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Around here, we generally write for a very tech-savvy audience. “Our guys” typically build their own PCs, or at least swap out parts from time to time. We realize that not everyone is so inclined, of course. There are those who have never really spent any time inside their PC before, but are willing to learn. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you’re a PC gear-head with a friend who wants to know how to perform an upgrade. Today, we’re here to help those guys.

One of the most basic and useful upgrades you can make to your PC is replacing the video card with one that has a bit more muscle. Most general consumers try to save a few bucks when they buy a computer, and the first place large PC manufacturers cut costs in is with the video card. Most consumers are savvy enough to know to look for the “big numbers” for the processor speed, amount of RAM, or hard drive space. But if you don’t know the difference between a Radeon X600 and a GeForce 5200, you’re not going to know that your PC has an underpowered video card.

To that end, we present this step-by-step guide to upgrading your video card. We’ve intentionally kept it brief and simple, knowing that too much information just discourages beginners from ever getting involved. Just follow the steps and you’ll soon be up and running with that shiny new video card, enjoying PC games as they’re meant to be played.

How long will all of this take? Generally speaking, you’ll be done in less than half an hour. Heck, you could be done in ten minutes if everything goes smoothly.

Okay, so that computer you bought seems like it should play the latest games just fine, but your performance is choppy, and the visuals don’t really look as good as those pictures on the back of the box or the screenshots you saw on the web. You’ve got a CPU faster than 2 GHz, 512MB of RAM or more, so what’s the problem? You probably need a better video card.

There are scores of video cards on the market, with a dizzying array of numbers and letters attached: 5600, X700, 6600, 9600, XT, Ultra, Pro, SE. There’s just too much to keep track of. Naturally, we feature reviews of new video card technology on this site all the time, but for beginners we need to make this simple. We will provide just a few suggestions at different price points—but these are just suggestions, and not the be-all and end-all of what you should buy.

Your computer has either AGP graphics or PCI Express (PCIe) graphics. It’s easy to tell which is which, if you know the signs. Most systems based on the Intel 915 or 925 chipset use PCIe, while virtually all other systems at the current time use AGP. PCIe systems with Athlon 64 chips are just starting to hit the market. If you have an AGP card, you need to replace it with an AGP type of card. PCIe cards won’t fit in an AGP slot, and vice versa. Since the vast majority of those upgrading their graphics have AGP cards, that’s the example we’ll use throughout this guide. But PCI Express graphics cards works pretty much the same, so you can follow these steps to replace your PCIe graphics card.

You’ll have to decide how much money you want to spend on your graphics card, so we’ve broken it up into groups to make it a bit easier. Below is a chart with a couple of recommendations for graphics cards in four price ranges. Note that these prices span manufacturer’s suggested retail pricing—you may find better pricing at web outlets or store sales. Generally speaking, the more you spend, the faster your games will run, and the longer you’ll be able to go without upgrading your video card again. There are graphics cards that cost less than $150, but we wouldn’t recommend those.

Price AGP PCIe
$150-200 Radeon 9600 XT,
GeForce 5700 Ultra
GeForce 6600 GT
$200-300 GeForce 6800 Radeon X700 Pro,
GeForce 6600 GT
$300-400 GeForce 6800 GT,
Radeon X800 Pro
GeForce 6800 GT
$400+ Radeon X800 XT,
GeForce 6800 Ultra
Radeon X800 XT,
GeForce 6800 GT

This list is based on the cards available right now, today, and not ones which have been announced but can’t be readily purchased yet. As time goes on, the list will change, but these choices are a good place to start.

Before you tear out your old video card, you’re going to want to download the latest drivers for your new card. The driver disk that comes with your new video card contain drivers, but they will almost certainly be out of date. It’s helpful to have the new driver sitting right there on your desktop when you first turn on the machine with your new card in place.

Many manufacturers have their own “branded” drivers, but in almost all cases they are simply the same as the manufacturer’s reference drivers with the logos replaced. We recommend using the nVidia or ATI reference drivers, instead. These are going to be the most bug-free and up-to-date drivers for your new card. If the card you bought has the word “GeForce” in the title somewhere, you have a card using nVidia technology which needs the latest ForceWare drivers. The most recent is ForceWare 66.93. If the card has the word “Radeon” in the title somewhere, it’s based on ATI technology. ATI calls their driver suite Catalyst, the latest version is Catalyst 4.11.

Note that ATI Catalyst drivers come in two versions. One ships with a more-traditional control panel that’s an extended version of the familiar Windows display control panel applet. The other driver set uses the ATI Catalyst Control Center. Catalyst Control Center offers similar capabilities, but requires the installation of Microsoft’s .NET software. For our purposes, we stick with the standard version.

When you download the driver file, you’ll want to put it somewhere easily accessible, like on your desktop or My Documents. When you boot up with your new video card, your computer will be in a low-res VGA mode, and it can be a pain to find stuff in that environment.

Step 2b: Uninstall the Old Drivers

After you download the new driver file, it’s time to remove your old video drivers. Go to your Control Panel and Add/Remove Programs, then look for your current video card software. This may come under many names, so we can’t tell you exactly what to look for, but key in the words “ATI” or “NVIDIA” if you’re lost. Completely remove your video card drivers.

ATI software is often installed in two or more parts. For example, the ATI control panel is typically a separate entry from the ATI drivers. ATI supplies a handy entry in the add/remove programs list labeled “ATI – Software Uninstall Utility”. If you click on this, you can uninstall all the ATI software in one step. Otherwise, you’ll have to suffer through multiple reboots to perform a full install.

Current Nvidia drivers are listed as one entry. If you have a system with an Nvidia chipset (usually an Athlon XP or Athlon 64 system), you’ll see a dialog box with multiple checkbox choices when you click the Nvidia entry in the add/remove software control panel applet. Be careful to click only the display driver checkbox. Continued…

This is definitely the easiest part of the process. Simply make sure your computer is totally turned off—all the fans should have stopped spinning. You can unplug your PC if you wish, but make sure you’re well-grounded. Static electricity is not your friend. Unplugging your case from the wall will make sure there’s absolutely no possibility of it accidentally turning on while you’re working on stuff (this can happen occasionally when inserting an AGP card), but it also means your case won’t be grounded anymore, so you need to make sure you don’t build up any static.

First, unplug your monitor from the back of the video card:

Second, open up your case (you may have to unscrew a couple of screws in the back to get the side open) and locate your video card. It is generally the top slot, the one closest to the processor:

Third, unscrew the video card’s back panel plate. A common Philips-head screwdriver will work for this. Some PCs have screw-less latches that are even easier:

Removing the video card might take a little work. It’s common for graphics slots to have little latches down on the motherboard near the rear of the slot, that help hold the card in place, and you’ll need to dig in there with your finger and press the latch. The most common two types are the little white flip-down latch and the one you push sideways. See the pictures below for examples.

Push the latch and pull the video card out of its slot. If you see a power plug in the tail end of your card, remove it. Now that your old card is out of the system, you’re all set to put in the new one. This would be a great time to take a can of compressed air and blow some of the dust out of your case, by the way.

Installing your new video card is just about as simple as can be. Just push it into the slot, making sure it’s firmly plugged in. Then replace the back panel screw.

Many of the faster video cards these days require additional external power, and you’re going to have to plug this in before you turn on your computer. If it’s an AGP card, there are probably one or two Molex plugs on the tail end you need to connect. PCIe cards have their own special PCIe power plug, a little rectangular connector with six pin sockets that looks quite different. PCIe or AGP plugs will only fit in the socket one way, so you don’t need to worry about getting it backwards. Just find an unused plug dangling off your power supply and plug it in. If you have a PCIe card but don’t have that PCIe power connector coming off your power supply anywhere, don’t worry. All the current PCIe video cards that require a power plug come with little Molex-to-PCIe converters.

Some of the power cords coming from your power supply have two or three Molex connectors on them. We would suggest you don’t use an open power plug that resides on a cord with some other device. For instance, if you have a power cord going to your hard drive that continues on to an open plug, it’s probably best not to use that one. You don’t want the hard drive using up power your video card needs.

With the new card plugged in, all that’s left is to plug in the monitor and close your case back up. Whenever you install new hardware, it’s a good idea to leave your case open until you turn on your computer and make sure it works. Murphy’s Law clearly states that if you screw your computer closed, you’re going to need to go back in there and fix something. Continued…

So you have the new card in place. It’s plugged in, the monitor is attached, and you’re ready to turn on your computer. Go ahead and fire it up. Windows XP will boot as usual, but probably in a low resolution (640×480 or 800×600) 16-color mode. Don’t worry, that’s just because your new drivers aren’t installed yet. Windows will detect the new hardware and probably prompt you about looking for new drivers. Just go ahead and hit cancel, since most drivers now arrive as executable installer packages (programs).

If it doesn’t prompt you about new drivers, don’t sweat it. A little dialog balloon by the clock will probably appear and warn you about finding new hardware, and possibly give you a warning about not finding drivers for it. Again, don’t worry, it’s supposed to do this. We’re going to install the drivers manually.

After giving your computer a couple of minutes to boot up, load everything in place, and look for new hardware (and either prompt you for new drivers or look automatically and fail), it’s time to install those drivers we downloaded. Hopefully you put the driver download file on your desktop or some other easy-to-find place. Just double-click it to run the installation program. It may be a good idea to shut down other programs you may have running, first. Virus scanners, in particular, can make video card drivers install slowly, or possibly not at all.

Follow the step-by-step instructions for installing the drivers, and you’re basically done. Default choices for both ATI and nVidia’s drivers are just fine for beginners, so you can just hit “OK” until the installation is done. The installer will probably prompt you to reboot your system to complete installation—go ahead and do this.

When Windows comes back, you should be looking at your desktop again, only this time the “found new hardware” procedure won’t automatically run. Depending on your system, you might still be at a low resolution. This is not a problem. Just right-click an open spot on your desktop and choose “Properties” from the menu. This brings up the Display Properties menu. Choose the Settings tab. Here you can adjust resolution and color quality. We suggest always choosing “Highest (32 bit)” for Color Quality, but play around with different resolutions until you find one that suits you.

If you have an LCD panel with a fixed resolution, ATI drivers currently will set it to the actual display resolution. Nvidia drivers will almost always boot up into 800×600, whatever the display.

How do you know if it’s working right? Well, fire up that new 3D game you bought. If you don’t have a good 3D application to test it out with, try downloading the free graphics benchmark 3DMark. You can try 3DMark 03 for less expensive or older video cards (anything under $200), or 3DMark 05 for those new fast DirectX 9 video cards, like nVidia’s GeForce 6 series or ATI’s X series.

Okay, so you followed the steps in our guide, but something isn’t working right. Perhaps your computer won’t boot up, or maybe it makes a loud beeping noise. Maybe you get to Windows and install the drivers, but after you reboot things are still stuck in low-res 16-color mode and you can’t do anything about it. These problems aren’t likely, and we don’t mean to scare you away from attempting an easy and satisfying upgrade on your PC, but they can happen. We obviously can’t predict everything that could possibly go wrong, but here are a few things to check:

  1. If the computer won’t boot up or beeps loudly, check that the video card is seated properly in the slot. Turn your computer off completely and press the card in firmly, making sure the card edge fits snugly in the slot.
  2. If your video card has a plug, make sure it’s plugged in, and use a power line that isn’t being shared with other another component like a hard drive or CD-ROM drive. Your video card may have system requirements that demand a power supply of sufficient wattage. Does your system meet the requirements on the box?
  3. Double-check that you downloaded the proper drivers. If you got the nVidia drivers and you have a card based on ATI technology, or vice versa, you’re going to go nowhere fast.
  4. Did you remove your old video drivers and reboot before installing the new ones? Double-check your Add/Remove Programs list and make sure.

We’re confident that basically anyone, regardless of technical experience, can perform simple upgrades to their existing PC. Replacing your video card is the perfect example of how to get a lot more enjoyment out of your investment with minimal hassle. It’s one of the easiest upgrades you can make, and can often add months or even a year or two to your PC’s lifespan. We hope our step-by-step guide will help you take the leap and make that first PC upgrade yourself.