It's hard to imagine needing a new GPU or Graphics Processing Unit when you just received or built your gaming PC what doesn’t seem like that long ago. The current state of the gaming PC industry sees GPUs needing the most frequent upgrades to stay on top of the demands of Triple-A games.
A GPU upgrade is straightforward if you have the excess power and a Central Processing Unit (CPU) that will not bottleneck your system. The amount of performance gain from generation to generation varies over time as the industry shifts. However, the latest generation of AMD and Nvidia cards is significant enough to justify an upgrade to any card released before 2015.
This will be a comprehensive guide on when you should upgrade your GPU and what to look out for in the current market.
When to Upgrade Your GPU
When your system is older, typical issues like overheating or hardware instability become more apparent. Due to the modularity of PCs, most hardware is considered plug-and-play, with replacing a faulty graphics card or storage becoming relatively easy. Let's look at specific case-by-case instances where you should take the opportunity to upgrade your GPU.
A bottleneck is often referred to as a component or components that negatively affect the system's overall performance. An easy example would be a Nvidia GTX 1650 with 4GB of VRAM paired with an Intel i9-13900KF; the combination would utilize 100% of the GPU, introducing stuttering and other operational issues.
This issue is easily fixable by swapping out the GPU in the system.
How Often You Should Upgrade Your Graphics Card
GPUs are changed every 3-5 years, with some lasting as long as 6-8 years. While it's not mandatory to upgrade your card, the gain in performance between these years in release follows the current trend in gaming.
Signs You May Need to Upgrade Your Graphics Card
Here are the tale-tale signs that it's time to update your graphics card.
You Can’t Play Newer Games
There comes a time when the latest games push past most previously released system hardware. A common issue with older cards is the need for more utilization of the VRAM value on the GPU. Graphics drivers bridge this gap by finding optimizations on the software end to accommodate the hardware; however, this can only go so far.
In addition to VRAM utilization, newer games often have performance curves depending on the resolution. According to most benchmarks, going from a 1080p monitor to a 1440p monitor shows a measurable decrease in average frames.
Blue Screens While Playing Graphically-Intense Games
When a graphically demanding game is played, a GPU may encounter an internal error, causing a dreaded blue screen of death. There are specific screens that connotate GPU issues like the following error codes:
The errors above can occur both on the software and hardware side. More often than not, a simple driver reinstall should fix the issues above.
Your GPU Dies
Like most GPUs; their lifespan often ends abruptly with a system that does not display. While the cause of death varies, it isn't the end of the world. Manufacturers offer an RMA (Return to Manufacturer authorization) process to replace defective parts within warranty. If your GPU is outside the warranty window, it may be time to replace the GPU.
Considerations for an Upgraded GPU
Here are the best aspects for upgrading your gaming PC with a new graphics card.
Make Sure You Have Enough Power
GPUs will often make or break power supplies depending on their required wattage. With this newest generation of graphics cards, a power supply needs a minimum of 600W to draw from for cards like the RTX 4090 due to their maximum power draw.
Power supplies are designed around an efficiency curve, which gives an optimal percentage of 50-60% of the PSU’s max load. You can read more on what power supplies do in our other article.
Ensure the New Card Fits Your Case
Starting with the RTX 30 series, case manufacturers realized a market-wide issue: high-end cards will often not fit in popular mid-tower configurations. This realization has led to interesting case accessories and new case launches.
Vertical GPU mounts are a great way to fit slightly larger GPUs; however, they limit the PCIe lanes on the motherboard to just the GPU due to clearance issues with other slots. Creating more accessible cases has also been a valid way to solve this GPU clearance issue. Companies like LainLi w/ DerBauer and Hyte have popularized dual-chamber PC cases that offer maximum airflow and clearance for GPUs.
Choosing Between Nvidia vs AMD
Choosing between Nvidia and AMD is hard if you're new to computer building or gaming. Both manufacturers have advantages and disadvantages regarding pricing, support, and, most importantly, handling stress under a workload.
Nvidia is a great software and driver environment to be in. For most instances in gaming and productivity, Nvidia hosts a range of drivers like the “Gaming Ready” and “Studio” drivers on their website. Nvidia’s drivers currently triumph over AMDs due to the encoders used within the GPU. NVEC Encoding (Nvidia) is the flagship experience if you use a VR headset. RDNA3 Encoding (AMD) has seen bitrate limitation and choppier frame generation. Nvidia's benefits come at a cost, especially their high-end models, unlike AMD, which cater to those on a budget.
When a Whole System Upgrade May Be Necessary
While upgrading as your system gets older has a lot of benefits, the need to completely replace the majority or all of a gaming PC comes sooner or later. Multiple parts and prebuilds on the market make for an affordable gaming system. Here are some tips for closing out your current PC.
With the need to upgrade the motherboard, CPU, and possibly RAM, make sure your Windows key is backed up to your Microsoft account to reapply it to your new machine properly. If your new device already comes with Windows, congratulations, you now have a spare Windows key for 10 or 11!
Besides sparing a Windows key, checking your storage capacity and health would also be advantageous. In most instances, if you are not upgrading your storage solutions, transferring over your storage from the old PC is efficient. If you are tempted to upgrade to a newer storage medium, read all the significant read and write speed differences for games that run better on SSDs.
Summary of When to Upgrade Your Graphics Card
The graphics card is a major component in getting the most performance out of any game. To do that, other major components in a gaming PC must match the performance of any given part of the system.
At Apex Gaming PCs, we pride ourselves on providing flexible gaming PC options for those wanting to upgrade their GPU with us or at their leisure. Whatever your GPU needs are, we hope to be of service at Apex!
Written By Will Wilson