Before investigating the option of upgrades or replacement, it is advised that users clean up their computer software to try and speed up their system. Often times software and programs that have accumulated over time have slowed down the system from its optimal performance. Because of this, users should try some maintainence to help speed up their PC.
The average desktop PC has a functional lifespan of roughly two to five years. The length of the lifespan greatly depends upon the type of system purchased, advances in hardware components and changes in the software that we run. Over time, users will tend to notice that their systems just aren't as fast as they used to be, they don't have enough space to store their files or don't meet the requirements for the latest software. When this happens, users have the option of either upgrading or replacing their PCs.
To determine which path might be better for your computer system, it is best to look at a cost comparison of what you will get out of each of the two options. My rule of thumb is that upgrades should typically be done if the costs of the upgrades will be roughly half of the cost of getting a new system. This is just a guideline based on most upgrades giving you a functional lifespan of roughly half of what a complete replacement will get you.
The advantage that desktop PCs have is a greater amount of upgrades that can be made to them compared to a laptop computer. The problem is that with so many components that can be upgraded, the costs of upgrades can quickly outpace the cost of replacement. Let's take a look at some of the items that can be upgraded, their relative cost and ease of installation.
The memory inside of a desktop PC is the easiest and most cost effective upgrade that can be made. The more memory that a PC has, the more data it can process without having to use virtual memory. Virtual memory is memory that exceeds the system RAM and is swapped to and from the hard drive in order to keep the system running. Most desktop systems shipped with the memory that was sufficient at the time of purchase, but as computer programs get more complex, they use up more system RAM.
Memory upgrades will vary in cost depending upon factors such as the type of memory that your computer system uses and the amount that you intend to purchase. A good starting place for looking into upgrading PC memory is my Computer Memory Upgrade article. Installing memory is quite easy and the steps can be found in my DIY article.
Another thing to be concerned about is the 4GB memory limit in the 32-bit operating systems. For more information about this, consult my Vista and 4GB of Memory article. This article also applies to Windows XP, Windows 7 and Windows 8 32-bit versions as well.
Hard Drives/Hybrid Drives/Solid State Drives
The second easiest upgrade for a desktop PC is with the drives used for storage. Hard drive space roughly doubles ever two years and the amount of data that we store is growing just as quickly thanks to digital audio, video and pictures. If a computer is running out of space, it is easy to purchase a new internal hard drive for installation or an external drive.
If you happen to also want to boost the performance of your computer, there are several options that can help increase the speed of loading programs or booting into the operating system. The fastest method of doing this is through solid state drives. They offer a significant increase in storage speed but have the drawback of much less storage space for the price. An alternative is to use a new solid state hybrid drive that uses a traditional hard drive plus a small solid state memory as a cache. In either case, the performance is only gained when these become the primary or boot hard drive. This requires that the drive be cloned from the existing boot hard drive or else having all the operating system and programs installed from scratch and then restoring backed up data.
For information on what drives are available and how to install them, check out the following:
This is probably the least expensive upgrade that can be done to a computer system. Most DVD burners can be found from around $25 for the latest models. They are just as easy to install as a hard drive and the extra speed and functionality make these a great upgrade for any computer that has an older CD burner or plain CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive. Be sure to check out my Best DVD Burners or Best SATA DVD Burners lists if you are planning on upgrading.
Most desktops still only use DVD burners but Blu-ray has been out for some time and adding a drive to a desktop can allow for playback or recording of the high definition media format. Prices are higher than DVD but they have come down quite a bit. Check out my Best Blu-Ray Drives list if you have the interest. Be aware that there are certain hardware and software requiremenst in order to properly view Blu-ray video on a PC. Check to make sure your system meets those requirements prior to purchasing such a drive.
Most users will not need to upgrade the desktop video card unless they are looking for extra performance or functionality with 3D applications such as gaming. There are a growing list of applications though that can use the graphics card to accelerate their tasks beyond 3D. This can include graphics and video editing programs, data analysis programs or even cryptocoin mining.
The amount of performance that you might need from a graphics card will vary greatly depending upon your tasks. After all, graphics cards can cost as little as $100 to nearly $1000. Most graphics cards will have power requirements, so be sure to check what your existing power supply can support before searching for a card. Don't fret though, there are options now that will work with even basic power supplies. For some suggested graphics cards, check out my Best Budget Graphics Cards for those priced under $250 or Best Performance Cards if you have a higher budget.
While it is possible to upgrade a processor in most desktop PCs, the process is fairly intricate and difficult to perform for most users. As a result, I typically do not recommend doing this unless you built your own computer from parts. Even then, you may be restricted by the computers motherboard as to what processors you can install in the system. If you motherboard is too old, a processor replacement may also require the motherboard and memory to be upgraded as well which can get into the same realm as buying a whole new computer.
Time to Replace?
If the overall cost of upgraded parts is more than 50% of the cost of a newer and better system, it is generally advisable to just purchase a new computer system instead of upgrading. Of course, replacing a computer with a new model presents the challenge of what to do with the old system. Most governments now have rules regarding electronic waste that require specific methods of disposal. Be sure to check out my Computer Recycling article for information on how to dispose of old computers and parts.