Shore Up Your Weaknesses
Once you’ve determined that your current PC has the basic hardware needed to offer practical upgrade paths (explained earlier in the series), you’ll need to determine exactly what you need to upgrade. Obviously, the short answer to this question, provided you have unlimited resources, would be “everything!” But since you are choosing to upgrade, rather than buying new, it is very likely that you either don’t have the cash to buy a brand new computer, or don’t feel that spending a thousand dollars or more on a brand-new computer is a worthwhile use of your hard-earned dough. In order to perform the best possible upgrade you will need to be sure to purchase upgrades that are relevant to the tasks you typically perform with your computer. It makes no sense for a gamer to spend money on a new CPU, for example, if they don’t have an appropriate video card is far more important.
The Home Or Office PC
The typical home desktop is used for a variety of tasks, none of which are particularly demanding. If your PC is typically used to do word processing and web surfing, is sometimes used to play movies or basic 2D games, and is never used to play 3D games or run demanding programs like graphics editing software or video encoding software, this is the upgrade path you’ll want to take.
Every Home PC should have at least two gigabytes of RAM, and if you do not have that minimum, I would perform that upgrade first. It is incredibly easy to do, as a RAM upgrade involves nothing more dramatic than slipping the RAM into the slot and securing it with pop-in fasteners (details and pictures here), and RAM is very cheap - two gigabytes shouldn’t cost you much over $20 dollars at an online retailer. Once you have two gigabytes, the upgrade path for RAM becomes more muddled, because the typical 32-bit operating system won’t recognize a full four gigabytes of RAM. Resist the urge to over-upgrade just because you have the cash, but Vista uses a lot of memory so its users in particular may benefit from 4GB, even if less than the full amount is used.
The CPU will be next on your list. You must first check to see what CPUs are compatible with your motherboard. Once you’ve done so, I’d generally recommend upgrading to a mid-range dual-core CPU. Anything over $100 dollars is likely faster than you need, but otherwise you should simply buy whatever you feel you can afford. Athlon X2s and dual-core Celerons are a good bet.
Lastly, the hard drive comes into play. Hard drive space is very cheap these days, and virtually any mechanical drive from a quality brand like Seagate or Western Digital will be a good choice. Just make sure that you have a free SATA port (explained earlier in the series) available on your motherboard, and make sure that the hard drive itself is a SATA model. Keep away from Solid-State drives or 10000RPM mechanical drives. They’re meant for situations where super-qucik access times and massive read/write bandwidth is needed, and their prices are high.
The Gamer’s PC
Gamers are more demanding than the average home user for a very obvious reason - games are often demanding on PCs, and require recent hardware in order to run well. As such, this upgrade path is a fair bit more demanding than what you’ll find in a Home PC.
First, you’ll want to upgrade to two gigabytes of RAM. You can refer to the Home PC advice above. This is a simple upgrade, inexpensive, and absolutely essential - while a Home PC can scrape by with one gigabyte, as a gamer you’ll absolutely want to upgrade to two gigabytes. Four gigabytes is far preferable. Getting the most out of this configuration would also require a 64-bit operating system. This is an expensive and difficult step to make, since it means upgrading your operating system, and 64-bit software and drivers are slightly harder to come across and often less reliable. If you do not want to change to a 64-bit OS, then you can upgrade to four gigabytes anyway. Depending on your PC and how you’ve configured your OS, you may be able to gain access to nearly all four gigabytes of RAM, and you’ll certainly be able to use more than three. The improvement is still noticeable and RAM is cheap, so this minor inefficiency shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
Besides ensuring you have enough RAM, the most important upgrade for a gamer is the video card. Video cards determine how much eye candy you’ll be able to turn on and how quickly a game will run. Virtually all video cards connect to a PCI Express x16 slot, and if your motherboard doesn’t have one, you’re out of luck. But if you do have a PCI Express slot, then you’ll want to consider how much video card you need. This will be determined largely by the size of your monitor, because larger monitors have higher native resolutions, and higher resolutions are more demanding on hardware. If your monitor is 19" or smaller, you can probably get by with a video card like a Geforce 9600GT or a Radeon 4670. If you have a 22" monitor or smaller, a Radeon 4850 or a Geforce 9800GTX should be your choice. And if you have an ever larger monitor, go with a Radeon 4870, a Geforce 260GTX, or better.
Having covered the video card upgrade, you’ll next want to consider a better CPU. Although the CPU is not nearly as important as the GPU for game performance, a better CPU can give you an increase of 5-20%, depending on what you’re upgrading from. You best bet for Intel’s LGA 775 socket is the Intel Core 2 Duo E8400. Gamers with AM2+ motherboards can max out performance with a high-end Phenom or Phenom II, although it should be noted that many AM2 and even AM2+ motherboards don’t support these power-hungry processors, so be sure your motherboard can handle it. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to buy an Athlon X2 or a low-end Phenom. .
Finally, we have the workhorse. This upgrade path is intended for people that use demanding, professional-grade software like 3D rendering, advanced photo editing, and database programs, and who need these programs to run as quickly as possible. This is an expensive upgrade path, but if you use your PC for professional image editing or any number of other professional-level tasks, you’ll see a major increase in performance.
First, you should look at your RAM. The kind of programs used by professional-grade programs can be enormous, and the basic recommendation of two gigabytes, will likely not be enough. You’ll want at least four gigabytes of RAM. As said before, not all operating systems can use all of this RAM - most 32-bit operating systems come slightly shy of using the full four gigabytes - but RAM is cheap and this will result in a major performance increase. If you can afford it, then I would highly recommend upgrading to a 64-bit OS and using eight gigabytes of RAM. Professional software of the kind we are discussing is usually available and With eight gigabytes of short-term memory available, even the most demanding programs should run smoothly.
The second component you should upgrade is your CPU. Dual cores are often a better value, but for the workhorse I suggest that you skip straight to a quad-core. While programs like web browsers don’t even task a single core, the kind of programs a person embarking on this path typically uses will make great use of four cores. If you have an LGA 775 socket, your decision is a question of budget, as there are numerous very nice Core 2 Quads available. I believe the current sweet-spot is the Q9550, but if you can afford more or would prefer to spend less, you will still be getting a good value. If you have an AM2 or AM2+ motherboard, you should check with your motherboard manufacture to see what Phenoms the motherboard supports, and then buy the best one you can afford. Unfortunately, if you have an older AM2 motherboard, you may be stuck in a bind. Although Phenoms will physically fit in any AM2 socket, older motherboards may not recognize the processor, in which case the computer won’t boot. If your motherboard manufacture does not list any Phenoms as compatible with your motherboard, buying the fastest possible Athlon X2 is the best you’ll be able to do. A demanding user will likely want to replace the system with something more suited and relegate the older unit to mundane office tasks.
Lastly, you should consider your hard drive. Many of the programs used by professionals output a lot of data, so you’ll want to be sure you have a fast hard disk with a great deal of capacity. Your best bet is probably Western Digital’s Black Series hard drives. These 7200RPM drives are some the fastest mechanical drives available, yet they are also extremely affordable. Buying Western Digital Black drives, you can equip yourself with 1TB of hard drive space for a little over $100 dollars.
This post is part of the series: The Best Possible Upgrade
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.