Tech Tips: Time to Upgrade?

Dan Comden, DO-IT Staff

Buying a computer can be frustrating experience. The moment you lay down money for that nice new system it is out of date and overpriced. After a year, the same amount of cash paid out for a computer system will often buy something significantly faster that has more features. But, hey, that's the way the computer world goes around—if we were to wait for the perfect price point, we'd never buy a computer because there is always going to be a less expensive system or one with more features.

So you have a computer that's been doing what you need for a few years. You're beginning to wonder whether it's worthwhile to upgrade. Perhaps you need to update some software, or you're curious about running a new version of the operating system. Maybe there's a new game out that has stiff hardware requirements—or it could just be a case of wanting to try a new operating system (OS). Regardless of the reason for upgrading, here are some hints to make the process easier.

  1. Decide if you need to upgrade your system. If the majority of your computer time is spent on basic word processing, e-mail and Web surfing, you may not need to change anything. I'm a strong proponent of not upgrading just for the sake of running the newest thing —the basic tools are what many people use most of the time and there's no reason to change something that is working. Exceptions are for those who might be having stability problems. If your computer crashes often, it could be due to a bad component or a corrupt file in the OS. Try backing up your data files and then reinstalling the OS—that may solve a crashing problem.
  2. More memory is a great way to add performance to a computer. At this time, RAM is very inexpensive and plugging in a new DIMM or SIMM is relatively easy. Check sites like for help determining what sort of memory you might need to purchase.
  3. An improvement to your Internet connection can be a powerful upgrade experience. If you are using a standard telephone line for your Internet connection, consider upgrading to a DSL or cable connection, particularly if you spend more than an hour a day online. The amount of time saved with downloading basic pages as well as large files can be tremendous. Of course, this kind of connection costs more—around $30/month for basic service without factoring installation and other equipment costs.
  4. Storage for older systems becomes cramped once you start working with large multimedia files. Consider purchasing an additional hard drive for your current system. Prices for large hard drives are lower than ever. Also think about getting some sort of removable media such as a Zip or Jaz drive, or even one of the new tiny USB-based storage devices.

Pre-built or Home-brewed?

If you are working with video and audio, need fast throughput, or are a hard-core gamer, you may consider getting a new system. For the brave and experienced, this would be a new motherboard/CPU/video combination installed in your existing case. If you're comfortable supporting your own computer and have good troubleshooting skills, this may be a cost-effective option. An added benefit is the opportunity to learn more about how your computer works along with the sense of accomplishment that comes with doing it yourself.

Contrary to popular opinion, buying a new computer is not dramatically different in price from building one yourself. In fact, the most recent crop of systems are often less expensive than a home-brewed solution. A significant benefit with going the pre-built route is that your shiny new box will have a warranty that will protect your investment in case something goes wrong. And if you stick with some of the national name brands, you often get a very powerful support system with that warranty. This is a great solution for those who don't have the time or inclination to be working on the "guts" of their computers.

Whether you go the route of doing it yourself or getting a ready-to-use system, make sure that the processor, RAM, and video are sufficient for your needs. While it's easy to get narrowly focused on hardware specifications, it is vital that you keep the requirements for the software you want to run at the forefront of your planning. After all, these boxes are nothing without the programs we install and use on them.