I regularly get questions from readers, friends and family about when exactly they should upgrade their computers and I can never give them a straight answer. Recently I received a letter from a reader and I’ll address it today, as well as addressing the same questions that everyone else asks as well.
Dear Mr. Fick
When and how should I upgrade my computer?
A Concerned PC Gamer
Thank you for writing, Concerned. Of course, your question touches on the basic impulses of being a PC gamer or merely owning a PC, with all its associated hopes and fears for the future of your hard drive’s health, or access to the cloud or the ability to open up an e-mail.
I also detect some unspoken questions. When is too much RAM too much? Why is a SSD a good idea? When is my processor outdated and inadequate for future use? Do I even need a Core i7 processor for my next rig and why do you always recommend power supplies in your guide that go against the manufacturer’s recommendations?
Allow me to address the anxieties underlying your concerns by looking at the various components that one might want to upgrade in a computer, rather than try answer every possible question about individual needs that you might have left unvoiced.
First, let us consider the fact that for the first time ever, as PC gamers, there are a lot of hardware options that hand us more computing power than ever before despite the hardware plataue; the idea of “future proof” is in our reach.
This simple fact has far-reaching implications. It requires revision of the way in which I and many others approach PC builds and a re-assessment of our old imperative to stay on the bleeding edge of computer hardware. It requires planning and forethought the run in direct opposition to our hold habits. I find it helpful at times to remind myself that our true enemy is bloated software and software bloat.
When to upgrade your platform (processor and motherboard)?
Just about the biggest question that I usually get is when to do the processor and motherboard, otherwise known as the platform, upgrade. I call it a platform for the sole reason that the majority of people simply don’t upgrade their motherboard to a better one in the course of owning a computer. Enthusiasts and people upgrading to get new things like USB 3.0 or extra PCI-Express slots are a relative outlier.
There are four reasons why anyone would do a platform upgrade or update:
- To take advantage of new computing power and higher efficiency (e.g. Pentium 4 > Core 2 Duo > Core 2 Quad > Nehalem-class Core i5 > Ivy Bridge Core i5).
- To unlock a longer upgrade path (e.g. using a AM3 chip in a AM3+ board to allow for upgrading to Piledriver, buying a 9-series LGA1150 board to prepare for Broadwell).
- To take advantage of new storage, connectivity or hardware options (e.g. PCI-E 2.0 > 3.0, USB 2.0 – 3.0, using Thunderbolt or RAID).
- Because you can.
This gets rather muddled up with AMD’s APUs. For example, some people bought the A10-5800K back in 2012 and are now using them in socket FM2+ motherboards. Not only are they on newer motherboards that have better chipsets and hardware, they also have an upgrade path to AMD’s Kaveri and Carrizo families. That’s four generations of AMD APUs supported on the same socket, which isn’t possible with Intel’s offerings.
Then the socket AM1 SOCs (system-on-chips) make things even more weird. By nature of being a SOC, you can buy something like the AMD Athlon 5350 and a AM1 motherboard and keep on using that same motherboard for the next three socket AM1 processor families. Because everything including the memory controller, chipset and graphics is in the same package, you can even keep the same Windows installation during that time as well.
Intel has also largely stifled the upgrade process for themselves because there’s still little reason to move from any Sandy Bridge processor to Ivy Bridge or even Broadwell. Even in 2014, your Core i5-2500K is still perfectly fine. Those poor bastards who bought the Core i7-920 can finally upgrade to Haswell-E later this year and look forward to another six years of not upgrading.
As for what you need to upgrade to, here’s a rule of thumb for how many cores you need:
A) Home use for internet, document typing, e-mail, watching online video, playing pre-2010 games – A dual-core processor is fine.
B) Any other use – Quad-core or quad-thread (Core i3, mobile Core i3 and i5) is recommended.
When to upgrade your graphics card?
Answering this question is a lot trickier because GPU technology advances and improves at a much faster rate than other components inside a typical computer, with the exception of solid state storage. Typically, GPU upgrades can take place every two years at the same price point because GPUs can still follow Moore’s law of computing power doubling roughly every 18 months. Two years, then, is the best gap, at least for now.
As an example, let’s say you bought the Radeon HD5870 2GB when it was R6000 in January 2010:
- Radeon HD5870 2GB – you gain GTX480-level performance, a 256-bit memory bus, Eyefinity with Displayport, DirectX 11 compute
- Upgrade in January 2012 to Radeon HD7970 3GB – you gain 2x performance, a 384-bit memory bus, OpenCL, Mantle, Powertune
- Upgrade in January 2014 to Radeon R9 290 4GB – you gain 1.5 to 2x performance boost, a 512-bit memory bus, 4K performance, Eyefinity without Displayport, DirectX 11.2, True Audio
The same is generally true of what Nvidia was doing in the same timeframe, but the hardware differences between generations oscillates, sometimes wildly.
Here you buy a GTX480 in April of 2010:
- Geforce GTX480 1.5GB – better performer than the HD5870, a 384-bit memory bus, DirectX 11 compute, CUDA
- Upgrade in April 2012 to Geforce GTX680 2GB – you gain 2x performance, a 256-bit memory bus, Nvidia Surround, Geforce Boost, Bindless textures, Geforce GRID game streaming, TXAA, NVENC hardware decoder
- Upgrade in April 2014 to Geforce GTX780 3GB – you need to put up an extra R2000, gain 1.5x performance at most, a 384-bit memory bus, good 4K performance, DAT SPANKIN COOLER, not much else.
The two-year cycle gets muddied up if you use dual-GPU video cards or are shopping in the low-end segments. Dual-GPU users will benefit a little from yearly upgrades because they are seeing better performance along with lower temperatures and power consumption (with the exception of the Radeon R9 295X2. The incremental upgrades will ensure that they stay on the bleeding edge, but there’s a noticeable de-emphasis on using dual-GPU cards these days, with more people sticking to Crossfire or SLI solutions instead for the better flexibility.
At the low-end, you’re not guaranteed to see many performance improvements either. The move from a Radeon 5770 1GB > HD7770 1GB > R7 260 2GB keeps you in the same performance bracket despite your upgrading every year. What you do gain, however, is better software, more hardware features and lower power consumption and/or heat. And anti-aliasing thanks to the R7 260’s bigger frame buffer.
In the examples given of GPU progression, at least there’s one thing that was constant – the ability to jump resolutions. In both cases you could move from 1080p to 1440p/1600p and finally UltraHD 4K resolutions and in each jump you’d be able to find a good compromise between graphical fidelity and playability.
When to upgrade your memory?
Now, if possible, especially if you’re on 4GB of RAM. With more and more modern games (*cough* console ports *cough) demanding that gamers have at least 6GB of RAM in their systems, 8GB is the baseline for any decent gaming rig starting this month. Sure, you can skimp down to 6GB or even 4GB if you’re not going to be playing AAA titles and mostly dabbling in the odd PC exclusive, or MOBA, or indie game, but having 8GB of memory benefits you in every single way, especially when it comes to multi-tasking and using the latest versions of Chrome, Internet Explorer or Firefox.
The indicator that you may need more memory is when you open up task manager in the middle of your work day and see anything from 80% to 90% memory usage. Because software always “improves” every year, there’s more memory bloat in your applications in 2014 compared to 2013. With newer versions of operating systems, there are also more software improvements added on that may take up more memory.
How much memory usage you’re comfortable with also depends on your usage scenario – working in an office environment with multi-tasking, photo editing and productivity apps galore? Anything under 80% is fine for now. Running a HTPC? Anything below 95% is fine.
I’d caution running a PC dedicated for gaming at anything approaching 90% memory usage, but since it only plays games that’s good enough until you can bump it up a bit. .
When to upgrade your power supply?
When it comes to power supplies, upgrades are actually very simple affairs. Generally, there are four occasions where a PSU upgrade would be a good idea:
- When it runs out of warranty (applies to 3 year and longer warranties)
- When you’re putting in more hardware than the PSU can power (e.g. moving to dual-GPU setups when you only have a 550W PSU)
- When moving to a system that draws such less power that your current PSU is inefficient.
- When it dies.
It can’t be that simple, right? But it really is, Power supplies typically are the last component to be replaced in many machines because most people tend not to think about them, or how they work, or how their current setup might be making it inefficient.
If you’re running under the minimum power draw required to allow the PSU to hit its efficiency curve, then it will waste power and heat because it will be drawing more energy from the wall than is necessary. If you’re going over the efficiency curve thanks to a high power draw, the same is also true, along with the extra noise levels because the fan needs to keep it all cool.
Efficiency was the name of the game when Intel released their Haswell processors along with updated ATX specifications that power supply manufacturers had to meet. Many power supplies were not capable of supporting the very deep sleep that Haswell allows, so if you wanted to use that to save on power, you needed a new power supply that could do it.
When it comes to power supplies with warranties shorter than three years, I’d generally recommend replacing them every three years. PSUs with three-year warranties can usually be replace in their fourth year.
When to upgrade your storage?
Although solid state storage was pretty risky in the beginning, what with some controllers setting themselves alight, the flash memory failing too early or the drive cooking itself because everything got overvolted (the real reason behind the high OCZ failure rates), today it’s a very different story.
Manufacturers like Samsung run their drives in all sorts of environments and systems for testing. Intel purposely runs their drives through a particle collider to see what happens during a bit-flip and factor that in their firmware. Marvell controllers just keep getting better and better with newer firmware. SSDs also now typically have a MBTF much higher than most hard drives – The Tech Report last noted that all of their SSDs had passed the 600TB write mark without trouble – the equivalent of writing 50GB of data to a SSD every day for five years straight.
So when is it a good idea to upgrade your SSD?
- When you got the need for (write) speed.
- When your current SSD is failing.
- When you’re running out of storage.
The same reasons also apply to mechanical hard drives, only that there’s no speed boosts from newer hard drives that really make a difference to general system behaviour anymore. Moving from a 5400RPM to 7200RPM drive for your laptop is definitely a good idea, but that boost is eclipsed by the staggering speed and responsiveness of solid state storage. Laptops, more than desktops, benefit from using a SSD because it reduces power consumption, improves battery life and makes your notebook feel about ten times faster (provided you upgrade to 8GB RAM as well).
For storage uses, hard drives are still the best for keeping data like photos, movies and game backups that you might access later on, but don’t need on your boot drive. Add more storage when necessary. Make sure you have backups of the stuff that you can’t afford to lose on another drive and on a storage server on the internet.
When to upgrade your chassis?
When upgrading your chassis, it becomes a bit of a game of chance if you’re keeping all your existing components. Most of the time your power supply cables don’t reach, or there’s not enough cable management holes, or your GPU is too long. or you need more drive space. When you finally do settle on something and leave it be for a while, you cringe at the thought of doing it all over again when you need a new computer.
You should upgrade your chassis if:
- Your chassis is old and busted and the new hotness would be better.
- Your chassis shows signs of rusting near the fan grilles and in the USB ports.
- You’re moving to new hardware and it needs a lot more room.
Generally, computer chassis don’t get upgraded all that much. If you’re like me and like doing cable management, moving to a different case is a chore and something I’d much rather put off until the last minute when it is on the brink of being a fire hazard. My current PC has only gone through two chassis in the last four years and that’s only because the newer one is prettier to look at, my printer sits on top of it and I don’t feel like buying new, longer monitor cables.
Have a good look at your existing chassis before you go out and buy a new one. Can you add in newer fans to improve the airflow or noise? Can you add in USB ports and other functionality into the drive bays instead of buying a better case with those things integrated? Do you look at it often and its an eyesore, or do you usually keep it tucked away in a cupboard or under your desk? You must answer those questions before deciding if you need a new one or not.
When to upgrade your monitor?
Monitors are a little tricker because everyone has different tastes according to what they can live with. Higher-quality displays can reduce eye strain, remove backlight flicker, produce better colours and deeper blacks and may even give you new features.
You should consider an upgrade if you:
- Need better colour representation (moving from TN to IPS, VA or IGZO)
- Would like lower power consumption and extra space (moving from CRT to LCD)
- Need more modern connectivity options (e.g. HDMI for consoles, Displayport for multi-monitor)
- Want extra screen real estate (moving from 1680×1050 to 2560×1440)
- Want specific hardware features (GSync, FreeSync, 120-144Hz refresh rates, no PWM flicker)
If you’re jumping between monitors with the same resolution, then you don’t need to upgrade your CPU or GPU. The monitor’s size or panel type might change, but the performance will be the same. If you’re moving from a 1080p monitor to a 1440p model or a 21:9 aspect ratio monitor, then you might have to look at how your graphics card will perform at those resolutions before purchasing one.
For now, UltraHD 4K monitors have very niche applications. There aren’t a lot of people who can afford the hardware to run their games at that resolution with good graphical details and Windows 8.1 still doesn’t run in an acceptable way when you use DPI scaling on a small 4K monitor. Apple’s OS X operating system does a solid job of scaling the UI for sharpness and useability, but Windows doesn’t do nearly as well. It will be at least a year or two before they catch up and application developers need to catch a wake-up and start designing their applications for use on high-PPI monitors.
At the same time, the other buzzword is variable refresh rates. Monitors that support it are very rare and only Nvidia’s GSync is commercially available (in two monitors) at this point. The Displayport 1.2a and DP 1.3 revisions won’t be impacting your hardware choices for at least another year, so unless you’re running a Geforce GTX660 or better, don’t worry about it.
When to upgrade the Operating System?
This varies from person to person and is very intertwined in how they work, what devices they use and what internet services and software they’d like to use in the future. Windows 8.1 offers a very effective shared ecosystem, but you need to be using Microsoft’s services and devices, like Windows Phone 8 and OneDrive, to get the most out of it. I don’t have a use for it personally but for those who do, it works really, really well. Almost as well, if not better than, iCloud.
Maybe Modern UI isn’t for you and you have simpler needs. If you’re on Windows 7 now, or are able to still get your hands on it, it’s still a very capable OS (and will be up to 2020, when extended support ends). It is still designed for a world where internet connectivity isn’t quite so ubiquitous, but there’s almost nothing that you can do on Windows 8.1 that you can’t do on 7.
Or Vista, come to think of it, although I don’t think ANYONE wants to be using Vista in this day and age. If you’re still using Vista I tip my hat to you because you sir have far exceeded my patience levels.
So, when do you need to upgrade your OS?
Well, pretty much when support for updates ends and the applications you use no longer support it. So if you’re still on Windows XP and want to play Battlefield 4, you’ll need to upgrade. If you’re content with what you have now and don’t intend on changing it, stick with it. Just be prepared for the day when the hardware breaks and you need to buy a new computer and there aren’t any drivers for your abandoned OS.
If your apps don’t require you to stick with your current OS and if the new version of Windows or Linux doesn’t break anything and will run just fine on your hardware, why the hell not? I haven’t had a blue screen on my system due to crap software for four years and if I ever did encounter one, it was my stupidity that did it.
When do I upgrade my DVD drive?
Never. That’s assuming you use it for anything else other than installing your operating system and whatever games aren’t already linked to Steam, Origin, Uplay or GoG. If you want to watch or rip Blu-Rays onto your hard drive for storage on a media server, then you have a legitimate use for upgrading. Or if you are doing data backups and you get Blu-Ray discs for a good price. Or if you’re… I don’t know, putting out 1080p copies of your wedding video.
You’re never going to need to upgrade to a Blu-Ray drive for games, though.
Pigs will fly before that happens.
Or, well, they will if the Xbox One isn’t hacked in the next year and people start torrenting Blu-Ray-size ROMs of whatever game they’ve pirated and will be putting on the system.