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A Critical Eye
Before deciding to upgrade your computer, there is one critical decision you need to make - whether to upgrade at all. Surprisingly, this can be the hardest part of the entire endeavor. Yes, putting in new parts means dealing with sensitive electronics. But that task is simple compared to deciphering the thousands of upgrade paths that are available for any available to any given PC, and then deciding if any of those paths are worth pursuing.
Making this decision requires a critical eye and the ability to accept the fact that at some point, it's best to forget about trying to save money by upgrading your digital companion and instead splurge on building or buying an entirely new system. Often, this decision is difficult to make because the difference between the expected performance of an upgraded machine and a new machine is quite small. In these cases, it is up to the user to decide if the extra effort required to upgrade a PC is worth the savings gained by not building or buying new. Yet comparing an upgraded computer against a new one is sometimes easy, depending on what you currently have under your PC's hood.
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The Forbidden Hardware
If you read the first article of this series, you should have a good idea of what is inside your computer. Assuming you have that information, you now need to figure out if the hardware you have discovered in your computer is worth bothering with. Telling you what is worth an upgrade is impractical, as most hardware built in the last few years will provide an upgrade opportunity. Instead, I'll simply tell you what hardware that should stop you in your tracks, should you find it in your PC.
Motherboards Lacking a Modern CPU Socket - If your motherboard has AMD's 462(A), 939, 940, or 754 socket, or if it has Intel's 370, 423, or 478 socket, then your motherboard isn't compatible with the latest processors and it therefore should be replaced. Your processor will also need replaced. And it is a fair bet your previous RAM isn't going to be useful in modern PCs, so that also will likely need replacing.
Motherboards Lacking Expansion Capabilities - If you're upgrading a pre-built PC, you may find yourself stuck with a motherboard that only has enough connectors for the hardware your computer originally shipped with. If the provided motherboard doesn't have free PCI, SATA, or RAM slots, then you may need to buy a new motherboard, at which point you'd also have to go through the process of making sure your new motherboard will function correctly with your older hardware.
Motherboards Lacking BIOs Support of New Processors - Even if you've determined that your motherboard can physically accept a certain processor, you're not quite out of the woods yet. Not all motherboards that support a certain socket support all processors that can fit that socket. For example, budget AM2+ boards do not necessarily accept the highest-end Phenoms, and budget Intel motherboards that accept Core 2 processors do not always accept the latest Core 2 processors. To find your what your motherboard is compatible with, visit the website of your motherboard manufacturer.
As you've probably noticed, these are all motherboard issues. This is because, should you need to upgrade your motherboard, you are effectively re-building your PC. You will have to not only take apart most of your system, but you will also have to verify that your new motherboard is compatible with your older hardware and will fit well in your case. You will also have to reinstall your operating system. This isn't necessarily a bad idea, but doing so means you are re-building your system, and is outside the scope of this guide.
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Other (Possible) Show-Stoppers
Upgrading your motherboard isn't the only problem you might run into. You may also run into problems if you need to upgrade your power supply. This is a little tricky, because you need to disconnect all of your computer's components from the power supply you have, install the new power supply, and then reconnect everything. This can be difficult for beginners.
The case can also become an obstacle, particularly if you have a small one. Small cases will often only fit certain kinds of hardware, and can significantly restrict your ability to upgrade your PC at all. Modern video cards often won't fit into a small case. Small cases also lack the physical space needed for additional drives, upgraded cooling, and bigger power supplies. Choosing a new case isn't impossible, but as in the case of upgrading a motherboard, it requires a re-build of the computer and is outside the scope of this guide.
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Don't Forget The Bottom Line
Beyond the possibility of becoming limited by your hardware, you should also remember to keep a running tally of the cost of each upgrade you decide on. Obviously, the cost of these upgrades shouldn't come close to the cost of building or buying a new computer with capabilities similar to your upgraded PC. Value is the entire point of upgrading your PC, and if upgrading your PC no longer presents a good value, than it is always better to build or buy new.
And don't forget that old PC hardware isn't worthless. When upgrading, keep in mind that should you build or buy new, you can sell old components or your entire system. This can significantly offset the costs of building or buying a new system. A well-kept 3 year old computer can probably be sold for between $100-$200 dollars. That is a fair amount, considering that a solid brand-new PC can be built for around $800.
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The Next Step
If you've now determined that your computer isn't obviously unfit for an upgrade, than its time to decide what upgrades will fit your needs. The next article in this series will focus on helping you decide what upgrades will offer the greatest increase in performance in the applications you use most often.
Upgrading Your PC Part 2: Worth the Effort?
Upgrading your PC means more than rooting around in the guts of your digital companion. It also means deciding which upgrades are worthwhile, what hardware to keep, and if upgrading is even possible. This series focuses on the mental work that is required before diving into the bowels of your PC.