Give your PC some graphics muscle by installing a new video card
So you've made sure your computer has enough memory, a fast enough processor, and enough hard drive space to comfortably run Windows 7 and all your favorite programs. Now what? It's time to examine your video card if you haven't already.
Replacing your video card (also called a graphics card) with a newer, more powerful model is one of the easiest and most cost-effective upgrades you can make to most computers—especially if your computer didn't come with a video card at all.
Many PCs today come with integrated graphics in place of a video card. These are graphics processors that are integrated with your computer's motherboard. Integrated graphics are getting more powerful all the time, but a dedicated video card still has more power—and often a lot more power.
Before any laptop owners start making plans to upgrade their graphics capability, let's be clear: we're only talking about desktop PCs here. You can't upgrade the graphics in most laptops since they use integrated graphics or a graphics processing unit (GPU) build into the computer. Laptops don't have room inside for a video card like desktop PCs. So be sure to check the graphics capability of a laptop before you buy it.
Check your graphics subscores
Many people never think of replacing the video card when they upgrade their desktop PC. Experts often recommend adding more random access memory (RAM) to your computer in order to boost its memory to at least 2 GB. This is always a good idea. But if you want to boost performance even more, check your computer's graphics power.
An easy way to do this is to look at your PC's Windows Experience Index score. This includes a subscore for Gaming graphics and another for Graphics performance.
The Windows Experience Index measures the capabilities of your computer's hardware and software and then displays this measurement as a number called a base score. A higher base score generally means that your computer will perform better and faster than a computer with a lower base score, especially when performing more advanced and resource-intensive tasks.
The subscores are the result of tests run on your computer's RAM, CPU (processor), hard disk, general desktop graphics, and 3D gaming graphics hardware. You can use the subscores to figure out what you need to upgrade, such as the video card or RAM.
The scores currently range from 1.0 to 7.9.
To view your computer's Windows Experience Index score
Open Performance Information and Tools by clicking the Start button , and then clicking Control Panel. In the search box, type Performance Information and Tools, and then, in the list of results, click Performance Information and Tools.
View the Windows Experience Index base score and subscores for your computer. If you recently upgraded your hardware and want to find out if your score has changed, click Re-run the assessment.
If you're prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.
If you don't see a base score or subscores, click Rate this computer.
If you're prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.
A computer with a base score of 4.0 or 5.0 can run new features of Windows 7, and it can support running multiple programs at the same time. A computer with a base score of 6.0 or 7.0 has a faster hard disk, and can support high-end, graphics-intensive experiences, such as multiplayer and 3D gaming and recording and playback of HDTV content.
If your Gaming graphics subscore is below 4.0 or 5.0, and you want to be able to perform graphics-intensive tasks with your computer, consider upgrading your video card. If this score is high enough, your Graphics subscore should also be fine. The Graphics subscore measures what is frequently described as business graphics or desktop graphics—the ability to display slide presentations, documents, and other less demanding file types.
PCI Express is today's standard
Almost all computers made within the past few years take the same type of video card—one that fits into a PCI Express (PCIe) slot inside a computer. There are full-size and low-profile PCIe cards. Some computers with smaller cases require low-profile cards, which take up less space inside a computer case. If you think your computer might only have room for a low-profile card, check the specifications for your computer.
Some older computers require a video card that fits into an Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) slot. You can't plug a PCIe card into an AGP slot or vice versa. To verify what kind of slots your PC has, see the information that came with your PC or check the manufacturer's website.
If your desktop computer doesn't have PCIe card slots or at least one AGP slot, you're probably due for a new PC. PCIe cards come in different speeds (1x, 4x, and 16x), but all of these cards should work in computers with a PCIe slot.
Faster cards for today's rich graphics
So why buy a new video card? Simple—faster graphics. With a better video card, programs that require a lot of power for graphics processing should run faster and more smoothly, such as programs that play high-definition video, render photorealistic 3D graphics, or let you edit high-resolution pictures or video. A better card can also make the animations and other visual effects in Windows run better.
The classic reason for buying a new video card is to add power for playing PC games. As 3D games get ever more detailed and realistic, they require more and more graphics muscle. Serious gamers crave the latest high-end video cards so they can run the latest PC games smoothly.
You don't have to be a gamer to benefit from a new video card, however, especially if your PC has integrated graphics rather than a dedicated video card. The processing power in even a moderately priced video card today is dramatically better than what you could buy at any price just a few years ago.
A new video card can bring other benefits as well. Some video cards have two video ports on them, so you can connect two monitors to them at once. Make sure the video ports match your monitor connection. For example, if you have two monitors with DVI ports, get a video card with two DVI ports. Some new video cards also include an HDMI port for connecting your PC to an HDTV.
Pick a new card
How to select a good video card from among the hundreds of models available is beyond the scope of this article, but there are many online reviews of the latest cards. One easy way to pick a video card is to budget how much you want to spend—say $100 to $150—and then get the best card you can for that price. That might seem simplistic, but unless you have a specific need for a more powerful video card, most mid-priced cards will be fast enough.
The vast majority of people just want to install one video card in their computer. But some cards can be piggybacked together for extra power, allowing you to plug two or three video cards into two or three empty card slots (but you might also need a compatible motherboard and beefy power supply). Manufacturers have their own brand names for these multi-card technologies, which are aimed at power users and gamers.
Don't worry about how much graphics RAM is in the card, such as 256 MB versus 512 MB. More graphics RAM doesn't really boost performance.
Install a new card
Once you make sure your PC has the right type of slot for the card you want, check the card's driver compatibility at the
Windows 7 Compatibility Center. This website contains a comprehensive list of hardware and devices that have been tested to work with Windows 7, including video cards.
Before installing a video card, check the information that came with it. The guidelines shown here are general, and the video card documentation might contain important information specific to installing that card. Also, be sure to check the information that came with your computer to see if opening your computer case affects the computer's warranty coverage.
Turn off your computer and unplug it from its power source. This is very important. Installing a video card in a computer that's plugged in could shock you or damage the card and computer.
Open the computer case. Look on the computer cover (usually on the back) for screws or clasps to undo the case. Computer documentation typically includes instructions on how to open the case.
After opening the case, ground yourself by touching the metal casing that surrounds the jack where the power cord plugs in. This can help protect you from an electric shock and can help protect the new card and existing computer components from static electricity.
If you have an existing video card, you should remove it before installing the new card. If your computer has integrated graphics, you can proceed to the "To install your new video card" section of this topic.
Locate your video card. If you're not certain which card is your video card, follow the cable from your monitor to the back of the card, and then note which slot that card is in.
Remove any screw or hook holding your video card in place.
Carefully pull the video card straight out of the slot. Be careful not to twist or bend the card as you remove it. Try pulling up on one end of the card first and then the other. You might have to gently rock the card back and forth to loosen it from the slot.
Even if you're throwing away the old video card, use caution when removing it to avoid damaging the motherboard. If it seems stuck, it's better to spend a few extra minutes tugging gently than to rip the card out too quickly.
Locate an empty expansion slot in the computer that will accept your new video card.
If your computer doesn't have an empty slot, you'll have to remove another card before you can install the new one. If you removed an existing video card, you can use the same slot if your new card uses the same type of expansion slot. Check your computer's documentation if you need to determine the types of expansion slots it has available.
Gently place the video card on top of the slot. Line up the pins on the video card with the slot and push the card gently down so that it sits in the slot. Be sure that the card is pushed all the way in and that it's secure. If the pins on the card aren't perfectly aligned with the pins in the expansion slot, the card won't work properly.
Screw the video card to the frame or attach any hooks that hold the card in place. Don't bend the video card or the frame while tightening the screw. It might be best to tighten the screw barely more than you can tighten it with your fingers.
Close the computer case and replace any screws you removed when opening the case.
Plug your computer back into its power source, and then turn it on.
Get the best drivers
When you turn on your computer for the first time with the new video card installed, Windows will automatically install a driver for the card. Make sure your computer is connected to the Internet, so that Windows can search for the latest driver. To make sure you get all the drivers available from Windows Update, see Automatically get recommended drivers and updates for your hardware.
If your video card came with a disc from the manufacturer, that disc might contain software that installs a driver for the card. However, it's usually best to let Windows try to find and install a driver automatically. If there's a problem, then try installing a driver from the manufacturer.
Check it with your own eyes
Once you have your new video card up and running, try launching a game, watching some high-definition video, or tackling some other task that requires a lot of graphics muscle. What you see should please your eyes.