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Should I upgrade my graphics card?

Step Two: Choose Your New Card

Once you’ve figured out what your PC can handle, it’s time to choose your new card. And there’s a lot to choose from. The first thing to take into account is your budget, and then you can narrow down from there.

Set Your Budget

The graphics card market is fairly competitive, and as a general rule, the more money you spend, the more powerful the graphics card. Choose the best card that fits your budget.

The GTX 1050TI is a solid mid-range pick for $200.
The GTX 1050TI is a solid mid-range pick for $200.

RELATED: Why You (Probably) Don’t Need a Crazy-Powerful GPU Like the GTX 1080 Ti

Of course, there’s a difference in how much you can afford and how much you’ll want to actually spend. As a rule of thumb, any card above the $250-300 point (as long as it’s installed in a capable PC) should be able to handle almost any new game that comes out. You can spend more to get more power and more features—a typical goal is 60 frames per second in whatever type of game you like to play—but once you get past the $500-600 range, you’re looking at diminishing returns. The super-premium tier (the $800 and up cards), can handle pretty much any game at 60 frames per second on a typical 1080p monitor, with some going even faster or boosting resolutions to 4K or higher.

This $140 Radeon RX 550 can comfortably handle new
This $140 Radeon RX 550 can comfortably handle new 3D games, though some might need low visual settings.
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Note: Due to the continuing influence of the cryptocurrency mining market, prices for graphics cards are somewhat inflated at the moment. Cards usually at the $300 level or below are more or less unaffected, but more powerful cards like the GTX 1070 or RX Vega (and higher) are seeing sticker prices hundreds of dollars above MSRP. To put it bluntly, it sucks.

The latest GTX ’80 series card, normally a s
The latest GTX ’80 series card, normally a staple of high-end gaming PCs, is now going for hundreds of dollars over MSRP.

At lower price points (the $130-180 range), you can still play most games with a few compromises. You may need to lower the resolution setting or the graphical effects for newer games, but anything designed with a lower hardware tier in mind (like Rocket League or Overwatch) will still look great. And of course, older games and indie 2D titles will run just fine.

Check Reviews and Benchmarks

Even in a particular budget range, you’ll find a lot of choices between different brands and configurations. Here’s where you’ll need to dive into the subtle differences to make your decisions.

We can’t cover every card in this guide, but the web is your friend here. Read professional reviews of the cards you’re looking at, and check out user reviews from places like Amazon and Newegg. These reviews often point out little features or problems that you won’t read about elsewhere. You can also search for benchmarks to see how different cards compare, and sometimes how well those cards run particular games.

Consider a Few Additional Points

A few other general points to consider:

  • VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive need even more power than playing with a standard monitor, because they’re rendering two video streams at once. These headsets generally recommend a GTX 970 card or better.
  • Choosing between AMD Radeon and NVIDIA GeForce cards isn’t typically all that important—both companies offer designs at various price points and compete well with each other. But they do have frame-syncing technologies that are incompatible with each other. These are software and hardware tools that reduce stuttering graphics and frame loss, making the hardware-intensive V-sync setting unnecessary. AMD uses FreeSync while NVIDIA uses G-Sync. Both require monitors that are explicitly compatible with each system, so if you have a FreeSync or G-Sync monitor, you definitely want to get an AMD or NVIDIA card, respectively.
  • High-end gaming motherboards still offer multiple 16x PCI-slots, and both ATI and NVIDIA offer multiple-card connection setups (Crossfire and SLI, respectively). But in the last few years, advances in hardware have made these setups more or less unnecessary. You almost always see better gaming performance from a more expensive, more powerful single card than any combination of cards in Crossfire or SLI configurations.
  • Almost all card manufacturers and retailers have surprisingly generous return policies. If you accidentally order the wrong card, you can usually return it within 14 days, so long as you keep your receipt (or confirmation email). Of course, this doesn’t apply if you buy your card from secondary markets like eBay or Craigslist.

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Install a New Power Supply

For a 380-watt draw, we’d recommend at least a 500-watt power supply for safety’s sake. A new power supply installation isn’t rocket science, but it’s a time-consuming upgrade, and you’ll want to make sure to get a new supply with the same physical fitment.

Most new power supplies in ordinary-size tower PCs use the “ATX” power-supply form factor, which governs the size and shape of the power supply. You’ll just want to be sure, if the new ATX power supply you get is longer front to back, that your PC’s case has the extra clearance for it. In rare cases (mostly business PCs or very compact systems) a desktop may have a proprietary, non-ATX power supply or use a smaller form factor, called SFX. In those cases, you’ll want to check with the system maker’s support personnel for your upgrade options, though you can get aftermarket SFX supplies easily, if you’re sure you have one.

Beyond the wattage is the issue of the physical power connectors that you need to run from the power supply to the new video card. Before you even conceive of a card upgrade, check out the required power-supply connectors on your new graphics card. The lowest-end cards might not have any power connectors, with the card able to draw its needed power through the PCI Express slot. More likely, though, your new card will have a six-pin or an eight-pin power socket on its top edge—or two of them, which can be of either type.

If your power supply doesn’t include matching power leads that natively fit these sockets, check to see if your power supply or new graphics card came with adapters that convert, say, four-wire Molex connectors to them. That said, not having the appropriate cables is a pretty safe indication that your power supply is not up to the task of powering the card. A typical “6+2” graphics power connector from your power supply is pictured above. (More about those in a moment.)

Red flag: If you own a pre-built PC that was never home to a video card in the first place, the original system maker probably put in a power supply that’s only adequate to run a system without a proper video card. You’ll have to factor in a power-supply upgrade, as well.

What about the CPU?

Much to Intel’s agitation, a lot of gamers really don’t need to stay with the fastest CPU if “all” they do is play games. If you’re concerned about battery life or do a lot of video encoding/editing, then yes, you might need the latest and greatest CPU. The chip in the P150EM is quite decent: The quad-core Ivy Bridge has a base clock speed of 2.7GHz and will Turbo Boost to 3.7GHz. 

Haswell is certainly a better CPU, but honestly, Ivy Bridge still has plenty of life in it. Here’s the proof you don’t need to upgrade the CPU in this old war horse below. In pure mult-threaded performance, the Core i7-4720HQ is about the same speed as the older Ivy Bridge CPU in the EuroCom P150EM.

PCWorld PCWorld

In pure performance, the quad-core Ivy Bridge chip is just as fast as a similarly priced Haswell quad-core chip.

So just leave it alone. Need a project? Add an MSATA drive or more RAM to the P150EM.

Use caution when installing the GPU heat pipe

When attaching the heat pipe that goes on the GPU core itself, don’t get too crazy. Unlike a CPU, which has an integrated heat spreader to protect it, the GPU core is directly exposed for maximum cooling. Chipping a bit off the edge by pressing down too hard on it will destroy it. The heat spreader uses fairly small screws, so it’s tougher to damage the core itself. Exercise caution at this stage.

With everything installed, put the bottom cover back on. Install the battery and plug it in and power up. If you did it all correctly, it should power up and boot into Windows. However, remember that in most laptops, there’s integrated graphics, and it will boot to the IGP before using the discrete graphics card. You’re not quite in the clear yet.

Initially when I did the upgrade, I could use the “reference” drivers from Nvidia’s website. But those drivers would not recognize the new GPU and refused to install. After some head-scratching, I contacted Eurocom. And yes, that’s another reason why buying from Eurocom rather than used on eBay helps—I can turn to them for advice.

Upgrading Laptop GPU: Clarifying Questions [FAQs] [Q&A]

If this is your first time encountering the terms, it might get confusing. So I’ll address them in this section.

Integrated vs. Dedicated GPU

They are similarly a type of graphics card, but they have certain differences:

Integrated

Here are the distinctions to remember:

  • It uses the system CPU or RAM. It doesn’t have its own.
  • Cheaper than dedicated ones.
  • You’ll need more RAM on the system level.
  • Good for 2D and light gaming, light work

Dedicated

These are the differences to note:

  • Have a separate CPU (a.k.a. the GPU) and RAM.
  • Uses more power.
  • For high-end gaming performance, heavy editing and graphics work.
  • Most GPUs are by NVIDIA, AMD (best graphics cards brands)
  • A lot more expensive!

From these comparisons, you’ll easily see why people want to upgrade from an integrated graphics card to an external dedicated one.

The performance is highly different, so a GPU upgrade is a must for some of us.

What’s a Heat Pipe?

In simpler terms, heat pipes are heat-transfer devices that ease the heat of laptops (or any electronic device) so they won’t, well, overheat.

There are liquids in these things, that’s why I mentioned being extra cautious in removing them. Getting electrocuted is a serious risk.

What are NVIDIA and AMD?

I’ve mentioned NVIDIA and AMD multiple times above because they are the leading brands when it comes to computers and in the gaming arena.

If you play games, these are surely familiar to you.

NVIDIA is the company that invented the GPU and anything graphics, which is why most (if not all) are from NVIDIA. Similarly, AMD is a known company for computer games.

Why Do Experts/Professionals Discourage the Upgrade to a new GPU?

Because it’s not worth it.

Though I gave you the steps for cracking your laptop open to install it, I’m still not encouraging you to do so especially if you’re not a professional tech person.

But don’t be dismayed, there are plenty of ways to upgrade your laptop performance if you want a stronger power that’s comparable to that of a built desktop – such as an external GPU or a faster CPU.

Do Mobile Phones Also Have GPUs?

Definitely!

Your phones have graphics too, so it means they’re running on mobile GPUs. And if you’re looking to upgrade like that of laptops, no you can’t. The best you can do is to change phones.

For additional trivia, the best mobile GPU for Apple is A13 Binoic and for Android, Adreno 64o.

How to Know Your GPU Is the Problem

First, you may want to benchmark-test your GPU to quantify exactly how slow (or not!) it really is.

Gamers are the folks who have the easiest time feeling a slow GPU. Because most 3D games are so GPU-dependent, the resolution you want to play at, as well as the graphical detail settings (usually along a continuum of low, medium, high, and extreme), are a crucial part of the playing experience. To learn more about these graphics functions and how graphics cards support them differently, see our roundup of the best graphics cards.

Beyond something “feeling off” in a given game, though, your quantitative measure will be frame rates or proprietary scores generated by benchmarking software. Before you get into testing, though, look at some more fundamental stuff, starting with specifications for the games you actually play.

A quick check of the game publisher’s system requirements for a given game should provide minimum (and possibly recommended) graphics guidelines. For example, current bestseller Dragon Age: Inquisition is a lightweight game; it notes a minimum graphics requirement of 512MB of graphics memory on an AMD Radeon HD 4870 or Nvidia GeForce 8800 or better, but recommends 2GB on AMD’s Radeon HD 7870 or Radeon R9 270 or Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 660, or a better card. Those are all old video cards, and any modern video card should make mincemeat of this game.

But take a more recent AAA title, such as the newest Call of Duty, and you may see a modern card (maybe even a modern card further up the ladder than the card you own) as the minimum or recommended card to use. There, the tradeoffs will be hazier. Playing at a lower resolution or detail setting may improve the experience, but where to draw the line? And how to compare the performance of what you might buy against what you already have? That’s where objective benchmarking comes in.

What to Know Before Buying a Graphics Card Upgrade

You should verify a graphics card upgrade is compatible with your computer before you make a purchase. Here's what to consider before you get started.

  • Will the upgrade physically fit inside your computer? Measure the interior of your PC and compare it to the dimensions of the graphics card you want.
  • Does your PC have a compatible PCI-e x16 slot? Most PCs with a graphics card installed have this slot, but it’s important to verify by opening your PC.
  • Can your PC’s power supply handle a graphics card upgrade? All graphics cards will list a minimum recommended power supply wattage. The wattage of your PC’s power supply is on its label.
  • Does your PC’s power supply have the required power connectors? Modern graphics cards use one or more PCI-e power connectors listed in the card’s specifications.

As the saying goes, "measure twice, cut once." Double-check these points. There's nothing worse than discovering your new graphics card isn't compatible with your PC. Graphics cards are especially prone to this because of their size and power requirements.

Conclusion

Improving your laptops’ performance to be similar to a desktop is an exciting upgrade – I agree!

But I’m here, to be honest with you and suggest that you think twice. Although you can, there are better ways to upgrade the laptop performance that gives you a good bang for your buck.

Good luck and happy gaming!

Read next:

  1. Best Gaming Laptops Under $800 in 2022
  2. Best Gaming Laptop Under $2000
  3. The Best Prebuilt Gaming PC Under $1000 in 2022

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