Shift Your Graphics Into Overdrive

SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Today's graphics-intensive business applications and mind-boggling 3D computer games push graphics cards to the edge. Swapping out your tired old graphics card for a hot new model can give even an older, slower PC a dramatic performance boost. The technology underlying the dedicated graphics processors used in today's graphics cards is every bit as advanced as the fastest Intel Corp. Pentium III and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Athlon CPUs.

AGP bus cards offer the most power and choice, and 32MB of on-board RAM has become standard, permitting more colors and higher resolutions. But don't despair if your PC doesn't have an AGP slot. PCI graphics cards are still available, though the selection and performance capabilities are relatively lean (16MB of on-board RAM is standard for PCI cards). Either kind of card should still make a big difference in performance.

Figure on spending $150 to $300 for an AGP card, $100 to $200 for a PCI card.

The best card for you depends on whether you're a spreadsheet jockey, a game freak, or a user who falls somewhere between the two. (Check out the Top 10 Graphics Boards, page 245, for buying tips.)Swapping graphics cards is a popular, and usually easy, upgrade. But a few pitfalls lie hidden along the way. Here's how to perform the upgrade painlessly.

Stan Miastkowski is a PC World contributing editor.

1. Get the latest drivers. Even if you have purchased the latest, greatest graphics board, it may have been sitting on your dealer's shelf for weeks. And graphics card makers are constantly updating the all-important driver software.

Before you begin, go to the Web site of your new card's manufacturer and download the latest driver update.

2. Uninstall the old software. While most graphics card makers say you can simply swap a new board for the old, we've found that uninstalling the old card's driver can help prevent problems. You can skip this step and take your chances, but it's particularly dangerous to do so if your new board is the same brand as the old one. Some vendors make uninstalling easy. For example, Matrox (whose Millennium G400 Max is shown at left) provides an uninstall option for all its utilities and complete uninstall directions on its Web site. To clear out the drivers for your old card, go to Start*Settings*Control Panel, double-click the Add/Remove Programs icon, and remove any software that's specific to your old graphics card. (If you're not sure about an item, don't remove it!)Check your manual or the support section of your old board maker's Web site for additional instructions. If you don't find anything, and nothing is evident in Add/Remove Programs, just forge onward.

3. Out with the old. Turn off your PC and unplug it. Consider using an antistatic wrist strap (available at your local electronics store) to minimize the risk of causing static damage. First, unhook the monitor cable. Then open the case, remove the screw that holds down your existing graphics card, and carefully withdraw the card.

4. In with the new. Remove your new graphics card from its packaging and carefully insert it into your PC. Press it firmly into the proper slot, and use the screw that you removed in step 3 to secure it. Reconnect the monitor cable, but leave the case off for now.

Important: If you have a dual-head card (like the Matrox G400 Max shown on the facing page), make sure you connect your main monitor to the correct connector (usually the upper one). If you have other components--such as a second monitor, a digital display, or a television--to connect to the card, plug them in as needed to the second connector.

5. Install the software. Read through the manual that came with your new graphics card to familiarize yourself with the recommended driver installation procedure, which can vary slightly from one manufacturer to another.

Reconnect your PC's power cord and turn the system on. As Windows starts, it should automatically detect the new card and start the Add Hardware Wizard.

Insert the CD-ROM that came with your graphics card, and follow the directions for loading the driver (if you downloaded a new driver, point Windows to the right location on your hard drive). You may or may not be able to install additional utilities at the same time as the driver, depending on the card. If you do need to install additional utilities after the drivers have been installed, do so now.

6. Adjust the settings. Go to Start*Settings*Control Panel, choose the Display icon, and click the Settings tab. Next, choose the resolution and color depth that you want to use. (Windows will test those settings for you to make sure that your monitor can handle them.) In addition, most new graphics cards have a multitude of advanced features and options. Simply click the Advanced button to gain access to them. (You might have an icon for this in the System Tray.)If all's well, put the case back on. If you experience any problems, turn off your computer, check all your connections, and make sure the graphics card is firmly seated in its slot. You may also want to try reinstalling the drivers.

If the display is garbled or completely blank, check the troubleshooting section of your graphics card manual. Still dead in the water? Then it's time to reach for the phone and call tech support.

The Top Down

Benefits: Faster, higher-resolution graphicsCost: AGP card, $150 to $300; PCI card, $100 to $200Time required: 30 to 45 minutesTools required: Phillips screwdriver, antistatic wrist strapExpertise level: Beginner to intermediateVendors: 3dfx (www.3dfx.com), ATI (www.ati.com), Creative Labs (www.creative.com), Diamond (www.s3.com), ELSA (www.elsa.com), Guillemot (www.guillemot.com), Matrox (www.matrox.com).

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