Can you upgrade the graphics card in a laptop? Our Helproom, editor explains how to check if your laptop can be upgraded, how to do it, and why you probably shouldn't even try.

This is a question we get asked all too often. Here's a specific example: My HP Compaq NX 9420 laptop runs Windows 7 Ultimate. It has AMD Mobility Radeon graphics with 256MB of VRAM. Can I upgrade the graphics card, enabling me to play Need For Speed: The Run?

So here's the answer you probably don't want to hear. In most cases, it isn't possible to upgrade a laptop's graphics card. If you want better gaming performance, the only sensible option is to buy a new laptop.

The vast majority of laptops have integrated graphics, which means the GPU (graphics processing unit) is permanently attached to the motherboard, and not removable as it is in a desktop PC.

These days, a lot of CPUs contain the GPU, which means that you would have to replace the processor in order to upgrade the graphics. Taking Intel as an example, you'll find that the same or similar GPU is used as you work your way up the Core i7 range. That means that even if you do upgrade the processor, you won't get an improvement in graphics performance.

Plus, such an upgrade will usually void your warranty.

In the case of the HP NX 9420 above, the AMD Mobility Radeon X1600 is actually a replaceable part, but the only compatible alternative is another 256MB board: the nVidia Quadro FX 1500M. Since Need For Speed lists 512MB of video memory as a minimum requirement, the swap won't help. And even if there was a better option, the fastest available processor for this laptop (2.33GHz) doesn't meet the game's 2.4GHz requirement. Details of the laptop's internal components can be found in the service manual here.

How to add a graphics card to a laptop

There is a way to add a graphics card to a laptop, but it's not for gaming purposes. Strange as it might sound, you can plug one in to a USB port. Doing this gives you an extra graphics output so you can drive an external monitor as well as your laptop's built-in screen. If your laptop already has a VGA, DisplayPort or HDMI output, adding a USB graphics card means you can drive a third screen: you're not limited to two displays.

For example, this StarTech adaptor gives your laptop an HDMI output for around £60.

StarTech USB graphics laptop

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