Summary first! Keep reading afterwards for deeper information and advice about your computer upgrade or buying new.
If your computer is quite new but slowing up, an hour or two of clean up work may be all that it needs to improve [around £30-£60 if I do the job]. You'll quickly be happy using it again. If your computer is not so new or there are some deeper issues, more investigation and repair will be needed. Below I outline a number of changes that help in different ways and the likely costs involved.
The Simple Way:
Assuming the device you want to upgrade is more than 3 years old and the warranty has run out, the simplest way of improving your computing experience is to do the following:
Money - If you can’t afford a new device yet (including the legacy file transfer and setup costs if required), there are a number of things you can do. Just keep in mind that at all stages and smaller steps, there are compromises and likely smaller but multiple costs. Added to that a warranty may not exist or look better than it is.
Security - It may seem like a cost effective solution to upgrade older technology. However, nostalgia and making do with an older chipset and often older unsupported software, could compromise security. Conversely, I have recently read that some NEW chips and their architecture are becoming more vulnerable because of their reliance on an unmanaged, black box, "run the whole show" approach. Where I have noticed the most weakness though, is in device owner habits to keep both security and operating system software updates as current as possible.
More In-depth Information
I've seen a lot of computers and gadgets come and go in my life over the last 30 years. One of the key moments in the history of each item was when I made a decision about keeping it or moving on to a new device. Keeping it, meant either putting up with it for a bit longer or trying to upgrade it. Moving on meant the excitement, occasional disappointment, but often relief of buying a new faster easier to use model.
I’ve been fixing, upgrading and buying new for more than 30 years. Below, I have outlined the key areas for consideration when you are starting to get the feeling you want your PC, Laptop or Gadget to be faster or work more like it once did. Also, if you have tried installing a new piece of software, be it a game or otherwise, that just doesn’t perform well on your device, read on.
Cyber crime - that is, criminal activity that makes use of the internet to succeed - is the fastest growing type of ciminal activity on planet earth and is likely to continue its advance until humans stop connecting with each other using technology.
From a software perspective, most of us know that there are hackers out there who want to steal our data for a variety of purposes, and we do our best to update anti-virus and anti-malware software on the advice of software creators, the media, tech-magazines, Internet ads and people like me. When you are making a decision to upgrade or buy new, hardware security should also not be overlooked. Some Central Processor Units (CPUs) may be vulnerable, both old and new it would seem. Some tech specialists are discussing the reality that although modern chip makers (Intel et al) are giving more of the running of a device to CPUs and making things easier to build, this is creating a weak situation. The black box nature of CPUs means criminals who do gain entry to this deeper control level may be harder to detect or stop. That said, more modern hardware technology is still likely to be more secure because it can run modern software.
New Software security should always be high on your list when making a decision about technology. Some older components and motherboards are not supported by newer operating systems. Although windows 7 is light and windows 10 lighter, use of the respective ‘upgrade analysis tools’ is highly recommended. Often you will find out that Graphics Card A, Sound Card B or motherboard X are not supported. Which component and on which device, will depend on your specific circumstances. It is also worth noting that due to modern chip changes, Microsoft have stated that moving forward, some modern chips will need windows 10 or not be supported. It seems this may be more for corporate servers and desktops, but it is worth checking with a supplier if the CPU in the PC or laptop you are buying will be supported by Microsoft after 2017. Older operating systems like win 8 or 7 will be supported on older silicon chips. So, if you are a great fan of windows 7, that is still supposed to be supported until January 2020, it will not be supported if you buy a new PC with the most recent CPU architecture.
Different hardware within a device will have a different effect on its ability to perform certain tasks faster or smoother. In the table below, I have tried to present a matrix of possible changes, their effects and their difficulty level (if you are thinking of upgrading them yourself). I have included estimates* of costs for each of the upgrades that show labour time and some average charges.
Be aware that Windows 7 and 10 are lightweight but may not come with driver softtware that will enable your internal components to work correctly on the operating system. Some maufacturers do produce viable drivers for use with their components and windows 7 or 10. If you are a Mac user, run a IOS compatibility check before diving into an upgrade to the most recent software version.
Below the following Upgrade Matrix is a more in-depth description of the most commonly upgraded components. I finish off by describing my own priorities for upgrading components.
Labour Hrs / Cost(£)**
Speed up data transfer and improve shock resistance. Your device should start and perform faster as there will be less of a bottleneck (sometimes much less) retrieving or saving data.
£40-£400 depending on storage and model.
2 / 60
Helps you do more at once and rely less on your hard disk. It will speed up most things you do on a device. However, find out the limits of your device and operating system or adding more may be a waste.
£10-£100 depending on gb & type.
1 / 30
Improves modern gaming and any high level video or image editing. Applications will respond faster because graphical tasks preformed by the device will be handled by a better GPU and not by the CPU.
£30-£2000 depending on make, model and number of cards added.
1 / 30
With an upgraded CPU, a device will perform better in many ways for general tasks. Application software mathematics will be handled quicker. The downside is that the upgrade is dependent on positive compatibility and a higher level of technical skill and knowledge.
£40-£500 depending on make and model and host device.
3 / 90
Improves your device’s ability to not only play better surround sound schemes, but also handle lots of different sound sources at once. An example may be 36 tracks of a new pop, rock or classical piece you have created. Most devices would struggle to do this in any quality. Especially if you decided to record more tracks while playing back the others. A fast storage disk and more memory would help improve Sound Card effectiveness.
£30-£100 for home use. Studio devices vary much more.
1 / 30
Benefits are limited to those sending very large files over a network or downloading / uploading large files or lots of small files at once. If you don't do any or much of the above it's probably not worth it. Although it would be a cheap upgrade.
1 / 30
* Approximate cost for a mid level piece of hardware for a standard PC or Laptop. Prices can vary based on the specific needs of a device or owner.
** Estimate of time to complete a task and an average charge per hour as of market conditions in August 2016. Some technical service operative charges vary wildly. I will update the article if significant changes occur over time.
Hard Drive (Hard Disk / HDD / Storage)
Two types of hard drive are common:
1) The older style is built using a central spindle with a read arm and multiple flat magnetic spinning disks. Varying speeds exist. Average life seems to be 3 to 10 years. If you have a 10 year old device with an old style hard drive, you better have a backup of all your precious files. I'd advise having a backup of any important files regardless of the age or type of storage.
2) Solid State Drives (SSD) have no moving mechanical parts. They do not have a disk or a drive motor. SSDs are normally more resistent to shocks like dropping and are quieter and faster at finding and transfering data. Some of the speed benefits will depend on the host device and its interfaces though. Currently the comparable cost per unit of storage means SSDs are 4 times the cost of HDD.
Memory (Random Access Mamory / RAM / Working Memory )
More memory means being able to do more things at once (applications / games / browser tabs). A device will also be able to hold an application’s code ‘live’ without having to use some hard drive storage to put actions in a kind of queue. Although having more memory seems like the best option, it is not always possible or worthwhile adding more. Some devices have a higher maximum memory limit than others, some operating systems cannot cope with more than 3 gigabytes (gb) and some may need shuffling of existing memory so that a maximum can be achieved. On top of that, some memory is faster than other types but depending on your device, it may be unusable.
[TIP] A great way of checking what set up you currently have, is to use the crucial.com tools advisor (manual) or scanner (automated - see the linked scanner banners on this page). These will let you know the maximum memory your PC or Laptop can have and what sort is available. Also, what SSDs are available for your device, what size and price they are. You can then buy the memory or SSDs direct from crucial and they guarantee compatibility. I have used them many times now with flawless results. Some SSD packages include cloning software to make an exact copy of your current hard drive onto your new SSD. Other suppliers are available.
Graphics (Video Card, Graphics Process Unit, GPU)
Video output displayed your monitor(s) is created by a Graphics Processor Unit (GPU) that is either integral to your motherboard (built in) or on a card in one of you motherboard slots. Depending on your device type, the range of compatibility and expansion/improvement potential may be zero or massive. Laptops and Tablets have limited scope for upgrades as most have integrated graphics. Some Laptops do use cards plugged into their motherboard. Although that may give you some flexibility, the rules on compatibility and expansion are the same as for a PC. If you purchase a tablet, you’ll likely be stuck with the graphics abilities that came with the new device. From a PC perspective you are limited by the type of slot(s) available, the driver availability for your motherboard or operating system and presence of enough power from the power supply unit (PSU) to run the new card. Some PC’s can be loaded with 1, 2 or even more cards, each delivering extra video processing to your PC. Modern gamers will want the best that can fit in their PC. A medium aged or even old PC can be given a moderate to massive boost in frames per second (FPS) by the addition of one or more powerful but compatible graphics cards. If you are a gamer and want to play a favourite modern game, check the minimum and advised “Supported Graphics Card” list provided by the game creator. Check the minimum and advised PC spec also.
Central Processor Unit (CPU)
A Central Processor Unit(CPU) does all the general number crunching for applications running on PC’s, laptops, tablets, phones and other devices. Although modern games also require a good GPU to run well, mostly everything else will benefit if a CPU is upgraded. The bad news is, laptops, tablets & phones are likely to have built in CPUs. It would be foolhardy to attempt to change them unless you are very good at micro soldering and are very comfortable with the capabilities of the motherboard and its upgrade viability. PC’s although easier to upgrade, still need to play by the rules of compatibility. Each motherboard will have a range of chips that can be installed. Some may need extra cooling in order to protect a CPU and PC from overheating a being destroyed. Care must be taken with static electric and specialist removal tools and thermal paste are required during a CPU change. One thing that you may consider, is that some CPUs can be ‘overclocked’. This means that the CPU is forced to run faster (and hotter) that it was actually designed for. To do this, you would need to follow advice from specialist sites and need additional cooling to stop the CPU and device from being damaged.
From basic device sounds to hearing 7.1 full theatre surround sound or setting up a fully functional modern recording and production studio, it all comes down to what soundcards your device is compatible with. With PC’s and Macs it is normally just a case of swapping an old card for a new 1, 2 or more. If you want to be doing state of the art sound production you are going to need a lot of RAM, a good CPU and fast hard drives as well as great graphics cards. A good read of a software creator’s advised device spec will be a good guide to start.
Most of the time a network card can be ignored. As long as it can handle 100mb/sec you shouldn’t notice any issues. If a card fails, a straight replacement is all you need. Unplug one, plug the other in. If you want to be moving very big files around you network or to or from the internet you may want to consider building in a bit more flexibility with a 1gb/sec card. You would need to check that your device can handle that speed or it wouldn’t be worth the change. If it can and you have a PC, it’ll be a simple swap. Laptops, Tablets and Phones are more difficult to upgrade. However, most will be using high speed WiFi over 5g these days and will not be struggling.
If I was going to upgrade a device rather than buy a new one, what would I do first you ask? 1) I'd be sure to back everything up in at least 2 places (one online service, one offline). 2) I'd make sure that I addressed any common software weakness that may exist first. That includes outdated security. 3) Up my memory to MAX followed by 4) changing my HDD to SSD using a cloning method. Everything else is niche specific or a little too complex & prone to error.
At the end of the day, before upgrading by yourself or having someone else do it or buying new, you will need to assess current market conditions; cost of components, cost of labour, viability of software and hardware upgrades versus prices for buying new devices with 2 to 3 year warranties. The context of your decision will be affected greatly by what you really need the device for.
I've been helping people upgrade or repair computers in the Stamford area (UK) for many years now. If you need help, please get in touch using [email protected] or call 07899 845338 and I'd be happy to give you some quick advice to move you forward with your technology needs.