Archive for February 18, 2017

In Depth: How To Upgrade Your Video Card In Your PC

Posted in Commentary with tags on February 18, 2017 by itnerd

If you have a PC that you either built yourself or bought, you may want to do an upgrade of your video card at some point to either add additional monitors, bigger monitors, or to get better performance when gaming. But you’ll likely be faced with a ton of questions. AMD or Nvidia? What kind of cooling do I want? Which connection interfaces do I want? It can all be confusing. But to help straighten things out, I had a conversation with JJ of ASUS. The reason why I went to ASUS is that they have a very extensive selection of video cards for all use cases that span both AMD and Nvidia. Thus it makes them the experts to go to as they can offer unbiased advice. Other than to by ASUS of course.

The first thing to consider is the physical size of the video card. The reason behind that is that there is a huge variety of form factors in terms of computers. There’s ATX, Micro ATX and others. A full list of the different form factors can be found at this Wikipedia article. You have to know what you have in order to start the conversation as that will govern what card you can put in.

Next is cooling inside the PC case. There’s two types of cooling solutions out there in PC cases. The first is called the reference cooling solution. This usually has a fan built into the case to vent hot air outside. It’s does an okay job, but if you put a high performance graphics card inside the case and then play Overwatch with all the resolution and detail setting cranked up, you may have issues with overheating. Thus a better choice if you’re a gamer is to use a case with what is refered to as a non-reference cooling solution which can better manage the heat that a high performance graphics card can put out. A non-reference cooling solution can make as much as a 20 degree difference. You also get a quieter PC as well.

Next up is the heatsink design on the video card. You have two choices on this front. The first is the traditional heatsink that relies on airflow to keep the video card cool. Assuming that you have adequate cooling inside your PC case, this is what you’re likely to go with. One thing to keep in mind is that there may be fans on the video card that aid in cooling. The more fans and the better designed those fans are, the better cooling you will get. If you really want to assure yourself of proper cooling, look for a graphics card with fan headers so that add additional fans to improve airflow to the graphic cards. For the record, ASUS is the only company that has a feature like this. Now there is a group of people who push video cards so hard that they have to opt for a water cooled solution as that is the only way that the video card will stay cool. Those tend to be gamers for the most part. There are also cards that don’t have heatsinks on them. But those tend to be aimed at people who run Microsoft Word rather than Team Fortress 2 as those cards are operating with very light demands placed upon them.

One thing to note, ASUS produces video cards using no human involvement. Instead, they use SMT or surface mount technology to build their cards. They’re not the only ones who do this, but it means that you can be assured of the highest possible quality when it comes to your video card. There’s also the quality of the components used like the type of capacitors used for example that works into the quality of the graphic cards as well. That is all important as you don’t want your video card to flake out, fail, or even catch fire when you’re trying to pwn an opponent online.

There are a group of users where the look of the video card matters a great deal. For myself personally, I would be buying a card, putting into my computer and leaving it there for the next two years. But for some, their PC is a work of art and there are video cards that accommodate that need. Some want to pick a video card that compliment the look of their motherboard for example. There’s also integrated lighting that make your PC look really cool and can be programmed to flash or change color for example.

Next up is the power supply inside the PC. There’s a lot of misinformation on this front, but here’s what you need to know. In most cases, you don’t need a 1000 W power supply to drive a modern video card as these days, video cards are very power efficient. Thus in most cases a 550 or 600 W power supply will do. Just makes sure it’s a quality power supply  with some form of 80 plus certification. Having a lot of connectors on the power supply helps as well.

Now I’d like to take a slight detour into the topic of overclocking. In other words, pushing the processors on the video card beyond what they are rated to get better performance. While video cards do have a bit of a margin built into modern graphics cards for overclocking, it is a bit of a lottery. If you grab three video cards of the same make and model and overclock them to the same degree, you may get three different results. Besides, modern video cards have pretty good performance right out of the box these days. Thus it’s almost not worth doing.

Display connectivity is something that you will not have to worry about as that is something that has really standardized. in the last few years. A lot of video cards from the low end to the high end have three to four digital display connections in a mix of DisplayPort and HDMI (preferably HDMI 2.0) connections. Perhaps even DVI might be present. But DisplayPort should be your choice whenever possible as it can scale up and down to any resolution and any standard such as 1080p, 4K or even 5K. Depending on what your monitor has in terms of a connection, all you would need is a DisplayPort to DVI or DisplayPort to HDMI cable to make it work. Speaking of monitors, if you have analog monitors such a VGA monitor, those typically require a lot of expensive hardware to work with video card with digital display connections. That isn’t worth doing. Thus, you’re better off dumping any analog monitors you have and switch to digital monitors. Another thing to consider is to shifting some of your cash away from the card and towards a monitor that supports Gsync from Nvidia for example which would make whatever you do from gaming to Microsoft Excel look great because the video card and the monitor play nice in terms of frame rate and refresh rate. If you want to use a TV with a video card, that might be problematic as unlike monitors, TVs do all sorts of non-standard stuff to display images such as upscaling and downscaling refresh rates. Thus do not be surprised if you have to tinker with your setup to make a TV perform as well as it should. Finally, if you’re thinking of doing any sort of VR, you may want to look for a video card that has two HDMI ports to support a VR headset for example.

Should I get an AMD or Nvidia chipset is a question that most people ask. I will say that AMD has better DirectX 12 support under Windows 10 which means games that support DirectX 12 are better on AMD’s offerings at a lower price point. However, the higher end Nvidia chipsets such as the 1070, 1080 or Titian will blow those out of the water. As long as you’re willing to pay for it. Thus it really depends on the things that you do and the games you play, and how much you’re willing to pay to get the performance that you want.

Finally, a top tip for you: In terms of drivers, your best route is to always use the reference driver from AMD or Nvidia for best performance and stabilty.

Hopefully, this helps to dispel some myths and helps you to pick your next graphics card. I’d like to thank JJ from ASUS for helping me to put this together as his insights really helped to simplify a seemingly complex subject.