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Want your next PC to last a decade? It’s possible

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Although upgrading is always exciting, there’s often a measure of anxiety that comes with it. Making the wrong hardware choice can have you wishing for something more powerful in a year’s time, and that can become an expensive mistake.

But buying a new PC doesn’t have to be that way. There are smart choices to be made, smart hardware to be chosen, and if all goes to plan and you are willing to shell out for a solid build from day one that gives you plenty of upgrade options, you may find yourself still using essentially the same system for the best part of a decade.

Jump to a specific period

Year 1
Ask the experts

Year 1-2
Just the basics

Year 3-4
Memory matters

Year 5
Upgrading the video card

Year 6-7
Teaching an old dog new tricks

Year 8-10
The light at the end of the tunnel

Year 10
The End

Of course, any hardware bought today is going to be slower compared to contemporary components a decade from now, and it won’t support many of the latest technologies. But that doesn’t mean it can’t stay relevant. If the recent news of the United States Navy extending its Windows XP support with Microsoft tells us anything, it’s that careful consideration can make technology last much longer than it was originally intended.

The recommendations for a PC build I make here will give you the right start, but your system will need tweaking and upgrading over the next 10 years. It won’t be exactly the same by the end. It will, however, retain the same core components and chassis, so unless you’re planning to break out the spray paint and LED light strips, it will look much the same. Every systems eventually goes out of date, but with proper planning a desktop can last much longer than most think possible.

Next page: Year 1 – Ask the experts

Year 1 – Ask the experts

Consulting expert reviews is always the first step in building a new PC. Emulating that process, we reached out to Kelt Reeves, owner of Falcon Northwest, to hear his recommendations on what a good starting build would be.

His first suggestion? Buy the fastest hardware you can reasonably afford. While it’s expensive and often offers less bang for buck than some of mid-range components, the faster kit will last longer when up against its future descendants. Today, that means purchasing a quick quad-core or, if you can swing it, a six-core chip. And you should absolutely buy the most modern platform; for example, you’d much better off buying a new Z170 motherboard then opting for an older Z97 or Z87.

Buy a system you can upgrade, or build it yourself.

Buying the latest hardware may not seem like a good value, and if you’re OK ripping your system apart every few years, it’s not. But most people don’t want that hassle. For a system to last as long as possible, its CPU and motherboard most remain relevant as long as possible. As Kelt told us, “you’ll likely need to upgrade the CPU and chipset ‘platform’ when it comes time,” which is both expensive and time-consuming. Buying a quality processor and motherboard combination is essential.

When it comes to graphics, your usage will be the deciding factor. If you are a gamer and plan to be for the foreseeable future, a quick single-GPU like Nvidia’s GTX 980 or AMD’s Radeon Fury X will still be powerful a few years from now. If you don’t want to play games you can save money by sticking with integrated graphics, then upgraded to a discrete card later if you feel it’s needed.

On area a gamer may want to compromise is display resolution. Settling for 1080p can make the hardware in your system stay relevant longer, because rendering load increases with resolution.

AMD Radeon Fury X
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

A solid state drive is a must-have. You could opt for a low-capacity model to conserve budget, and twin it with a secondary mechanical hard drive for back up purposes. However, a big, fast drive like a Samsung Evo 850 or Intel Series 750 could make your build simpler and quicker.

For a power supply, you want a good brand name like Antec or Seasonic, with high efficiency (80 Plus Bronze, at least) and a long warranty. Five years would be a good standard to aim for. Wattage should factor in the hardware you’ve opted for. You don’t need to go crazy, but it’s a good idea to grab at least 600 watts for a basic quad-core, single-GPU build. If you plan to add two video cards and/or heavily overclock your processor, then a 800 watt power supply may be needed.

As for chassis, Kelt recommends you aim for something you like the look of more than anything, but don’t go too big, as all that wasted space will take up an unnecessary amount of your home. Go compact with plenty of dust filters to aid cleaning and quiet fans if you want a near-silent system.

Kelt’s biggest advice for buyers, though? Buy a system you can upgrade, or build it yourself. “This may seem like a no-brainer, but every day tens of thousands of people buy systems from ‘the big PC makers’ that have some, or even many, proprietary parts that they may find out years from now can’t be upgraded.”

This advice agrees with what we’ve seen in the past. Desktops from Asus, Dell, HP and others provide great value, but they often have a so-so power supply, an unbranded motherboard, or other oddities. While rarely a reliability concern, unusual components can make future repairs and upgrades much more difficult.

Jump to a specific period

Year 1
Ask the experts
Year 1-2
Just the basics
Year 3-4
Memory matters
Year 5
Upgrading the video card
Year 6-7
Teaching an old dog new tricks
Year 8-10
The light at the end of the tunnel
Year 10
The End

Next page: Year 1-2 – Just the basics

Year 1-2 – Just the basics

A PC’s ability to work as intended depends on the operator as much as the hardware itself. Anyone who’s ever uninstalled numerous toolbars from a relative’s overcrowded browser knows that maintenance is important, but what’s the best way to go about that?

There are two sides to general PC upkeep — physical and digital. The first aspect might seem simple, but it is often overlooked, as it requires cleaning the computer. That means removing it from under a desk, dusting its paneling, clearing out dust filters and wiping down fans. Use a can of compressed air to blow any clumps or coatings off of important components, as a vacuum can generate static electricity, or accidentally suck up a crucial cord.

Don't let us catch you letting it get this bad...
Don’t let us catch you letting it get this bad… Wikimedia

Heatsinks covering important parts of the system, like the CPU and graphics card, should all be clear of dust and debris, as the reduced airflow can seriously impede their abilities to cool the components. This can lead to all sorts of problems, not least of which is reduced life span. As Kelt told us, Heat is the enemy of longevity in PC parts, so proper cooling is important.”

The software side of maintaining the system is much more mundane. Regular anti-malware and anti-virus scans are a good idea for any system, as well as running cleanup software like CCleaner. Less obvious tweaks can include keeping the amount of extraneous sofware to a minimum, such as additional mouse and keyboard drivers, or those extra programs that are sometimes bundled with browser or download manager installs.

Aside from this routine maintenance, your first two years of ownership should be carefree. No component, major or minor, will go out of date in this brief period of time — so long as you followed our buying tips.

Jump to a specific period

Year 1
Ask the experts
Year 1-2
Just the basics
Year 3-4
Memory matters
Year 5
Upgrading the video card
Year 6-7
Teaching an old dog new tricks
Year 8-10
The light at the end of the tunnel
Year 10
The End

Next page: Year 3-4 – Memory matters

Year 3-4 – Memory matters

Although no one can predict the changing of standards with PCs, if there’s one trend that’s stood the test of time, it’s that more memory is always in the cards. Yes, today we might be dealing with much higher bandwidth solutions than we were a decade ago, but 8GB is almost invariably better than 4GB, so likewise in a few years time, 16GB or more will be a wise upgrade if you’ve followed this guide so far. Many current systems can support all the way up to 64GB too, so by all means, go all out if you have the money.

It’s also a relatively cheap and easy upgrade, since any decent motherboard you choose will have a few spare slots, so the procedure for giving your PC that bit of extra oomph is as simple as taking the sticks out of the packaging and plugging them in. However, it’s a good idea to buy memory rated at the same speed and timings as what’s already installed. This will ward off any unfortunate memory errors.

As much as the march of random access memory continues onwards to new heights, storage capacity is right there with it. While a decade ago a couple of hundred gigabytes might have been a hefty storage drive, today things are quite different and in a few years time, they’ll be even more so. Fortunately, SSD prices will have continued to fall by the time year three rolls around, so you may want to buy a newer one that’s faster, or upgrade to something bigger if you’re running low on space.

Even these upgrades may not be needed at this point in time.

Jump to a specific period

Year 1
Ask the experts
Year 1-2
Just the basics
Year 3-4
Memory matters
Year 5
Upgrading the video card
Year 6-7
Teaching an old dog new tricks
Year 8-10
The light at the end of the tunnel
Year 10
The End

Next page: Year 5 – Upgrading the video card

Year 5 – Upgrading the video card

At this point in your PC’s life, it may start to feel its age. You might notice that despite your efforts, it’s just not as snappy as it once was, and if you’re a high-level enthusiast or gamer, some of those new GPU specifications and benchmark numbers may be making you green.

Fortunately, this system was built to facilitate the potential upgrade of your GPU. While it might be sad to see the back of your graphics card, getting yourself the latest and greatest at this point will see you right through to the end of the planned decade. The high-quality power supply mentioned earlier is important here, since it will provide the power and connections required to handle a new video card.

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Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

If you didn’t have a video card in the first place, you may not need to add one, unless you want to a fancy new display that offers a previously unsupported resolution. In that case, a basic video card can be helpful. It’s usually possible to snag the entry-level model of the most recent video card generation for around $100.

As for the rest of the system, if it’s really starting to feel clogged up, it might be time for a clean install. That means backing up everything that’s important to you, all of your pictures, save games and documents, wiping the slate clean and starting again. It might be quite an arduous process and it’s certainly not as easy as the ghosting that many people use when moving from one system to another, but deleting everything and starting from scratch will give you your old PC back.

Jump to a specific period

Year 1
Ask the experts
Year 1-2
Just the basics
Year 3-4
Memory matters
Year 5
Upgrading the video card
Year 6-7
Teaching an old dog new tricks
Year 8-10
The light at the end of the tunnel
Year 10
The End

Next page: Year 6-7 – Teaching an old dog new tricks

Year 6-7 – Teaching an old dog new tricks

As long as you haven’t been trying to play the latest and greatest games at the highest resolutions possible, until now you probably won’t have noticed much of a slow down in your system compared to the tasks its facing. It should still boot up quickly and will not have any failing capacitors whining at you, but there may be the odd application that is starting to give it a hiccup.

Fortunately, there is plenty you can do to help that.

Overclocking is intentionally sacrificing the longevity of a part for more speed.

You could look to replace your graphics card, if you haven’t done so previously, or upgrade your processor to the highest specification one that your motherboard will be able to support. If you went high-end initially, there may not be much headroom for more and any compatible hardware at this point is likely to be second hand, so you don’t know how it’s been treated – however, the option is there, so it’s worth considering.

Another one is potentially is a little more risky, but it’s much cheaper: overclocking.

Modern processors are surprisingly capable of holding their own over the years, but you may be tempted to give your CPU a boost by overclocking it. Doing so can result in a substantial 15 to 20 percent performance increase.

However, Kelt says there’s a downside to this strategy. “Overclocking is intentionally sacrificing the longevity of a part for more speed.” The need for speed is understandable, but be aware it comes with a real risk. By overclocking, you’re making a gamble that the extra stress placed on your processor won’t be high enough to kill it before the decade is out.

Falcon-NW-Talon-CPURAM
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Depending on your own interest in learning the hows and whats of it all, you can step into the increasingly less murky worlds of the BIOS, where you can tweak frequencies and multipliers, play with memory timings and voltage rates, or you can have someone else do it for you.

While our friends at Falcon Northwest offer their own overclocking services when you first buy a system, they can also handle aftermarket upgrades too. However a middle ground solution is using overclocking software, which can automate the whole practice and leave you with a noticeable few hundred MHz, which should be enough to put some zip in your PC’s step.

Whatever upgrades you make to the system during this period, continue the general cleaning and software maintenance. That, above all else will help keep the system feeling fresh and can stave off another format.

Jump to a specific period

Year 1
Ask the experts
Year 1-2
Just the basics
Year 3-4
Memory matters
Year 5
Upgrading the video card
Year 6-7
Teaching an old dog new tricks
Year 8-10
The light at the end of the tunnel
Year 10
The End

Year 8-10 – The light at the end of the tunnel

Year 8-10 – The light at the end of the tunnel

From here, it’s all about staving off the inevitable. Your PC isn’t what it once was, that’s clear, but it’s been a faithful soldier for a long time and you want to keep it around for a little longer while you prepare for the inevitable entirely new system.

If you need a bit more performance, you can go more aggressive with your overclocking, or replace the graphics card again, but at this point the rest of the system will hold back anything new you add in.

Falcon-NW-Talon-rearjacks2
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Speaking of add-ins, now might be a good time to consider add-in PCI cards or USB adapters to expand your computer’s functionality in its final years. By now it’s likely that new connection, storage, and wireless standards have appeared which your motherboard didn’t support at release.

An adapter can fix that problem at a relatively low price (most are less than $100), adding some convenience to your machine. The jump will be particularly noticeable if standard support was holding back your Internet speeds. A system built in 2005, for example, might not have Wi-Fi at all, but can be upgraded to the latest 802.11ac with a simple adapter.

Jump to a specific period

Year 1
Ask the experts
Year 1-2
Just the basics
Year 3-4
Memory matters
Year 5
Upgrading the video card
Year 6-7
Teaching an old dog new tricks
Year 8-10
The light at the end of the tunnel
Year 10
The End

Year 10 – The End

Year 10 – The End

Hopefully by the time you reach your system’s 10th year, you’ve been happy enough with it that you’re a little sad about throwing it out for a younger model. However, it is inevitable, that if you want to keep using your PC in the future, you will need a major overhaul.

Don’t think you need to throw it all away, though. If you love the chassis, you can always just replace all of the components. While cases do get better with time, there are still some classics kicking around that are worth hanging on to.

Do your research, pick the right components at the right time and be willing to give it some love and care.

You also may want to retire the PC to some other purpose. An old computer can make an excellent home server for hosting a variety of files, can function as a home theater PC, can become a retro games emulator, or can used as a basic web access computer for a family member who only rarely jumps online.

So, good luck if you are looking to build something that will stand the test of time. Do your research, pick the right components at the right time and be willing to give it some love and care over the years and you may be able to build and run a system that will still be around a decade from now.

Jump to a specific period

Year 1
Ask the experts
Year 1-2
Just the basics
Year 3-4
Memory matters
Year 5
Upgrading the video card
Year 6-7
Teaching an old dog new tricks
Year 8-10
The light at the end of the tunnel
Year 10
The End

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