Upgrade or Replace a Desktop PC?

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

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

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.

Computer on desk
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Upgrade or Replace?

No hard-and-fast rule exists about when you should upgrade a computer versus replacing it outright. One consideration is whether it's convenient or easy to upgrade the computer. Most desktop Windows computers feature ports you can get to easily, but some laptops and all-in-one computer designs make end-user upgrades a significantly more complicated job.

Assuming your upgrade path is solid, consider replacing a computer when the cost of the parts to upgrade it is more than half the price 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 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 exceeds the system RAM and goes to and from the hard drive to keep the system running. Most desktop systems shipped with 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 you buy. 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 can't run a 64-bit operating system, it can't access more than 4GB of onboard RAM, no matter how much RAM you install.

Hard Drives/Hybrid Drives/Solid State Drives

The second-easiest upgrade for a desktop PC is with the storage drives. 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, a quick fix is to purchase a new internal or external hard 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.

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, you'll only see a performance boost when these become the primary or boot hard drive.

The market supports several 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 they aren't obsolete yet. You can usually find a DVD burner from around $25 for the latest models. They're just as easy to install as hard drives, and the extra speed and functionality make them 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 include 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 won't need to upgrade their desktop's video card unless they're 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. Graphics cards can cost as little as $100 to nearly $1000. Most require on-board power, so check what your existing power supply can support before searching for a card.

CPUs

While it is possible to upgrade a processor in most desktop PCs, the process is intricate and difficult for most users to perform. Even then, the computer's motherboard may restrict you 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.