Is your PC fast enough for the things you want to do? Does it take forever to boot, or grind to a halt when you try to use Photoshop? If so, it’s probably time to upgrade your hardware.
But what is the best way to upgrade your computer? What will give you the best bang for your buck, and which upgrades are a waste of time? Here’s our guide to the best PC upgrades you can make.
1. Why You Should Upgrade RAM
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, this is the place to start.
A RAM upgrade delivers an instant performance boost 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 or keep a greater number of tabs open in your browser.
So how much RAM do you need?
- 4GB is the baseline amount. It’s good for general use, with up to around 10 browser tabs, a little photo editing, and video streaming.
- You’ll notice a significant improvement if you upgrade to 8GB. This is good for serious multi-tasking, browsing with up to 30 tabs open, editing RAW photos, and even some mid-range gaming.
- For heavier tasks, you should look to 16GB for best results. Serious gaming, media editing, or any pro-level tasks will be best with this much memory.
You might also take a look at SuperFetch on Windows and it’s affect on your RAM and overall performance.
2. Consider Upgrading the 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 might not 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.
And on modern systems integrated graphics is good enough for most users. It’ll let you do some Photoshop work, or watch 4K video. And more than 10 percent of users on Steam are even gaming with integrated graphics.
But if you do need superior graphics performance, for gaming or VR work, then upgrading to something like a Radeon RX580 will give you a big boost. You can compare the performance of dedicated cards against your current option at gpu.userbenchmark.com.
3. Get a Faster Storage 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 10GB of free space for the operating system to use.
For hard disk drives, consider upgrading the physical speed. If your PC currently has a 5400RPM drive, then upgrading to a 7200RPM 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 5400RPM drive might achieve write speeds up to 100Mbps, a 7200RPM drive up to 150Mbps, and a solid state drive over 500Mbps. Higher end SSDs like the Samsung 970 EVO have incredibly high write speeds of 1500Mbps and more.
Ultimately, a faster data drive impacts your entire system. It means faster boot times, faster program loading times, faster speeds for launching games, and more responsiveness in programs that use large files (like video editing or RAW photo editing).
The downsides to solid state drives are that they have much smaller capacities and are more expensive than hard disk drives.
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.
4. Upgrading the Processor
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 to install, it’s one of the more expensive upgrades and there are compatibility issues to worry about, too.
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.
A processor is only worth upgrading if the upgrade is significant, like moving from an i3 to an i5, or from an older generation to a newer one. Don’t go for something just because it has a faster clock speed.
Processors are 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.
5. How Upgrading Software Can Improve Performance
Chances are that the programs on your PC 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. So, 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 should 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 turn out to be downgrades.
What Else Should You Upgrade?
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 from making Lightroom run a little quicker. Equally, a writer could become more productive with a mechanical keyboard.
Instead of focusing purely on performance, think about how you can upgrade your PC experience. Speed is important, but it’s not the only thing that matters.
The Best PC Upgrades for You
So, RAM, SSDs, and graphics cards are the most important PC upgrades. You should see real, instant improvements whenever you upgrade any combination of them.
Ideally, you should always tailor your upgrades to your precise needs. If you need better graphics, get a new graphics card; if you want greater responsiveness, get an SSD. And if you aren’t sure where your computer’s bottlenecks are, check out our guide to the Windows diagnostics tests you can use to help you pinpoint them.