I decided to write this guide for the dual purposes of taking a lot of pics of my new video card and to possibly help someone that isn't technologically oriented to install a video card. Perhaps, I'm also writing this as I was recently asked how to install a video card and lacked the necessary photos and voice to illustrate clearly how to install a video card. In particular, I want to show what extra steps to take when switching core technology brands (like from an S3 video card to ATI or nVidia) and the importance of drivers. Join me as we delve into the world of 3D computer graphics processing.
Deciding when to upgrade your video card and to what is largely dependent on three factors: how much money you can spend, the hardware you currently have, and the current market for video cards. If you have the sufficient money to buy a new video card the instant a new core technology is released, then go ahead--there's always new speed and features to gain. For the rest of us, it's a bit more complicated. First of all, you must have an AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) Slot on your motherboard. It is typically a brown slot that runs parallel to the bottom of the computer's case. It also sits farther away from the back of the computer than the white PCI slots. Look in the next section if you need help opening the computer.
If you have an AGP slot, you can install almost any video card currently available, considering you also meet RAM and CPU speed specifications for a particular card (but those aren't too critical). If you don't have an AGP slot, you aren't totally out of luck. You can buy PCI video cards that are nearly the same as their AGP brothers, except they are designed to only harness the inferior bandwidth of the PCI slot bus (in non-techie terms: PCI is slower than AGP).
Now that you've determined your capabilities, you obviously need to decide what video card to buy. There are many types of video cards designed with the same core. They usually come as a Value, Mainstream, High-End, and then later an Ultra version. They aren't always labeled as such, though. And as the market shifts and prices go lower for old core technologies, an Ultra version of an older core could be the same price as a Mainstream version of a newer core. As an example, I bought the Geforce2 Ultra at a time when the Geforce3 was already well established on the market. The GF2U was cheaper than most of the GF3 versions, so I decided to forego the new technology and purchase the fastest version of the last core technology. In some benchmarks (tests performed to measure speed for comparison), it whipped the GF3s; although, when new games and benchmarks came out to take advantage of the new technology of the GF3, my older card fell well behind.
Which brings me to another point: When do you know you need a new video card? Your current hardware is greatly dependent on when you decide, but also just playing games will give you the answer. It's obvious as you play newer games that things will get slower, and you'll be forced to run with detail settings at normal or lower to even get playable framerates (about 30 frames per second). When this happens, you need a new video card if you can afford it. If you can't, then your next incentive is when you cannot run new games at all. I had this happen to me when I wanted to play Deus Ex: Invisible War. It requires technology that I opted out of when going with the GF2U. If I'd had a GF3, it would have ran on my setup.
When you're out looking for a video card these days, prices are rather consistent with speed. The $120 video card will most likely run slower than the $140 one. Features also play a role in cost, anywhere from $100 difference for video capture features to a few dollars for TV-Output. It's always a matter of personal preference. Luckily, you can find just about any configuration with all the brands saturating the market. Brand new core technologies seem to have the greatest affect on cost, though. The latest core from nVidia or ATI will usually be priced above $400. The price will go down to half that when the next core technology is released.
My technique for purchasing a video card utilizes two websites: newegg.com and tomshardware.com. First, look at the VGA Charts at Tom's Hardware. The latest update of that can be found here. When you scroll down the intro page, you see a list of all the cards they will be testing. These are just about the only cards you should consider purchasing, as anything older than what's on the list will do a mediocre job of running new games. I say just about because sometimes the very newest core technology is not represented on the chart. As you continue scrolling down, you will see the table of contents. In it is a section called Benchmarks and under that a list of many popular games. Go to whatever game you play the most or would like to play or something similar to what you play (for example, Medal of Honor is not listed, but it uses the same engine as Call of Duty and Quake3, so choose either of those). As I'm a UT kind of guy, I go by the UT2003 scores. On the benchmark pages, they all have a chart that displays the raw speed result of a benchmark in that particular game. As I said earlier, the prices for the cards scale very closely to the speed (higher scores cost more). Now go to the video cards section of newegg.com, found here. They have a very useful search feature on the left side. You can start by doing a search for all video cards that are in your price range. I was willing to pay $100 to $160 on a video card, so I fill those in: 100 for min price and 160 for max. As I browse through the results, I see a lot of Geforce 5700LE cards (something like a value edition of the 5700) all the way to the Radeon 9600XT. I narrowed what I wanted to buy more by looking at the UT2003 benchmark chart again. At around $150, I could either go for an nVidia Geforce 5700 Ultra or ATI Radeon 9600XT. This kind of choice is usually just about which company you personally like: nVidia or ATI. In this case, I have more confidence in ATI for now; but also, the 9600XT is a newer core than the 5700 Ultra. I know this from my geek knowledge, but a novice may find it easier to just search Google for whatever video card core technology you're interested (in quotes) followed by the word review. As for what brand to get, I'd recommend to never get the cheapest brand for a core technology (if you have a choice, as I did with the 9600XT), pay attention to the features that differ between brands, and look at newegg's user ratings and reviews. Hopefully with this knowledge, you'll make a very educated buying decision for a computer novice and be very content with your video card when it's installed.
Getting a video card installed is often just as complex and difficult as choosing what card to buy. It seems simple enough to just pop the video card in the AGP slot, but neglecting to setup the Operating System (Windows) before the transplant could make the OS confused. It will not understand why its display drivers don't support your video card and thus will not finish booting. Before you can worry with the hardware, you need to tell the Operating System to use a standard display driver on the next boot by uninstalling the previous video card drivers. To do this, start by opening the system properties dialog--either press Win+Break or go to Control Panel>System. You need to open the Device Manager. In Windows XP, you go to the Hardware tab and click Device Manager. Then expand the Display Adapter category. Right-click on anything in this category and click uninstall. It'll take a few moments to rid Windows of the drivers. Then close the Device Manager. It'll ask you to restart--click no. Shutdown manually. Older Windows Operating Systems should be similar.
The hardware installation itself is also a bit overwhelming to novices. Many older OEM cases are extremely difficult to get open. Hopefully this won't be the case (no pun intended) for you, but if it is, try to find some documentation on the manufacturer's website about opening your case. Typically, you'll remove some screws on the back of the case and then the left-side door (facing the front) will slide away from the front or hinge open. Some other designs require you to remove the top of the case in order to slide the side panels up. If you have no clue about your case, unscrew everything on the back edges of the case and pull on the panels from different directions; something is bound to come off. I should probably mention now that the computer must be turned off before you start opening it. Also, unplug the power cord as a low volt current still runs through the motherboard even when off.
When your computer is open, it may be helpful to move it into a position where you can lay it flat on the right side. This allows you to work with both hands in the computer easier and see better. Locate the AGP slot. Your current video adapter will probably be in the AGP slot, so you'll need to remove it. Touch a metal part on your case to discharge any static. Unscrew and unplug the cable from the monitor to the video card. Unscrew the screw holding the video card (or slot cover if there is no video card). Gently pull and wiggle the video card to pull it out. Try to grip it by the slot bracket and the opposite end corner, so as not to touch any electrical components. Now you can insert the new video card.
I chose to go a little further with my video card purchase, though, and I bought some copper ramsinks as I noticed my card didn't have any thermal protection on the RAM. Usually ramsinks are a feature that you see on more expensive brand versions which are designed to run the memory (RAM) clocks (speed) higher than stock versions. I decided to get ramsinks with the logic that my previous card (the Geforce2 Ultra) had them and its memory ran at 250mhz, while the new card has 300mhz memory clocks. Given that faster is usually hotter, I found it reasonable to apply ramsinks post-delivery. It could definitely increase the system's stability, especially in extended gaming.
The ramsinks couldn't be easier to attach to the RAM chips. You just remove the cover on the 3M thermal tape and stick it on the RAM chips. There's just enough ramsinks to cover all the chips on my video card (and most video cards, for that matter). Of course, you must not forget to apply the ramsinks to the chips on the backside of the card. Also, do not touch any electrical components with the copper part of the ramsinks; copper is a good conductor and may cause display corruption or roast video card if it gets involved with the circuits on the video card. When you're done, not only will the video RAM have increased thermal protection, but it'll have some serious bling bling going on, too.
I decided to do one more thing before I put the new video card in: some dusting. Even with filters on the air intakes and frequent cleaning, my computer still gets very dusty inside. Being that a novice user probably never goes inside their computer, I would highly recommend that you also do a cleaning. The only good way to do this is with a can of compressed air. Use quick bursts of air to dislodge the dust from anywhere it is settling; a particular hotspot is the fans. Good room ventilation is a must. I always end up with a cloud floating around my computer after I dust.
Now, we're ready to put in the video card. Simply line the leads up with the AGP slot and press down on the edge firmly. Ensure a snug fit and then put the screw back in the slot bracket. Don't screw it in too tight as that may cause the leads to make improper contact. Recheck the seating of the video card in the slot. It should feel flat against the slot, and no leads should be visible. Plug the monitor cable into the virgin output on the video card, and then plug the the power cable back in. You can now start the computer up.
Then I had a problem. The monitor didn't cut on during POST (Power-On Self-Test) and emitted the dreaded three beeps (display error). Don't assume a card is DOA immediately. The probability of a dead video card is rather low in my experience--around 1 or 2%. Keeping my cool, I went about checking the likely reasons for my POST error. First, reset the computer. Nothing. Recheck the seating again. Still no video. Plug in the monitor cable connector again. Nada. Take out the video card and blow air in the slot and along the leads. Bingo. Other causes could be that the fan was not plugged in right on the video card, or that an auxiliary power connection is required from the power supply. Check your video card's documentation to see if it has any special needs during installation.
As Windows is starting up, get the driver/installation CD that should have come with your video card. If one didn't, download the unified graphics drivers for your Operating System at nvidia.com or ati.com or whatever company produces the core technology, such as Matrox or S3. When Windows is done loading, it'll pop up asking about the new video card and what drivers to install. Close this. Run the CD or drivers you downloaded. This is pretty straight-forward installation stuff--click next a bunch of times, then you need to restart. When you're back in Windows, go back to the Device Manager and expand the Display Adapters. You should see one or two similar devices there and not Standard VGA Adapter or something to that affect. Next, go to the desktop and right-click. Click Properties. Go to the Settings tab. Set your optimal resolution and color depth, then click Advanced. This is where you find all the settings for your video card usually. Go to the Monitor tab. Depending on your monitor's capabilities, set the refresh rate. The default is 60hz, but that setting can cause eye strain quickly. 85hz is the recommended minimum and most monitors can do this frequency at the default resolution.