The Best Upgrades for Your Computer?

Category: Hardware

If you have an older computer that just can’t seem to keep up with modern apps, should you junk it and buy a new one or upgrade its capabilities? If you can afford only one upgrade, which will give you the most improvement for your money? The answers are highly dependent upon your specific circumstances, but here are some general guidelines...

Advice on Upgrading Your Computer

First, ask yourself whether your computer is too slow for you or for someone else. Did you think, “Gee, my computer’s slow” before your spoiled nephew with the new Mac Airbook said, “Gee, your computer’s slow?” If you’re getting done all you want to get done, and fast enough for you, you may not need to upgrade.

Some upgrades get more work done faster, while others just make work more pleasant for you. A bigger monitor may be just what your tired, watery eyes need. A more ergonomic keyboard or mouse is another comfort upgrade; not that comfort doesn’t improve performance, but it’s mainly the comfort that counts. Years ago, I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. My doctor suggested surgery, but switching to an ergonomic keyboard with the split/curved key layout completely eliminated my pain.

Best Computer Upgrades

Upgrading a monitor is a significant investment. But if you're often using two programs at once, or find your limited screen real estate is slowing you down (switching from one app to another, or always scrolling), a larger, higher resolution monitor may be a good investment. See my related article HOWTO: Buying a Computer Monitor for some tips on what to look for, and which monitor specs really matter. You should also check out Dual Monitors: Six Good Reasons to Upgrade and consider to potential benefits of adding a second screen to your desktop setup.

Keep in mind that you may need a better graphics card to match the capabilities of a modern monitor. A dedicated graphics card can take some computing burden off your CPU, making actual computation faster; but the increase in CPU performance won’t be very large.

More RAM provides significant performance boosts at reasonable cost, up to a point. If you have too little RAM for the types of applications and the size of data files that you use, a lot of time and CPU power is wasted swapping data from RAM to disk and back again in “pages.” On the other hand, excess RAM just sits there idle, a waste of money that makes no discernible difference in performance.

A rule of thumb is that general home users need 4 GB of RAM; business and power users, 8 GB; and only the busiest video editors, database administrators, or gamers needs more than 8 GB of RAM. See my article HOWTO: Upgrade Memory to Boost Performance for more tips on upgrading your system's RAM memory.

Increasing the size, thoughput and access speed of hard drive storage is a tempting upgrade option. A traditional magnetic hard drive that spins at 7200 rpm is much better than one spinning at 5400 rpm. Solid-State Drives (SSDs) are the bleeding edge of mass storage technology, but they are still very expensive compared to magnetic hard drives. But here's something to consider… right now, a 2 TB magnetic hard drive costs about the same as a 100GB SSD drive -- roughly US$100. But if you've only got 50GB of data, the SSD is a better buy, even though it holds 20X less data.

The sweet spot for you may be a hybrid drive – one which has several hundred megabytes of SSD to hold the most frequently used data while storing seldom-used files on traditional magnetic media. My articles What is a Solid-State Hybrid Hard Drive? and HOWTO: Upgrade or Replace Your Hard Drive go into more detail on these topics.

If you're thinking about a new hard drive because you're running out of space to stash your stuff, first try a little spring cleaning, and see how many gigabytes of garbage you can eliminate. Unwanted software, temp files, and duplicate files can chew up a lot of space. A careful pruning of music, photos, and video files may yield big gains as well. See HOWTO: Clean Up Your Hard Drive for more tips and free software you can use to get the job done.

Deciding whether to upgrade or buy a new machine can be difficult. If you can install upgrades yourself, just add up the costs of planned upgrades and compare it to the price of new machines. But that simple cost analysis ignores half the cost/benefit ratio. You really don’t know how well an upgraded computer will perform until after you buy and install the upgrade(s), so it’s impossible to compare it to a new machine.

Generally, I would buy new rather than spend more than a third of new’s cost on upgrades. What upgrades have you done on your computer? Are you glad you did?

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "The Best Upgrades for Your Computer?"

Posted by:

Nev Holmes
25 Apr 2014

I have just upgraded my laptop drive to an SSD and I am very impressed with the improvement (so long as you choose the correct disk!). However, what my laptop really needs is an OS up rebuild but I just can't face the hassle!


Posted by:

Joseph Fischer
25 Apr 2014

For many people, a laptop computer will meet all their needs. These days, upgrading a laptop can be quite challenging.

In the past, laptops had access doors to get to the hard drive and the RAM memory. This is not the case with many newer laptops.

Also, a new laptop will have HDMI and USB 3.0 ports.

Unless you enjoy working on computer hardware, it might make sense to buy a new laptop on sale. The old laptop is then available as a hand-me-down to someone else, or as a spare computer to keep in the living room. When the LCD screen failed on my old laptop, I plugged in an external monitor and use it as a desk bound computer. I bought a new laptop for travelling.

In this article, Bob doesn't mention upgrading your operating system. If you are still running Windows XP, you should strongly consider buying a new computer, rather than trying to install a new version of Windows on your old computer.


Posted by:

grump3
25 Apr 2014

Having done most of your suggested upgrades in the past on multiple PCs, I consider the best upgrade by far that I've found for an older computer is to switch it to Linux.


Posted by:

Annie
25 Apr 2014

I wish you had also mentioned when/whether an OS upgrade is advised for a given hardware configuration. Is my ancient Mac going to be able to run the latest 10.X upgrade? Does my PC have enough RAM for Windows 8? Heck, I'm considering reconfiguring a new Dell with Windows 8 back to Windows 7.... is that a good idea? Maybe that could be a future topic.


Posted by:

Tony
25 Apr 2014

I am viewing this on a ten year old dell desktop. Until recently it was running unacceptably slowly (XP professional)and crashing far too often.

I carefully backed up everything, reformatted the hard drive and installed Windows 7. Result. It now runs very acceptably and crisply. I don't think windows 7 is the difference but with MS withdrawing support for XP it seemed sensible to change. I feel sure the real benefit has been just getting rid of 10 years of baggage.

So maybe the first upgrade is just a re-installation.

What's to be lost? Mainly just a few hours to get back to where you were. And you may well save that in the first few weeks of running properly.


Posted by:

Gyppo
25 Apr 2014

Bob said: If you're thinking about a new hard drive because you're running out of space to stash your stuff, first try a little spring cleaning, and see how many gigabytes of garbage you can eliminate.

=====

If you're like me you'll probably have loads of stuff you want to keep, but don't look at all that often. For example, I collect a lot of videos over a year. Early each year I transfer the previous year's collection to CDs. It takes a while, but not that long.

Each year the new video folder is 'video temp', and is renamed video 20-- before the whole lot gets archived.

It's easy enough th slip[ the CD(s) into the drive and open the folder when I want to see them.

I store a lot of photos the same way, plus copies of them on my ITB external back-up drive. This only runs for a few minutes each day doing an incremental backup.

Gyppo


Posted by:

Paul
25 Apr 2014

My choice was USB 3.0 for my external HD. Greatly sped up backups! Only an internal drive would have been better. As grump3 suggests, I am seriously considering converting my 9 yo XP laptop to a linux distribution. I need to research one which doesn't require a complete reinstall every time the next version is released.


Posted by:

Chris
25 Apr 2014

I have several five year old PCs. I upgraded them all to Windows 8.1. It's surprising how much nippier it is compared to previous versions. Am experimenting with Raxco's ram disk. So far I'm thinking I'll buy it. AMD have a freebie ram disk, but it can't make use of the ram above 3 to 3.5 GB on 32 bit OSs as the Raxco one can. Please, no more Linux fanboys!


Posted by:

Steve
25 Apr 2014

I've been upgrading my PC's for years and my take is pretty much the same. If you have 4GB of memory or less, upgrade. If you have a 5400RPM HD and it's small, upgrade both speed and size. I should mention though that if you are running a 32-bit machine anything above 4GB memory won't help you. A faster video card could help and last, but not least, the mother board and CPU. I used to save money doing this except for the last 2 computers I was actually able to save money by buying a pre-configured computer. You just have to do the math.


Posted by:

Robert
25 Apr 2014

Considering I usually use my older systems until they disintegrate, and they are usually hobbled by old, snail-paced CPUs and system boards that have little or no memory card slots available, I find it far better to just buy something new. Not to mention that some of the old systems have hard drives that are such small capacity you could barely get the newer OS loaded on them... (this system I'm on now has a mere 776MB left and 13.9 used) By the time I would spend all the money on "upgrades" to an aging machine (including the time it would take) I could buy a new one. In fact I'm going to...


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
26 Apr 2014

Upgrading your memory is one of the cheapest way, to get more "bang for your buck." However, after awhile, trying to find the memory modules needed for your computer, can be mighty difficult! If, you have an old motherboard or older computer, searching for memory modules can be extremely trying. Why? Simple, because the manufacturers don't make those memory modules, anymore. They have moved on to "newer and better and faster" memory modules. So, that really isn't the definitive answer, either.

Adding a larger hard drive, isn't always the answer, either. Sorry, but, for those using older Operating Systems, only so much of a 1 TB Hard Drive will sometimes, be recognized. Been there, done that, too.

Overall, the best way to improve your computer ... IF ... It is an old computer ... Is to break down and buy either a Brand New or Off-Lease Computer!!! Now, I am really talking about a Desktop Computer. I don't think, I want to buy an Off-Lease or Refurbished Laptop. But, for a Desktop, this can be quite a savings for you, as well as a good upgrade.

For me, it really was time, to stop using Windows XP Pro. So, last year, I went to a website, that I am extremely familiar with, Computer-Show.com ... To buy "new" computers, for both Hubby and me. I have bought many computers from them, for family and friends, just hadn't for myself. I wanted to build my own, from scratch, is all.

Computer-Show is great, in my opinion. All of the computers that I have purchased from there, have been in tip-top shape and worked, right out of the box. The savings is awesome, too. Plus, there is a 6 month warranty on the computers they sell, not bad, either.

I didn't want to go with Windows 8, but, I knew that Windows 7 was quite reliable, though there were several differences, like no Outlook Express(one of my all time favorite programs, of Microsoft) and several others. My daughter told me, it was easier to "learn" to Windows 7, from Windows XP, than it was with Windows 98 to Windows XP. Now, that I have done this ... My daughter was right on.

So, for me ... The best upgrade has been ... Purchasing an Off-Lease Desktop Computer with Windows 7 Professional - 64 Bit!!! This computer came with an Intel CORE 2 DUO 3.0GHz CPU, 8GB Memory, 1TB Western Digital Hard Drive, 4 USB 2.0 ports in the front, with 6 ports in the back, a DVD-RW+/-, and slots for expanding ... All for $315 plus S&H. Excellent price, in my book. :)

Basically, I got 2 good working computers for the price of one Brand New computer. I know, several of you, will say that isn't so. However, I really do NOT want to start using Windows 8. In what I have read to date, it has not been an easy transition, for even the Geeks. Windows 8 is all the seems to be available, for the Brand New Desktop Computers and Laptops. I also, just don't want or like Laptops. My Smartphone, can do well for mobility, on that score. I am not a Businesswoman or man, who actually needs a Laptop, for Business Travel. I love my Desktops. :)


Posted by:

Eurice
26 Apr 2014

Heartly salutations from Brazil for you and you associates!

Thanks a lot for you execellent and didactic arcticle;
The 1/3 rule is a clever hint!

Good health and continue with your good job.
(Eurice)


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