Getting a new GPU and simply plugging it in can work, but if you don’t make sure that your system is compatible, you can potentially seriously endanger it. And why unnecessarily risk that when checking the compatibility is so simple?
Good news: most modern GPUs can fit with almost any motherboard from the last decade.
Still, you shouldn’t get complacent and have due diligence in checking if everything is compatible.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way – you only need to check for compatibility if you’re getting a dedicated GPU. If you plan to game on your integrated graphics card (which is possible and actually decent with newer technology), that means that it is already compatible and you have nothing to worry about.
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PCIe x16 Slot Is The Key
This brilliant technology is the reason why most modern graphics cards will fit into most motherboards.
PCIe x16 slots come with different numbered suffixes and you’re probably asking what’s the difference. The truth is that as far as compatibility goes, there isn’t much difference at all.
So for example, a PCIe 3.0 can run PCIe 1.0 cards and vice versa. Although if you run a modern GPU on an older slot you’ll be limited by its bandwidth limitations. The general practice has been that every new version doubles the previous’ performance. So, if PCIe 2.0 has 4 GT/s (Giga transfers per second), PCIe 3.0 has 8 and so on.
Right now, in 2020, 3.0 is probably the most widely used slot, but 4.0 is gaining steam. The current GPU king, RTX 2080 Ti, uses the PCI Express 3.0, despite 4.0 being released a year before RTX 2000 series came out. There’s even a PCIe 5.0 version in production, and supposedly 6.0 is in the testing stage.
Overall, it’s best to have a motherboard with a free slot with a matching slot to the GPU you’re planning to get. You can still get by with a different version, but you’re either going to be bandwidth limited or not fully access the potential of the slot.
Another key thing we mentioned is that you need a free slot, especially if you’re planning to set up multiple GPUs either via Nvidia’s SLI or NVLink, or AMD’s Crossfire. You won’t be able to do this if you only have one PCIe x16 slot, although there are solutions out there of those engineeringly inclined.
Make Sure You Have Enough Physical Room For Your New GPU
This is a quirk that’s so easily forgotten, but that can really mess with your plans. It’s best if you know the specifications of your case as you can easily check the dimensions of the GPU since they’re usually readily available on the manufacturer’s website.
If push comes to shove and you either forget the type of case you have, or you can’t identify it, you can always manually measure the inside of the case with a tape measure. Just make sure the PC is turned off when you’re doing this. It’s not the best or most reasonable method, but it can serve its purpose as a last measure.
Most of the time, you’ll want to focus on the length of the card as that’s usually the main issue. Still, it’s good to know the width as well since it’s possible that it’ll interfere with other components in your PC. Another thing to consider is the backplate slots as they can give a false impression due to them sometimes being wider than the GPU.
While carefully messing and making sure stuff fits is important, it’s equally important to make sure that all the extra cables for the GPU and other nearby components have enough room and won’t be bent.
Measuring the space in your PC is also important to determine if your rig will have enough room to breathe. Proper airflow is the key to keeping your PC at the optimal temperature and the GPU is probably the biggest heat generator inside the case, so you want to be extra careful and make sure that air can flow freely around it and give it proper cooling.
Otherwise, you’ll notice the problem only when you’ve already bought the card and played some games on it and begin noticing stutters or even crashes.
Power Supply Unit (PSU)
This is probably the most important thing that you need to check as a PCIe x16 slot will likely exist on your motherboard and even if there’s not enough room in your case, you can upgrade cheaply. A PSU isn’t hugely more expensive, but it needs to have proper connectors for the GPU that you’re intending to purchase, as well as enough power.
Depending on the GPU you’re looking to buy, you’ll have to know if it needs a 6-pin, 8-pin, or if it doesn’t even need a power connector. There is a reason why there’s this classification and that’s because the more power a GPU needs, a bigger connector it’s likely going to require.
So, for example, a powerhouse like RTX 2080 Ti will require two 8-pin connectors while a last-gen budget option like GTX 1050 Ti will require none whatsoever.
This means that if you’re looking to get the latest GPU, you need to have a modern PSU as well since a lot of older ones (pre-2015) won’t even have a single 8-pin connector, let alone two. There are things like power connector adapters, but those don’t exactly have the best reputation.
As far as required PSU capacity is concerned, there’s conventional wisdom that says that the amount of power your GPU uses should be at most the half of your PSU’s total power. Ideally, you’d want your GPU to be at around 40% of your PSU’s capacity.
This is important because a GPU will suck more power when under heavy loads, like playing a heavy-duty AAA title or when rendering a high-resolution video. Because consumption can increase in these situations it’s important to have the correct amount of headroom from your PSU.
A PSA on the PSUs: even though there are manufacturer’s who market their units at some insane numbers like 2000W, don’t fall for this marketing trick. Often that’s a theoretical burst that the PSU can handle. Our advice is to consider the options from reputable PSU makers and take into consideration the power rating.
Don’t Create Bottlenecks
If you’re getting a brand new, top-of-the-line graphics card while the rest of your PC components are old, there are bound to be some bottlenecking issues. Usually, this bottleneck will come from the CPU, but it can also be RAM memory or the hard drive.
That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to install the GPU and run the latest games, but you’re probably going to run into some stuttering issues and likely won’t ever be able to reach the potential FPS that your new GPU can produce.
This is a tiny issue, but that won’t stop it from being annoying when you totally forget your monitor’s port. Some GPUs will offer the ability to use an HDMI, DisplayPort, or DVI, but on some cards, you won’t have that luxury.
You can still get around this issue by getting an adapter and it’ll likely work perfectly, but there’s a group of people online who’ve reported that adapter brought input lag and lowered frame rate.