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Should I upgrade my PC’s memory, processor, hard drive, SSD or graphics card?

We help you device if it’s worth upgrading an old laptop or PC, or best to buy a new one

Should I upgrade my PC’s memory, processor, hard drive, SSD or graphics card?

Constant obsolescence is the price we pay for using high-tech equipment. In the case of a smartphone, when it no longer meets your needs, there’s no alternative to buying a new one. See all PC uprgade features.

With a PC or laptop, though, there’s the possibility of giving it a new lease of life by upgrading it. What’s more, the improved performance might meet your needs every bit as well as a brand new PC, and you’ll have saved plenty of money in the process. See also: Microsoft Xbox One could get an upgrade before launch.

For the most part, though, upgrading is nowhere near as simple as shelling out for a new computer. First and foremost there’s the question of which components to replace. Then there’s the issue of warranty, both on what remains of your original PC and on the new kit you’re thinking of adding. Take a look at Group test: what's the best SSD (solid-state drive)?

Only when you’ve got your head round these issues can you really decide whether the financial saving really does represent good value for money. And finally, you need to take a view on whether you feel competent to carry out the upgrade and if so, how to proceed. Here we address each of these issues to help you decide which solution is best for you.

Identifying the Weakest Link

In a few cases it’s perfectly obvious what part of a PC system needs upgrading. If, for example, you’ve run out of disk space, the solution is either to add a second disk or replace the original with a larger-capacity disk. Similarly, if you fancy a larger screen, a better keyboard or a cordless mouse, your decision is already made. Things are rarely that simple, of course.

Probably the most common reason for considering an upgrade is that your PC’s performance is rather lacklustre. It might have been OK when you first bought it but, over the years, it has become gradually slower. If you’re using exactly the same software but your PC has slowed down it probably indicates that your system just needs a good spring clean.

There are plenty of tools that can clean up the clutter, from Windows’ built-in utilities such as Disk Defragmenter to third-party offerings such as Ccleaner and others.

More drastically, you could reinstall Windows. In this case, you can probably restore your system to factory settings (all your files and programs will be removed) and you might not need to upgrade after all.

However, the slow-down might be because you’re trying to run more demanding programs which have a greater appetite for computing resources. If this is the situation you find yourself in, you need to decide which component is the weakest link and hence the most likely candidate for an upgrade.

In the case of a general dissatisfaction with performance, the culprit could be the main processor, the graphics processor, the amount of memory, or even the hard disk. Working out which of these components is the bottleneck isn’t always easy, but we can give you some pointers.

First, your application might give you a clue. Video or audio editing and encoding, mathematical or scientific computing, and 3D rendering are all pretty demanding of the processor. If it’s gaming that where your PC really starts to show its age (and it can’t run the latest games smoothly), a likely upgrade is the graphics processor. If your PC doesn’t have a plug-in graphics card (which means it’s using the built-in graphics chip) then the obvious answer is to buy one.

If you do a lot of multi-tasking, switching between applications, if you run virtual machines in VMware or VirtualBox, or are serious about video or photo editing, it could be the amount of RAM that’s letting you down.

Finally, if the pedestrian performance is more general, perhaps related to the time it takes your PC to boot and applications to load, a faster hard disk, perhaps a solid state drive (SSD), might do the trick. In fact, an SSD is usually the best-value upgrade for both PCs and laptops as it makes them much more responsive.

Another way of approaching this question is to compare the specification of your system with that of a typical modern PC. A degree of caution is called for here. After all, the chances are that all the components will look outdated but it’s clearly not sensible to upgrade everything. However, perhaps something really stands out. For example, hardly any of today’s crop of PCs has less than 8GB of memory so if yours has just 2GB, that’s quite a shortfall.

The other difficulty with this approach is deciding to which modern PC to compare it. Generally you should look at a fairly basic model since you’ll never manage to upgrade an old system to be on a par with a brand new top-end system.

However, when it comes to gaming, you can install the very best graphics card which will make your PC perform just as well as new models. Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for laptops. On the whole, you can upgrade only the hard drive and memory in a laptop.

If you’re being drawn in the direction of a new processor, before going any further you need to consider one important fact – your motherboard might not be compatible with the latest models. It’s vitally important, therefore, that you check the motherboard manual that came with your PC and the specification of the new processor, to ensure that the two are compatible. If not, your only option is to upgrade the motherboard as well as the processor but this is rarely a cost-effective option.

Warranty Implications

Upgrading might be cheaper than buying new but, depending on the warranty you get, first appearances can be deceptive. So, before you’ll be in a position to decide whether the upgrade route makes sense, you need to give some thought to the warranty situation.

For example, if you’re upgrading a two-year old PC for which the warranty has just expired, you need to compare the cost of buying a new PC, which will be covered by a warranty, with the lower cost of upgrading but with the hidden cost of no warranty.

Even the warranty on your new components might not be as good as you’d expect. A new PC is generally covered for one or two years, but the warranty on components is often less. What’s more, some less reputable suppliers might try to suggest that the premature failure of a component was due to your lack of expertise in its installation.

If, on the other hand, you’re thinking of upgrading a PC that is still covered by warranty, you need to consider whether the act of upgrading it will render it void. Companies differ in their policies as to whether the warranty will be affected if you upgrade the PC yourself and, if not void, what is still covered after the upgrade. Don’t take any chances – check with your PC supplier before deciding to upgrade and, in the event that you’re told it’s OK, make sure you get that in writing.

It can be tricky to work out what a warranty on a new PC is worth compared to the up-front savings if you choose to upgrade your existing machine but, by now, you should be in a position to decide which option makes more sense. Don’t forget, you can raise some cash by selling your old computer.

Practicalities

We’re not going to explain step-by-step how to carry out an upgrade because this will depend both on your current PC and which components you’re upgrading. However, you can find our extensive selection of upgrading guides at www.pcadvisor.co.uk/how-to/pc-components/. However, we will provide some general guidance and also help you to decide whether this is something you feel comfortable tackling yourself.

Naturally, we’re talking about internal upgrades to either a desktop PC or a laptop, since replacing an external component such as a keyboard or mouse involves nothing more than plugging it in and, occasionally, installing a driver.

If you’ve never upgraded a computer, don’t let that fact put you off. Most upgrades aren’t difficult, even though some people are understandably nervous about delving inside a PC. What’s more, you usually need nothing more than a standard Philips screwdriver to carry out the task, or a smaller version if you have a laptop.

To upgrade a desktop PC you’d typically remove the side panel, unplug the component you’re upgrading and plug the new one in its place before replacing the case. With a laptop, components such as hard disks and memory modules can usually be replaced or upgraded after removing a small cover which is usually on the bottom of the case.

Really, the only thing that could go disastrously wrong – but is easy to protect against – is damage to either the components already in your PC or the new ones you’re adding by static discharge.

Electronic components can be damaged by static electricity: our bodies are often charged with static without us knowing it. The solution is simple: make sure that you never touch the electrical connections, such as the gold-plated contact on a memory module or the metal parts of the socket into which you’re going to plug it, with your fingers.

Instead hold memory modules, processors, graphics cards and the like by their edges. As an extra precaution, try to discharge yourself before you even take a component out of its protective anti-static bag by touching the rear metal panel of a desktop PC, while it’s still plugged in and thereby earthed. Any bare metal plumbing, such as the inlet or outlet of a central heating radiator would by just as good as a means of discharging yourself.

If you decide that upgrading makes sense, but you’re reluctant to try your hand at doing the job yourself, you could try a local independent PC store. While the components might not be quite as cheap as if you bought them online, these small businesses will often install them for a small fee. You’d thereby have the peace of mind of seeing your upgraded PC working before you took it home.

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