How to install a PCI card

While most Lifehackers have developed a strong relationship to software, the nitty-gritty of hardware is often left alone. After all, that’s why God invented the USB port, right?

Well, that’s fine and dandy until your computer is adorned with so many cords and peripherals that it looks like Frankenstein’s monster on life support. Next thing you know, you’re adding hubs to your hubs, and your whole desktop is a mess.

Now that doesn’t sound like an environment conducive to well-oiled productivity, does it? Luckily, lots of useful computer add-ons can be installed on the Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) bus inside your computer. Sound scary? Be not afraid. Installing hardware in your computer is not as difficult as it may seem. In fact, installing a PCI card is a relatively simple and painless process.

To those of you afraid of opening up your computer:

Computer hardware isn’t the mysterious bad-boy you always thought. It’s actually more like the mysterious bad-boy who just wants to be loved. Once you show hardware acceptance, it’ll open up and totally love you back.

Please note:

Opening up your computer comes with some risk. Always keep safety in mind when working inside your computer (as you should with any electrical device). That said, getting comfortable with cracking it open and fiddling around opens up a whole new world of options and upgrades to your personal computing experience.

Whether you’re installing a wireless card, firewire card, sound card, TV capture card, etc., the process is almost always identical.

What you’ll need:

  • PCI Card
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Your computer

For my sample installation, I’ll be using the TV capture card pictured above.

Step 1: Prepare your computer

To get your computer ready, you need to make it safe. That means unplugging it from the wall and turning off the switch on the back of the power supply unit. Once you’ve done this, you can sigh a deep breath of relief – you’ve circumvented the most dangerous aspect of installing your PCI card – electricity.

Once you’ve rendered your computer powerless, it’s time to open up your case. This process varies from case to case, but it’s generally relatively simple (especially with newer cases), involving the removal of a couple of screws and a side panel. This should give you easy access and plenty of room to install that PCI card.

While working inside your case, you need to be mindful of static electricity. To avoid building up a static charge that could potentially short out a component, some people use an anti-static strap (available from most computer hardware retailers). I prefer not to use the strap. Instead, just be mindful to touch a grounded metal surface from time to time to prevent a static charge from building. Touching your computer’s power supply unit, for example, should do the trick.

Step 2: Find and prepare an open PCI slot

Next find an open PCI slot (see picture below) on your motherboard. The number of available PCI slots varies from motherboard to motherboard, but if you’ve never installed a PCI card before, you should certainly have an opening or three.

If you’ve got a few open spots, consider leaving an empty slot between cards to help keep things cool inside your PC (this isn’t a huge deal, but a good practice if you’ve got room for it).

Once you’ve chosen a PCI slot, remove the screw holding the PCI slot cover in place (in some cases, you may need to remove the screw above and below the slot cover). Though you won’t need the cover anymore (your card will take its place), hold onto that screw – you’ll be needing it later.

Step 3: Install the PCI card

This is probably the easiest part of the whole process. First, remove your PCI card from the anti-static wrapping. When handling the card, be gentle. Try to hold the card by the metal bracket and the edges – it’s best not to get your fingerprints all over the “working parts” of the card itself.

Align your PCI card tabs with the open slot on your motherboard and firmly press down on the mounting bracket and the top edge of the card until the card is snuggly secured into position.

All that’s left of the card installation is to screw the mounting bracket screw from step 2 into your new PCI card bracket, securing your card in its place.

Step 4: Finishing up

It’s all pretty simple from here on out. Replace your computer’s side panel and screw it into place, plug in your power supply unit (remembering to flip the switch back on) and boot up.

Now you’re back in the realm of software where you’re the undisputed master. When your computer boots up, install your drivers and you’re set! (It seems that some PCI cards require that you install the drivers before the hardware. To be safe, you should always read the directions included with your PCI card to be certain.


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