Upgrade or Replace A Desktop PC?

Memory, drives, video cards, and the CPU are upgradeable — but watch the cost

Computer on desk
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The average desktop computer enjoys a functional lifespan of roughly three to eight years. The length of the lifespan depends upon the type of system you purchased, advances in hardware components and changes in the software requirements over time.

Clean Up Your System

Many slow-running computers will enjoy a significant speed boost if you uninstall old programs. Modern apps sometimes start up silently in the background and consume system resources even when you don't use them.

Use the Reset This PC tool in Windows 10 to engage in even more under-the-hood housekeeping before you conclude that you must upgrade or replace your computer.

Upgrade or Replace?

There's no hard-and-fast rule about when you should upgrade a computer versus replacing it outright. One consideration is whether the computer is conveniently upgradeable. Most desktop Windows computers feature easily accessed ports, but some laptops and some all-in-one computer designs make end-user upgrades a significantly more complicated endeavor.

Assuming your upgrade path is solid, consider replacing a computer when the cost of the parts to upgrade it will cost more than half the cost of a suitable replacement.

When you factor the costs of upgrades, think about the five main replaceable components: memory, hard drives, optical drives, video cards, and processors.

Memory

The memory inside of a desktop computer is the easiest and most cost-effective upgrade. 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 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. In most cases, swapping memory chips is one of the easiest hardware updates you can make.

Check, first, whether your computer is affected by the 4GB memory limit in 32-bit operating systems. If your computer cannot run a 64-bit operating system, it cannot access more than 4GB of on-board RAM, no matter how much RAM was installed in the device.

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 every 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.

A pro-level upgrade involves the addition of a solid state drive. SSDs offer a significant increase in storage speed but have the drawback of much less storage space for the price — but using an SSD for Windows, with your data on a separate physical drive, will yield significant performance improvements in Windows.

An alternative is to use a new solid state hybrid drive that uses a conventional 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.

The market supports several very good solid-state and conventional drives. Regardless of which you select, installing a drive is usually a straightforward process.

CD/DVD/Blu-ray Drives

Optical drives prove increasingly rare in modern computers given the general transition to streaming media and USB flash drives, but there are still compelling use cases for these drives. 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. Many newer computers may not even feature these drives.

Pick from one of the best internal or external DVD burners or a Blu-Ray drive for your computer.

Video Cards

Most people will not need to upgrade the desktop video card unless they are looking for extra performance or functionality with advanced games or computationally complex programs for statistics and data 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 require on-board power, so check what your existing power supply can support before searching for a card.

We've compiled a list of Best Budget Graphics Cards priced under $250 and Best Performance Cards if you have a higher budget.

CPUs

While it is possible to upgrade a processor in most desktop PCs, the process is fairly intricate and difficult to perform for most users. Even then, you may be restricted by the computer's motherboard as to what processors you can install in the system. If your 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.