After three years together, things just aren’t the same between you and your PC. While friends play new games on their shiny new all-in-one machines, videoconference on Skype with their built-in webcams, and run the swank Aero edition of Windows Vista, your clunky old machine won’t handle any of it.
We’ve already addressed some simple software tricks for speeding up your computer before you go and start buying new parts, but the last resort – upgrading – deserves a guide in its own right. So here it is: a beginner’s guide to upgrading your PC that explains what’s out there, what it will do for you, and what to expect when you install it yourself. You’ll want to further investigate some of the more complex upgrades before undertaking them, but if you’re just looking to get an overview of the possibilities, you’ve come to the right place.
Explaining how to perform each upgrade step by step would be beyond the scope of this article, but we’ve included some basic explanation of how installation goes to give you some idea whether or not it’s something you even want to look into. If wielding a screwdriver and opening your computer sounds OK, but popping chips out of sockets and dealing with thermal goop makes you squeamish, you’ll know which upgrades to chase and which to stay away from.
Ready to bring that decrepit desktop up to speed?
Easy Does It: No Tools Necessary
Before you crack open your case, consider whether your needs can be taken care of with a few simple additions outside the box. Using cables alone, you’ll be able to add everything from a bigger monitor to house-rocking speakers, terabyte-sized hard drives, and even hardware that traditionally had to go inside, like video capture devices and sound cards. The best part: Installation is usually just plug-and-play.
If the wimpy 17-inch screen that came with your Compaq just isn’t cutting it anymore, it may be time for an upgrade. But don’t just go and buy the biggest one you can afford: Not every computer can drive every screen size, so you’ll need to figure out what yours can handle. Dig out (or Google) for the manual on your existing video adapter to find out how high it will go. With most modern PCs, you’re relatively safe stepping up to 1080p resolution (1920 x 1080) which also happens to be a popular monitor size.
Looking to add a second monitor, rather than replacing the one you have? Smart move, if you have the room. You’ll need to make sure you have two display outputs to do it, though, so check the back of your PC case. Even if you have one VGA (analog) and one DVI (digital), you’ll be able to do it. Driving an LCD monitor with a VGA cable is less than ideal, but in truth, the circuitry to convert analog back to digital inside the monitor is so good, most people can’t tell the difference. If the monitor you want doesn’t match the output on your computer, you can always invest in adapters to make it work.
For more information on selecting a new monitor, check out our monitor buyer’s guide and shopping tips podcast.
External Hard Drives
Swapping out the hard drive with all your files and an operating system already on it can be a huge pain, which is why many people opt to simply add a new drive alongside the original instead. With an external model, you need to pay most attention to how it will connect to your PC. Some interfaces carry more data than others, which can be a major concern when you start accessing large files. And if you choose the wrong one, you may not have a way to connect it at all. The most common interface is the Universal Serial Bus, or USB connector. The USB 2.0 standard moves data at 480 Mbit/s, which is more than adequate for most home users. For a step faster, you can switch to the FireWire 800 interface, which moves data at 786 Mbit/s, but it’s far less common, unless you own an Apple, and you’ll pay a premium for many devices that support it. For ultimate speed, the relatively new eSATA standard is king. You won’t find connectors on many devices – mostly newer laptops – but it’s by far the fastest interface, with a maximum throughput of 3,000Mbit/s.
Check out our own external hard drive reviews to pick out the perfect model for you.
Stepping up from juice-box-sized desktop speakers to a pair of loudspeakers with some serious grunt can make all the difference for watching movies and playing games. Ordinary stereo speakers (two channels) are incredibly easy to swap: Just pull out one plug and plug in a different one. If you’re looking for a 5.1 channel, or even 7.1 channel surround setup, things get a little more complex. Check your PC’s sound card manual see whether you can handle the surround format you’re looking for. Generally, if you at least have three colored jacks in back, you’re good for 5.1-channel sound, because each jack carries two channels, adding up to six. Even most motherboards with onboard sound usually support this style setup, but 7.1 usually requires a dedicated sound card. Whichever you choose, hookup is usually just a simple matter of matching colored audio jacks before you’re hearing bullets whiz by, grenades explode right next to you, and neighbors banging on the ceiling with a broomstick.
Consult Digital Trends’ own collection of PC speaker reviews for help finding a system, and have a look at PC World’s dated (but still relevant) guide to PC speaker systems for more information on different surround sound formats.
The versatility of USB and FireWire connectors has lead to a limitless array of devices for them (the most bizarre of which we’ve already recognized in our round up of 10 Weird and Wild USB Devices). If you’re looking for something more practical, consider the obvious mouse and keyboard for more comfort, sound cards for better audio, video capture devices like Pinnacle’s Dazzle that let you capture old analog footage on your PC, Wi-Fi adapters, and even hubs to add even more ports.
Intermediate: Lefty Loosy, Righty Tighty
Ready to peek inside that steel sarcophagus and loosen a bolt or two? The prospect can be intimidating, but after you’re inside, you’ll realize there’s not much too it after you get past the confusing rat’s nest of wires. Grab yourself a Philips screwdriver and an antistatic wrist strap to keep from frying your sensitive electronics with static shock, and you’re ready for these simple upgrades.
Even the most technically challenged non-geeks can usually pull this one off. (For advice on whether or not you need more RAM, check out our guide to speeding up your PC and budget upgrade guide.) To find out how much RAM your motherboard can handle, you’ll need to check the manual, as with most things – and be sure to check which speed you need, too. It will read something like “PC2-6400,” which is essentially a speed rating. Don’t sweat the numbers. Buy the same stuff and get as much as your motherboard will allow – usually 4GB. It’s cheap.
Installation takes five minutes: After popping the case on your PC, you’ll need to locate the motherboard (biggest thing in there, can’t miss it) and find your existing RAM (which looks like this). Clips on the side of each module will free it from the motherboard, allowing you to wiggle out the old and slide in the new, then refasten the clips. Slap the cover back on, and you’re done.
The process of installing RAM has been covered to death, so you should have no problem finding a step-by-step guide to walk you through the specifics, but we’re fond of Lifehacker’s down-to-earth pictorial guide on the subject. PCWorld also offers some great advice on exactly how to select your RAM before installation.
Internal Hard Drives
So, all those movies, songs and games finally filled your stock drive to the brim. Time to add on. Fortunately, 3.5-inch desktop drives have never been cheaper – you can get a full terabyte (1,000GB) for about $100 now, if you shop around. Just make sure to buy one with the right interface: older computers use parallel ATA (also known as IDE) connectors, while newer ones use SATA connectors. Again, your computer’s reference manual is the quickest way to find figure out which you have inside. Performance aficionados will seek either standard hard drives that spin up to 10,000 RPM, or solid-state drives, which use flash memory to deliver faster speeds, but also cost far more. If sheer storage is more your concern, 7,200 RPM or even 5,400 RPM drives will work just fine.
Connecting up a drive is usually a matter of sliding it into an empty drive bay, connecting up power and data cables (either IDE or SATA) and making sure it shows up when you boot. On older setups, you may have to mess around with jumper configurations to set drives as either masters or slaves, which basically tells them how to share the same cable. Sadistic, we know.
Tom’s Hardware Guide took a look at some of the most popular drives on the market recently, which makes fine reading for anyone considering a hard drive purchase soon.
For gamers, there is no more important piece of hardware than the graphics processor. It can make or break performance in most games, and if you’re currently working with an integrated graphics processor (meaning it’s built right into your motherboard, not on a separate card), buying even a cheap graphics card will give you one of the biggest jumps forward in terms of performance.
Explaining how to select one from the jaw-dropping selection out there would take a while, but fortunately, we’ve already put together a comprehensive guide on how to pick one out.
What can you expect after UPS drops it off on your doorstep? You’ll need to find the old card in your motherboard, remove the single screw holding it there, lift a locking lever on the motherboard (if you’re dealing with a PCI-E card) and remove it. Push your new card in, lock it in there tight, and fire up your PC. You’ll need to pop in the included CD to install drivers, of course, but after that, it should be smooth sailing.
Looking for an internal Wi-Fi card, sound card, or even something quirky like a aftermarket Ethernet card for an old PC that doesn’t have one built in? They all use your motherboard’s PCI slots, which are like all-purpose expansion bays for nearly everything. Provided you have an empty one, adding a new card is usually as simple as opening your case, sliding in the fresh hardware, fastening a single screw, and booting up to install drivers.
Difficult: Where Nerds Fear to Tread
Roll up your sleeves, we’re going in deep. We would never intend to scare anyone away from the following modifications – and PC experts may laugh that we’ve even labeled them difficult – but budding upgraders will definitely have to do their homework before diving in.
No one disputes that a processor is one of the most integral parts of computer performance, but only real hardware enthusiasts usually bother to upgrade them. Why? It’s takes a little more work than our other upgrades.
Your choice of processor is severely constrained by your motherboard. Besides the physical limitation of making sure it has the right number of pins in the right places, a processor needs other hardware onboard the motherboard (a “chipset”) to function, so any given motherboard can really only handle a narrow range of processors. You’ll need to look at your motherboard’s manual to see what speeds and configurations it can handle. Keep in mind that you’ll never be able to make extreme jumps, like from a 1.6GHz single-core processor to a 3.0GHz quad-core processor, or something equivalent. That’s going to require a new motherboard.
After doing the research to see what new type of processor you can handle, you’ll need to order it, along with a corresponding heat sink – a chunk of metal and a fan that sits on top of the processor to help dissipate all the heat it throws off. Removing the old processor is quite simple: lift up the clip retaining the heat sink, remove the heat sink, then throw the long lever attached to the side of the processor socket to release the chip itself. The new chip will only fit in one way – you can’t position it “wrong,” but make sure it slides in easily with very little resistance, or you’ll bend a pin trying to force it. Lock the level back into its down position, and it’s in. Before you put the head sink back on top, though, you’ll usually need to spread some thermal grease on top, which will help heater transfer from the processor to the heat sink. Install the new heat sink, plug in the fan where the old one used to plug in, and you’re rocking a few more megahertz.
For something as visual as installing a CPU, we recommend video instructions, like this version available on eHow.com.
Overclocking & Advanced Cooling
Whether you realize it or not, the processor, GPU and RAM in your computer can run significantly faster than they do right now. They’ll just generate a lot more heat, run with less stability, and suck down more power.
The process of milking this extra performance out of your hardware is called overclocking. Take a 2.0GHz processor, set it to run at 2.2GHz, and you’ve “overclocked” it. It sounds simple, but the process of actually pulling it off can – and has – filled volumes.
Most of the complexity arises over keeping things cool. The faster things run, the more heat they generate, and the more likely they are to run unreliably. If you can keep them cooler, you can push them further. Most overclockers accomplish this with bigger, better heatsinks, and louder, faster fans. But as early pioneers of the hobby discovered, living with a computer that sounds like a jet engine can be quite irritating, so many modern overclockers prefer liquid cooling. Rather than moving air through the fins on a heat sink, these rigs move fluid, which captures the heat more effectively and dissipates it more readily through a radiator mounted strategically somewhere toward the outside of the case. They work better, they run quieter, and they look high tech due to all the tubes running everywhere. They’re also much more difficult to build.