5 Hardware Upgrades That Give You the Most for Your Money

Upgrading your laptop can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be. Add RAM to your laptop with the help of this HowStuffWorks video.
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They say the average computer lifespan has recently shrunk to two years [source: Greenpeace]. You would likely replace yours that often if you could. As newer and more memory-intensive software comes out, and old junk files accumulate on your hard drive, your computer gets slower and slower, and working with it gets more and more frustrating. You are tempted to run to the electronics store every time you double-click your favorite application and have to wait 30 seconds for it to open, or you open a second program and it brings your system to a grinding halt. But who can afford to shell out for a new machine in a tough economy?

Fortunately, there are hardware upgrades that can extend the useful life of your current computer without completely draining your account or relegating yet another piece of machinery to a landfill. Some upgrades are more expensive than others, and if you did all of them, you might as well buy a new machine in most cases. But replacing one or two components, especially the oldest part or the one you've determined is causing a bottleneck, can provide impressive performance improvements while remaining cost effective.

Opening your computer can be daunting. The level of difficulty of each type of upgrade varies, but hardware replacement is not rocket science. It will require a bit of preparation, and you'll need to take safety precautions like turning off your machine and discharging static by wearing an anti-static wrist strap or regularly touching a piece of grounded metal. But with a little manual reading and online research, you can figure out what parts and tools you need, learn how to do your hardware upgrade of choice and give yourself an ego boost to boot.

The following is a list of five hardware components that you can replace, or in some cases add, to improve your productivity and the performance of your ailing machine at relatively low costs.

5

RAM

Increasing your computer's random access memory (RAM) is one of the easiest do-it-yourself hardware projects. You can upgrade to 4GB or even 8GB starting at prices less than $50. Performance improvement will be most noticeable if you are the type of person who keeps several programs running at once, or who works on RAM-intensive projects like video or image editing. But improvement might be modest if you are not a power-user or you already had a decent amount of RAM (4GB or more). Still, even a slight improvement might be worth the cost. After installation, you should notice applications and windows opening faster and fewer instances of the annoying hourglass or rainbow wheel "wait" icons.

RAM comes in multiple types and speeds and you have to select the variety supported by your motherboard. Common types are DDR, DDR2 and DDR3. Installing the wrong type can cause issues like corrupt files, which could cripple your system, so make sure to read your owner's manual or visit your computer manufacturer's site to determine what type of RAM you need for your model. You will also need to look into its maximum supported capacity (or number of gigabytes it can handle) and only install up to that amount. You can check your computer's system properties to determine how much is installed currently, though where to go for this information varies by operating system. On some operating systems, this will also show the type of RAM that the computer needs.

Installing RAM is usually just a matter of opening your computer case with a screwdriver, finding the RAM slots, unclipping any existing RAM that you're replacing, and inserting new RAM chips. Many motherboards require that you install pairs of RAM chips of the same capacity in certain sockets, meaning you might not be able to add just one larger chip. Also, you should test thoroughly right after installation to catch issues early, and check to make sure the amount of RAM you installed now shows up when you check your system properties. Afterward, you should notice fewer system slow-downs, and feel a little less like a hardware novice.

4

Hard Drive

Solid state drives are pricier than other hard drive options, but they're also faster.
Solid state drives are pricier than other hard drive options, but they're also faster.
©iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Another way to improve your current machine without breaking the bank is to install a newer hard drive. More hard drive space will keep you from running out of room for video and image files or newer applications, which are only getting larger and larger. Internal hard drives can have hundreds of gigabytes or even a few terabytes these days. They start at about $50 (or even lower) and go into the hundreds, so it's possible to vastly improve the amount of storage space for a reasonable price. Most new hard drives also allow for faster data retrieval than their older counterparts, so upgrading could improve application performance.

As you might expect, you must research what type of hard drive your motherboard supports and purchase accordingly. These are usually Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE) or Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) drives. Once you have a compatible hard drive, you can either replace your old drive entirely, or, if your computer has an extra slot available, add the new one and keep the old one for extra storage. You will also need to copy your data from the old drive to the new one. If you're able to keep both drives in your machine, or if you buy a special USB adapter to attach your computer to the old hard drive, there are various software tools available to directly clone one drive to another. Other software tools allow you to save an image of your original drive onto a second machine, an external hard drive or multiple disks, allowing you to move the image to the new drive after installation. Software can be found online, but might also come with your newly purchased hard drive.

One possibility you might want to consider is upgrading from a traditional hard drive to a solid-state drive (SSD). They don't tend to have as much storage space as hard drives, and they are more expensive, but they allow for much faster data retrieval, resulting in better application performance. With all the cloud storage and music and video streaming options we have today, most people could easily forgo some of their storage space in favor of performance benefits.

3

Video Card

If you're a hardcore or even a casual gamer, you should seriously consider replacing your graphics card, especially if you're still using the one that came with your computer. Adding a new video card can greatly improve gaming performance by increasing speed and improving visuals, leading to smoother game play. A better card can enable you to enjoy newer, more graphics-intensive games.

As with any component, you have to look into compatibility. Make sure to pick the right type of card for the slot(s) on your motherboard (either AGP or PCI Express), and one that is physically small enough for your computer case. It is also possible to get too powerful of a drive for your current processor and power supply, which could harm rather than improve your gaming experience. If you have an older machine, it probably can't take the latest and greatest graphics card. A nice midrange card can greatly enhance performance for a couple of hundred dollars, but you can also find much cheaper ones that aren't bleeding-edge that will suit your needs just fine. Some motherboards also support running identical video cards in tandem to boost performance.

An alternative to replacing your video card is overclocking the drive you already have. You can generally do this either with your graphics card's driver or with software tools downloaded from the manufacturer. As long as your computer's cooling fan, the fan on the graphics card itself, and/or your power supply can handle the speed you choose, overclocking should give a modest performance boost. Some negatives are that the noise of your fan might greatly increase, and that overdoing it could reduce the lifespan of the video card. It's worth considering if you are on a tight budget, but improvement is far more dramatic when you replace the card.

2

Processor

Processor replacement is daunting, so it's a good idea to read up on the subject as much as possible before attempting this particular upgrade.
Processor replacement is daunting, so it's a good idea to read up on the subject as much as possible before attempting this particular upgrade.
©Comstock/Thinkstock

If you're feeling brave, it's also possible to entirely replace your computer's central processing unit (CPU). You can go for a faster version of your current processor, or get one with more cores to enable your computer to better handle multitasking. Due to differences in architectures and numbers of processor cores, comparing raw GHz numbers between different manufacturer's CPUs, or even different models from the same manufacturer, doesn't always tell you what CPU will be faster. But an upgrade to a newer CPU should greatly increase your computer's speed and performance. This upgrade is especially helpful for people who work with processor-intensive applications for things like audio and video encoding, or even gaming.

As with any hardware upgrade, there are potential compatibility issues. The easiest route is to see what CPUs are supported by your current motherboard and pick a faster compatible CPU. If you want something newer and better that just isn't supported, you have to upgrade the motherboard, too. Replacing the motherboard generally requires replacing the heatsink and cooling fan, and could change the type of RAM your computer needs, so you have to do some research to see what components you will need to buy in this case. Lone CPUs run from less than $50 into the hundreds, and motherboard and CPU combos start at less than $100 and similarly go up. But if your plans require replacing the whole kit and caboodle, you'll need to add everything up and weigh the cost against purchasing a new computer that has the performance you're seeking.

Replacing your computer's brain is not for the faint of heart. You will need to read manuals or online tutorials, make sure you have the proper tools (possibly including thermal grease), and carefully follow safety precautions so that you don't hurt yourself or fry components with static electricity. But if you install a brand spanking new processor, it could vastly improve performance, and give you the feeling of accomplishment that is sure to follow such a lofty undertaking.

1

Monitor

You have two options for upgrading your monitor: Buy a nicer new one as a replacement, or keep your old one and attach additional monitors. New monitors can increase your screen size or improve resolution -- or both. But multiple monitors will greatly increase your screen real estate. Studies have even shown that multiple monitors increase productivity, although this might depend upon the type of work you do [sources: Derene, Richtel]. They give you the freedom to spread your work out across all the extra space, reducing the amount of time and effort it takes to find and switch windows and allowing you to multitask more efficiently.

You can usually hook two monitors up to a desktop computer because most graphics cards have two video ports. Your computer might also have multiple card slots, in which case you could attach two monitors per graphics card. Some high-end video cards or external devices even allow for up to six or eight monitors. Laptops usually only have one port, permitting one monitor in addition to the built-in screen, although there are ways to circumvent the port limit in some cases.

Your operating system or graphics card software should allow you to set one monitor as the primary that contains menus and other desktop items, and to virtually arrange the monitors so that you can move your cursor from one screen to the next in order. With two monitors, you can double your space and increase your work productivity. With three or more, you can have your own gaming command center. Just be sure you have enough desk space.

To determine what monitors or connectors to buy, you need to check the video ports on your computer. Most video cards have two different types of ports, and these could include VGA, DVI-I, DVI-D, HDMI and DisplayPort. Newer Apple computers might have Mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt ports. It is easiest and cheapest to attach monitors that are compatible with the ports on your machine, but you can buy special adapters if your computer ports and monitor cables do not match.

Monitors run from less than $100 for moderately sized screens into the thousands for much larger and fancier displays. But two or three relatively inexpensive monitors can make a world of difference in your computing experience.

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Author's Note: 5 Hardware Upgrades That Give You the Most for Your Money

I love computers so much that I never get rid of them. I have three in use running three separate operating systems, and half a dozen or so more in storage throughout the house. Perhaps this makes me a hoarder. But it's really hard for me to throw out a working marvel of computation and communication. The word "working" is probably a stretch for the truly ancient ones (ancient in computer years, anyway). Those I should probably dispose of or donate, maybe to a museum, if a museum of 1990s era computers exists. But the ones that are only a few years old still have viable drives and connectors and OSes, and can all get on the Internet. They are just frustratingly slow and I've been eying new ones on a near daily basis. It has been a while since I cracked a computer open and explored its innards, but this endeavor has inspired me to, at the very least, upgrade the RAM in my laptop. And I've started pricing solid state drives. There may also be a desktop gutting in my near future. After some data backups, of course.

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