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Upgrade your PC or Mac (May 2013 edition)

Now that tablets and smartphones are all the rage, people are making their PCs last longer by improving them with strategic upgrades. But choosing the right upgrades can mean the difference between a faster, better system, and throwing your money away.
By Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Contributing Writer
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Introduction

(Source: ZDNet)

Tired of staring at one of these? Read on!

Now that tablets and smartphones are all the rage, people are making their PCs last longer by improving them with strategic upgrades. But choosing the right upgrades can mean the difference between a faster, better system, and throwing your money away.

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RAM

(Source: Crucial)

Adding more RAM to a PC or Mac is, short of replacing the entire system, the best way to improve system performance and gain more mileage out of your existing hardware. If that alone doesn't make you happy, what if I tell you that RAM upgrades are also cheap, and also really easy to do?

NOTE: The only caveat with RAM upgrades is that in order to be able to make use of more than 4GB on either the PC or Mac, your system MUST be running a 64-bit operating system. If you are on a 32-bit platform, you are stuck at 4GB.

How to tell if Windows is 64-bit | How to tell if OS X is 64-bit

You can add RAM to most systems. Some systems might already be at their limit for the amount of RAM they can take, and other systems – such as tablets and notebooks such as Apple's new MacBook Pro – can't be upgraded because the RAM is soldered direct to the motherboard, however, most of the time you're going to be in luck.

The best way to find out what RAM your system needs is to visit one of the online vendors. Two of my favorites are Crucial and Kingston. These websites not only tell you what RAM you need, but also how much you can add to your PC, and also give you handy hints on how to carry out the upgrade.

Bear in mind that not only can you add more RAM, but you can add faster RAM, again, depending if your system supports it. However, in most cases upgrading to faster RAM (say PC3-10600 to PC3-14900) doesn't offer much in the way of real-world gains, but it will help to bump up benchmark scores, if you're into that sort of thing.

If you know what your system takes, then visit your favorite retailer, where you will undoubtedly get a cheaper price, but you will be on your own if you make a mistake.

I recommend that for system with 4GB or more that you consider doubling the amount of RAM (assuming a 64-bit operating system). For systems with less than 4GB then you might be better off going up to 8GB immediately.

4GB of RAM will set you back about $30.

 

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Storage

(Source: Kingston)

Another bottleneck in a PC is the speed of the storage. Maybe the hard drive is slow, or that it is filled up to the point where it is having an adverse effect on performance (if you've got less than 10 percent of your storage left, it's probably time to think about upgrading).

After RAM, upgrading storage is one of the easiest, cheapest, and best upgrades you can do.

If your PC currently uses a hard disk drive (HDD) for storage then you could give it an even bigger performance by swapping it out for a solid-state drive (SSD). These are pricier than regular HHDs, but the difference in transfer rates is like night and day.

If you're not sure what your PC or Mac can take, then once again I suggest you take a trip over to either Crucial or OWC, where you will find a wide selection of both HDDs and SSDs to choose from suited to your particular system. OWC has a great selection of high-performance drives, for both PCs and Macs, including the MacBook Air and the new Retina-display MacBook Pro systems. 

If you know what your system takes, then visit your favorite retailer, where you will undoubtedly get a cheaper price, but you will be on your own if you make a mistake.

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GPU

(Source: Nvidia)

Another way to squeeze some extra life out of your desktop PC system – the graphics card in notebook systems, as well as those found in all Macs except for the Mac Pro are not upgradable – is to upgrade the graphics card. However, this advice applies primarily to one class of user – gamer.

Perhaps your current system has features an older graphics card, or perhaps your GPU is integrated onto the CPU. In either case, investing in a new graphics card should give your system a big of a performance boost.

Unless you are a hardcore gamer looking for cutting-edge hardware, then a graphics card doesn't have to cost the earth. $99 will buy you a Radeon HD 7750 or GeForce GT 640, both of which are capable cards, and will give you a good gaming experience with any modern title (assuming that the rest of your PC is up to the challenge).

If your budget goes a little deeper, then $200 buys you a Radeon HD 7850 or GeForce GT 660, both of which are superb graphics cards. 

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CPU

(Source: Intel)

Most newcomers to upgrading automatically think that the CPU is the place to start. After all, it's the brains of the CPU, and the faster the CPU, the faster the entire PC will be, right?

Wrong.

CPU upgrades are fraught with problems.

  • Boosting performance by a few hundred megahertz doesn't translate into much real world gains.
  • Finding out what CPUs are compatible with your motherboard can be a nightmare. Not only do you have to make sure the sockets match, but that the actual CPU is supported by the BIOS/UEFI and the hardware.
  • If your PC is old enough that adding a new hundred megahertz would indeed make a difference, then chances are your newly upgraded system will be compromised by another bottleneck (RAM, storage, etc) and you end up having to spend more money.
  • Notebooks – along with some desktop systems – are not upgradable because the CPU is soldered onto the motherboard.
  • CPU spec and data sheets can be very complicated, leading you to buy something that is worse than you already have.

The only people for whom CPU upgrades are worthwhile are hardcore enthusiasts who have high-spec systems, and know them inside out. If you're not one of these people, then if you're considering a CPU upgrade, then what you really want is a new PC. 

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Display

(Source: Dell)

Here's one upgrade that you desktop PC and Mac users might not have thought of. Adding a bigger screen to your system – or, if the system allows, a second display – is an excellent way to improve performance without having to crack open your system.

If you work with a lot of applications at once, or your job involves having to split your attention between two or more applications/data sources, then adding a second screen means you can give the applications you use more screen real estate, making them visible all the time.

Many modern systems have two ports (or sometimes more) for displays. If not, you can add a graphics card that will support multi-monitors.

Even notebooks can support dual screens, although with some you may have to invest in an adapter. 

Don't underestimate the enormous productivity boost that adding a bigger -- or second -- display will bring.

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External storage

(Source: Lacie)

Don't feel like cracking your system open to add more storage, or perhaps you want to add a LOT of storage, then external storage is the way to go.

Here you have loads of options, ranging from a single one-disk external drive that connects to your system via USB (1TB should cost about $80), to something more elaborate that can offer many terabytes of storage and be accessible to a number of PCs over a network (a 16TB LaCie Quadra Big will set you back $1,600).

If your system has a Thunderbolt port then there are a number of extremely fast external storage devices that make use of this port, but expect to pay a premium for this sort of performance.

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Operating system

(Source: Microsoft)

Running an old operating system? Then upgrading to a new version might give your system a spring clean and bring with it some new features for you to play with.

Upgrading Windows or Mac systems is pretty easy, and far less problematic than they once were. Macs are especially easy to upgrade because the process is essentially a one-click download from the Mac App Store.

Mac OS X upgrades are also cheap, costing only $20.

Windows upgrades cost more, but hardware support goes much further back, so there's a better chance that you can upgrade an older system to the latest version.

Anyone thinking of upgrading should check to see if his or her system can handle the upgrade before pulling the trigger on buying it. For Windows users Microsoft has an Upgrade Assistant, while Apple's offering is some simple instructions on checking your hardware.

Personally, unless the hardware is relatively new – no more than five years for a PC, and about three years for a Mac – I'd save my upgrade money and put it towards a new system, and the costs outweigh the benefits.

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Peripherals

(Source: Microsoft)

Another simple – and cheap – upgrade.

It's amazing how a new mouse of keyboard can make an old PC feel like a new one.

Also, think beyond the keyboard and mouse! You have the option of adding a whole new class of peripheral, such as a pen tablet (handy if you're into photography or art), a fingerprint reader (makes logging on quicker and easier), or surround sound speakers (to give your gaming a bit more realism). 

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