But which components, exactly? Where should you start? Which upgrades will give you the best bang for your buck, and which are a waste of time?
Although you should always tailor your upgrades to suit a particular need, here are the best upgrades to make in order of generalized importance.
Adding more memory is the easiest and most accessible PC upgrade you can make. It’s affordable, you can do it on almost any machine (including many laptops), and it doesn’t require much tech know-how.
If you’ve never cracked open your PC case before, then this is the place to start.
Upgrading RAM delivers an instant performance to almost all PCs that are running slow. For resource hungry tasks — like video editing or gaming — the more RAM you’ve got, the better. Even for casual use, extra RAM will enable you to have more apps running in the background and keep a greater number of tabs open in your browser.
So how much RAM do you need? 4 GB is currently the baseline amount, but you’ll notice a significant improvement if you upgrade to 8 GB. For heavier tasks, you should look to 16 GB for best results.
2. Graphics Card
We’ve got this second on the list, but if you’re a serious gamer then it should probably be the first thing you upgrade. If you aren’t a serious gamer, 3D modeler, or 3D animator, then you probably won’t ever need to upgrade it at all.
Skimping out on graphics is an easy way to save on costs, so PC manufacturers tend to go with integrated graphics cards rather than dedicated graphics cards. If you have an integrated card, then moving up to a dedicated one will work wonders.
Despite the fact that integrated graphics performance has been improving, even a good one is about the equivalent of a $100 dedicated graphics card. Upgrading to something like an Nvidia GTX 960 card for around $200 will give you a big boost in most cases.
You can compare the performance of dedicated cards against your current option at gpu.userbenchmark.com.
3. Data Drive
There are two reasons to upgrade your hard drive: you’re running out of space or you want faster performance.
If you’ve done everything you can to free up your hard disk storage and still regularly run out of space, then you will need to swap it out for a larger one. Not only does a full hard drive make it impossible to save new data, but it can also impact performance. At the very least, try to keep 10 GB of free soace for the operating system to use.
For hard disk drives, consider upgrading the physical speed. If your PC currently has a 5400 RPM drive, then upgrading to a 7200 RPM model will give you a nice speed boost.
But the fastest option is to switch to a solid state drive. These use flash memory instead of a spinning disk and are many times faster than a typical hard disk drive. (Not to mention more reliable, too.)
On average, a 5400 RPM drive might achieve speeds up to 100 MBps, a 7200 RPM drive up to 150 MBps, and a solid state drive over 500 MBps. The newest models can even go considerably faster. The downsides to solid state drives are that they have much smaller capacities and are more expensive than hard disk drives.
Ultimately, a faster data drive means faster boot times, faster program loading times, faster boot times for games, and more responsiveness in programs that use large files (like video editing or RAW photo editing).
If you don’t want to compromise on size, a hybrid drive combines the best of both worlds. These have a small amount of flash memory — where your most commonly used files are cached for instant retrieval — and a traditional hard disk that provides large capacity for storing long-term data.
Upgrading your PC’s processor is a far more advanced task than the other upgrades we’ve covered so far. Not only is it physically trickier if you’re doing it yourself, it’s one of the more expensive upgrades and there are compatibility issues to worry about, too.
Of course, there are compatibility issues with the other upgrades as well, but they’re much easier to negotiate. More importantly, a processor upgrade isn’t always a good thing and may not bring you the performance improvement you’re looking for.
The benchmark tests at cpubenchmark.net can help you compare the relative performances of different processors. In general, these tests show that modest updates don’t deliver big improvements. Other detailed tests show that a CPU’s performance varies hugely depending on the software on your system.
A processor is only worth upgrading if the upgrade is significant. But it’s expensive and may require you to upgrade your motherboard (and that might require you to buy new RAM). Even if your motherboard is compatible with a new processor on paper, it may need a BIOS update to work. It can be a pain, so check before you buy.
Ultimately, if your processor is the speed bottleneck in your system, you might want to consider buying a whole new system altogether. (Or you can save money by building a PC from parts instead.)
Chances are good that the programs on your system are set to update automatically. If not, you probably click the Update button as soon as you’re alerted to the release of new program versions.
In most cases this is the right thing to do, but not always. For a lot of software, the version number is depicted in the form of Major.Minor.Revision. If an update is 0.0.1, then it’s likely to be bug fixes. If it’s 0.1.0, then it likely includes optimizations and small new features. Minor and Revision updates should be installed right away.
But Major updates — a change in the full version number — are a different matter. It’s almost a given that new versions of programs will use more resources than old versions, so if your PC’s hardware is already being stretched to the max, you’ll probably want to deal with that first.
The same goes for operating system updates. The regular incremental updates are essential for performance and security reasons, but whole new versions aren’t. They will almost certainly have bugs and may run slow on your system.
If your PC is running fine, it’s worth holding off on operating system upgrades until you’re absolutely sure they won’t end up as downgrades.
The motherboard is the most difficult of all upgrades since all of the other PC parts attach to it. It’s only worth considering if you’re dead set on a new processor that’s not compatible with your current setup. It won’t give you much of a speed boost on its own.
There are other components to consider, too.
A keen photographer, for instance, would surely benefit more from having a better monitor than making Lightroom run a little quicker. A web developer might become more productive with a second monitor, as could a writer with a mechanical keyboard.
Instead of focusing purely on performance, think about how you can upgrade your experience. Speed is important, but it’s not the only thing that matters.
There Are No Miracle PC Upgrades
So, RAM, SSDs, and graphics cards are the most important things to upgrade. You should see real, instant improvements whenever you upgrade any combination of them.
Just don’t expect miracles. There will always be a bottleneck in your system. As soon as you replace the slowest part, something else will take its place. And as your computer ages, it’s important to be able to discern whether you should upgrade a single part or buy a whole new machine instead.
Have you upgraded your PC? What did you get and how effective was it? Have you ever made an upgrade that didn’t deliver what you hoped? Tell us all about it in the comments.