Something we encounter fairly regularly in the support side of the company is advising on whether a client should upgrade an aging PC, or just buy a new one. It used to be the case that the answer was usually to upgrade - with a new machine usually costing close to £1,000, many upgrades could be undertaken for significantly less than that. However, as the price of the average work PC has dropped to closer to £500, the "upgrade or not" equation has changed considerably. In this article, we will outline some of the factors that we consider when making this decision.
All SSD all the time
The hard drive is where all the data on a PC is stored. It used to be the case that all of these were mechnical devices. A reasonable analogy would be to imagine how a vinyl record works - a needle moving around a disk accessing whatever it is currently sitting on. Obviously, the "needle" in this case is flying all over the place accessing various bits of data, but the point being that it's a mechanical process.
Some years back, solid state drives (SSD) started rolling out. These drives work more like a USB stick in that there's no moving parts. This (amongst other things) makes them considerably faster that the mechanical drives. While these drives were initially very expensive for the amount of storage you received, the technology is now very mature, and is now almost literally cheap as chips.
The price of these drives are now at a level that even the most basic PCs usually come with one installed, and we wouldn't suggest anyone buy a machine for work or home that didn't have use an SSD as the primary hard disk (some machines may have a secondary mechanical drive as a "data disk" - this is fine. A mechanical drive is still the most cost effective way to store large amounts of data).
This wasn't necessarily the case a couple of years ago - cheap machines were still being sold without an SSD. Therefore, the first thing we would check is whether a machine that is running slow has an SSD. If not, installing one is a no-brainer. It will speed up a PC in almost all cases, and is so cheap relatively that it would be silly not to try this in the first case.
Things get a bit more borderline once a machine is 5+ years old. Yes, the SSD will speed things up. However, it can't work miracles. The other components will still probably be holding the machine back, so in this case, a new machine is probably in order.
Random Access Memory (RAM) is what stores the data that your machine is processing in the short term. Nothing gets stored here permanently (people often get this confused with hard drive space. They're two different things).
Windows 10 (which is what most work machines will be running, or at least should be - there's now only a year until the end of Windows 7 support) claims that it can run with 1GB RAM installed. While this may be theoretically true, we wouldn't recommend this in practice.
We would suggest that any modern machine should have at least 4GB RAM. If it doesn't, an upgrade would be highly beneficial. Even more than this may be desirable in some cases, but 4GB is a decent baseline for now.
Does not CPUte
The other component that is a major factor in the speed of the system is the CPU. This is basically the "brain" of the computer, and is what tells all the other bits what they should be doing.
In the not too distant past, the rate of CPU improvement from one year to the next was pretty significant. However, in recent times, the CPU manufacturers have been spending a lot of their time making them smaller rather than faster. Therefore, there often isn't a huge difference between a five year old CPU and a new one. Of course, there's a range of CPUs, and a cheap one is always going to be on the slow side.
There's not many situations that we would recommend a CPU upgrade these days. Not do the components themselves not improve that quickly, it's also a fairly fiddly upgrade - both in finding a compatible replacement and in actually installing it. If the CPU is the bottleneck in a machine, we would almost always suggest that it's time for a new machine.
And the rest?
There's a few other components in a PC. The most important of these is the motherboard. This is what all the other bits plug into. For this reason, upgrading this is almost never a cost effective solution versus a new PC.
Some machines have a separate graphics card installed (although this often isn't the case with work machines any more). If you use your machine for gaming, then the graphics card is definitely a component that's worth considering an upgrade to, but that's beyond the scope of this article.
The power supply unit (PSU) is what, amazingly enough, supplies power to the machine. If a machine won't switch on at all, this is probably the cause. A PSU is not something that you tend to "upgrade" as much as "replace". They're usually pretty cheap though, so if an otherwise serviceable machine isn't booting at all, it's sometimes worth trying this replacement before getting a new one.
We've got a weird one
One last thing that's worth mentioning. Occasionally, you get a machine that's just a little... "off". Maybe it sometimes crashes for no apparent reason. In these cases, once the obvious checks have been performed (eg malware), it can often be worth cutting your losses and replacing it. When there's no smoking gun in a situation like this, one can find themselves replacing the components one by one, and going further and further down the rabbit hole to justify the money spent trying to solve the problem already. If the machine is still under warranty, by all means try and get it fixed for free. However, if this fails to resolve the problem, then a replacement is usually the sensible choice.