Whether you’ve just bought a retail computer or built one yourself, there’s one thing that happens to both of them the moment you turn them on: they quickly become obsolete. Technology is always changing and you’ll find yourself constantly trying to keep up with the latest upgrades. A quad-core processor may seem like a fast processor, but now AMD makes an eight-core processor. 1GB of discrete memory on a graphics card seemed more than sufficient a year ago, but now 3- and 4GB is becoming the norm. So where should you start upgrading your computer? What components should you look for? And does it make sense to upgrade or just buy new? Read on to find out.
RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and is arguably the computer component that is upgraded the most. Whether it’s to add more memory or to replace what you have already with a faster speed, RAM upgrades are fairly simple and painless—and essential since it adds muscle to programs that handle resource-intense applications like photo and video editing. You should double-check to determine which RAM slots your motherboard has before purchasing any RAM, to ensure compatibility. Please note that a motherboard that only accepts older DDR2 modules won’t be able to use faster DDR3 RAM.
While most computers run 1333 MHz DDR3 RAM, the standard is currently moving toward 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM. Please note that if you have an older processor and motherboard, you’ll probably not see a speed difference if you install 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM in your computer. This is because your older processor and motherboard probably doesn’t support 1600 MHz and underclocks it to 1333 MHz. In order to fully optimize 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM, you’ll have to either overclock the controller, or if that doesn’t work, you’ll have to upgrade your motherboard. If you want to run dual-channel mode, you’ll have to make sure the RAM sticks you get are the same size and model. For example, if you want dual-channel 8GB of RAM, you need 2 x 4GB. If you go 1 x 4GB and 2 x 2GB, dual-channel mode will not be supported.
For standard browsing and everyday tasks, 8GB of DDR3 RAM should more than suffice, such as the Crucial 8GB Ballistix Sport Series 240-Pin DIMM 1333 MHz DDR3 RAM (2 x 4GB). If you plan to multitask between applications or run CPU-intensive tasks on a regular basis, then you’ll be better off with Crucial 16GB Ballistix Sport Series 240-Pin DIMM 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM (2 x 8GB). You can go to 32GB of RAM, but most applications cannot utilize past 16GB. Having 32GB of RAM may seem like a great way to “future-proof” your desktop computer, but with the emergence of 1866 MHz of DDR3 RAM, you’ll be better off waiting until you plan to either do major upgrades to the processor and motherboard or build/buy a new computer.
Traditional HDDs use a platter with a mechanical head to transfer data. Ranging from 5400 rpm to 10,000 rpm, HDDs are usually fast enough for the average user. They are also available in large capacities from 1TB to 4TB. However, since they have a spinning disk mechanism, they are more prone to mechanical failure. They are also slower than their solid-state drive (SSD) counterparts when it comes to data transfer rates. If you’re just looking to add some more storage space to your desktop computer, for files such as music, photos and movies, you can’t go wrong with the Seagate 1TB Barracuda 7200 rpm 3.5” Internal Hard Drive. With a 64MB cache, a SATA 6 Gbps interface and 1TB of storage space, you’ll have more than enough space for all your multimedia files, such as music, photos and movies. If you want to go even faster, you can opt for the Western Digital 1TB VelociRaptor 10,000 rpm 3.5” Internal Hard Drive. It also has a 64MB cache and a SATA 6 Gbps interface, but it runs at 10,000 rpm in order to achieve a 200 MB/s sustained data transfer rate.
SSDs use flash memory, so they don’t have any mechanical parts, which is why they’re more reliable than their HDD counterparts. They also transfer data faster than a traditional hard disk drive because they don’t have to “rev” up, which can result in faster times for booting up a computer or returning from sleep mode. However, since SSDs are still relatively new, you’ll be paying a premium for them. They are also not available in the larger capacities like HDDs. A standard SSD is something like the Crucial 128GB m4 2.5” Internal Solid State Drive. It has a SATA 6 Gbps interface and a read speed of 500 MB/s. This results in faster times when booting up your desktop computer or launching applications. You can also opt to go for a larger capacity with the Samsung 500GB 840 Series 2.5” Internal Solid State Drive. It features the same SATA 6 Gbps interface and has a read speed of 530 MB/s.
Can’t decide whether you want a HDD or a SSD? How about both? A popular build is a hybrid setup, which consists of a HDD with a large capacity and an SSD with a smaller capacity, such as the Seagate HDD and the Crucial SSD mentioned above. This way, you can put the operating system and all your frequently used applications on the SSD while using the HDD to store any data, such as documents and multimedia files. This hybrid setup allows you get the best of both worlds.
While most motherboards come with a plethora of audio jacks and a TOSLINK digital optical output port built in, your older computer may not. If you want to experience 5.1-channel surround sound, you can purchase a sound card instead of buying a new motherboard. Sound cards usually fit into a PCI or PCI Express (PCIe) slot on your motherboard. Today, PCI slots are used less often than PCIe, so you may opt for the ASUS Xonar DG PCI Sound Card. The Xonar DG uses a PCI slot so your PCIe slots are free for when you want to add another graphics card (more on this later). The Xonar DG provides three selectable gain modes, which are VoIP, Pro Gaming and Exciter. It also has one 3.5mm microphone input port, three 3.5mm audio output ports and a TOSLINK digital optical output port. If you would rather stick with PCIe and get the best audio experience in sound cards, then the ASUS Xonar Essence STX PCIe Sound Card is a better fit for you. Please note that both sound cards require a legacy 4-pin Molex cable that you will need to connect to your power supply.
While most processors come with integrated graphics, they can’t really compare to a dedicated graphics card. Much like AMD and Intel are the best known manufacturers of processors, AMD and nVIDIA are the powerhouses when it comes to graphics cards. Below are two graphics cards geared toward avid gamers and professionals in need of high-end performance.
The Diamond AMD Radeon HD 7970 PCIe Graphics Card (3GB) is a monster graphics card. With a dedicated 3GB of GDDR5 memory, the 7970 has 28nm processing technology, 2048 stream processors and an onboard fan to keep it cool. There’s no shortage of ports either, since the 7970 has a Dual-Link DVI port, two mini-HDMI ports, a HDMI port and a DisplayPort. The 7970 also supports CrossFireX support so you’ll be able to link two of these up for even higher performance, especially when using a multi-monitor setup with Eyefinity. It fits into a PCIe 3.0 x16 slot and support DirectX 11.1 and OpenGL 4.2.
Not to be outdone, the PNY nVIDIA GeForce GTX 680 PCIe Graphics Card (2GB) is equally as impressive. With a dedicated 2GB of dedicated memory, the GTX 680 supports DirectX 11 and OpenGL 4.2. It has DVI, DisplayPort and HDMI ports. The GTX 680 supports three-way SLI configuration, which allows you to link three GTX 680s together for multi-monitor support.
It’s important that you pick the right processor, also known as the central processing unit (CPU), for yourself. It’s highly recommended that you do not skimp out on the CPU if you can. A fancy graphics card or a solid state drive is nice, but they won’t be able to make up for a sluggish processor.
A solid choice for beginners is the Intel Core i5-2500K Processor. While it is a Sandy Bridge CPU, it still has plenty of potential. It has quad cores and runs at a stock speed of 3.3 GHz. It can support up to 32GB of 1333 MHz DDR3 RAM. However, with a proper setup and over-clocking, the Intel Core i5-2500K processor can reach a speed of up to 3.7 GHz. This is a great CPU for people wanting to ease into system building and learning about over-clocking. Keep in mind that Intel Core processors without a K at the end of the model number are locked and cannot be over-clocked.
For experienced system builders who want to push their computers to the limit, the Intel Core i7-3960X Processor Extreme Edition should do the trick. This hexa-core processor has a stock clock speed of 3.3 GHz. Each of its six cores can virtually use two threads at a time, for a total of 12 threads, which in turn makes your physical six-core processor into a virtual 12-core CPU. When properly over-clocked, the processor can reach a speed of up to 3.7 GHz, thanks to Intel Turbo Boost 2.0 technology.
If you prefer an AMD processor, you may opt for one of their eight-core processors. Released last year, the AMD FX-8150 Zambezi Eight-Core Processor, like the one used in this HP Pavilion HPE h9-1170 Phoenix Desktop Computer, uses Bulldozer architecture and its eight cores to reach a stock clock speed of 3.6 GHz. The eight physical cores may seem a bit excessive, but they help smooth out multitasking and decrease render times for things like photos and videos.
If you want to go high-end, the AMD FX-8350 Vischera Eight-Core Processor is a great choice. It also has eight cores, but runs on AMD’s Piledriver architecture instead of Bulldozer, like the FX-8150. Its eight cores can reach a stock speed of 4.0 GHz and can be overclocked up to 4.2 GHz, thanks to AMD Turbo Core technology. The FX-8350 improves on the FX-8150 when it comes to multitasking and multi-rendering.
Motherboards are tricky, and upgrading them is generally not really recommended. You have to worry about all the components being compatible with your new motherboard. Also, you will have to disconnect and remove all components, like your processor, graphics card and RAM sticks, before you can unscrew it from the tower. For the amount of work and effort as well as the cost, you will be better off building a new computer from scratch. If you do decide to upgrade your motherboard, you’ll have to figure out what socket your CPU uses. Intel and AMD processors use different sockets, so make sure you buy the right motherboard.
For second and third generation Intel Core processors, you’ll need a motherboard with an LGA 1155 socket and Z77 chip set. The ASUS Sabertooth Z77 Intel Motherboard is a solid choice because it comes with dual-channel DDR3 slots, quad-GPU SLI or CrossFireX support, USB 3.0, HDMI, DisplayPort, eSATA 6 Gbps, TOSLINK digital optical audio and more. The motherboard uses TUF capacitors, chokes and MOSFETS. Heat is a computer’s worst enemy, so having something like the Thermal Armor for increased airflow and heat dissipation is a major plus. There’s also Thermal Radar for real-time temperature detection and heat removal.
The ASUS P8Z77-V Pro Intel Motherboard is also for second and third generation Intel Core processors. It has a LGA 1155 socket and an Intel Z77 chip set. What’s unique about this motherboard is that it comes with an onboard Thunderbolt port so you will be able to utilize its 10 Gbps interface with compatible devices.
Current and new AMD processors use an AM3+ socket, so be sure to purchase a motherboard with it. The ASUS M5A97 LE R2.0 Motherboard is a great choice for beginners, but experienced system builders and gamers may gravitate toward the ASUS Sabertooth 990FX r2.0 Motherboard.
While not technically an upgrade to the computer itself, a good monitor will go a long way. Many factors come into play when you consider a monitor. How big do you want the screen size to be? What’s the resolution you require? Do you require color accuracy or do you prefer vibrant colors for watching movies? Do you need a fast refresh rate because of gaming? All these questions have different answers, which in turn, bring different monitors.
For someone just looking to do everyday tasks, such as checking email or surfing the Web, the ASUS VE228H 21.5” Widescreen Computer Display is a good choice. It has a 21.5” screen with a maximum 1920 x 1080 resolution. It also has 170°/160° viewing angles, 250-nit brightness, a 5 ms response time and 16.7 million color support. It has a VGA, DVI-D and a HDMI port for connecting to your computer.
Gamers would benefit from a 24” screen with a high refresh rate. The ASUS VS248H-P 24” LED-Backlit Display has a 24” screen and a maximum 1920 x 1080 resolution. It has 170°/160° viewing angles, 250-nit brightness, a 2 ms response time and 16.7 million color support. It has a VGA, DVI-D and HDMI port.
If you want to game in 3D, you can try the Viewsonic V3D245 24” 3D-Ready LED-Backlit Display. It has a 23.6” viewable area and a max 1920 x 1080 resolution. It has 170°/160° viewing angles, 300-nit brightness, a 2 ms response time and 16.7 million color support. It has exclusive Viewsonic ClearMotiv II technology, which can simulate a 120 Hz refresh rate. It connects to your computer via a VGA, DVI-D and HDMI port.
For professionals in need of a monitor with color accuracy, a display with a large screen and an IPS panel would be the best choice. A popular choice is the Apple 27” Thunderbolt Display. It has a 27” screen with a maximum 2560 x 1440 resolution. It has a 178°/178° viewing angles, 375-nit brightness, 12 ms response time and 16.7 million color support. Its Thunderbolt port doubles as a mini DisplayPort.
If the glossy finish of the Apple 27” Thunderbolt Display is too much for you, you may opt for the matte Dell U2711 27” IPS Monitor or the HP ZR2740w 27” IPS Monitor. Both monitors are excellent alternatives to the glossy Apple 27” Thunderbolt Display. They both have maximum 2560 x 1440 resolutions and IPS panels.
For Mac computers running Mac OS X 10.6.8 Snow Leopard to Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, you can easily upgrade to Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion OS through the Mac App Store. The upgrade is $19.99 and requires 8GB of available hard drive space. Simply download through the Mac App Store and follow the on-screen instructions.
If you’re running Windows XP Service Pack 3 or later, you can upgrade to the Windows 8 Pro with Microsoft Windows 8 Pro Upgrade DVD (32- or 64-bit). Windows 8 replaces the traditional Start menu and taskbar with a redesigned Start Screen complete with tiles. Tiles are icons that display the latest information and updates in real time. There’s also the new Windows Store that places an emphasis on apps as well as cloud computing.
So go to it, do-it-yourselfers. Putting your own rig together can save you time and money and give you the satisfaction of knowing what’s inside your computer—or if you’re looking for a good gift for the techie on their list, find out what they need upgraded and pick from this list. Make sure to reach out to the B&H Computer Service Center if there's anything you're not sure about.
Very nice write up on upgrading.