The Best Upgrades for Your Old Computer

Category: Hardware

If you have an older computer that's struggling to keep up with modern apps and operating systems, 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 Old, Slow Computer

First, ask yourself whether your computer is too slow for you, or for someone else. Did you think, “Gee, my computer is slow” before your spoiled nephew 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 pills and 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. 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.

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. See my article A Free Windows XP Alternative for some practical "how to" advice on switching to Ubuntu Linux.

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 at least 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 the bleeding edge of mass storage technology, but they are still expensive compared to magnetic hard drives. But here's something to consider… right now, a 1 TB (1000 GB) magnetic hard drive costs about the same as a 120GB SSD drive -- roughly US$50. But if you've only got 50GB of data, the SSD is a better buy, even though it holds about 8 times less 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 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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This article was posted by on 14 Dec 2017

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

(See all 25 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Marc Menard
14 Dec 2017

For people with large needs for data storage and a low budget, there’s the hybrid SSHD to consider: I’ve put one in my son’s computer and he’s very happy with it. Less expensive than a bona fide SSD, with plenty more kick at startup than just a conventional hard drive. They exist in 3.5 and 2.5 inch form factors, I got him a 2 TB SSHD (which has a small 8 GB SSD built-in) and the results were excellent. There’s the ease of use part too: the SSD part of the drive « learns » by itself what’s required at startup, and provided there’s room, might even speed up some apps that are the most often used. And no need to manage anything, it’s all transparent to the user. Cheers, and thanks Bob for your super newsletter!

Posted by:

14 Dec 2017

I certainly agree with switching to Linux. My best move was putting my HP Pavilion HPE h8z-1150 with Win7 out in the garage a year and a half ago. This computer has an AMD 8 core CPU @ 3.6ghz, 8 gigs of ram, 1TB & a 500GB HDD's, and a Nvida GT 530. My new main computer is an Intel NUC 5i5RYK with a 250GB SSD, 8gigs of ram & 4 USB 3.0 ports, running Mint 18.3 Mate, Solus Budgie & Mate, MX 17.3, and Ubuntu 17.0 Mate. This little sucker boots in 10 seconds and is speedier than the beast in the garage!

Posted by:

Ronald Nurmi
14 Dec 2017

going to Linux is a great idea if the software you use runs on Linux or does it require Windows

Posted by:

14 Dec 2017

I made the mistake of buying a cheap Acer laptop with 2GB RAM thinking that I would easily upgrade to 4 or 8GB at a later date. Sadly Acer have dispensed with the easy - remove the RAM cover underneath and slot a new one in. It is necessary to dismantle nearly the whole laptop in order to access the RAM slot.
Message to Acer: WTF were you thinking when you designed this?!!
Note to self: Do a bit of research next time and don't assume that a system that has worked well for years will be kept in a new model.

Posted by:

Jym Nester
14 Dec 2017

An solid state drive and 8 GB of RAM completely transforms a machine (64 bit, of course).

Posted by:

14 Dec 2017

We have a little experiment going at our house: our two Lenovo's running Windows 7, one a two-year old desktop, and one a five year old laptop, were both running slowly. Apart from carrying out the usual software management and cleaning and assorted hardware maintenance on a regular basis, I just ignored their slowness. Then the desktop started to rattle alarmingly, although it stopped when I pushed on the CD drive enclosure, and a hardware check started giving a SMART warning on the hard drive, and – it never fails – shortly thereafter, the laptop started behaving peculiarly and a hardware check on it wouldn't complete at all.

Thanks to my son, I now have a new home-built desktop with a SSD and large internal hard drive, on which I managed to load and activate a newly-purchased Windows 7 and even get it updating (with many, many thanks to Zeffy, who wrote wufuc, may his tribe increase.) Apart from a struggle to get Dropbox to use the new desktop’s hard drive instead of the SSD – which resulted in Dropbox erasing all my files, thank goodness I listened to Bob about having local backups too – and a few other wrinkles getting the BIOS to behave itself, the new desktop is working beautifully with all my current software, including Office 2013 and Open Office, and peripherals, including my beloved old Brother duplexing USB printer.

My husband decided to get a new laptop, a Lenovo Thinkpad, which came with Windows 10 preloaded.

I decided I would try to learn to use Windows 10.

[Windows 10 Rant follows]
First fight: I can’t use a password to log on to the laptop, only to sign in to a Microsoft account – I have to use a PIN or a finger. This would be fine if strings of numbers were easier for humans to remember than clever passwords, or if fingerprint readers worked for users who’ve just hand-washed dishes with soap and hot water. But, I finally managed to come up with a PIN I can remember and persuaded Windows 10 to let me use it to log on to the laptop without having to sign in to my Microsoft account.
Next, Windows 10 refused to let me turn off those blasted space-hogging tiles, so I installed Start10. (ClassicShell, alas, is no longer being updated – sounds as though its author got fed up with Windows 10 breaking things on a regular basis.)
Then I discovered that Windows 10 has scattered control panel items into at least two and maybe more places, so rather than searching all the time, I installed GodMode.
After that, I got as far as replacing McAfee with Bitdefender, then loaded Firefox, and Chrome . . . then Windows 10 said it had to update itself but updating was broken. This on a brand new computer . . . .
No advice on how to fix the updating problem was provided, but Google found me the Windows 10 update troubleshooter. I ran this and it found and fixed three problems that were preventing updating . . . after which Windows 10 updated.
The update took about 5 hours to download, another 5 or so to install, and then a couple of hours to reboot after that! I read online that Windows 10 does this twice a year, and besides the fact that it renders the machine unusable for hours and hours, the result is always that something that worked before stops working – and usually not just one something, but a bunch of them.
Once I’d rebooted the laptop a couple of times post-update to make sure it *would* still reboot normally, out of curiosity, I asked Windows 10 to check to see if there were any further updates. Windows 10 said it couldn’t check for updates right now, try later. Several days later, it still can’t check for updates. Let’s hope there aren’t any important updates languishing out there in inaccessible Windows 10 cyber space.
Oh yeah, and the Thinkpad also has an SSD and large internal hard drive, but it came configured to put all the user data folders on the SSD and not on the hard drive, and the user data I want to put on the laptop takes up way more space than will fit on the SSD (even if the SSD didn’t have any programs on it, which of course it does).
Windows 10 won’t allow moving the user data folders from the SSD to the hard drive. When I have a few free hours, I’m going to phone Lenovo support to see if they can tell me how to make Windows 10 put the user data folders on the hard drive – which IMHO is how Lenovo should have configured the machine in the first place. If Windows 10 doesn’t allow this, I’m going to be asking for Lenovo’s instructions on how to upgrade back to Windows 7 without voiding the warranty . . .
And this is BEFORE loading Office and Open Office or actually trying to do anything *useful* on the laptop. AAAARHGHGH!
[End Windows 10 rant]

Bottom line – so far I’ve found it easier to get a home-built up system and running by installing a newly-purchased copy of Windows 7 than to get a brand new computer preloaded with Windows 10 to work at all . . . .

Posted by:

14 Dec 2017

No mention of 32 bit. which I don't believe there's much you can put on such any more. Nevertheless one can use an old crock like this off line and never updated to record from radio, edit and play audio. I would certainly recommend Linux but it seems for many Mint is synonymous with Linux. Google PCLinuxOS and compare. I've be using it for over 2 years but keep a Win 7 drive going for my wife to Photoshop. It never goes online.

Posted by:

Nigel A
14 Dec 2017

My laptop dates from 2010 and it was still fine for what I used it for until I became treasurer of the auxiliary to our local hospital and installed Quickbooks. Then it slowed down and I discovered the Quickbooks has a reputation of being a resource hog. I increased RAM from 4GB to 8GB (the maximum my laptop will handle) and installed a 1TB SSD. It's like a new machine, loads quickly and doesn't slow down if I have more than one thing open at a time. Much less expensive than a new laptop specially one with a 17" screen which this has.
I endorse the idea to increase RAM and change to an SSD, I used and they scan your system and tell you what is compatible and available.

Posted by:

15 Dec 2017

The only problem I had with switching from Windows to Linux is Linux Mint didn't control my laptop's fan efficiently. I couldn't watch a video more than 5 minutes long without overheating and my laptop shutting down.I tried many different fixes, none of which worked. I could watch videos on Windows 7 all day without coming close to overheating.

Posted by:

David Holt
15 Dec 2017

My best "speed up things" improvement was installing a second monitor on my old Win7 Dell that has both HDMI and VGA outputs. I copy lots of Word.doc text from files emailed to me into Photoshop. Opening Word on one Screen and Photoshop on the other makes drag-n-drop a breeze.

Posted by:

15 Dec 2017

You might also want to look at the rest of your computing environment - furniture, lighting, air flow, etc. A comfortable office chair and plenty of work space can speed up your total "computer time". And, eye glasses customized for looking at your display can let you respond faster...

Posted by:

Tom Janzen
15 Dec 2017

I added a SSD for the O/S but put my pictures and music on the existing hard drive. Works great.

Posted by:

15 Dec 2017

Now 82, I was a practicing optician in Ottawa Canada when middle age government employees had computers thrust on them. I never used a computer until 2004 but never have I used special glasses. One should be looking down at the monitor. Over the years I've developed to where I now have dumped Windows for Linux and pursued health issues to where I stand at a 36" desk as I type this. My late father, a musician, described going about things the wrong way as "pulling the piano up to the bench".

Posted by:

15 Dec 2017

Happy Holidays to one and all!
As Tom Janzen stated; ADDing (NOT "replacing" an HDD) a 128GB SSD is the better bang-for-the-buck for an aging PC. Furthermore, to maximize the performance of such a dual-drive system will require additional effort in transferring the OperatingSystem (OS) to the new SSD (possibly using a program such as Acronis). Then, all user data (including Documents/Photos/Videos/etc.) should be relocated to/in the 2nd drive (the old HDD). This upgrade will totally isolate the OS from the user data, which is to be solely used for Operating system (and all installed programs/apps/utilities). The speed, reliability and security improvements may alarm you!

Posted by:

16 Dec 2017

Upgrading the monitor is insignificant, specially for old computers. Its better to focus mainly on the processor and memory. Buying a new HDD/SSD will help too since newer storage media's have faster write/read speed. Thats all for the hardware side. On the software side, updating the drivers, scanning for viruses, cleaning and optimizing the system will speed up the pc considerably. Downgrading the OS migrating to a linux distro is an option too.

Posted by:

16 Dec 2017

I switched to Linux long ago and haven't looked back. Bought a laptop from my son with Win 10 on it. Dumped that after a five hour update among other problems. Linux Mint is popular because it has a Win 7 feel plus, for most, it works out of the box. Not sure about Mike's over heating. We stream about 5 hours in the evenings and my fan has never come on. I have a 10 y.o. PC that runs like new with Linux.

Posted by:

Kenneth Maltby
17 Dec 2017

Please - can you explain "eight times less data"? Is that the same as one eighth of the data?

Posted by:

28 Dec 2017

As I was passing, I tripped and fell onto your site, sorry about that!
Very interesting! Updated a few years back, could use a new monitor though. After all, if you look around, you will find that a TV with monitor capabilities (HDMI) is far better for your computer at less the price. But resolution plays a major roll. So check the stats before you buy.
And you can watch TV as well! I know!!

Happy 2018

Posted by:

01 Jan 2018

My HP Pavilion g6 cheapie laptop, running W10 64 bit has always been slow when running wireless internet. It has been upgraded to a SS hard drive. I have always blamed the slowness on the wireless router and fiddled with location to no avail. I happened to have a Netis USB wireless adapter lying around. I shut down the built in wireless and stuck in the adapter and the thing now screams almost as fast as my hard wired [from the router] desktop. With my Spectrum HS internet it now runs as high as 57.8/3.42 MPS as compared to 13.5/3.65 with the built in wireless. Boy am I happy !!!

Posted by:

13 Feb 2018


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