Old, Slow Computer - Upgrade or Buy New?

Category: Hardware

Do you have an older computer that's struggling to keep up with the latest apps and modern operating systems? Maybe it's bogged down with the weight of cosmic computer crud that's built up over the years. 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 my guidelines for making that decision...

Should You Upgrade Your Old, Slow Computer?

First, ask yourself if your computer is too slow for you, or for someone else. Did you think, “Gee, my computer is slow” before your friend with the brand new computer said, “Gee, your computer is slow!”? If you’re getting done all you want to get done, and fast enough for you, you may not need to upgrade. But if you're not satisfied, read on!

Some upgrades do 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. Twenty years ago, I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. My doctor suggested both drugs and surgery, but switching to an ergonomic keyboard with the split/curved key layout completely eliminated my pain. When I type on a "regular" keyboard (the cheap, rectangular ones that usually come with new computers) I feel that familar wrist pain again.

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. But you should also consider ADDING a monitor. Check out my article Dual Monitors: Good Reasons to Upgrade and consider the potential benefits of adding a second screen to your desktop setup.

Amazon has a selection of 24-inch monitors (rated 4-stars or higher) starting at $109.97. This Sceptre 24-inch IPS Monitor has both HDMI and VGA Ports, Full HD resolution, edgeless design, built-in speakers, and tiltable stand. If you want something larger, this LG 32-Inch IPS Monitor is on sale for $197 (reg $300) with free shipping. Two of those would make an awesome dual-monitor setup!

Keep in mind that you may need a better graphics card to match the capabilities of a modern monitor, or a dual-monitor setup. 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.

Upgrading Memory and Hard Drive

Here's one zero-cost option for speeding up an older computer. Consider moving away from Windows, and switching to the Linux operating system. Linux tends to require less in the way of hardware resources, so it can be a good option for older computers that bog down with newer versions of Windows. Check out Linux Mint and Zorin OS as Linux versions that have a familiar Windows-like interface. Zorin lets you configure the desktop to resemble Windows or Mac OS X.

More RAM memory 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 a minimum of 4 GB of RAM; business and power users, 8 GB or more; and only the busiest video editors, database administrators, or gamers need 16+ GB of RAM. But modern versions of Windows can work with up to 2 TB (terabytes) of RAM memory. The operating system you have is very important when considering buying RAM. See my article Will More Memory Speed Up Your Computer? 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 faster, but they are more expensive compared to magnetic hard drives. But here's something to consider… right now, a 1 terabyte (1000 gigabytes) magnetic hard drive costs about the same as a 256 GB SSD drive -- roughly US$50. But if you've only got 100 GB of data, the SSD is obviously a better buy, even though it holds about one fourth as much data.

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 get rid of. Unwanted software, temp files, an old operating system, 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 [FREE] Tools to Tune and Optimize Your Hard Drive for more tips and free software you can use to get the job done.

A word about Windows 7 seems appropriate here. You're probably aware by now that Microsoft ended support for Windows 7 in January 2020. If you're still running a computer with Windows 7, you won't be forced to upgrade to Windows 10, but you will no longer receive Windows updates for security issues. Windows 7 is a ten-year-old operating system, and lacks many of the new security features available in Windows 10. Most notably, the Controlled Folder Access and Ransomware Data Recovery features in Windows 10 provide protection from the growing ransomware threat. I recently replaced a Windows 7 computer with a newer one running Windows 10, and my wife didn't seem to notice much difference.

So here's my advice for Windows 7 users: If you're thinking about a new computer, it will come with Windows 10, so you're covered. If you're not ready to upgrade your hardware, I do recommend that you upgrade to Windows 10. It's not critical that you do so immediately, but I wouldn't go too far into 2020 before doing so. The malware threats are becoming more vicious and sophisticated.

Deciding whether to upgrade or buy a new machine can be difficult. But doing the actual upgrades requires only a screwdriver and a little gumption. If you are comfortable installing 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 "Old, Slow Computer - Upgrade or Buy New?"

(See all 29 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Bob K
26 May 2020

I have two desktops here. Was running Win 7 on both. One (due to a hardware failure) ended up getting replaced with a new MB that was designed to run only Win 10. REAL bummer! I loaded that with plenty of RAM, SSD drives, and it has dual monitors. And while I have a minimal Win 10 on installed, it now multi-boots into 8.1, 10 or Ubuntu -- with Ubuntu being the choice. As fast as I need!

The other machine still runs 7 (and Ubuntu). It won't run 10, so that solves that question. With some careful registry cleaning, and other tuning up, it is a nice snappy machine. It has 3 Gb of RAM, will only take 4. I have an additional 1 Gb stick that I will add, and plan to update the HD to a SSD. That machine is running on a 500 Gb HD, and today a SSD of that size is not that much money. Physically where I have it located there is not room for a second monitor, but find the local Goodwill stores a fantastic source of used, but very usable monitors.

On the dire predictions of malware and Win 7 -- I think that is hype trying to convince people to upgrade. As the number of Win 7 users dwindle, the nerds writing malware aren't going to be aiming their stuff toward them. I have a Win 3 box, still up and doing a job, and have no worries about malware!

And, for those willing to run other than Windows, look at the horsepower available in the Raspberry Pi series!

Posted by:

26 May 2020

am 71 using win 7, win 10 have no problems at all use PCMATIC across all never a problem with anything
need to use them to keep all I have Win 10 does not
run a lot

Posted by:

Joe B
26 May 2020

Replacing Windows with Linux Mint would speed up the old computer significantly!

Posted by:

Joe Gill
26 May 2020

IMHO, here is my approach to "speeding up" computers:
A. If it is running on a Pentium processor or below, consider upgrading!
B. First INCREASE memory to 16G, and set Windows "page file" to automatic.
C. Replace Mechanical drive with an SSD, shopping by performance and not just cost. If you have a lot of data, consider putting OS and executables on C: drive, and all there rest on a secondary drive. Andfrom this point forward, DO NOT DEFRAG.
D. Consider a one-time use of one of the highly rated cleanup utilities, to remove crap.

Posted by:

Mike Davies
26 May 2020

If you're upgrading to a SSD, you must turn OFF automatic defragging. SSDs have a finite number of rewrites, and defragging causes multiple rewrites. The way SSDs store data is different to disk drives, you should defrag disk drives, but I repeat, do not defrag SSDs.

Posted by:

Renaud Olgiati
26 May 2020

An upgrade I did recently on my elderly box, for a very reasonable price, was to look up what CPU I had (cat /proc/cpuinfo), find on Ebay a compatible CPU with twice the cores, and higher clock speed, and plonk it in place of the old one on the MB.
Instant speed improvement.

Posted by:

Renaud Olgiati
26 May 2020

PS But make sure the new CPU uses the same socket as the old !

Posted by:

26 May 2020

My old eyes strain at small print. Upgrading for me involved (1) buying a refurbished office machine computer (from a reputable microsoft windows recognized refurbisher). They re-installed the newest windows 10 pro, changed out the hard drive to a brand new 1 terrabyte unit (they guarantee it for 2 years!). My machine came with 8 gigs ram installed. It also has a display port connection that I hooked an adapter onto that gives me HDMI connection. An HDMI cable lets me connect to a (2)large flat screen "smart TV" for my monitor. It is a 4K resolution tv that can also go onto the internet on its own, as well. That way I can watch netflix movies at 4K resolution, and for internet surfing and youtube I use the pc, with its' 1080 resolution (plenty adequate, but If I want 4K youtube I can go there on the TV and not be limited by the older pc's graphic card.). The refurb HP office pc cost $149, and the 42 inch smart TV was about $300. I've been using this setup for 3 years already and quite happy with it.

Posted by:

eric c perkins
26 May 2020

I used to replace my computer every few years after they became unacceptably slow, but then you wrote about PrivaZer, a utility that cleans the junk out. I had previously used Super Antispyware for the same purpose. Each seems to work well, but over time the junk builds up again. Then I started using both tegether (at separate times) and after 2 years my computer runs like new. Here's how: I use PrivaZer at shut-down, setting it to scan the machine and then shut it down when finshed. Then, immediately after booting up again, I run Super Antispyware. Often the latter finds nothing, and sometime a few items, but occasionally it finds hundreds; this morning it found 443! I should mention that I have each utility download updates before I turn them loose. The computer always runs like new! What's not to like about that? I should mention the PrivaZer has been asking for donations more aggressively, and I do send them a few dollars on occasion.

Posted by:

26 May 2020

I always by high end refurb PC's, and besides a little cleanup, all I usually need to do is add memory.

I also just went to dual monitors, mostly because I'm working from home because of this virus thing. $250 buck for 2 24" monitors and a dual swing arm mount. Good investment.

Posted by:

26 May 2020

If you can't add memory to your laptop, you can put in a usb flash drive, go to PC, right click on the drive - choose properties - then click on Readyboost and set it up.

Posted by:

Ernest N Wilcox
26 May 2020

My 'production' desktop system has Windows10 dual-booting with Mageia Linux. It originally had an AMD Athlon II dual core CPU and 4GB RAM with an onboard Graphics chip that used 1GB RAM 'shared' from main memory. I upgraded the RAM to 8 GB, and got an Nvidia GeForce GPU with 2 GB RAM onboard *not shared).

When the CPU started to run hotter than it should, I got a new (much larger) CPU cooling fan that took my operating temps from near 70 degrees Celsius to less than 30 degrees Celsius at an idle, and in the lower to mid 30's when under any load.

I then got an AND Phenom II quad core CPU that uses the same cooling fan (now runs in the mid to upper 30's Celsius), and just to max out the systems RAM, added another 8 GB (so now the system takes advantage of dual channel RAM access).

The GPU significantly improved my ability to stream video from the 'net, and graphics are now much clearer, and snappier.

The quad-core CPU improved performance and stability, even though it is still an old device.

My most recent (and probably final) upgrade is getting a 1TB SSD drive. This is perhaps the best upgrade I have made. My boot time in Windows 10 is now less than a half minute, and there is a noticeable improvement in programs loading.

All in all, I have probably spent between about $200.00 and $250.00 making these changes, but for me the results are well worth the investment. I should be able to use this machine for several years to come.

As a final note, my Linux installation now boots in about 20 to 25 seconds as opposed to 2 to 3 minutes before.

My recommendation to anyone who is trying to decide whether to upgrade what you have, or buy new is to make sure to evaluate cost / benefit from both sides of the equation. First find out what the cost of a new up to date system will cost, and what benefits it will provide. Next look at what upgrades are possible with your existing mainboard and CPU. You will get the most bang for the buck by adding more RAM (but only if your system can support it). The next best upgrade is getting an SSD drive. This will vastly improve boot times and make things seem significantly more 'snappy'. If you learn that your main board will not support more RAM or a better CPU, I suggest that you will get the best bang for the buck by getting a new system rather than upgrading what you have.

My2Cents (YMMV)

Posted by:

26 May 2020

My Windows 95 is getting slower and slower each year. It is almost, but not quite, unusable. Do you have any remedies for under $10.00?

Posted by:

27 May 2020

Also regarding viruses, be sure to let Bill and Melinda Gates vaccinate you for "the virus" and implant a NWO chip inside you at the same time. There's no cost - it's totally free, and, it's for your own good. Remember, anyone worth $100B can't be all bad (or evil).

Posted by:

27 May 2020

Hey Mike, try an abacus...

Posted by:

27 May 2020

My CPU is an i5, and recently I installed a 256SSD as my C drive. The old C drive is now just a storage drive and the set-up works well.
I also have used dual monitors for years - the present pair are 24inch. I do tutorial testing for a graphics group and being able to put the tutorial on the 2nd monitor is great; also being able to copy easily from one program to another at full screen. I'd be lost without the 2nd screen - can really recommend it.

Posted by:

27 May 2020

Re: Windows 10... I just wanted to say I recently put it on to an old ACER Aspire netbook and, although a bit slow booting up, it works better than the old Windows XP that was there originally.

Posted by:

27 May 2020

Many years ago my parents bought a new Sony VAIO PC and Mom was happy with it but when I used it I noticed that it was a bit sluggish. I did a bit of research and found out that the RAM that came with it was 1G of PC2700 but the 2.6GHZ CPU was compatible with PC3200. Right away I went to my favorite PC parts web site and ordered 2G of dual channel PC3200 RAM. After I swapped the old with the new, boot time was cut in half and it ran much smoother. Needless to say, Mother was ecstatic and asked if I could do anything else with it but due to limited options (and her limited knowledge) the only other thing that I could do is add another HDD but the existing HDD was ample for what she had used it for and no further upgrades was added.

Posted by:

Dennis English
28 May 2020

I like your recommendations, but I would be very happy if they made monitors with adjustable bases so I could lower the monitor to the desktop. I have to top my head back a bit to read my screen since I have bifocals. Yes, I've tried trifocals but wasn't satisfied with them.

Posted by:

28 May 2020

I was a Windows 7 hold out for a long time. I tried Windows 10 early on and hated it so I reversed back to 7. Held on until Feb this year and finally resigned myself to upgrading to 10 for security reasons. The upgrade was simple, it took a few days to get accustomed to 10, but WOW! Is it worth it! My Dell desktop is so much faster running Windows 10! And I feel much safer with it. If you're still holding out, try it!

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