Ask LH: How Do I Know When To Upgrade My PC Or Just Build A New One?

How Do I Know When to Upgrade My PC or Just Build a New One?

Dear Lifehacker, My computer is getting a little old. I built it myself, but I'm not sure whether it's worthwhile to upgrade individual elements like my processor or video card or whether I should just start from scratch and build a new rig. How can I tell when it's time to upgrade and when I should start over? Sincerely, Mad Modder

Pictures: Tom Purvis, Phil Brown, StooMathiesen

Dear Mad Modder,

It's a tough call when your computer is still fast and powerful enough to do a lot of the things you want. Sometimes, it can feel like your best bet is to just build a new computer entirely, but you could also just upgrade the component that's causing you problems and call it a day. The lines are blurrier than you might think. Here are the considerations you should bear in mind.

Do You Really Need To Upgrade?

How Do I Know When to Upgrade My PC or Just Build a New One?

It may seem obvious, but the first thing to ask yourself is if an upgrade is really in order at all. Is something specifically broken, or is your computer just running slowly? If it's the latter, is it just general slowness, or is there a specific task you think could be faster?

We've offered some tips to help you diagnose your slow PC in the past, and I'd recommend going through those if your problem is just "general slowness". You may find you don't even need an upgrade. However, if that doesn't help, it's time to narrow down the hardware you want while paying attention to how it will work with what you have.

The Real Difference Between Upgrading And Building A New Rig

How Do I Know When to Upgrade My PC or Just Build a New One?

If you've built your own computer, you can probably upgrade just the stuff you want without building an entirely new computer. Remember: Your computer is made up of a lot of parts, and many of them are reusable. Even if you buy a new motherboard and CPU (which is what Windows considers a "new computer") you can still reuse your power supply, hard drives, video card — anything you don't explicitly choose to upgrade.

The only times you'll need to build a new computer from scratch is if a) you need the old PC for something else, or b) everything in it is so old that nothing inside is worth recycling. Otherwise, it's just an upgrade — although whether it's a small upgrade or a big one depends on other factors.

Decide Which Parts Need Upgrading

How Do I Know When to Upgrade My PC or Just Build a New One?

If your hardware really does need an upgrade, you need to first figure out what needs an upgrade, and it might be more than you expect. We've discussed what kinds of upgrades really pack a punch versus the types of upgrades that don't in the past. If you're just looking for a general speed upgrade, an SSD is a great choice, but if you need more gaming power, you're probably looking at a graphics card.

However, it's not always as simple as that. Here are some other things you'll need to keep in mind:

  • Is that component dependent on other components? For example, if you want to upgrade your CPU, you might need a new motherboard, which would bring your costs up considerably. If you're getting a powerful new video card, make sure your power supply has enough power to handle it.
  • Will upgrading that component cause a bottleneck? If you have one part in your computer that's brand new and mix it with a bunch of other old parts, you probably aren't going to get your money's worth. An expensive graphics card upgrade coupled with an underpowered five-year-old CPU means that your games won't be able to really leverage the power in that new video card, and you really should upgrade both. The same applies to other parts too. Bottlenecks are probably the biggest reason upgrading one part quickly turns into building a new computer entirely.
  • How old is your current hardware? If your computer is really showing its age, make sure you're not investing a lot of money in old hardware that's expensive and poorly supported. As technology moves on, your money is better spent on newer, up-to-date technologies that are probably less expensive. You don't want to drop lots of money on old tech just to discover later that you could have spent a little more on something more powerful and currently supported that would have lasted you much longer.

See how things can get complicated? What started as a simple part upgrade could turn into a much more costly, bordering-on-new-PC build. Just about anything that requires you to upgrade your motherboard, for example, will essentially mean it's time to build a new computer. Bottom line: Make sure you know what needs upgrading before you start buying parts — you'll get a much better idea of what kind of upgrade you're in for.

We know it's not a simple answer, Mad Modder, but that's because the difference between "upgrading" and "building a new computer" isn't as clear as it might seem — since so many of your parts are reusable. The important thing for you to do is audit your system, figure out exactly how much of your computer you'll have to "upgrade" to get the upgrade you actually want, and price it out to see if it makes sense. You may find that you have to save some more money to make it worthwhile — but you'll be much happier with the end result.

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    I upgrade when a game comes out that I can't play at a quality I want.

    I get a really good base computer, motherboard, ram, cpu. So this will never really need upgrading for the life of the computer. I could but meh.

    Then for video cards, I get the best bang for buck. So you get a really good card but not the best.

    So then over the life of the computer I may add more storage and really the only upgrading I need to do is the video card. This is why you don't go all out. A year or two later you can get a kick ass new card and a whole bunch of more life out of the computer. Where you didn't really lose anything for not getting the best, most expensive card at the time.

    Although I've had my current machine about a hear and a half and there's been no good or suitable options for replacing the 670 yet.

      I went all out with mine. And besides adding more ssds and a raid controller, I haven't touched it in about 4 years. If I spent say half the money, I probably would have gone through several upgrades and quite possibly more money.

        But graphics cards is the big one to update. It's never financially wise for long term planning to spend $1000 plus on a card. Spend 500. Then a couple years alter spend another 500 and have something better than if you spent a grand.

          I bought the near top of the line at the time. Graphics cards aren't always a huge leap between generations. I've got a gtx580. And the 680 isn't much faster overall. More efficient yes. But several years down the track it is getting a little old but still quite capable. Where as a 560 would have saved $200 but I would have had to upgrade already.

    i upgrade when motherboards for my current CPU are no longer available.. then I'll just get a new MB and CPU and do incremental upgrades in between

    After the initial purchase, which generally hits the mid range $1000-$1500 mark, I usually keep the motherboard and CPU, but upgrade the graphics card and hard drives as needed. I find CPU intensive tasks aren't as common for what I do as GPU intensive tasks.

    Current machine has a 1st gen i5 CPU, 8GB DDR3 1600MHz RAM, 500W PSU, case as originally purchased. But, I have since upgraded the video card (now 6970 - almost due for an upgrade), SSD, HDD etc.
    This way, I spread the cost out over a number of years and get full use of the components.

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