There are two big names in computer graphics: Nvidia and AMD. However, many different manufacturers produce graphics chips and cards based on their technologies. Ultimately, the ideal graphics card or external GPU for you will depend on your computer’s specs, operating system, and the type of installation you want to perform.
For example, these high-end cards are ideal for Windows operating systems, and these external processors are best for Macs. Buyers’ guides like the ones at those links can help lead you toward the right device—just make sure the guide is recent, since new graphics cards come out on a fairly regular basis.
Once the buyers’ guide narrows down your list of options, you can further compare cards by looking at the performance benchmarks available online. If you’re in a hurry, try a shortcut to work out the merits of the various graphics cards or processors you’re considering. Because more powerful devices generally cost more, you could compare prices as a rough guide. Another handy shortcut: Decide what you want to do with your computer and go from there. Say there’s a game you’re dying to play or a VR headset you want to buy—check the recommended graphics specs, and then choose an upgrade that will satisfy those requirements.
Speaking of specs, don’t be daunted by the jargon associated with graphics cards. Here are the key items to consider: amount of memory on board, memory speed, and clock speed (basically how quickly the device can chew through calculations). You can also check the model number of the device: Generally speaking, a higher number will be better.
It’s no exaggeration to say you can spend weeks poring over graphics configurations, but don’t feel like this is obligatory—choosing your upgrade can take much less time. Consult a recent buying guide, check the recommendation on the forums mentioned earlier, and you should quickly get a feel for a graphics device that will take care of your needs.
Install the device
If you’ve selected an external device, connecting it will be easy: Plug it into a port (depending on the device, that might be USB, USB-C, or Thunderbolt), install any software or drivers bundled with the hardware, and you’re done.
Installing a graphics card in a desktop computer will take a little more work. Before you start, the usual rules for working inside a PC apply: Power down and unplug the machine, remove peripherals like the mouse and monitor, and then carefully remove the sides of the case to access the motherboard. To avoid causing electrostatic shocks, wear an anti-static wrist strap just in case you touch a metal part of the case or power supply unit.
Check for an existing graphics card and if you find one, remove it: Unscrew the card’s bracket from the case, and then unhook the plastic holders at the side of the slot itself. Some cards require a separate connection to the computer’s power supply, so if you spot one, disconnect this too. Slowly remove the card and put it in an antistatic bag or replace it in its original packaging (if it’s in good working order, you might want to sell it on eBay).
Now take up the new card and fix it into the vacant PCI-E slot, holding the card by its sides to keep your fingers away from all the circuitry. Fasten the brackets where needed. You’ll need to screw the new bracket against the case, connecting it in the same way as the old one. Then, if the card requires a power connection to the PSU, go ahead and make it. Consult the supplied manual to figure out whether the additional power connection is necessary, and to see a few more pointers on installation.
Close up your PC again, reconnect your monitor to the new graphics card, and hook up your peripherals again. Connect the PSU to a power socket as before, switch the computer back on, and boot up the operating system. Finally, make sure to download the latest graphics card drivers for your new component. These are available on the Nvidia and AMD websites—just choose your card and your operating system from the list to find the right ones. These drives will make sure your card works to its full potential.