Upgrading your computer is an excellent way to not only breathe new life into an aging system, but it also allows you to customize your computer to better suit your needs and even personal style. This guide will explain the roles of the primary components in your computer, how they affect each other, and what upgrading them can mean of you and the capabilities of your computer.
Options to Upgrade Laptops, All-in-One’s, and Tablets:
Due to the way they are designed and made, some laptops, All-In-One’s (AIO’s), and the majority of tablets are not able to have all of their hardware upgraded or changed. This guide will call out if a component is not likely able to be upgraded for these types of products, and is primarily a consideration for desktop systems only.
Upgrading your storage isn’t something to only consider when running out of space. With the advent of Solid State Drives (SSDs), upgrading your storage can also have one of the biggest impacts on your systems overall performance.
Due to the way they are designed and made, a few laptops, AIO’s, and Tablets may not be able to have their Storage upgraded, including virtually all modern Apple Devices, and some exceptionally thin and light Windows laptops. Windows and Android-based tablets that can be expanded will often use Micro Secure Digital (Micro SD) Cards, which are similar to SSDs.
The traditional hard disk drive (HDD) has long been a basic building block for computers, holding everything from the operating system and software programs to each data file, document, and image. These drives are relatively inexpensive and can give you a lot of storage space for your money.
Sometimes, your current computer is fine but the built-in hard drive is too small or too slow. If you have the know-how and a few tools (or the help of a Geek Squad® Agent), the casing of most desktops and many laptops can be opened up to replace the internal hard drive with a larger or faster model to keep your computer going strong. If you find yourself running out of space, adding a larger or even secondary storage HDD to your system, or an External Hard Drive are great ways to expand your computers storage capacity.
The benefits of SSDs over HDDs are numerous, with the main one being speed. Because SSDs have no moving parts, they’re not only far more reliable than HDDs but are also many times faster. This drastic increase in performance impacts nearly every aspect a system; making everything feel more responsive, allowing programs to open and load more quickly, and resulting in your computer turning on and off in a matter of seconds.
If you were an 80's/90’s kid like me, you probably grew up with dial-up Internet. Remember the first time you experienced Cable or DSL Internet then tried to go back and use the Internet over dial-up again? That is what having an SSD in your system feels like.
Of course, SSDs do have their downsides. Their “price-per-gigabyte” can be higher than that of HDDs, causing them to usually be sold in lower capacities to keep them affordable. This results in SSDs not being a viable medium of mass data storage for most. As a result, it is common to use both SSD's and HDDs in tandem with each other when possible. Utilizing the speed of an SSD to store your Operating System, programs, and games, while using a secondary HDD for storing your pictures, documents, music, etc. is a best of both worlds solution, and is common in gaming and enthusiast systems.
Due to the way they are designed and made, a few laptops and AIO’s may not be able to have their RAM upgraded, including virtually all modern Apple Devices, and some exceptionally thin and light Windows laptops. Tablets, on the other hand, can almost never have their RAM upgraded.
Upgrading your computers RAM is one of the cheapest, and easiest upgrades you can make, and is one of the first pieces of hardware to consider when upgrading an older system. If you find that your computer slows down significantly when you’re attempting to use multiple programs, upgrading your RAM may be the answer to your problem.
Before buying any new RAM for a computer you’ll need to check what type of RAM it’s compatible with, and the maximum amount supported by your system. Referring to the manufacturer's website is your easiest way to find this information.
Shop Memory (RAM).
Due to the way they are designed and made, virtually all laptops, AIO’s, and Tablets may not be able to have their CPUs upgraded. As a result, upgrading your CPU is almost always only an option for Desktop systems.
The Central Processing Unit or CPU is like the brain of your computer. Everything passes through it, making it a great candidate for upgrading in some cases. The two main companies that make CPU’s at the time of writing this article, are Intel and AMD. AMD CPUs are generally found in lower powered and more budget oriented systems, and are known for having more, but less individually powerful cores coupled with more powerful Integrated Graphics. Intel CPUs are much more common in mid-range and high-end systems and offer generally better all-around performance. For the purposes of this guide, we will use Intel processors as an example, as they are currently the most commonly used brand.
Intel processors come in a variety of flavors, easily recognized by their names. Celeron and Pentium CPUs are reserved for lower end and budget oriented systems. Intel’s mainstay processors are the i3, i5, and i7. To put them in car terms, think of them as 4, 6, and 8-cylinder engines.
While the i3 is more powerful than its lesser Celeron and Pentium siblings, it is also usually reserved for lighter duty. The i5, on the other hand, is the workhorse of the Intel lineup. This makes it a fantastic general purpose processor great for home use, and even gaming. The i7 is at the top end of the scale, and is the processor of choice for anyone from the enthusiast gamer, to the professional graphic artist or engineer.
Aside from their “i” series identification, Intel processors also have an easily recognizable numbering system used to judge their performance and features which can help you decide which model best suits your needs. At the time of writing this article, the 6000 series is the latest from Intel. The second number in the series signifies a major shift in performance and features. For example, the 6500 is an i5 processor, while the 6700 processor is an i7. The last two numbers are usually reserved for minor performance differences. For example, the 4430 and 4460 are both i5’s with the same features, but the 4460 is slightly faster. Finally, you may see letters after a processors number, like U or K. These letters further distinguish the processor's features. For example, the K series processors are fully unlocked allowing for overclocking, while U processors are more energy efficiency minded models designed for use in Laptops.
Before attempting any CPU upgrade, be sure to check your computer's Motherboard for compatibility. Motherboards are often designed for a specific generation or subtype of CPU from a specific manufacturer, which can mean that an older Motherboard may not support the newest kind of CPU available.
Shop Processors (CPUs)
Due to the way they are designed and made, virtually all laptops, AIO’s, and Tablets may not be able to have their GPUs upgraded. As a result, upgrading your GPU is almost always only an option for Desktop systems.
If you want to get into PC gaming, live streaming, video or photo editing, even all of the above, adding a GPU or upgrading your existing one is likely your best option. Just about all computers come with what's known as “integrated graphics,” which is built into your computers Processor (CPU). While ok for displaying programs, viewing websites, watching movies, etc. integrated graphics usually lack the horsepower needed for quality gaming or editing.
The two main companies that make GPUs at the time of writing this article, are Nvidia and AMD. Both companies make fantastic products, and deciding which one to go with usually comes down to personal preference. For the purposes of this guide, we will use Nvidia cards as an example, as they are currently the most popular brand.
Nvidia cards have an easy to recognize numbering system used to judge their performance and features, which can help you determine which card best suits your needs. At the time of writing this article, the 900 series is the latest from Nvidia. The second number is an indicator of general performance, so a 980 would be “faster” than a 960. The third number is not often changed from a 0, but in past cases like the 280 and 285; the 285, while similar to the 280, is a slightly upgraded version. More commonly you will find identifications like Ti (Titanium) after card numbers. Using the 980 as an example, the 980 Ti is similar to the 980, but a “faster”, and more expensive version.
When deciding which level of GPU to choose, generally the “X60” or “X50” series from Nvidia are considered their mainstream cards, offering the best performance and price balance. For a comparison, the current 900 series mainstream versions can generate graphics rivaling that of gaming consoles like the Xbox One or PS4. Going with a lower level card, like an “X30” or “X20” series will be cheaper, but will offer far less performance. Similarly, going with an “X70” or “X80” series card will put you near the highest level of performance well exceeding the abilities of current gaming consoles, but you will pay a premium to get there.
Some computers even support the use of multiple GPUs simultaneously to further boost graphics performance. For Nvidia, this is known as SLI, and for AMD, this is known as Crossfire. While these options do offer a large boost in performance, consider that you would be buying 2 or more of the same GPU, which can be very expensive. Also, your Motherboard and Power Supply need to support multiple GPUs. If you're considering doing your first upgrade, its best to stick with one midrange GPU to start with, but always remember that you have the option to upgrade again later.
Shop Graphics Cards (GPUs).
Due to the way they are designed and made, virtually all laptops, AIO’s, and Tablets may not be able to have their PUSs upgraded. As a result, upgrading your PSU is almost always only an option for Desktop systems.
The Power Supply is like the circulatory system of a computer. It is what converts, manages, and sends all the electricity to every component in a computer. While being one of the most important parts of a computer, it is often one of the most overlooked upgrade opportunities. Most pre-built or retail systems come with PSUs capable outputting just enough wattage for the system they are put into. In many cases, if you wanted to add a GPU for quality gaming capabilities, you will likely need to upgrade your PSU as well.
PSUs are judged by two main attributes; Continuous Wattage, and 80 Plus rating. Continuous Wattage is a measure of the maximum amount of wattage the Power Supply can output during continuous use. The 80 Plus rating is a measure of efficiency and comes in Regular, Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum ratings. The higher the rating, the more efficient the power supply is while running above 80% of its maximum Continuous Wattage.
When deciding what PSU to purchase for your upgrade, it is best to choose your other upgrade parts first to better determine your power needs. GPUs, for example, will usually have a recommended system Continuous Wattage listed right on their boxes, which is a great general benchmark to help choose your PSU.
Say your system came with a 300 Watt PSU, but the GPU you want to buy recommends a 500 Watt system PSU. It is almost always a good idea to give your system extra headroom in the power supply department, and choosing a power supply with a Continuous Wattage 10%-20% above your expected needs is never a bad idea. Not only will this give you extra room to grow in the future, but it should also put you near the sweet spot of efficiency (remember the 80 Plus rating) for your power supply.
Shop Power Supplies (PSUs).
The last upgrade to consider, especially if you’ve just upgraded some of the other components in your system, is Cooling. Higher performance parts that draw more power, especially faster CPUs and GPUs, also generate more heat as a result. These components are designed to work within a specific temperature range, and will automatically slow themselves down, or throttle, if they get too hot as a protective measure. While great for preventing damage to your computer and its components, this also decreases performance.
One of the easiest and cheapest ways to help with cooling is to add more fans. For laptops this is commonly accomplished by using a Cooling Pad, which usually has an extra fan, and will raise your laptop above the surface, improving airflow. With desktops, you can add additional Case Fans to increase airflow, or even upgrade the stock heatsink and fan that comes with your CPU with a beefier option. Common upgrades include larger heatsinks with more and/or larger fans and even water-cooled solutions with pumps and radiators.
Many variables other than your hardware configuration can affect your components temperature, including your local climate, dust build-up, and even different seasons. There is no sure way to know if you will need more cooling without testing your system first, but if planning a major system upgrade, it is definitely worth considering upgrading it’s cooling as well.
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