems for which the manufacturer sized the power supply to the unit being sold, leaving little, if any, room for an upgrade. You need to know the total wattage provided by the PSU, since many video card manufacturers provided specific guidance based on the total wattage. If possible, also check the total amperage for the 12 volt circuits.  Many PSUs, particularly older ones, might have enough total wattage to meet requirements, but not enough power allocated to the 12 volt circuits.

picture of the label from a power supply unit

Power Supply Label.
Click on the image above to open
a window with a larger version.

Again, the first place to check is the system documentation, otherwise, you can look on the PSU label inside the computer. The PSU will be on either the top or bottom of the computer.  The label generally will have both the total wattage and amperage for the 12 volt circuit, as shown in the photo at right.  When looking at video cards, ensure the total wattage requirement recommended by the manufacturer is less than or equal to what your PSU provides.  Some cards will also make recommendations about the minimum amount of 12 volt amperage required. If your systems total wattage or 12 volt amperage are less than the recommended amounts for your target upgrade, you may need to also consider upgrading the PSU or settling for a smaller or more efficient graphics card.

In any system, it is very important to have a good quality power supply that provides stable current in the quantities needed. Many users seem to forget that it is the current from the PSU, stepped down to very fine rates, that drives the whole system. If you have many add-in cards or other optional components, it is best to look in more detail at total system usage. A good tool to review power requirements for an upgrade is the power supply calculator available at eXtreme Outer Vision.  It comes in two versions. The Lite version is available free of charge and estimates the total requirements for your system after you provide details on the components. The Pro version provides the total 12 volt amperage as well as total system wattage. It costs $1.99 for 3 days access and $6.99 for a full year. Remember to include the potential upgrade video card when lisiting components.

picture of PCIe power connector

PCIe 6+2 Power Connector

3. What power connectors are available on your PSU for an upgrade card?
Check what connectors the PSU has available to power an the graphics card upgrade.  Smaller cards get all of the power they need directly from the slot, but larger PCIe cards require one or two connectors with either 6 or 8 pin connectors. Note the photo of a 6+2 connector that can be used with a card requiring either a 6 or 8 pin connector.  Check what is available on your PSU.  These connectors are generally not used for anything other than connecting to the graphics card, so they should not be connected to any other devices.  The less powerful graphics cards don’t require direct connectors, so if you are planning to get one you might wait to check after seeing if the upgrade card requires a connector.

If you are short on 6 pin connectors but have two or more 4 pin molex connectors available, you can get an adapter that lets you use the two molex connectors as one 6 pin connector.

Man looking inside PC case

"I'm going to need a bigger PC"

4. How much room does your PC have for a video card upgrade?
Generally faster video cards are longer, although this is not always the case.  When you upgrade it is a good idea to check inside your computer case and see how long of a card will fit, measuring the length from the card bracket to the first obstruction, usually the hard drive cage on the other side. However check for other impediments on the motherboard or connectors attached to it. If you have a small case or want to get a much faster video card for the upgrade, it is a good idea to measure the case and check the specifications for the new card.  The latter is often difficult to find as brands often don’t report that statistic.  You might be able to find the length of your chosen card, or a similar card, in a review or specifications at the card’s website.  Some vendors list the lengths in their specifications for some, but not all, cards.

Also note if you have a low profile case that requires a low profile upgrade card.  HTPC cases for home theater system often have low profile cases, but they are also found in some other desktop systems. A low profile case severely limits your upgrade options, which is important to know up front.

Finally, many new, particularly larger, cards require two slots for a video card.  Check to see if the slot next to the video card slot is vacant, or can be made vacant by relocating another card.

5. What is the resolution of your monitor?
Larger monitors require more powerful graphics cards.  Some good reviews may evaluate monitor size, often showing results for several sizes.  Be sure to also consider whether or not you might upgrade the monitor during the expected life of the new graphics card.

With this information you can proceed to either the gaming or non-gaming pages to start selecting the graphics card for your upgrade.

 

 


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