Friday, 4 January 2013

PC Upgrade Q&A

When the time comes to upgrade your PC, you might have trouble deciding the best place to spend your time and money. Do you get more RAM or a new hard drive? Do you get an up-to-date graphics card or replace the motherboard? As you may have noticed, it's quite hard to compare the advantages of different component upgrades, and ultimately your decision rests on what you want your PC to do after you've spent the money on it.

For that reason, we've compiled this FAQ-style list of wants, needs, intentions and constraints to give you the best advice about upgrading. To use it, just go down the list, find the entry that corresponds to your feelings, and you'll be able to discover which upgrade is right for you.

I Want Games to Run Faster or Look Better

 Desires to improve the way games run is probably the most common reason people decide to upgrade their PC.After all, PC gaming at its best makes even the latest games consoles look like decades-old technology. However, since games use almost every aspect of your PC, the destination of improved game performance can be reached on many roads. What choice you eventually make will depend on the hardware you currently have, the money you have to spend, and how comfortable you are with upgrades.

Nvidia GeForce 690 GTX
If, for example, you don't currently have a dedicated graphics card, you should make that your first priority. A good gaming graphics card will cost in excess of £100, and probably closer to £200. Really good ones can easily set you back twice as much. So is the money worth it? Well, to put it bluntly, yes.

A good graphics card will transform jerky, jagged images into lush and incredible vistas. You are, after all, putting a separate CPU in your PC, which is intended to take care of nothing but the visuals, at prices that eclipse the cost of an entire games console.

 This will also free up your actual CPU to run the rest of the show. If better games are your goal, then adding a dedicated graphics card is the quickest way to see huge results.

 Of course, if you already have a dedicated graphics card, it might not make a huge difference, in which case, your CPU might be a better place to spend the money. Run some benchmarks, find out which of the two is the bottleneck in your system, and upgrade that (if not both!). You can also get improvements by adding RAM or switching to a solid- state drive, but neither will offer such dramatic changes as a graphics card or CPU upgrade.

I Want Windows To Be Faster

  Windows' speed has improved in recent years, but there are few people who would turn down the chance to have a quicker desktop environment. If you spend a lot of time working or browsing but aren't into games, the best upgrade you can give your computer is probably a chunk of additional RAM.

  If you're using less than 4GB (or 8GB for a 64-bit CPU) invest immediately so that you have at least that amount - it's cheap, easy to install and the results will be instantaneously visible. That's because more RAM means more space for Windows to juggle its data.

  Less disk caching means quicker loading times, smoother application switching, and the ability to run more applications simultaneously before your system begins to stammer. A new CPU also has the potential to speed certain tasks up, and a dedicated/upgraded graphics card could take over some of the visual processing, but there's no question that in terms of a speed-to-cost ratio, more RAM is the best way to improve how Windows performs.

I Don’t Want To Open Up My PC

  If there's a good reason you can't open your case (for example, a warranty you don't want to void, or because it's technically owned by someone else), the best upgrades you can perform will, of course, be in software. If you're trying to increase performance, it's a good idea to start by installing the latest device drivers and firmware updates, all of which will make minor tweaks to the performance and feature sets of your existing hardware.

However, if you're not already using the latest operating system, you should definitely look into that. If your PC meets the hardware requirements, a new operating system will add extra capabilities and allow you access to others (for example, 64-bit processing), while the clean slate of a fresh installation will flush out all those little services and applets that are slowing down your computer. It's not an ideal upgrade, but it's your best option when cracking open the case isn't.

I Need New Storage

  A full computer is an unhappy computer, not least because it means that your disk will go into churning mode more and more frequently as the virtual memory and temporary files struggle to fit in decreasing amounts of space.

It might be tempting to buy a flash drive, get some cloud storage or start flushing out files you don't want to hang on to, but rather than go through your MP3 collection deciding which Coldplay album can be cut for space, the most direct route to better storage is just to buy a new hard disk. They're incredibly cheap, easy to fit and typically quite long- lived, so you should see decent return on your investment. Ideally, you want to fit a SATA 6Gbps (sometimes called SATA III) drive, but it depends on your motherboard supporting the technology. If you can't fit a SATA drive, a standard IDE drive will do just fine.

It's worth avoiding solid-state drives, though - while they're fast, it comes at the expense of capacity, and the biggest SSDs can't touch the biggest traditional HDDs, which are currently available in sizes up to 3TB.

I’m Not Very Experienced At Fitting Hardware

  Not everyone is a born tinkerer, so if you don't feel comfortable pulling at the guts of your PC until they resemble an explosion in a bowl of spaghetti, don't worry: there are still upgrades you can perform that won't take a lot of technical knowledge to fit.
 The simplest upgrade is RAM. As long as you've bought the right type of memory (probably DDR2 or DDR3), all you have to do is open your case, find the slot and push until it clicks. You may need to swap out or move an existing module, but the physical act is literally no more difficult than that. 
Hard drives are similarly easy to add.

In this case, you have to screw the drive into place and connect up two cables, but they're robust, well-shielded and usually straightforward to configure. Not much can go wrong, making them a good choice to help you get familiar with a PC's internals.

Finally, you could consider stretching to a graphics card upgrade. Expansion cards are generally easy to deal with, but graphics cards do have a host of considerations, involving cooling and power supplies that might throw the novice user, so take care before you spend the money - they aren't cheap, after all.
If you can manage any of those upgrades, then hopefully you'll have the confidence to try something a bit more complicated next time. Just don't start by trying to fit a new motherboard and you'll be fine!

My PC Is Too Old To Support A New Processor Or RAM

   Speaking of motherboard upgrades, if your RAM banks are full or your processor can't be sped up because faster/newer CPU lines have moved to a different socket, then there's only one thing for it: you're going to have to upgrade your motherboard. As you'll find if you read our motherboard upgrade guide, this is a delicate and complicated procedure that effectively involves dismantling your entire PC and then rebuilding it.

On the plus side, you should be able to retain pretty much all your existing components; a new motherboard should accommodate all your old parts with the probable exception of the processor and RAM, and the majority of component retailers sell bundles of those three, which reduces the difficulty of choosing compatible hardware to a minimum.
Be aware that this isn't a trivial upgrade, and some people may find it easier to just buy a new PC rather than spend the money on this amount of work. If you're dedicated to hand crafting the best machine you can, though, this is the way to do it.

I Want To Watch Blu-ray Movies

  Turning your PC from a bog-standard desktop machine into a media centre isn't very difficult to do, but there are a few pitfalls you might stumble into. Allow us to give you a quick guide to the upgrade path you need to take.
First - and while it might seem obvious, it's worth making explicit - you'll need to buy a Blu-ray drive. Regular DVD drives can't read Blu-ray discs, but Blu-ray drives can read DVDs, so it can be installed alongside or as a replacement for your current optical drive (though take care over writing/rewriting capabilities; the cheapest drives may not be able to burn DVDs). 

Secondly, you'll need an available SATA connection. There are some IDE Blu-ray drives, but problems with playback due to the low bandwidth of IDE connections means most drives are SATA - certainly, the ones that are any good. Don't worry if your motherboard doesn't support SATA; you can buy a cheap SATA controller that will plug into a PCI slot.
Finally (and this is the really tricky one), you'll need to make sure you have an HDCP-compliant connection to a 1080p TV/monitor if you want to get the best picture, which normally means an HDMI cable. VGA cables don't support the digital copy protection of HDCP, so your hardware will restrict the quality of the signal (to prevent piracy) negating the appeal of Blu-ray in the first place!

I Want Windows To Boot Faster

  Few people would turn down the chance to improve Windows' boot time, and while it's possible to spend hours testing various hard drives optimisations and tweaking the number of background services and drivers that load, you could just go the simple route and improve it using hardware instead.

If a quicker boot time is your goal, then the best thing you can do is get yourself a solid-state drive and make that your primary storage device. With your operating system stored entirely on flash memory, your computer's boot time will dramatically shrink. Traditional hard drives have always been a bottleneck, but never more visibly than during boot time, when Windows has a lot of data to read and not a lot of time to do it in, which leads to frenetic hard drive activity causing irritating delays.
Installing an SSD will require a SATA controller, so if your motherboard doesn't support it, you can get a SATA controller expansion card to fit in a free PCI slot.
Also, because the drives have a 2.5" form factor, you'll have to install the drive in a 3.5" bay conversion (converters are normally included, but do check).Then you'll have to face the horror of transferring your windows installation to the new drive, but once it's done, you can expect a PC that goes from POST to desktop in 30 seconds or less.

Note that a faster processor, more RAM or even a faster hard drive can aid boot times, but in this area, no other upgrades can compare to the improvements you'll see from installing an SSD. 

I Have A Limited Budget

  If you only have a bit of money to spend, it can be tricky to decide where to invest your cash in order to see the best value improvements. RAM is cheap - about as cheap as it can economically get, at the moment - and it offers a great set of all­ round enhancements that will be visible across the entire spectrum of uses for your PC. DDR3 is set to remain in use for couple of years yet too, so there's every chance it'll even fit in the next PC you buy!

 Processor upgrades, while more expensive, are similarly good all-rounders. Assuming your motherboard isn't already running the best CPU that'll fit in it, a new, faster one will kick your PC into overdrive in ways that are visible in almost every way you use it. Obviously, new CPUs are quite expensive even if you're buying from an older line, and unless you're already in the Ivy Bridge/Sandy Bridge leagues, there's not much hope you can transfer the processor to a future PC, but in terms of value-for-money performance improvements, it's one expense that yields a lot of improvements. 

Things to avoid if you can't spend a lot of money include hard drives (clean up your existing one instead), SSDs (they're still quite new and, as such, still expensive in practical sizes) and graphics cards (you'll have to spend a lot to get a good one, and even then, you won't see much difference outside games). 

I Want My PC To Be Quieter

  There's something almost comforting about the gentle hum of a PC at rest. And equally, few sounds are more frustrating than a PC that sounds like the love-child of a vacuum cleaner and a pneumatic drill. If your computer's making too much noise, there are upgrades that can help. 

To start with, identify the source of the noise. Normally, a loud PC is the result of a fan going into overdrive, and that means determining which fan is being noisy and why. 
If the fans are always loud, they're probably loose and rattling, which means your best option is to outright replace them with new ones. If they start quiet but soon get louder and stay that way, it's possibly the result of your PC's internal ventilation being poor. Clean the dust out your PC and consider installing dust filters on any vents to maximise airflow.

 However, if your PC only gets noisy when you're performing heavy processing tasks (such as gaming), then your components are simply running too hot. You have three choices: install extra fans (more fans means they can individually run slower and thus quieter), buy a case with better ventilation (more airflow means the fans won't shoulder the entire burden of cooling) or add a noiseless system, like water-cooling or heatsinks. It's a bit trial- and-error, but if you want things to get quieter, it's better to address the root of the problem and deal with the heat that's probably causing it. 

So there you have it. A quick guide to what upgrades you should be investing your hard-earned cash in. Remember that you can mix-and- match, and that these are just the upgrades where you'll see the most improvement in the specific area - they'll have effects elsewhere too! And if you now know what upgrade you want but don't know how to choose and install it, well, fear not; you can now look elsewhere in this feature for some more specific advice about what to buy and how to install it!

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