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High Tech on a Budget: How to Upgrade a Video Card Cheaply

High Tech on a Budget: How to Upgrade a Video Card Cheaply

Ah, young Pupil!  You’ve finally decided to upgrade the video card on that generic system you bought a couple of years ago and you have absolutely no idea how to go about it!   Well, this Ancient Sage Geek is ready to give you the basic knowledge that you need to help you get the most bang for your buck when it comes to video cards. We will cover how to upgrade a video card by first finding out if you can upgrade your video card, then we will discuss how to find the best video card for the least amount of money and lastly how to install a video card in your pc.

 high tech savings

In order to begin on how to upgrade a video card and how to install a video card, you will have to consider the two most important things regarding video card upgrades (and they are EQUALLY important):   A. What is your budget and B. Can your system handle the new graphics card.

The budget part is self explanatory, but the system part can be the most confusing part of the adventure.   Most generic systems bought from those big computer retailers have parts that are proprietary.  This means they have designed their systems so that you can only replace or upgrade parts with part from them.  But luckily most of those folks leave the video card portion of their systems alone.

I will warn you now!  This adventure will take some work on your part!  Note taking, reading, and research are part of the process!

Ready – Preparing for a New Video Card

Before opening any system, shut it down, make note of which plugs go where, and unplug all cables from the back of your system, especially the power cord.  Voltage may not kill, but amperage sure bites.  Place the unplugged system on a large flat surface (kitchen table works!) preferably on some cardboard so you don’t make your Mom or spouse mad.

The first thing you should do is to crack open that case, usually by unscrewing several phillips screws on the back or several large screws that you can unscrew by hand,  and see if you have the correct slot for the card you want to buy.  The big intimidating board at the bottom of your case is your Motherboard.  This is the board where most everything inside plugs into so that it works. Most systems built within the last 10 years have a PCI Express slot.  (OH NO!!!  Geek Jargon!).  Don’t worry about what that stands for.  On newer motherboards this slot is some shade of blue, but it can also be black (older motherboards) and is about 3 -4 inches long.  It will usually be located along the back edge of the motherboard at about the mid point.  Some motherboards manufacturers are nice enough to label them too!

locating pci

Okay, so you have found the slot!  Great work!  Great adventures start with small steps!  If you have a PCI-E slot, you’re in business and can upgrade your graphics.  If not…  Well…  we will console you as you rant about it.  Now, give that case a good cleaning out before we start.   Canned air and a vaccum work wonders!  A clean system runs faster and cooler and stays alive longer!  Clean CAREFULLY!  Use the canned air to carefully blow out the dust, cat/dog hair, and dead bugs and use the vaccum to carefully remove the crud.

pci on pc

While you are in the case, take a look at your power supply.  Um… What am I looking for?  Well, it’s USUALLY a rectangular shaped box which has a number of multi-colored cables coming out of it.  On the outside there will be the plug where you plug in your power cable.  Why do I say “USUALLY”?  Because some manufacturers install proprietary power supplies of non-standard weird shapes and sizes.  Make a note of the “Wattage” of the power supply.  But Ancient Sage, why not just look at the documentation?  Well…  Documentation doesn’t match up to the personal eye check.  Seeing is believing is knowing and knowing is half the battle (I’ll wait for you to quit groaning if you catch the reference!).

Okay, now close that system back up and hook everything back up and lets get on ARPANET… er… the Internet (Interwebs if you’re from the South) and see if we can find you a nice new video card!

I’m going to make a disclaimer here:  Any sites or brand names mentioned do not constitute an endorsement from me or the folks who are publishing this article.  Carefully research your products to your satisfaction before you buy them!

Get Set -How to Find a Cheap Video Card That’s Also Good

Okay, here we go.  The three sites are great tools that I use when I go hunting for a new video card are: the always great site for inexpensive stuff Amazon, NewEgg, which is a great place to check price and REVIEWS of video cards and VideoCardBenchMark, to see where your possible purchase falls in the herd.

Search on the either site using a price range that you (and your Mom or Spouse) have decided is in your budget.   Either site has a variety of search options and filters to help you out.

You will notice that video cards come in several  “chip sets”.  You will see names like ATI, AMD, and NVidia thrown around.  These names are comparable to the names of car manufacturers (eg. Ford,  GM, Nissan).    These all will (hopefully) work to make pretty lights appear on your monitor.

 budget tech

Find a nice card yet?  Okay, read the reviews!  Start with the WORST reviews.  Keep an open mind and you can filter out the obvious nutso troll reviews.   I usually ignore cards that don’t have a lot of reviews.  Consider carefully what the other people are saying about the card.  Like what you see?  Good!   Find several cards in your price range and compare them.  Cards will vary in chip speed, amount of memory, layout, and cooling options.  I won’t get into these here, but usually a good 4 or 5 egg (Newegg’s Rating System) card will do the job.  More memory and faster chip speed are better, but it all depends on the combination.  Choose the one which suits your system and your needs.

Look at the how your soon to be new video card is laid out.  Will it take up one slot or two in your system?  Check to see if your power supply matches or exceeds the recommended power supply (bigger is better!).  See if the card is a full length or half length.  Will the card fit in your case?  Will the card require extra power connectors?  I mention these things, because I speak from experience.

One other important thing is to make sure that the connector cable from your monitor will work with your  new video card.  Many older monitors have the SVGA  cables (usually blue, D shaped with three rows of up to a total of 15 pins).  Newer monitors have DVI cables (usually white with one big – or + shaped pin on one side of the plug and a lot of smaller pins on the other).    Some higher end video cards and monitors use HDMI connector cables.  Make sure the video card accepts your monitor cables.  Some video cards and/or monitors come with converter plugs that make this problem a lot easier to solve.

Go! – Video Card is Here Time for Install

Alrighty then!  You’ve found a card that is within your budget, it fits in your case,  it has the right cable connections, and that your power supply can handleit!  You’re researched the card and read the reviews.  You’ve placed your order and you’ve waited patiently (HA!) for the card to arrive.

The card has arrived and you’ve opened the box and took out all the stuff.  Read!  Yes!  READ the installation instructions for your card!  Familiarize yourself with what each step entails.  Don’t disconnect and unplug your system until you are confident you can handle what is being called for.  Why?  Because you can download updated manuals from the manufacturer and find answers to any questions you may have online.

Follow the installation instructions in order!  If you run into problems, call the video card manufacturer’s tech support number or get online and look at their FAQ (Frequently Asked Question) section to see if there is a solution /answer.

After you have the card installed, check on the manufacturer’s website to see if they have updated video card drivers.  Follow their directions and update your drivers!

Congrats!  Not as simple as you thought it would be, huh?  Hopefully this has been an educational experience and you now have a much better understanding of what it takes to upgrade and repair our wonderful computers.

If you have upgraded your video card on the cheap, let us know how it went! Watch for more High Tech on a Budget articles coming soon, and feel free to let us know what you may like to see us include in our series. We hope you liked our high-tech fix at a low-tech cost!

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About Hans Cross

Hans has been working with and gaming on computers since 1977 (yes, SEVENTY SEVEN). Builds his own systems when his wife lets him. Usedtocould program in BASIC, FORTRAN, PASCAL, and COBOL. Knows enough SQL to be dangerous. Loves Windows XP and Windows 7. Hates Windows Vista and Windows 8. Currently addicted to World of Warcraft and XCOM.