PC upgrades: Getting the biggest bang for your buck

What follows are the best and worst types of PC upgrades you can spend money on, along with an idea of how much the upgrade will set you back.

PCs are lasting longer than ever, but it seems that people are interested in upgrading them so they last even longer. But to get the best bang for the buck from an upgrade you have to spend money wisely, because there are certain upgrades that will give you next to nothing in return for your money.

What follows are the best and worst types of PC upgrades you can spend money on, along with an idea of how much the upgrade will set you back.

Note: Remember that prices can vary wildly from vendor to vendor (even from day to day) so shop around for the best deals. I've seen the price of an identical product vary by over $100 from different vendors.

BEST UPGRADES

Let's begin by looking at the best upgrades.

SSD

Gone are the days when I would put RAM upgrades at the top of the list.

Hard drives are the past. If you want performance, then you need to get a solid-state drive (SSD) inside your PC. Rather than your data being stored on a rotating magnetic platter, an SSD stores the data in flash chips.

Not only does fitting an SSD offer a massive performance boost, but it also brings with it improved reliability.

The easiest way to find the right SSD for your system is to visit Crucial and either enter your system details or use the system scanner. Alternatively, if you know what you are looking for, visit your favorite online retailer.

Prices start from around $70.

RAM

Any modern PC running a 64-bit version of Windows with 4GB or less of RAM will benefit from a bump to at least 8GB, and possibly 16GB if you use a lot of RAM hungry applications such as Photoshop.

The easiest way to find the right RAM for your system is to visit Crucial and either enter your system details or use the system scanner. Alternatively, if you know what you are looking for, visit your favorite online retailer.

8GB of RAM will set you back around $50.

Graphics cards

The easiest way to give a PC some extra pep for running a game is to upgrade the graphics card. The graphics card is one place where OEMs skimp on performance to keep prices down, and there are countless PCs out there which are powered by the GPU on the APU (an APU is a CPU that has an integrated GPU).

AMD or Nvidia? I don't think it matters unless you're going for the high-end, in which case you're better off with Nvidia.

A budget graphics card will set you back around $99 while something more mainstream will cost $200 to $300. A budget of around $750 will put you squarely in the high-end camp (you can easily pick up a GeForce GTX 980 Ti for this sort of money), and if you want to go ultra-high-end, well, it's best to be sitting down when looking at the pries!

If you've got games in mind that you want to play, then I'd suggest you fire up Google and do some research. See what other people are using and what sort of performance they are getting out of a specific graphics card. You can compare the performance of different graphics cards against your current option at gpu.userbenchmark.com.

PCI-based Wi-Fi card

Back in the day we used to connect PCs to the internet using a cable, but this isn't always possible, and nowadays a wireless solution is usually cheaper and a lot more convenient. Problem is, most USB Wi-Fi dongles are absolute garbage. If you're using one of these then I suggest you look at upgrading it to a PCI-based Wi-Fi card (assuming you have a space PCI slot available).

Not only will your data throughput be better, but a decent multiple-antenna PCI-based 802.11n Wi-Fi card will give you a far more reliable connection too.

This upgrade shouldn't cost you more than about $20 to $30.

Reinstall your OS

If you nuke your existing operating system (back up your data first!) installation and reinstall it fresh, your PC will invariably be noticeably faster and more stable.

Yes, it's a huge hassle, yes, it's going to take time, and no, it's nowhere near as cool as installing a new bit of shiny inside your PC, but I'm consistently amazed by how different a PC -- especially one that's been going for a few years -- feels after reinstalling the OS.

WORST UPGRADES

Here are upgrades that I see people wasting their money on in the hope of ending up with a better or faster PC.

CPU upgrades

Processors seem to be getting faster all the time, right? But here's the thing, a 2.2GHz CPU is only 200MHz faster than a 2.0GHz CPU, and in the real world those extra megahertz don't translate into a great deal of extra performance.

Unless you are in a position to do a major CPU upgrade without gutting your PC -- and by that I mean that your motherboard is able to handle the CPU you have your eye on -- then I don't recommend taking this route. Even then, if you have RAM, storage or graphics card bottlenecks then a CPU upgrade is just going to be an exercise in throwing money away.

I only recommend CPU upgrades if you are also prepared to swap out the motherboard and RAM (and possibly the graphics card) at the same time.

Motherboard upgrades

I've come across a lot of people who have thrown away good money on upgrading their motherboards in the hope that it will bring a performance boost, either directly or through tweaks and overclocking.

Don't bother.

Even if the new board promises the earth when it comes to overclocking, unless you have high-quality RAM and good CPU cooling, you'll get little or nothing in return for your money, and could just be paving the way for more spending (for example, a new copy of Windows if your current installation is an OEM version).

Upgrading Windows

Unless you're running Windows XP or earlier, don't waste your upgrade money on upgrading your copy of Windows. Not only will the gains be negligible -- and that's assuming you see gains -- but it's also a slippery slope that can lead you to spend a lot more money on new hardware, not to mention opening you up to driver headaches and such.

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