How to build a 4K HTPC – Part Seven: Graphics Card – The Definitive Installation/Upgrade/How-To Guide

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Let’s assume for a moment that you didn’t follow my instructions on how to build a 4K HTPC verbatim. HOW DARE YOU!

You probably deviated from the plan a bit here and there, maybe you decided to go your own route, and that’s perfectly fine. That is the beauty of building your own PC, you have the freedom to do whatever you want.

ETR How to Build a 4K HTPC

  1. PART ONE: GOALS AND CHALLENGES
  2. PART TWO: CASE, POWER SUPPLY, MOTHERBOARD, AND COOLING
  3. PART THREE: PROCESSOR, SSD, RAM, AND OPTICAL DRIVE
  4. PART FOUR: SETUP, TROUBLESHOOTING, AND QUIRKY 4K SHIT
  5. PART FIVE: SOFTWARE
  6. PART SIX: PERIPHERALS AND EVERYTHING ELSE
  7. PART SEVEN: GRAPHICS CARD – THE DEFINITIVE INSTALLATION/UPGRADE/HOW-TO GUIDE
  8. UPDATED PARTS LIST FOR 2016
  9. UPDATED PARTS LIST FOR 2017

In my build, I decided to opt-out of adding a discrete GPU. For my purposes, there just wasn’t a point to adding a GPU that didn’t feature and HDMI 2.0 port. Not to mention the fact that the case I chose cannot fit a standard size GPU. Unless your TV has a DisplayPort (I highly doubt it) you are going to need HDMI 2.0 if you want 4K@60Hz. Otherwise, you will need to settle for 4K@30Hz. There are no compact/low profile HDMI 2.0 GPU’s currently available on the market (as of this writing). But there are some other powerful, rather expensive, GPU’s on the market that do support the HDMI 2.0 standard.

If you built your HTPC with a larger case, bigger than the Silverstone ML04B that we featured in part II of our build, you might be able to fit a full-size GPU inside your case. But keep reading for a list of requirements and some things you should check before adding a discrete GPU.

Regardless of whether or not you are building an HTPC, gaming PC, or workstation, the guide below should be relative to almost any modern PC build. I’ll be installing the card in my gaming PC (it will not fit in our Silverstone HTPC case), but you can follow the instructions regardless of build type. With that shit said, let’s get to it.

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Which graphics card do I purchase?

There are multiple reasons you may want to upgrade your GPU. Many of which involve gaming. If gaming is of the utmost importance to your build, you may want to drop a bit more coin on a really good card. Purchasing a new GPU often requires a bunch of research, especially if you have been out of the loop for awhile.

It’s really hard to go wrong purchasing any of today’s modern GPU’s, the more money you spend, the better your performance will be. Almost any modern GPU will outperform any integrated graphics or APU. You have your choice of an AMD or Nvidia, I have owned several from both manufacturers, but I tend to favor Nvidia. You will almost certainly develop you own brand favoritism at some point. There is no right or wrong answer. But that does not mean you can just pick a card out of a hat. Just because a card from Nvidia and a card from AMD share basically the same price, and roughly the same performance, that does not make them equal. That kind of mentality will end up getting you killed.

So why, oh why, did I choose Nvidia over AMD considering AMD just released their latest and greatest R9 3XX series cards? AMD’s R9 390 card’s feature a slightly higher price point, but feature a whopping 8GB of VRAM! It can slightly outperform the GTX 970 in most head to head competitions. So why did I choose Nvidia? This is where research comes into play.

Excluding driver preferences, It is a very simple answer. HDMI 2.0. Yes, I know, here we go again…but hear me out. Nvidia supports HDMI 2.0 and AMD does not. Why? Fuck if I know. I have absolutely no idea why AMD decided to leave out HDMI 2.0? But they did, and AMD fanboys out there should be pissed. This means that in order to attain 4K@60Hz, you MUST connect to a computer monitor via DisplayPort. AMD is basically saying, “fuck 4K TV’s, you need to use a PC monitor.” As of today, almost all 4K TV’s lack a DisplayPort input (Panasonic makes a 4K TV with DP). So if you are connecting to a 4K TV, 4K@30Hz is the max you will ever get from this expensive card. That’s some bullshit. I don’t want that NOT to be an option for me. I am content gaming at 1080P right now, but I have seriously been considering purchasing a 40″ 4K TV to use as a monitor for my gaming/work PC.

MRW AMD does not include HDMI 2.0 support in their latest GPU’s.

Now, it is arguable that neither of these cards is really capable of gaming at 4K resolutions, but it greatly depends upon the game. Just because you have a 4K monitor/TV, you don’t have to play games at its native resolution. But, if you are looking to play high-end games at 4K  resolution and above low settings, you will probably need to go with a dual GPU setup, CrossFire/SLI. The fact of the matter is this. If you need to connect to a 4K source via HDMI, Nvidia is the much better option until AMD gets their shit together.

Word on the street is that a DisplayPort to HDMI 2.0 adapter is currently in development, although it is not scheduled to be unveiled until the 4th quarter of 2015, so your guess is as good as mine as to when you might actually be able to pick one up. There are also concerns with HDCP 2.2 (DisplayPort 1.2, the spec used on the newest AMD cards, does not support HDCP 2.2) and how all that will work with the new adapter. But this tiny glimmer of hope is not enough to sway me into purchasing an AMD GPU at this time. I’ll just stick with what I know will work today.

Graphics Card (Nano Review) – MSI GeForce GTX 970 4GB $315-350

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If you want an HDMI 2.0 capable GPU, you’re going to have to fork over at least $170 for a GTX 960, or wait until lower end 900 series cards make an appearance. After a lot of through research, I decided on the MSI GTX 970 GAMING 100ME 4GB Twin Frozr V. It is probably the best received GTX 970 the market today, and I thought it delivered the best price/performance ratio of any GPU in my price range. I usually prefer EVGA (personal preference) if I am purchasing a Nvidia card. But I read about several issues people were having with coil whine, so I decided to go with the “safer” option.  I’ll still stick with EVGA in the future, but I guess I’ll give MSI a chance this time.

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The card itself is very attractive, I’m not all that thrilled with the color choice, but I don’t have a window on my gaming PC chassis, so I could really give a shit. But the card still looks cool, if that matters to you. There is also a nifty little green LED glowing dragon and MSI logo on the side of the card, which adds to the premium feel. There are also a red (4G), and a white (4GDT5) variation of the MSI GTX 970. The red is missing the awesome back plate that comes installed on the 100ME, otherwise the cards are virtually the same. The white has a slightly lower clock speed compared to the other two. Price differences aside, I don’t think you can go wrong, but as always, it’s up to you.

Overall, I gotta say that I am very impressed with the performance thus far. It beats the ever loving shit out of my old XFX AMD 7970. I fucking loathed that card, I had nothing but problems with it. It wouldn’t die, it would just continuously fuck up, then act normal, then fuck up again, absolutely no pattern. Even after an RMA, the exact same issues were present. So I just gave up completely. Compared to the AMD 7970, the GTX 970 is more powerful, draws way less power, runs cooler, and is about 20dB (maybe not that much, but it is very significant) quieter under load.

Here is a sample of the cards performance. This is Far Cry 4 at maxed out at 1080P. (Cant see any reason for the dip in the beginning, it runs at a very constant 60-70+ FPS)

If you are gaming at 1080P, possibly 1440P, you should have no problem running virtually any game on the market completely maxed out. This card is a fucking beast for the price.

I won’t get too crazy with a review of the card (maybe I’ll make an in-depth review at another time), but if you want an awesome, extremely detailed review of a very similar MSI GTX 970, check it out here.

Before we get to the install, let’s make sure our PC is up to the task.

GPU Upgrade Checklist

Before you go spending a whole bunch of money on a brand new GPU, you need to take a look at your current setup. This is not optional. If you want optimal performance from your GPU, the rest of your PC needs to be up to the task. If you are going with a low to mid-range card, you don’t need to worry as much, lower end components usually require lower end specs, but it’s a good idea to take a look at your system regardless. You can still bottleneck a mid-range GPU with a shitty processor. Here’s what to look for.

CPU

First and foremost, check your CPU.

If you are still rocking an older, single/dual (sometimes quad) core Intel or AMD (especially AMD) processor and you are looking at the GTX 960,970, or 980. You probably should:

  1. Seriously consider building a new PC from the ground up
  2. Upgrade your motherboard, CPU, and/or RAM, and do a fresh install of your OS. AKA build a new machine.

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Basically, if your CPU isn’t up to the task, you are going to seriously bottleneck your new GPU and drastically take away from its potential. Most CPU’s bottleneck the GPU in some way (there is always a faster processor capable of doing the job faster than your CPU), but there are varying degrees of slowdown that are acceptable. The difference between a Core I5 and I7 bottleneck can be a couple of frames depending how optimized the game is. It can also be a massive difference depending upon the age and capabilities of the two processors. This is called CPU scaling. Take a look at this chart to see what I am talking about. Even though the example is kind of old, the information is still relevant. You can clearly see that running a high-end GPU with a higher end processor is optimal. A shitty processor + an awesome GPU, not so much.

My personal recommendation, pick up a new Core I5 or I7 (I7 if you have extra money to burn, certainly beneficial, but not required for a gaming PC or HTPC). That should set you up for a few years.

Power Supply Unit (PSU)

Though often overlooked, I cannot stress enough how much a good quality PSU matters. If you are still rocking that 200W PSU that came with your E-machines shitbox, please do yourself a favor, just start over. Your PSU delivers power to your entire system. It is not something to take lightly. Investing in a good (80+) PSU will save you trouble in the long run.

Corsair Professional Series  AX 850 Watt ATX/EPS Modular 80 PLUS Gold (AX850)

Although not required, a beefier PSU won’t hurt anything.

Replacing your PSU can be a huge pain in the ass. It basically requires taking apart your entire system and re-routing all of your cables. It’s not something you really want to do all that often (with the exception being rebuilds and/or motherboard upgrades.) Take a good look at your GPU power requirements and make sure you meet or (preferably) exceed them.

For instance, the GPU I have selected requires a minimum of a 400W power supply. I am currently rocking an 850W Corsair 80+ Gold Modular PSU (link is for a similar model) (Highly recommended if you have a full/mid size chassis). This will provide awesome continuous power to my GPU and the rest of my PC with tons of room to spare should I ever think about doing an SLI (dual GPU) setup with this GTX 970. Don’t worry about  purchasing a PSU that has some extra wattage to spare, you won’t be wasting electricity just because of the higher wattage, this is a common misconception about PSU’s. Your PC will only draw as much power as it requires, it’s best to have some wiggle room. A high-quality 80+ PSU will save you money in the long run. You can easily go overboard and pick up a 1000W PSU, but if you are running a simple, single GPU setup on a mostly normal PC, there really isn’t a point. But it’s your PC, so do what you want, it won’t hurt anything but your wallet.

Size

This one is obvious. If you meet all of the above criteria, you need to make sure the damn thing will fit. You can check the size of your particular GPU virtually anywhere online. Take some measurements, and make sure your card will fit. Just because one card from a particular manufacturer doesn’t fit, that doesn’t necessarily mean a card from other manufacturers won’t. GPU’s can vary greatly in size and shape depending upon the manufacturer. For example, our card measures out at a very lengthy 10.6″. But there is a GTX 970 variation from Asus that comes in at a very short, and stubby 6.7″. Perfect for small ITX cases, just make sure you meet the height requirements (its a bit taller than normal).

Hop on over to the next page so we can finally get this SOB installed.

  • jh1289

    I’ve got a GTX 970 with an Intel 4790k and 8GB of RAM, but I still can’t play 4k video… it stutters badly. What could be wrong?

    • ETR

      Assuming you have an adequate connection, it’s not because of a lack of horsepower. Are you using Chrome? Strangely enough, I’ve had issues streaming 4k video from YouTube via Chrome. Try using (I hate to say it) IE or Edge if you’re on Windows 10.

    • M Zhilmi AM

      I assume you use smart tv. Maybe the automatic switching frame rate thingy. Try using kodi and set the frame rate to switch to video frame rate (something like dat. Im lazy to look back. Sorry)
      It helps me a lot. Seamless. No stutters when playing video

    • Matthew F

      If your streaming 4k you do not need 3/4 of that hardware for an HTPC, integrated IGP would suffice since streaming sites nutter the crap out of bitrate.

      Streaming or local content?

  • prstorero

    I just read all seven of this series’ parts in one day lol. We will probably think about setting up a HTPC later this year since I brought up the idea after reading a few of these parts ;). Right now I’ve got my old laptop hooked up to an HDMI cable and have stremio on there for watching some things. I’m sure once we get a more dedicated machine, we will start using it even more. Thanks for all the time you put into writing these.

    • ETR

      Thanks for the comment. Good luck with the future build.