Upgrading your desktop computer is an excellent idea. You can extend the lifespan of a PC indefinitely by changing out components over time. Absolutely everything can be replaced.
Computers are complex, however, and this can lead to headaches when trying to upgrade. Nothing is more frustrating than finding out that you have a compatibility issue while you’re in the process of installing new hardware. Let’s review 4 potential trouble spots you should check before digging into your desktop’s internals.
The Power Supply
A desktop computer consists of various components, each of which needs power. The power supply is responsible for managing and distributing power. It needs to have the right plugs and it needs to be able to handle the overall power demand of your desktop at load.
Some of the power connections in desktops have remained the same over time, but some haven’t. The most recent examples of new connections are SATA and PCI Express. If you own a computer that is more than five years old it may not support them, and that means you won’t be able to use a SATA hard drive or a PCI Express video card without an adapter. Always makes sure that your power supply has the connectors required to accept any new hardware you might purchase.
Overall power draw can sometimes be an issue, as well. Video cards are the primary troublemaker. Be sure to check the power requirements specified by the manufacturer before buying a new video card. If your current supply is below the requirements you should upgrade it before installing new hardware.
Everything inside a computer must connect to the motherboard for it to function. Most motherboards have a significant number of connectors for installing new hardware, but the number is finite, and can be filled to capacity more quickly than you’d think.
Always check how a new piece of hardware will connect to your motherboard. The most common connections are SATA (for hard drives and optical drives) and PCI Express (for video cards, sound cards and network adapters), but there are others.
Once you’ve discovered what is required, verify that your motherboard can accommodate the upgrade by opening up your desktop and inspecting it. This is an important step. Your motherboard may technically have eight SATA ports, but what if a large video card or cooling fan is blocking two of them? This is not something you’ll discover just by cracking open your desktop’s manual.
Once you’ve verified that your power supply and motherboard can handle new hardware you’re done, right? Not quite.
Even if these components can handle your upgrade you may still run in to trouble if it won’t fit in your enclosure. This has always been a common problem, but it’s even more common today. Computers are becoming smaller, which means a lack of physical space is more of a concern.
Find the physical measurements of any hardware that you plan on installing and use a tape measure to make sure that you have room. Be sure to account for not only the width of new hardware but also its depth. Some cases have thin profiles that will only fit “half-height” PCI Express cards. Processor coolers are another common troublemaker, as the most effective air-cooled models tend to have extremely large heatsinks that are as tall as the typical mid-tower PC case is wide.
The Operating System
Last, but not least, you need to deal with the software.
Operating systems generally are not a limitation when you are upgrading hardware, which is why the topic shows up last in this article. This doesn’t mean they are never an issue. It’s possible that you may find yourself with a hardware upgrade that is physically compatible with your system in every way but still doesn’t work.
This most commonly occurs because you’re using an older operating system or an unpopular one. Windows XP will work with most of today’s hardware despite its age, but you’re often going to be left with reduced functionality. Mac OS X is very finicky about the hardware it will work with. Linux is a little better, but only if you stick with popular, well-supported distributions.
You should check the specifications of the hardware you’re buying to see what operating systems it is officially compatible with. If you are using a Linux distro, you should check its help forums. You’ll often find lists of fully and partially compatible hardware.
Once you’ve accounted for these four points you can safely purchase a hardware upgrade. Yes, I know – checking all of this can be a bit annoying and will take some extra time. But it does reduce the chance that you’ll buy incompatible hardware. It will also make you more familiar with your system and with computers in general, which means you’ll have less homework to do the next time you want to upgrade.
Have you run into any other compatibility problems while upgrading? If so, tell us about it in the comments.
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