Inexpensive Computer Upgrades

Category: Hardware

My computer is showing signs of age, but I can't afford a new one. What hardware upgrades do you recommend to improve speed and usability for those with older computers?

Computer Upgrades

Top Five Computer Upgrades

So your friends are all getting new computers, but you can't afford one. That doesn't mean you can't breathe some new life into your old boat anchor. Whether your goal is to upgrade without breaking the bank, or just burn through a wad of cash, here are five computer upgrades that you may enjoy, justify as productivity enhancements, even write off as business expenses!

Memory Upgrades

More RAM memory is a good investment, up to a point. An average home user, who does email, web surfing and word processing, can generally stop at 2 GB. If you run multiple programs, do graphics-intensive work with Photoshop or video editing, up to 4 GB of RAM will help enormously. If you do 3D modeling or play high-speed games all day then go up to 8 GB of RAM. A 64-bit operating system requires at least 4 GB of RAM to perform its best.

If you're looking for additional speed, and you can afford to upgrade only one component of your computer, adding RAM will be the most cost-effective thing you can do. You can find two gigs of RAM for under $50 online. It's not hard to do, either. See my related article Adding Memory to find out how much RAM you have now, what kind you need, where to buy it, and how to install it.

Upgrading Hard Drive Capacity

A bigger hard drive is a good idea if your current one is more than 70 per cent full. Hard drives don't work as hard, and therefore last longer, if they have lots of room in which to spread out data. One of the best performance enhancements you can make is a faster hard drive. One that spins at 7200 rpm will find, read, and write data 33 per cent faster than a standard 5400 rpm drive, and costs very little more.

How much hard drive space should you have? You might be using only 50GB of space on your current drive, but technology and economy of scale have made it silly to buy any drive under 200 gigs. At TigerDirect, for example, an 80GB drive costs $39, while a 250GB drive is only $5 more, and 500GB drives go for under $60. But why stop there? You can get a 1-terabyte drive (1000 gigabytes) for under $100. External drives, which simply plug into a USB port, are equally affordable, and can expand your storage capacity without having to open the system unit and mess around with wires.

CD/DVD Drive Upgrades

CD and DVD drives are another story. If you mainly read data from optical disks then a faster drive is appealing. But a 54x drive won't do you any good when it comes to burning your own disks. In fact, you may ruin a lot of bland disks if you try to burn faster than 16x. A Blu-ray drive, the very latest and largest capacity optical drive standard, makes a good investment if speed and high capacity are of utmost importance to you, or if you want to watch Blu-ray movies on your computer.

Whatever you choose, be sure it reads and writes CD and DVD formats of all kinds. Expect to pay around $50 for CD/DVD drive that can read, play and burn.

Replacing Your Video Card

If you do a lot of gaming or watch high-definition video on your computer, a high-performance video card will be a good investment. Many manufacturers cram their video cards full of RAM, which is cheap relative to intelligent graphics technology. More RAM does not mean "faster," necessarily. Research the graphics processor units (GPU) on the market to see which performs best for your needs at any given amount of RAM. The GPU is the key to a good video card.

If you're just looking to replace the low-end graphics card that came pre-installed with your computer, then something in the $50 price range will do nicely. But make sure you know what type of card to buy before you shop, because they're not all interchangeable. You'll find PCI video cards in older systems, and AGP or PCI Express in newer ones.

Upgrade Your Monitor

Personally, I find the biggest productivity bang for the buck in supersizing my display. My office setup features 24-inch dual monitors, but anything is better than the clunky old 15-inch monitor that came with your system. A "large" monitor nowadays is 23 inches or more; and that's where the price jumps, too. Most modern computers and operating systems support dual displays, which can be smaller while adding up to more pixels (displayable space). Some applications just beg for a large monitor - Adobe Dreamweaver; AutoCAD; Photoshop; QuarkXpress and other graphics-intensive things.

But many people find two monitors - or even more - help them partition their open applications and their attention to each group. You can have "work" on one monitor and "other" on a second, i.e., Twitter, weather, stock quotes, sports news, etc. You can also use a digital TV as a computer monitor with an HDMI cable and connector; imagine gaming on a 43" screen! Prices on 22-inch displays have dropped recently, to under $200. But you can add a 19-incher to your existing setup for a little over $100. Those slick 30-inch displays you see in the Apple stores will run you $1799.

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Most recent comments on "Inexpensive Computer Upgrades"

Posted by:

09 Nov 2009

As far as hardware upgrades go, those are right on target--and in that order. RAM by far gives you the most bang for the buck.

One guideline that should be added is a benchmark of cost-effectiveness. How much is it going to cost to get the upgrade hardware compared to getting a new computer that may have most of that in it in the first place? An electrical engineer once advised me that if the fix costs more than half the cost of replacement, you should replace. That's not a bad guideline.

Posted by:

11 Nov 2009

'YES... spelling, punctuation, grammar and proper use of UPPER/lower case are important!'

Too true.

So when you say 'You can have "work" on one monitor and "other" on a second, i.e., Twitter, weather, stock quotes, sports news, etc.', I think that 'i.e.' should be an 'e.g.', shouldn't it?

Posted by:

11 Nov 2009

The ram upgrade path is not quite as straight forward as it appears. If you have a 32 bit version of Windows and install 4GB Windows will only make use of 3GB or less. The various incremental increases in memory produce decreasing benefits. In XP going from 256MB to 512 produces a dramatic improvement in performance. Going up to 1GB offers a worthwhile improvement, but thereafter the benefits decline. I defy anyone to demonstrate that going from 1GB to 2GB or more in Windows XP provides a useful improvement in performance.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I don't have any scientific proof, but I've upgraded quite a few systems from 1GB to 2GB and it always seems to make a big difference, especially reducing hard drive thrashing caused by paging.

Posted by:

Lee McIntyre
11 Nov 2009

We all know that old cathode ray tube monitors are measured diagonally - a 15" monitor is 15 inches from the upper left corner to the lower right corner.

Seems like I heard that flat screens are NOT measured diagonally; a 23" monitor, for example, is 23 inches along its longest (left to right, normally) dimension. If so, screen sizes measurements are not directly comparable. What is correct?

EDITOR'S NOTE: As far as I know, they are still measured along the diagonal. I've always thought that misleading, but that's marketing...

Posted by:

11 Nov 2009

What great, simple info! You seem to make the complex understandable. I will forward you to my friends (so they will quit bugging me).

Posted by:

Tom Smith
11 Nov 2009

If you have a large flat screen tv use that as an alternate screen for your pc. My 36" widescreen has multiple inputs and I use one HDMI input for tv and another for the computer.

By using a wireless mouse & keyboard you can then sit in your favorite easy chair and access your pc as well.

Posted by:

12 Nov 2009

It's possible to buy a new computer for about $250. No, it's not going to be top of the line, but it'll certainly come with at least 2GB RAM, at least 250GB of disk, and a faster processor than the one in your aging PC. And the motherboard graphics processor on the cheap new PC will certainly be faster, too. So how can you you justify throwing money into that old PC???

Posted by:

13 Nov 2009

Hi, I have a relatively new laptop that uses Vista. I am thinking of getting a larger monitor which would be hooked up to the laptop. I am wondering whether or not it would be better to go with a relatively inexpensive LCD tv with HDMI or just with a straight monitor (about 23inches). Is there any difference in quality between going with a monitor and a TV?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Probably yes. I hooked up a 42-inch TV to my computer, and the image was very grainy. I think that's because each pixel ends up being much larger than when it's on a smaller monitor. If you get a TV that can handle very high resolutions, then it might be better. My TV was unable to display the highest resolution of my graphics card, which is 1680x1050.

Posted by:

17 Nov 2009

I'm a former IT guy and I can attest to this. One significant point in favor of keeping your old PC is keeping the Operating System you're comfortable with. Personally, I currently have 750 MBs of RAM and plan to max out the RAM (2 gigs) in my old Dell. That should do me fine.....PLUS quite frankly, I'm perfectly happy with XP. It's that simple. Maxing out the RAM really makes a difference.

Posted by:

19 Nov 2009

"I defy anyone to demonstrate that going from 1GB to 2GB or more in Windows XP provides a useful improvement in performance."

I use Photoshop daily, working with files at a minimum size of 12MB, and I can attest to the improvement when I upped my XP box from 1GB to 4GB. It probably didn't see all 4GB, but anything that keeps your work in RAM and not on the swap disk is going to help speed things up. I'm now on Vista 64 with 6GB RAM and I can run Lightroom and Photoshop together with no appreciable slowdowns.

I'm pretty sure you can find some tests at someplace like Tom's Hardware to support the RAM improvement.

Posted by:

Memory Ten
20 Nov 2009

I read this blog and would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except NICE BLOG with a lot of information.

Posted by:

15 Dec 2009

Instead of upgrades to your hardware have a look at Ubuntu

Posted by:

06 Jan 2010

Hello there names pete, I have a problem with a computer here, it reposts, in other words when I switch the computer it posts normally, but then goes back and repost again and again, it does not boot with the hdd, I checked in the bios, and it seems ok first boot, hdd, please I have run out of option and dont know what esle to try, can someone help me or give suggestions how to continue with troubleshooting?

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