Time For a New Computer?

Category: Hardware

A reader asks: 'Our computer is three years old, and my teenager says it is obsolete. He wants us to buy a new computer with more speed, more memory, and a bigger monitor. Can you give me some pointers on how to determine if I really need to buy a new computer?'

Is Your Computer Obsolete?

Many years ago I saw a cartoon of a guy proudly driving home with his brand new state-of-the-art IBM 386 computer in the back seat. In the background was a huge billboard advertising the 486. The message: his computer was obsolete before he even got it home.

Technology is always changing... it's hard to be sure if the system you have will support the newest software, operating system and peripherals. So how do you know when it is indeed time to buy a new computer, or when it is best to ignore the commercials that tout the latest "gotta-have" technology?

You May Need To Buy A New Computer If...

    • ...your processor speed is less than 3.0 gigahertz (GHz). Most operating systems and application software these days demand a lot from your system. A speedy processor will help you browse the Internet, run your word processor and play games with ease. On a Windows PC, click the Start button, type system information and press Enter. If the speed is listed in megahertz instead of gigahertz, see if any friends need a new anchor for their fishing boat.

Need a new computer?  The HP Model 33 Teletype

    • ...your computer has less than 4 gigabytes (GB) of RAM memory. Again, the System Properties window will show how much RAM is installed. I recommend a minimum of 4 gigabytes (GB) of RAM for smooth performance. Go for 8GB of RAM if you use more than one program at once, or have multiple browser tabs open.

    • ...you are running a version of Windows that begins with a "3", "9", "V", or "X" (Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows Vista or Windows XP). These obsolete versions lack the security features and technological advances required for safe computing and protection from identity theft. Windows 7 is still serviceable, but official support will end in January 2020. If you have a Mac that's NOT running somer version of OS X, the same applies.

    • ...you have a monitor that's 14-inch or smaller. Most websites will not display properly on an old 14-inch monitor, and larger 20-inch models are now standard. (I have dual 22-inch widescreen monitors on my desk!)

    • ...you try to install a program and you get the error "Operating System not supported."

    • ...you try to upgrade the Operating System and get an error message that the hardware is not supported.

    • ...your computer has no USB ports. Most peripheral devices such as the mouse, keyboard, printer, scanner and external hard drives now use USB connections.

    • ...your computer has a 5.25 inch disk drive! Actually if you have even a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive, you may qualify. Software has outgrown the floppy disk, and the mere presence of a floppy drive on your machine may indicate that it's time to take it out back and shoot it.

    • Radio Shack TRS-80...your computer says Radio Shack anywhere on the packaging. I had lots of fun on the TRS-80 we had in high school, but that was almost 40 years ago. I actually owned an HP Model 33 Teletype (pictured above), which was the first computer terminal I used. It could go online with a 300-baud modem (about 10,000 times slower than broadband today) and saved programs on paper punch tapes.

All of the above scenarios warrant shelling out the dough for a new computer. There are cases however, where you might have a relatively new computer, (less than 3 years old) and it is acting up enough to make you want to replace it with a new one. Before you do that, let's look at a few ways you can "soup up" a fairly new machine:

Your Computer Is Running S-l-o-o-o-w-w

Before you decide to buy a new computer, read my article on The Best Upgrades for Old Computers, and if you're thinking about a used computer, see Is it Safe to Buy a Used Computer?

This is probably the number one complaint heard by Help Desk techs worldwide. If your computer is less than 3 years old, there are a myriad of reasons for the slowdown in performance. For instance, you may not have all the latest security software installed. Operating Systems, device drivers, anti-virus programs and other applications have frequent updates releases to their original product. Keeping up with the latest releases or patches of any software you are running, is a good way to keep your computer free from viruses and spyware that can slow it to a crawl.

Hardware also has updates, called firmware updates. Check with your hardware vendors to make sure that your computer, wireless router, cable modem, printer, etc... all have the latest firmware updates. A cable or DSL modem that's overheating can throttle your Internet speed. If you find that turning off the modem and then waiting an hour or so boosts your surfing speed, you may need to replace it.

Sometimes a slow running computer is one that is lacking memory. As applications get more feature rich, more memory (RAM, not hard drive space) is required to run them. A lot of times, computers will be sold without the maximum capacity of RAM that they can actually run. Again, check with your computer's manufacturer. Find out if the memory is expandable, and how much RAM you currently have intalled. Upgrading RAM is a fairly easy and inexpensive way to speed up your computer. See my companion article for help with understanding and adding RAM: Does Your Computer Need More Memory?

Your Computer Is Running Out of Space

You are noticing degradation in your computer's performance, and you are also noticing "Running low on disk space" messages. Low disk space can slow a machine down, and also cause problems running applications. Hard drive space is getting cheaper and cheaper these days; the newest computers often come with 500 GB or 1 terabyte (1000 GB) hard drives as a standard. You don't have to buy one of these new computers though; you can replace a smaller hard disk drive with a larger one, or upgrade to an SSD drive. But before you do any of those things, see my article Clean Hard Drive for tips on getting rid of the junk and clutter on your hard drive.

Your Computer Has Less-Than-Great-Graphics and So-So-Sound

The characters in that cool, new game you installed, have herky-jerky movements or maybe there's a tinny sound when you blast the bad guys. Or perhaps the photos you download from your digital camera have a grainy, dull look when opened on your computer. On a relatively new machine, these problems can often be remedied by multimedia upgrades. Upgrading your graphics card or sound card can add a whole new level to your computing experience. A newer monitor will make everything look crisper.

It's important to know when to let go of an old clunker of a computer. It's just as important to realize when your computer needs a "tune-up". The goal is to find a happy medium between being able to experience the latest that technology has to offer, but not being pressured into throwing a perfectly good system away because of slick sales ads, feature envy or industry hype.

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

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Most recent comments on "Time For a New Computer?"

(See all 27 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Robert Wright
30 May 2019

You mention 4GB RAM and your system runs smoothly. You suggest increasing to 8GB if you have multiple windows open. What you didn't mention is 32bit Win 10 is not able to address / use all of 4GB. More RAM, 8 or 16GB is only beneficial if you are running 64bit Win 10

Posted by:

30 May 2019

I have four working laptops (plus one more and a couple desktops awaiting "repairs"). The four range in age from two to fifteen years old. They have 15" to 17" monitors. Three have 4 GB RAM and one came with 0.5. (Yes, 0.5! I upgraded it just the very tiniest, tiniest bit.) All work well and do everything I want them to. The oldest one is at least good for checking an occasional email, playing solitaire, reading an ebook, and ordering pizza. Why switch?

Posted by:

30 May 2019

I'm with JP (earlier today).
Some of my machine is seven years old. The main hard disk is a Hitachi and the CPU is an Intel Core(TM) i3-2120 CPU @ 3.30GHz, 2 Cores, 4 Logical Processors. The motherboard is a 4-year-old ASUS (Windows 10 bricked the original Foxconn).
Yup, Windows 7 64-bit. Works just fine, thinks faster than I can, though my 1 megabit internet wire sometimes struggles streaming poorly compacted videos -- what's the point of pouring an 8 megapixel (or whatever) High Definition video onto a 24" LCD monitor with 2.3 MP? And if/when Windows 7 fizzles, I'll go to Linux, probably Mint because some people like it, and I am not going to waste time researching computer operating systems. Remember: the life purpose of a computer is not to run an operating system; it is to display cat videos and political rants.

Posted by:

george austin
30 May 2019

Please tell all of us how to permanently delete
windows based script host . It destroys my speed by 90%

Posted by:

Paul Schmidt
30 May 2019

Old doesn't necessarily mean obsolete or no good.
From XP days, I now have four W10 self-built desktop machines, now running version 1903, with 12-15 year old motherboards. They all have quad-core cpu's, were able to do 64bit OS's, and 8g of ram.
The three big changes I made to making this happy are SSD's, dedicated graphics cards, and BIOS upgrades. One is never sorry when You buy quality.

I cheer Microsoft in that I was able to carry on with hardware this old. They are still fast.

Posted by:

30 May 2019

Heinrich Rudolf Hertz gotta be flippin' in his grave. NIST and SI be damned!

EDITOR'S NOTE: I just checked with NIST (https://csrc.nist.gov/glossary/term/Gigahertz) and verified that the correct abbreviation for gigahertz is GHz. What is your concern?

Posted by:

31 May 2019

You say if you have fewer than 8GB of RAM or a monitor smaller than 14in you need a new computer...but of course you could just buy more RAM and/or a bigger monitor. Otherwise you are just putting ammunition in the hands of the teenager!

Posted by:

31 May 2019

Don't throw out your computer if it is less than 3Ghz. Most modern 64-bit multi-core processors run just fine at 1.8, 2.4 etc Ghz. I have ThinkPad laptops running Core 2 Duo's at 2.4Ghz. Install an SSD and clean install Windows and they run great.

Posted by:

Brian B
31 May 2019

My father once gave me a pick axe, which he told me had been in the family for two generations. He also told me that it had been fitted with two axe heads and three handles.

Posted by:

Robert K
31 May 2019

author: ..your computer says Radio Shack anywhere on the packaging.


Now, that put a smile on my face. How about Sinclair, Atari or Commodor?

Posted by:

david maguire
31 May 2019

i miss the friendly paper clip man & the flying toasters

Posted by:

Daniel Wiener
31 May 2019

I hate it when my company insists that I upgrade to either a new computer or a new operating system. It is an incredible pain in the ass to have to reinstall dozens of old programs, many of which won't work with the new hardware or operating system. My current computer and OS works just fine and is configured the way I like it. So I do all I can to avoid the upgrades. Eventually it becomes a losing battle, since my company wants uniformity to simplify technical support and licenses.

As for my personal computers, I still haven't gotten rid of my Kaypro II, which is only 37 years old. I think when it reaches the 50 year mark it can officially be considered an antique.

Posted by:

Paulo Rodrigues
31 May 2019

Hi, Bob !
Just signed in - and before reading any article, I usually look for the DATE it was published, as more than frequently we run over 4-5 yr old articles in the net, which in some cases like IT or politics may turn it completely obsolete.

After some searching, I could finally find it at the bottom, almost "hidden" by two big yellow areas. So, in the name of clarity, I humbly suggest you consider publishing the date just under the article headline.

Best regards !

Posted by:

31 May 2019

My Gateway computer is almost 6 years old, 3gHz, 8GB RAM, i5 chip. Windows 10 64 bit, 24" monitor, wireless keyboard& mouse, 10-year old 4-in 1 inkjet and mono laser printer. All work exactly as intended. I'm not a gamer so I don't need to be concerned with gaming requirements. Have fiber connection for internet. I don't always download everything online so it's useful to have DVD/CD combo drives. I don't consider my computer to be obsolete yet. Though I must admit that my laptop is a speedy little devil, 8th generation chip, does everything but whistle Dixie.

Posted by:

Paul S
31 May 2019

Bob, all of the ASR 33's that I encountered ran at 110 baud. Even the few 35's I saw were 110 baud. Maybe yours was "souped up" a bit? The noise was deafening if one had to work nearby. The speed jumps to 300 baud and later 1200 baud were welcomed both for getting work done faster but also the new hardware. Long live the many mechanical dot matrix terminals that were so popular as time share terminals. Lots of complaints about the noise from them to when extensive printing was involved.

Posted by:

Pete in NC
31 May 2019

Linux Mint has kept my XP computers running well for an additional 5 years, and counting. I'm not a gamer, and I got used to closing windows that I didn't really need when working in Clinical Data Management @ Burroughs Wellcome.

Posted by:

31 May 2019

I wish more people would discover Linux Mint.

Posted by:

Dave White
01 Jun 2019

I suggest that you tell your teenager to get a job and buy his own damn computer. Then he can get whatever floats his boat and replace it every two years or whatever his friends tell him to do.

Posted by:

02 Jun 2019

Talking about old computers, I have a working Amiga 3000 so it's something like 30 years old. For the so-called productivity programs, it's fine, ditto for some graphics. It's not great for photographs or the internet so I have a laptop (Windows 7).

Posted by:

Darren Dixon
10 Jun 2019

Hi Bob, your recommendation for a 3Ghz or higher processor is a bit misleading in my opinion. Many current generation CPUs are under 3Ghz and they work fine with Win 10 and modern apps. for example, the Intel Core i5-9400 is rated at 2.90 Ghz (with turbo boost up to 4.10Ghz). Are you saying this CPU isn't powerful enough? Using your recommendation of 3Ghz or higher will only push those not-in-the-know to buy more than they need. If by 3Ghz you are including turbo boost frequencies, then I think you should explain that to your readers.

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