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Upgrading Computer Components

Soup up your computer with a hardware upgrade

Upgrading Computer Components 
Kevin Lo and Ariel Gilbert-Knight - March 22, 2012
With the right hardware upgrades, you may be able to boost your computer's performance. This guide will help you understand what hardware to upgrade, and when to upgrade it.

Editor's note: This article was updated by Kevin Lo in 2008 and by Ariel Gilbert-Knight in 2012.

We would all like to purchase the newest, fastest computers on the market, but that isn't always an option for libraries, nonprofits, and charities. So what do you do with older computers that might have trouble keeping up with your current and future needs? Luckily, the right hardware upgrades can significantly improve your computer's performance.

Here are some guidelines for deciding what to upgrade.

Before You Upgrade

Before deciding you need a hardware upgrade, make sure you actually have a hardware problem. Do these basic computer housekeeping tasks first, and see if your computer's performance improves:

  • Uninstall any unnecessary software you're not using.
  • Remove viruses, spyware, and other malware.
  • Defragment your hard drive (primarily an issue for Windows computers).

For more nonprofit and charity computer troubleshooting tips, see Do-it-Yourself Desktop Troubleshooting and Eleven Tips for Troubleshooting Software.

Choosing the Right Upgrade

It's important to understand at least the basics about what's going on inside your computer, and what a hardware upgrade can and cannot do. You can't turn a slow computer into a fast one simply by increasing the size of a hard drive. Likewise, upgrading the computer's processor probably won't make a computer that's prone to crashing more reliable.

Here are some guidelines for deciding what to upgrade.

Type of Upgrade Guidelines Difficulty
RAM

To see the biggest increase in performance, increase the amount of RAM in an older computer. A good sign you could benefit from more RAM is if your computer slows down a lot when you try to use several programs simultaneously.

Put in as much RAM as the computer will support. Keep in mind that a 32-bit operating system can only handle 4 GB of RAM.

Moderate
Graphics card

Because graphics processing uses RAM, a graphics card upgrade may improve overall performance. If you work with a lot of digital video, you can probably benefit from adding RAM and/or changing from an integrated or "on-board" graphics card to a dedicated graphics card.

Be sure that your motherboard can support the new card you are installing.

Moderate
Hard drive

If you're running out of storage space, you can upgrade to a bigger hard drive with more storage capacity.

If your computer is slow, upgrading to a faster hard drive may improve overall performance:

  • In traditional drives, the faster the drive spins, the faster data can be read and written. So upgrading from a drive that spins at 5,400 rotations per minute (rpm) to a 7,200-rpm drive may speed up your computer's performance.
  • A solid-state drive (SSD)is another option. SSDs don't spin, so their speed isn't measured in rpms. But they are significantly faster and (because they have no moving parts) less prone to mechanical problems than traditional drives.

If your old drive is still functional, consider adding a drive instead of removing and replacing the older one. Most desktop computer motherboards can handle up to four hard drives, including the optical drive.

Completely replacing a hard drive will involve some additional steps, since you need to transfer all your files from the old drive to the new one, as well as reinstalling the operating system and all the software.

Moderate to Advanced
Optical (CD/DVD) drive

Upgrading from a CD drive to a DVD drive allows you to take advantage of the increased capacity of DVDs over CDs. The additional capacity of DVDs makes copying files or backing up easier and less time-consuming.

In terms of difficulty, the mechanical part of replacing an optical drive is similar to replacing a hard drive, but you don't have to worry about moving files or transferring software.

Moderate
Processor (CPU)

A faster processor can help your computer run faster, but this is not an easy upgrade and should be approached with caution. Keep in mind that performance improvements with a faster processor may be negligible without sufficient RAM.

When installing a new processor, the key consideration (besides number of cores and speed) is finding one that will work with your motherboard.

Advanced

There are plenty of tutorials available online for each of these upgrades, including video tutorials that will walk you through the process step by step.

Do You Have the Technical Expertise?

Most hardware upgrades aren't hugely difficult, but many of them do involve cracking open the computer and poking around inside it. And upgrading laptop hardware will usually be more complicated than upgrading desktop computer hardware. Upgrades can be daunting for novice users without much computer hardware experience.

Also keep in mind that opening up your computer will usually void its warranty. Therefore, if your computer is still under warranty, be cautious about undertaking hardware upgrades on your own.

If you don't have the internal resources to perform an upgrade, outsourcing upgrades to a reliable, qualified technician is an option, though it will be more expensive than doing it on your own.

Conclusion

The easiest way to speed up an older computer is to add more RAM. If your computer seems sluggish and the programs you're running seem to take up a lot of memory, adding RAM can make your computer perform a lot faster. If your computer is low on storage, it can also be quite easy to add an additional hard drive.

Ask yourself whether a component upgrade is worth it before you get started. When you know what you're doing, upgrading computer components can help in certain situations. But it's important to weigh the time and cost of making the upgrade against the time and productivity you may be losing by not making it.

Image: Time to upgrade, Shutterstock