Upgrade my PC to fit a high profile graphics card.
May 19, 2011 6:18 AM   Subscribe

How do I upgrade my computer to fit high profile video cards?

Got a Dell Dimension Desktop E521 which I use for gaming among other things.

Problem is: I want to upgrade the video card, but the computer will only fit low profile cards. There's stuff in the way inside it which prevents a double decker card from fitting. At this point, there aren't any low profile cards which are a substantial improvement over the one I have (geforce 8600 gts). I assume this means a motherboard upgrade and potentially a new case before anything, so that I can accommodate larger cards. I've never done this before, so would appreciate tips on how to pick a replacement motherboard which is compatible and an upgrade over my current one if possible (never shopped for either motherboard nor case) as well as how to install them.

I've installed multiple upgrades on my current machine: new graphics card, a few gbs extra RAM, new 1tb hard drive, new dvd drive, new 600w quieter power source, etc. So I'd say I'm moderately comfortable familiar with replacing parts as long as there's some decent walk-through somewhere I can follow.

Alternately, if it's cheaper/easier I'd love to have a place recommended where I can buy a custom built PC with all of the frills removed to bring the price down as low as possible. I've only ever shopped through the big names: Dell, Gateway, etc. and they all only offer packages which include many things I already have. As mentioned, already got a decent sized hard drive, good power source, memory (assuming it's compatible) etc. so if I went this route I wouldn't want to pay for these all over again.

Live in Manhattan, so local would be preferable, but online recco's are fine too.

Lastly, if there does happen to be a low profile graphics card I've overlooked which IS a substantial upgrade over my current one, that recommendation would be appreciated too.
posted by reticulatedspline to Computers & Internet (17 answers total)
The motherboard might be standard ATX, so it might be enough to just get a new case and transplant everything else over.

From the top of my head, the motherboard and the power supply could possibly be non-ATX in an unusually designed machine - but in all the not-quite-standard Dell boxes that I have cracked open, everything has following the design pattern "standard ATX with less room and / or stuff in the way".

Might work!
posted by krilli at 6:26 AM on May 19, 2011

@krilli - Is there a way I can find out whether what I've got is ATX?
posted by reticulatedspline at 6:28 AM on May 19, 2011

*If it's Dell you might be SOL. In my experience with them their MBs and cases are designed specifically for them, so you can't just slide in a MB from another manufacturer, same goes for taking their MBs and putting them in other cases.

If you're into building rigs I suggest you go for a full tower case so you have all the room you want. Aside from that I suggest their Alienware line. I love mine.

pic of the inside of the E521: the guts

*NOTE: this may have changed since the last time I had a Dimension case.
posted by zombieApoc at 6:32 AM on May 19, 2011

@zombieApoc - So then if the Dell thing does indeed bonk my ability to just upgrade, any suggestions on guides for how to buy and install a new case and motherboard entirely?
posted by reticulatedspline at 6:39 AM on May 19, 2011

You can get a new case without replacing any other components (as long as your current motherboard fits; I know Dell, Gateway, et al. like to mess around with form factors to discourage this sort of thing). Also, you need to know what sort of connector you motherboard has. According to this page, you've got a PCI Express x16 slot that is capable of 8 gb/s, which I believe means it's PCIe 2.0, so you're okay there. A 600w power supply should be beefy enough to power a new card, but jot down the amperage on the +12v rails and make sure they can power whatever card you're thinking of getting. Also make sure you have either some spare Molex connectors or a PCI Express connector. And the last thing to worry about is your monitor. It's hard to find a good graphics card that plays nice with VGA monitors now that nearly all new monitors are DVI or HDMI only. I had to mothball my trusty 12-year old CRT because my new graphics card didn't recognize it through the DVI-VGA adapter.
posted by clorox at 6:42 AM on May 19, 2011

Does your computer look like this?

If so, that is a standard (if somewhat small) ATX mid-tower and all you need to do is get a larger case. The fact that you upgraded the power-supply already without knowing if your system is ATX and that it is a 600w PSU makes me pretty certain that you're dealing with a mostly standard ATX system. In fact, the power supply will likely say if it is ATX somewhere on it.

If that is the case then I would check out the selection at Newegg for a new case. They'll make it easy to find what you want, have great prices, and have always given me excellent customer service.

A full tower will definitely give you enough room but they are big and expensive. You can almost certainly find a larger mid-tower that will accommodate everything you've got without too much hassle. Either the product reviews on Newegg or some google searching will tell you if the case you want is large enough to handle your system.
posted by VTX at 6:48 AM on May 19, 2011

VTX: If his computer looks like that then he's in trouble. The orientation is completely opposite from standard ATX, like a mirrored photo. You would definitely need a new motherboard.
posted by clorox at 6:57 AM on May 19, 2011

Basically, you're asking for a new computer. All of the parts you've replaced are entirely standardized in terms of their form factor, so swapping them out even within the confines of a Dell bitty-box isn't that big of a deal. But as you've discovered, graphics cards don't work that way, and Dell mobos and cases (which are your problem here) tend not to be all that easy to swap out.

My trick? Use CyberPowerPC for the configurator and then go buy the parts myself, largely from Amazon, NewEgg, and TigerDirect. I don't buy from them directly because reviews indicate that if you do wind up needing support--and you very well might--you're probably SOL.
posted by valkyryn at 7:10 AM on May 19, 2011

@zombieApoc - So then if the Dell thing does indeed bonk my ability to just upgrade, any suggestions on guides for how to buy and install a new case and motherboard entirely?

I'm not experienced enough to really shoot you down a route of choosing a motherboard (out of the game too long now), but I can tell you that I loved a full tower for being able to easily install any amount of drives and not have to worry about slicing my hands open while swapping parts out. The big problem you'll run into though is that as you piece together a comp if any pieces fail you have to contact that manufacturer directly instead of just going to Dell. So It really depends on your lifestyle if you want to spend the time messing around with building a comp or go outside and get some sun once in a while.

I once had a DOA MoBo 3 times in a row, so the shipping back and forth to the manufacturer ended up costing me as much as if I just went out and paid for the higher-end one I wanted in the first place.

kudos to valkyryn for that CyberPowerPC link
posted by zombieApoc at 7:18 AM on May 19, 2011

Eh, he doesn't need a whole new computer, just most of one. Case, motherboard, CPU, graphics card. Possibly RAM. Possibly monitor. DVD drive, PSU, keyboard, and mouse should be fine. HDD should be fine, but you'll need to wipe it and reinstall your OS (which, if you got it from Dell, means you probably can't use the OS discs you have now).

I strongly recommend that you build it yourself. You've already upgraded most of your current computer, doing the rest is hardly a big leap, and it'll save you money in the long run. If money is an issue, a solid motherboard and a solid CPU and a nice fresh install of your favorite operating system will give you more bang for your buck than a new graphics card.
posted by clorox at 7:36 AM on May 19, 2011

Good catch Clorox! That is indeed mirrored so your PSU will work fine but you'll need a new motherboard.

You'll need to figure out your socket type to shop for a motherboard which is determined by what processor you have. According what I think are your system specs your processor uses and AM2 or AM2+ socket (though it could be AM3, you'll have to do some research there) which means that, if you go to Newegg, you can choose from one of these motherboards. Those are all ITX or mini-ATX which do you no good so you'll want to look at Tiger Direct or consider getting a new CPU as well (and maybe RAM, RAM is cheap). You'll want to plan on doing a fresh OS install on a formatted partition when you install a new motherboard.

With the upgrades you've already done, you'd be able to put a whole new machine together yourself without a problem, you've already done most of it just not all at once.
posted by VTX at 7:55 AM on May 19, 2011

So ok... say I've revised and want to go whole hog and buy a whole new case, motherboard, and CPU. From the tool ZombieApoc provided, it looks like I could buy:
-AMD HDZ965FBGMBOX Phenom II X4 965 3.40GHz AM3 Desktop Processor
which would be compatible with a
-ASUS M4A89GTD PRO/USB3 AM3 AMD 890GXSB850 USB 3.0 ATX Motherboard.
As I understand it, any/all motherboards which are ATX will fit into any case which says ATX compatible (like this one), yes?

With that, my existing 600w power source, potentially replacement RAM if the existing 4gb i have isn't compatible (any easy way to check?). My pre-existing video card (for the moment) my 1tb hard drive, and dvd drive... anything else I'd need to put together a whole computer?
posted by reticulatedspline at 8:11 AM on May 19, 2011

With that, my existing 600w power source, potentially replacement RAM if the existing 4gb i have isn't compatible (any easy way to check?). My pre-existing video card (for the moment) my 1tb hard drive, and dvd drive... anything else I'd need to put together a whole computer?

you are going to need a new copy of windows.

also, looks like you can save a little money on the cpu at newegg.com... i would shop there before jr.com.

also, if you look at AMD AM3 mb's at newegg it looks like you can get away with spending $100 on the motherboard. you don't necessarily need to use the same components as cyberpower pc.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:39 AM on May 19, 2011

Mobo/CPU combo is good (the exact model name doesn't appear because Asus lists the OEM model numbers). I basically have the "little brother" of that combo; an Athlon II X3 440 and an Asus M4A785 -- no complaints whatsoever (well, except that my friend's 440 had a working fourth core). For the memory, write down the exact model name of your motherboard and search for its specs online to see what type of memory it uses. If it isn't DDR3 then you need some new RAM. I never really got all the details down on memory, though, like clock speeds and latencies, so maybe take someone else's advice regarding that.

And yeah, shop around a bit. Sometimes there's some really good stuff on various websites daily deals, sometimes brick & mortar places have good deals, etc.
posted by clorox at 8:46 AM on May 19, 2011

I also recommend checking out hardware-revolution.com for finding good advice about what parts are compatible within your price range.
posted by platinum at 12:08 PM on May 19, 2011

At this point, there aren't any low profile cards which are a substantial improvement over the one I have (geforce 8600 gts).

You can get a GTS 450 low profile (but will use two slots) and run modern games, but not at the higher settings. It has three times the benchmark score as your current 8600. Your power supply might also need an upgrade.

After a year or so just toss out that old rig and get a new PC. Or get a new PC now. Get yourslef a business-line HP desktop with an i7. They are ATX standard and you an fit in any card you like. Most of the Dell stuff in your case is proprietary. You can salvage RAM and CPUs, maybe the PS, but not much else. The CPU is outdated now and will be horribly outdated in a year. Your model is from 2007 and you won't be able to use that ancient RAM with today's motherboards.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:36 PM on May 19, 2011

GTS 450's are very nice!
posted by krilli at 1:53 PM on May 19, 2011

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