When to Update or Upgrade your Computer

If you want to be on the bleeding edge, you will be upgrading every few months. For the rest of us, every 2-3 years leapfrogging components sounds better!

CES 2021 has begun. As I mentioned in my January Highlights, CES is the trade show for consumer electronics, not just computers. Still, vendors use this time to show off what is coming and trending in the coming year, particularly for laptop designs.

Because this is all the new and shiny, there will be a lot of hype and “You need to get this!” marketing. But do you really need to get the latest and greatest?

To confuse the waters more, we are still in a peculiar position for tech items. Getting anything shipped is remaining expensive. The ability to make enough items to meet demand even before shipping is challenging. This is most likely going to continue for the next 6 months at least.

So with this in mind, let’s have a look at if you even need to update or upgrade your current system.

If you don’t have anything – new is not a bad idea. Still, there are alternatives.

Building your own desktop computer makes it easier to shop around and make what you are looking for. Changing out components is also straightforward. Well, historically. Today, supply issues have definitely caused a ‘get what you can’ situation.

If you are buying a prebuilt system (desktop or laptop), new releases can mean savings. Prebuilt computers are like any other consumer item, so getting the ‘old’ stock at a discount while vendors try to clear stock can be a wise move.

How do you know new stuff is coming? The sales start!

Will you be getting cutting edge stuff? No. But you will be getting stuff that works just as well as when it came out a year ago. New items can run games faster or with higher graphics settings, but that doesn’t make the older tech obsolete.

As with almost everything, it’s cost vs reward with these things. And if you can save 15-20%+ today, that isn’t a bad thing.

But what about my computer now? It’s so slow!

This is the more common issue that people cite for needing new computers. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s avoidable.

Avoiding buying new computers can be by getting some specific upgrades. Gaming especially, you usually just want to upgrade to a new graphics card than a whole new computer. But sometimes you don’t even need to go down that path for better performance.

Potential improvements can just be from looking after your computer correctly.

When friends or clients tell me they need a new computer, I can get some great returns by spending a day on the computer. True, they usually hand it to me as if they are humouring me, but still – results talk. People don’t blink with servicing their car, but never put the same logic to their computers.

If the computer is getting louder and hotter, it’s usually dust/fur buildup in the fans. Physically cleaning the inside of your computer is the number 1 thing I see people never do.

Yes, it's a Google Image search. But I have seen a lot worse over the years.

Takes forever to boot up the computer? Defrag the mechanical hard drive, and check the programs that startup with Windows. Don’t do this with an SSD – they work differently.

Lots of different strange issues, or lots of programs and hardware installed/changed over the years? Wipe the computer and reinstall everything. Start with a clean slate.

That last one can be a drastic move, but that doesn’t mean it’s a useless one. People often complain that they don’t want to install all their programs again, but what do you think you do on a new PC?

The nice part of all this is it only costs you time and internet downloads if you are on a cap. If you are looking at your PC and wishing it would perform a bit better, spending a couple of days looking up what you should do could be all you need.

It's never fun reinstalling Windows, but it can save so much frustration

If you have a savvy friend, ask them around to help. Catch up for a day – there is lots of downtime involved. Just make it clear what they are in for, and be prepared to provide drinks and maybe some Uber Eats for their efforts!

While it can take a couple of hours to set things up waiting for downloads and for things to just happen, catching up with them while everyone is waiting isn’t a terrible way to spend a day. Being invited over for dinner and ambushing them with computer problems is a surefire way to sour what could have been a lovely time!

And then there are upgrades – the halfway house, and best bang for the buck.

Sometimes your computer is OK how it is, it just needs a little bit of help. Depending on how long you have had your computer, some parts could be challenging to upgrade. But many components can be carried from PC to PC until they just stop working.

The most apparent upgrade people do is their graphics card. This is for desktop computers only – laptops have their GPUs soldered to the motherboard, and you don’t want to change that. Thanks to PCIe, this is usually just a case of taking the old card out of the slot and slipping in a new card.

One slot, a couple of screws and power cables. The easiest component to swap out.

That’s it – better gaming performance accomplished.

Wait, upgrading your graphics card is that easy?

For a lot of people – yes. With the introduction of the RTX 30 and Radeon 6000 series, this is close to the last time you can do it quite as quickly. Especially with high-end GeForce cards needing power than ever could mean needing a new power supply.

The good news is you can use a good power supply in your next build. So today, you might grab a PSU that’s 100W more than you need, but perfect for your next computer. Or maybe the one after that.

It's often overlooked, but not enough power spells doom for your PC

The other gotcha is the PCIe 4 standard. PCIe is backwards compatible, similar to USB. You can put a USB 3 drive in a USB 2 port, it just works slower. Similar with PCIe 4 graphics cards in PCIe 3.

Today, graphics cards aren’t fully pushing PCIe 3 capabilities, so you don’t see any real performance hit using a PCIe 3 slot with a PCIe 4 card. Later this year, maybe next year, newer cards may see a meaningful hit in performance if you do the same thing.

You don’t want to spend AUD$1,500 on a new video card and get no more performance than if you paid AUD$800. This is what is going to start happening eventually. It’s just a matter of time.

It’s easy to upgrade your graphics card, and it can be moved to new builds, so you don’t have to rebuy them until you want to. But it’s also easy to overspend – you don’t want to put an RTX 3080 in a dual-core PC!

That ‘quick-load’ factor – Storage.

You may have a PC that doesn’t have an NVMe drive, so you can’t get one of those new superfast drives everyone talks about. The good news is most people don’t have to. A SATA SSD can give you a huge performance boost, as long as you boot Windows from that drive.

Purely as an example, a computer that boots in 30 seconds on an HDD will boot in 15 seconds on an SSD. Boot from a PCIe 4 NVMe, and you will boot in 12 seconds. There are still improvements, but not the same improvements. Also, you are all but guaranteed to spend 3-4x as much on that NVMe drive than an SSD!

Can you get better performing drives? Yes. But this will fit into almost everything.

So while NVMe drives are undoubtedly the fastest drives around, ‘best’ depends on your use case. You still get the most bang for your buck booting from an SSD. Loading a game in 23 seconds from SATA instead of 21 from NVMe is an expensive gaming upgrade.

Because SATA drives are standard connections, there is an excellent chance your current PC can be upgraded to a SATA SSD. Even if you are on a laptop, as long as you can open it up, you can change the drive for a larger one if your needs have grown.

And again, as you build or buy new systems, you can bring the drives with you! So spending AUD$160 on a 1TB SSD for a 3-year-old computer might sound like a waste, that’s money you see benefits from now and don’t have to spend again until it eventually fails.

That ‘Snappy’ feeling – RAM

If you have a system that is a couple of years old or more, there is a good chance that you only have 8GB of RAM. This is because, in 2016, you could buy 8GB of RAM for what you could almost get 32GB for today!

To know if you should get more RAM, it’s not as hard as you think. Go to the Windows Task Manager when you are using the computer as you usually would. If it’s mid-game, then when your favourite game is playing. If you use your PC mainly for work, then do it when you have all the applications open that you frequently use together.

To open Task Manager, press CTRL + Shift + Esc at the same time. You might need to click on the ‘More Options’ arrow down in the bottom right. Click on the Performance Tab, then click on Memory. If the dark bar is almost full, you need more RAM.

The bar and readouts can be confusing, but if you actively use all your RAM, you need more.

RAM is where your CPU reads and saves the information it uses from your HDD/SSD. When the memory is full, it switches from cached RAM (the right side of the bar) to your hard drive. Faster hard drives help with this, but really the best answer is to get some more memory.

This can be trickier to buy the right kit, but as long as you have RAM recognised by your CPU and motherboard, it’s easier than changing your graphics card. Just take the old sticks out, and put in the new ones. If you have newer RAM and empty slots, you can even just add some more.

Some computers only have 2 RAM slots, some have more - you need see what you can do before buying

You won’t load games quicker, but it will take the load off your hard drive, and you will be waiting less time switching between Chrome tabs and the like. That ‘Snappy’ feeling – it’s hard to describe, but you can definitely feel it.

Again, with a laptop, this can be done if you can open the case. But you need to be even more careful about buying blindly. Some models solder the memory to the motherboard, meaning it can’t be changed this way.

The memory looks different, but it's the same theory. You will usually need to replace your Laptop RAM though.

The real gotcha with RAM though is that newer standards are due, so bringing RAM forward may not be as reliable an investment as storage. Getting fast RAM for a motherboard that only dreamed of 3200MHz speeds makes the faster RAM pricing a waste to pay. Also, getting older RAM can be more costly than buying a new PC!

DDR5 is on the way, but I would bet that new motherboards will have DDR4 and DDR5 variants for a year or two. This is what has happened in the past. It’s still a finite amount of times you can bring your RAM purchase forward, so if you can’t quickly get more of what you already have installed, weigh up the costs.

And finally, upgrading the CPU and/or motherboard.

OK, if you need to upgrade your CPU, I usually recommend upgrading the motherboard. Sometimes, this is even flat out required, especially with Intel chips.

If you need to upgrade your motherboard, you often have to upgrade your RAM as well. That means 3 significant components need to change. This is where I typically declare that I am no longer ‘upgrading’ my computer – I am building a new one.

If you have to upgrade this trinity, it’s still a new computer – you are just reusing the other parts. This is precisely what I am doing with my personal Ryzen build.

By the time you change these three components, you have a new PC

But how do you know if you need a new CPU? Again, open up Task Manager with your typical applications open, but this time click on CPU. If your CPU usage is about 30% or higher and you aren’t doing anything, then yes it could be time for a new computer. Cleaning off applications that are running would be my first call before spending the cash though.

The CPU usage shown below is my current PC. I have YouTube running with 5 other Chrome tabs across two profiles open. I also have Word, Outlook, XBOX, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Steam, GOG Galaxy, my Stream Deck software, GO XLR control panel, TeamViewer, Microsoft To-Do and three File Explorer windows open. I have shut down all of my development type programs, so there are 8 fewer programs than normal running. This is actually my ‘light’ use.

Just because you don't think you doing anything doesn't mean your computer does!

That’s a lot of applications open with my computer doing ‘nothing’. That doesn’t even touch anti-virus and the like! That’s why I say if you are doing ‘very little’, but your CPU is working hard, getting a beefier CPU in a new computer is probably a good idea.

But to get the most out of your new CPU, upgrading the motherboard to get the most out of it gives you the most bang for your buck. Your motherboard literally lets everything work together smoothly.

Technically, you can put a 5950X in a 3-year-old motherboard, but to me, it’s like putting a four-speed gearbox in a Ferrari. You can do it, and you will get around fine. But you won’t let the engine hit its full potential. Why limit yourself like this?

Wow. So much to take in.

Yep. The beauty of computers is their flexibility. The downside of flexibility is too many options to look at. Hopefully, now you have a useful guide for weighing up buying a new system against boosting your current one for another couple of years of reliable use.

The biggest take away is no matter how amazing those new computers look, or what the hype says, don’t fall for it. If your computer is doing what you want it to, then that computer is right for you. Spend your cash wisely on what you need, not what marketing tells you that you want.

Don’t forget, if you want to see what to look for for a gaming PC, I also have a guide for that as well!

Until next time,

JohnHQLD
Want to send to someone that may enjoy this?