Eight excellent PC upgrade ideas

Why build a new PC when, with a few easy upgrades, you can transform your old PC into one that feels like new (or at least newer!)?PC upgrades aren't about boosting the power of your PC, but in allowing you to get more done in less time, or get your work (or play) done quicker or easier. Some upgrades do increase the overall performance of your PC ("Yeah! More power!!!"), but others are designed to make your existing PC easier to use.

Why build a new PC when, with a few easy upgrades, you can transform your old PC into one that feels like new (or at least newer!)?

PC upgrades aren't all about boosting the power of your PC, some are about allowing you to get more done in less time, allowing you get your work (or play) done quicker and easier. While it's true that many upgrades do increase the overall performance of your PC ("Yeah! More power!!!"), others are designed to make your existing PC easier to use.

Complete image gallery here!

#1 - RAM

Adding more RAM is, without a doubt, one of the best performance-related upgrades that you can carry out on your PC. It is also one of the simplest upgrades that you can undertake. Memory vendors such as Crucial and Kingston make choosing the right memory for your system, and once you have the memory ready, fitting it is dead easy.

If you're running a 32-bit OS then you will see increased benefits to adding RAM until you get to around the 3GB region. With a 64-bit OS, I would consider 4GB to be a starting point, and if you use your PC for demanding tasks (such as photo or video editing) then think about going up to 8GB (if your motherboard allows this).

RAM used to be expensive, but nowadays you can pick up 2GB of good quality branded RAM for around $40.

If you're thinking about upgrading your OS or some other piece of software and you don't have enough RAM, then you should make upgrading the hardware the priority. Don't skimp on the amount of RAM you have installed!

#2 - Storage capacity bump

If you are the kind of person who makes use of a digital camera or digital video camera, or you record TV/rip DVDs to hard disk, then you just can't have enough storage space.

Most PCs sold today come with only one drive fitted, so when fitting the drive you can either fit it as a secondary drive or you can replace the current primary drive with the new one. While fitting the new drive as a secondary drive is usually the easiest job (because you don't need to move your data about), if you have access to the right disk cloning tools then even swapping your primary drive shouldn't be too difficult.

Note: Hard drives are sold as either a bare drive (also called OEM) or a retail kit. With the retail kit you get just about everything you need to fit the drive - screws, instructions, cables, software - but you pay extra for this. If this your first time fitting a drive, it might be worthwhile getting a retail kit.

The current sweet-spot for hard drive capacity if you are looking for the best bang for the buck is around the 500GB to 750GB region. Go for anything smaller or larger than this and chances are that you'll be paying over the odds.

If you are looking for a hard drive with a little more pep than normal then you might want to consider the Western Digital VelociRaptor - this is the fastest desktop hard drive currently available! However, expect to pay about $1 per GB for this drive (as opposed to about $0.16 per GB is you choose the Samsung Spinpoint T166 500GB).

#3 - Video card upgrade

If you are a gamer and you want your system to be able to keep up with the demands placed on it by the most modern games then you probably need to be looking upgrading your video card.

Let's start at the bottom end of the spectrum. If you are a casual gamer and you've so far been relying on an on-board graphics card (that is, one integrated onto your motherboard) and you want to see better graphics in your games then upgrading to pretty much any discrete graphics card will outperform what you already have (on-board graphics are notoriously bad for gaming).

Note: You will need to know whether your motherboard takes AGP or PCI-E cards in order to pick the right graphics card for your system.

You can get an awful lot of graphics card for very little money - for example, for $50 you can pick up a very decent Radeon HD 3450 that will give your system a tremendous boost in the graphics department. While this card won't allows you to play a game like Crysis with all the knobs turned to the max, it will nonetheless give you a good gaming experience.

If you are a hardcore gamer then chances are that you have already spent a lot of money on your current graphics card, and will more than likely spend a lot of money on your next one. There's nothing wrong with this, there was a time when I used to buy the most cutting-edge graphics card going, but nowadays I find that it makes far more sense to buy stuff that's not so new - that way I get the hardware at a highly discounted price, I enjoy greater stability thanks to mature drivers, and I don't lose much in terms of performance.

#4 - Barebones upgrade

If your system is more than a few years old and you feel that it is struggling despite having loaded it up with RAM, then you might be ready for a barebones upgrade. This is the name that I use for replacing both the motherboard and CPU with newer, faster components. Remember, you now have dual-core, triple-core and quad-core to choose from, so you can choose the kind of performance based on your needs ... and budget.

There are a few points I need to make about this kind of upgrade. First is that if your system is only a couple of years old then you might be able to upgrade just the CPU - you'll need to check with your motherboard manufacturer to find out what CPUs are supported by your current board. Don't guess, because that's a recipe for disaster. For example, even if your motherboard takes Intel LGA775 CPUs, don't assume

that it'll be able to handle all the latest quad-core processors. You might be lucky and all you need is a BIOS upgrade, or you might be unlucky and find that the board doesn't support anything that's much faster that you've already got fitted.

If your system is quite old, then upgrading your motherboard might not be possible unless you also replace your RAM and PSU. At this point the upgrade becomes uneconomical and I recommend that you buy or build a new PC.

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#5 - Make the leap to 64-bit

If you are running a 32-bit version of Windows and you are finding yourself coming up against the 4GB memory limit and would like to take advantage of being able to fit more RAM into your system (if you motherboard can take it) then you should seriously think about upgrading to 64-bit Windows Vista.

Over the past few months this OS has really started to take off in the consumer market and there are very few downsides to making the switch. There's no performance hit to making the switch, and in fact, you might see a modest increase in performance. Having made the switch several months ago I wouldn't go back now.

Details on how to get a copy of the 64-bit Vista DVD can be found here (retail Vista only - for OEM Vista licenses, contact your manufacturer). If you have a retail copy of Windows Vista Ultimate than you have both 32-bit and 64-bit versions to hand already.

#6 - Embrace Blu-ray

Since Blu-ray won the HD war, and HD-DVD is now a corpse littering the highway of history, more and more people have expressed an interest in making their PCs Blu-ray capable.

You can add a Blu-ray drive to your PC for well under $200. In fact, a basic Blu-ray player should only cost you around $125. If you want to be able to burn Blu-ray discs as well as play them then you'll need a burner, and this gets dearer, so consider carefully whether you need this feature before paying for it (Blu-ray media is still very expensive compared to DVD and CD). You can also buy drives that can handle both Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs - handy if you invested in the format before it was abandoned.

Note: Most Blu-ray drives connect to the PC using a SATA connector rather than the older PATA. Check that your PC has this before buying.

If you want the highest quality output from your Blu-ray drive you also need to make sure that your graphics card and monitor are both HDCP compliant. Without this high quality output can disabled and you end up with poorer quality image (like it or not, this is done for copy protection reasons).

More on hi-definition, including HDMI and HDCP, can be found here.

Note: If your PC is more than 18 months old, it might not be worth adding Blu-ray support as you might run into HDCP issues, or your GPU might not be up to the challenge of handling Blu-ray, and either of these can make upgrading to support Blu-ray expensive. You can check your system for Blu-ray compatibility using Cyberlink's BD Advisor.

 

#7 - Increase screen real estate

Over the years one thing more than anything else has had a dramatic positive effect on my productivity - and that has been increasing the amount of screen real estate that I have available.

If you are looking to boost your screen real estate then you have two options available to you:

  • Add a second monitor to your system - Since most modern graphics cards have two outputs (either two VGA outputs, two DVI outputs, or one of each) it makes sense to use both if you can. The upside of running with two monitors is that you can upgrade your screen real estate without having to get rid of your existing screen, but be aware that two monitors do take up a lot of space. I'm now sitting in from to two 22" widescreen panels and these need about 40 inches of desk space.
  • Buy a single, larger panel. A single 22-inch widescreen panel offers a LOT of screen space, and if that's not enough, you can always super-size to a $2K 30-inch panel!

#8 - Revamp peripherals

Your keyboard and mouse are the way by with you interact with your PC. If either (or both) of these pieces of hardware are of poor quality then your productivity and enjoyment of your PC are going to be compromised.

While it's easy to say that revamping your peripherals can have a positive effect on your productivity, what's hard to do is recommend what you should get instead. The keyboard and/or mouse that might be great on an office PC might not be suited to a gaming PC, and what works for me might not work for you.

Rather than give you a list of peripherals that I like (Microsoft and Logitech make good, all round keyboard and mice, while Razer make some excellent gaming gear), I'm going to recommend that you find a retail outlet that has a range of peripherals on display available for you to try. This way you can find the peripherals that are right for you.

Closing thoughts

Some well-timed upgrades can help extend the life of your old PC, making you more productive and the PC more fun to use.

Thoughts?

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