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.
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.
Then again, there are some upgrades that are worth doing regardless. Switching from a hard drive to a solid state drive 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.
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 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.
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.
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 — are much more advanced.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
First, they need to physically fit. Components don’t all have the same standard size or connection: processors use different sockets, 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.
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. 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.