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PCs may seem easy to upgrade, but it’s also easy to get the upgrades wrong. Add a bit more RAM and a faster processor and you’ll be set for the next five years, right? Maybe. Or it may have no noticeable effect. It may not even work at all.

Every PC upgrade is different, so a little knowledge and planning can ensure that everything goes smoothly.

1. Why Are You Upgrading?

Before you even contemplate an upgrade, you need to be clear on exactly what it is you hope to achieve. If you only have a vague idea that you want to “make your PC faster”, there’s a good chance you’ll end up disappointed. It’s easy to splash out money on something that won’t even address your problem.

upgrade pc

Processor, memory, storage, and graphics card upgrades can all make your PC faster — or at least appear faster — but you cannot just pick one at random and assume it will have the desired effect.

So what exactly is the issue you want to deal with? Do your programs take too long to launch? Is the frame rate in your games too low? Does the PC lag when you’re working in multiple apps? Has it started getting hot and/or noisy? Each of those questions can be solved by upgrading a different part.

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ram upgrade

Then again, there are some upgrades that are worth doing regardless. Switching from a hard drive to a solid state drive Which Upgrades Will Improve Your PC Performance the Most? Which Upgrades Will Improve Your PC Performance the Most? If you need a faster computer but aren't sure which component would be most beneficial to upgrade, then here are the guidelines you should follow. Read More will have a noticeable effect on every computer. At the very least, it will slash your PC’s boot time. Also, more RAM is better than less RAM — at least up to a point How Much RAM Do You Really Need? How Much RAM Do You Really Need? RAM is like short term memory. The more you multitask, the more you need. Find out how much your computer has, how to get the most out of it, or how to get more. Read More .

But other than these, there are no magic bullets. If you’re going to upgrade something, you should always target a specific problem with a specific solution.

2. Is Upgrading Even Worth It?

Once you know what you want to do, you need to ask yourself whether an upgrade would even be worthwhile.

First, is your problem actually a hardware problem? A good spring cleaning A Spring Cleaning Checklist For Your PC Part 2: Delete Junk & Free Wasted Space [Windows] A Spring Cleaning Checklist For Your PC Part 2: Delete Junk & Free Wasted Space [Windows] Regular PC maintenance is often neglected, leading to lost hard drive space and a bloated operating system that runs increasingly slower. To avoid a dreaded Windows re-installation, you should perform a thorough cleanup at least... Read More  can revitalize many PCs that have started to run slowly or exhibit problems. Updating the operating system and drivers, getting rid of unwanted startup programs, and deleting obsolete files can all help, as can using the Refresh options in Windows Should You Refresh, Reset, Restore, or Reinstall Windows? Should You Refresh, Reset, Restore, or Reinstall Windows? Ever wanted to reset Windows 7 without losing personal data? Between a factory reset and a reinstall, it was tough. Since Windows 8, we have two new options: Refresh and Reset. Which one is right... Read More .

Don’t overlook the hardware environment either. Clearing out dust from around your PC’s air vents will prevent overheating and should help to reduce fan noise.

dusty pc

Second, there’s the question of whether your computer is still worth spending money on. Modest upgrades, which are both affordable and easy to implement (like adding extra RAM) might be worthwhile even on older systems.

But if you’re contemplating something bigger (like replacing the CPU) then you might want to consider whether you’d be better served with a brand new computer. A PC is only as good as its worst performing part. Upgrading a single component may solve your problem, or it may just expose another bottleneck elsewhere.

3. Which Part Should You Upgrade?

Once you are clear on what your problem is, you need to find the right solution. The four parts that are most often considered for upgrades are RAM, hard drive, processor (CPU), and graphics card (GPU). You can do others, too, although many — like a motherboard upgrade 5 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your PC Motherboard 5 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your PC Motherboard Not sure when you should upgrade your motherboard? Here are a few guidelines to help you out. Read More  — are much more advanced.

memory

You can narrow down your options by considering examples of where each piece of hardware will have its biggest impact.

  • RAM might help if switching between different programs is slow, browsers grind to a halt with lots of tabs open, you have input lag, the system becomes unresponsive, or large programs like Photoshop and Lightroom are slow.
  • Hard Drive might help if loading games and applications is really slow, it takes a long time to save or unzip large files, booting up takes a long time, or the hard drive becomes noisy when RAM is limited.
  • CPU might help if video or audio files are slow to encode, you have reduced performance when multitasking applications or games, you have input lag, or your current CPU regularly operates at high temperatures.
  • GPU might help if you have stuttering and dropped frames in games, an inability to play games at higher settings, or very high temperatures in your current GPU.

We can take, as a starting point, the fact that even the slowest SSD will be many times faster than an HDD, so if your issues are related to a slow hard drive, then upgrading to a solid state drive will always be beneficial. And given that operating systems use virtual memory, an SSD can even offset a lack of RAM to an extent.

You’ll only really need to upgrade the graphics card if you play recently-released AAA games. If you don’t, then the GPU you have will likely be more than good enough.

Identifying Bottlenecks

To find out if RAM or the processor are the bottlenecks in your system, you can use the built-in system monitoring utilities on your computer. In Windows 10, this means using the Task Manager, which you can access by pressing Ctrl-Shift-Del. In OS X, open the Activity Monitor app.

cpu

These tools give you a quick overview of the CPU load and RAM usage on your system. If you leave them running in the background temporarily, you can get a sense of whether your processor or memory are causing slowdowns. (Look for the processor running at 100% or the RAM being full.)

You can also discover any applications that are hogging your resources, too.

task manager

Remember that while your upgrades are meant to solve bottlenecks, they can also highlight other bottlenecks or introduce new ones.

For example, a simple external upgrade — like adding a 4K monitor — could require you to upgrade your graphics card to play games at 4K resolution. If you want to stream 4K video, you might need to upgrade your Internet connection.

4. Which Specifications Are Important?

Once you have identified what you want to update and why, you need to pick the right part for the job.

RAM can be quite complicated 8 Terms You Need to Know When Buying Computer RAM 8 Terms You Need to Know When Buying Computer RAM While RAM tends to be fairly easy to find and install, tracking down RAM compatible with your system can prove to be a bit more challenging than a casual user may be expecting. Read More , but the main things to be aware of are that it should ideally be installed in pairs (e.g. two 4 GB sticks rather than a single 8 GB stick) and the technologies should match (e.g. don’t try and use DDR2 and DDR3 together).

If your RAM has different clock speeds, they will all run at the speed of the slowest stick.

benchmarks

Processors and graphics cards are more complicated. They are among the more expensive upgrades you can make, but the performance gains they offer aren’t always apparent.

A good start is to understand the processor naming conventions How To Find The Best Laptop Under $600 How To Find The Best Laptop Under $600 If you know where to go, $600 can get you a lot of laptop. Here's what you should be looking for. Read More  so you know what they’re offering, and also be sure to know what to look for in a new graphics card 5 Things You Have to Know Before Buying a Graphics Card 5 Things You Have to Know Before Buying a Graphics Card Here are five key points to keep in mind before you buy your next graphics card, otherwise you may regret your purchase. Read More .

Then, check out benchmarks to compare your chosen device’s speed against your current model. PassMark Software has a comprehensive database of processor benchmarks and graphics card benchmarks.

5. Are There Any Compatibility Issues?

The final thing you need to do before flexing your credit card on new computer parts is to make sure your chosen components are fully compatible with your system. There are three issues here.

processor pins

First, they need to physically fit. Components don’t all have the same standard size or connection: processors use different sockets CPU Socket Types Explained: From Socket 5 To BGA [MakeUseOf Explains] CPU Socket Types Explained: From Socket 5 To BGA [MakeUseOf Explains] Computer processors have a home. The socket. Most people ignore this piece of hardware because it has little obvious functional impact. Sockets don’t hinder or help performance they’re standardized in any given line of processors.... Read More , there are different types of RAM modules, and so on. If they don’t fit, you cannot use them. And, of course, if you’re upgrading a laptop, you will be limited in which parts you can upgrade anyway.

Second, they need to be compatible. A good place to check this is PCPartPicker, where you can find parts that are fully compatible with your motherboard. Sometimes it might say that a CPU/motherboard combination requires a BIOS update. In this case, either check that an update is available (it may not be) or find an alternative.

pcpartpicker

Third, they need to be supported. Motherboards only support RAM up to sticks of a certain capacity. So if it supports up to 8 GB RAM modules, and has two slots, then the maximum amount of RAM you can have is 16 GB.

And there are some other easy oversights, like buying a USB 3.0 external drive when you only have USB 2.0 ports available, or buying an 802.11ac router but only having 802.11n hardware in your PC. In both cases, your new hardware will only run at the slower speed of compatibility.

Got Any Other PC Upgrading Tips?

Naturally, there are many instances when it’s better to just buy a new PC 7 Warning Signs It's Time to Replace your Old PC 7 Warning Signs It's Time to Replace your Old PC When should you buy a new computer? Read More . But upgrades can extend the life of your computer, squeeze more power out of it, and enable you to run a greater range of applications. So long as you do your homework first, it can be a project well worth undertaking.

What are your tips for upgrading PCs? Or have you ever purchased an upgrade and not achieved the results you were expecting? Tell us all about it in the comments.

Image Credits: Upgrade PC via Leon Terra, RAM upgrade via Yutaka Tsutano, Dusty PC via Vinni Malek, Memory via MATSUOKA Kohei, Processor pins via Jiahui Huang

  1. Michael Weldon
    February 7, 2016 at 10:19 pm

    I run an elderly, 2005, Compaq Presario desktop (pre- the HP takeover, so much better quality components to start with), running 'Puppy' Linux.

    It came with an Athlon 64 3200+ single-core, 1 GB of DDR1 RAM, a 160 GB WD Caviar 'Black HDD, and a generic, under-powered, 'silver-box' PSU.

    I wanted to be able to multitask better. I got hold of a second-hand Athlon 64 X2 3800+ dual-core (like a pair of 3200's on the same die) for all of £7.20p! 4 GB of RAM set me back about £35; a 500 GB WD Caviar Blue SATA1 HDD was around the same, and a CoolerMaster B50 single-rail, 80+ rated PSU was about £30.

    So for around £100, I now have a machine that'll last me several more years. The MSI mobo's caps are all Rubicons & Nichicons.....and even after 11 years are still tight to the board, with no signs of bulges or other problems. I regularly spring-clean every 3 months or so. And before anyone says it, no, I don't have a GPU; don't want, or need one. The onboard graphics are more than sufficient for my needs, and still give a clear, crisp image.

    I'm quite happy with my 'old girl', thank you!

  2. A41202813GMAIL ..
    February 5, 2016 at 10:18 am

    Use PCPARTPICKER And Choose A Motherboard With:

    A - DDR4 Memories,

    B - Lots Of PCIEXPRESS16 Slots,

    C - Standard Form Factor - Like ATX Or Similar,

    And You Will Get The Core Hardware To Use Any New Or Legacy OS For Many Many Many Years.

    XPOCALYPSE FOREVER !

  3. Larry Hines
    February 5, 2016 at 5:29 am

    Buy a new motherboard, processor, and if needed, a new power supply.

  4. Eddie G.
    February 5, 2016 at 3:10 am

    As far as I know (And I'm NO expert by ANY means!!) I've seen PC's that get a "mediocre" WEI score and still perform decently. I've also seen machines that get great WEI scores and then for some reason, whether it be hardware or software related, they start to perform worse than the ones with the mediocre scores....I guess you can only know after you've started to use the machine and have began accumulating ".tmp" files...or cookies etc. But that's just my opinion, I'm sure someone with more knowledge of this would be able to assist you better.

  5. George Barna
    February 5, 2016 at 12:20 am

    It really depends on what you do with your PC every day. My Windows index shows me that my graphics card is where the performance is the lowest. If I only looked at that figure, because that's what accounts for a low overall number, I'd have to bin my PC. BUT, I don't play games, I use the built in video on the motherboard. It plays movies perfectly. I don't look at the frame rate. Everything else is very good performance and the PC is top notch. I could bring the performance index up substantially, but I'm not going to spend hundreds of dollars on a high performance video card, since for me it would be a waste of money.

  6. likefun butnot
    February 4, 2016 at 10:03 pm

    @Paul,

    Sort of, maybe.

    "Desktop Graphics" and "Gaming Graphics" will almost always be the low-number category for your Windows Experience Index unless you're already a gamer. If you're already a gamer and you already have a decent gaming card, but you probably want a better one anyway, and if you're not, you probably don't care.

    Also, the experience index is hidden from users in Windows 8.1 and 10 (you can derive it from Powershell commands or third party tools if you really want to), so it might not be the best basis for decision making if you're upgrading OS as well.

    Another funny thing about the Windows Experience Index: It's not actually all THAT accurate. I've seen half-point swings in score just depending on a PC's antivirus application being active or not. I'd say take the scores for anything less than a full point with a grain of salt.

    My first rule of upgrading a PC is this: Get an SSD if you don't have one. That helps more than anything. I can't think of a single real-world computing task that isn't improved by having faster disk access. Get an M.2 SSD if your PC has a native slot for one. SSDs make computers awesome.

    If you have less than 4GB RAM, get 4GB RAM. If you can't get 4GB RAM, get a computer that can have 4GB RAM. Do you need more than 4GB? Maybe. Get 8GB if you have an extra $50 sitting around. Do you need more than 8GB? Wait for something (Photoshop, Hyper-V, SQL Server, Chrome, whatever) to tell you that before you buy it. A lot of people still operate with the idea that more RAM is always better, but the truth is that most people don't have a use and won't see a subjective improvement from having 12 or 16GB+ as of this writing.

    If you want or need to buy a new CPU, you're really at the point where you really need a whole new PC anyway. This is tragic in the case of a notebook; you really won't have any other option than to do that. On a desktop, it's probably at least technically possible to switch your CPU, but it probably won't make financial sense to do so unless you're already buying computer hardware on a monthly subscription.

  7. Paul
    February 4, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    I'm going to ask a question here, because I don't know the answer. Hopefully a MUO editor or commenter does.

    Would the Windows Experience Index be a good source of information for this---or at least, point you in the right direction? The low numbers (since it breaks it down by hardware category) would be the first things to upgrade, right?

    If so, there are a couple of free utilities that can give you this score for Windows 10.

    Again, I'm asking. Feel free to correct me on this.

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