Ask LH: Should I Upgrade My PC Piece-By-Piece Or All In One Go?

Ask LH: Should I Upgrade My PC Piece-By-Piece Or All In One Go?

Dear Lifehacker, My current desktop is on its last legs and I’m looking at upgrading. I bought it in 2008, so it’s definitely time to move on! The problem is I’m on a very tight budget. I was wondering if you had any advice on whether I should upgrade my components in increments, or try to save up and buy the whole thing in one go? Thanks, Poor Gamer

PC picture by Shutterstock

Dear PG,

Firstly, let’s nip the ‘build-your-own vs. pre-built’ debate in the bud. If money is in short supply, you should definitely buy the components separately as opposed to ordering a pre-built model. While component prices have mostly gone down, pre-made package prices continue to rise. With a little wheeling and dealing, you can potentially save hundreds of dollars by going down the DIY route.

Lifehacker contributor Junglist recently upgraded his gaming rig and decided to compare his costs to a pre-built machine with similar components. According to his calculations, he walked away with over $400 in his pocket: not too shabby for what only equates to a bit of extra effort. These days, PCs snap together like Lego — it’s so easy your grandma could probably do it.

The next question is whether to build your PC incrementally or save up and get all the components at the same time. The answer depends on a range of factors, including the condition of your current machine, what you chiefly use it for and whether you want to stick with your existing chipset or move onto something new.

Obviously, taking a Frankenstein’s monster approach will result in smaller performance gains. If you’re still using an old graphics card or ageing RAM it’s not going to feel like a completely new machine — especially when it comes to stuff like 3D gaming. You also run the risk of damaging your new parts if an old component like the PSU goes kaput.

With that said, there are also advantages to upgrading in piecemeal intervals. You’ll get results faster and can buy at your own pace depending on when things go on sale. If you go down this path, work out the exact configuration that you want to end up with. Start by choosing the motherboard and CPU (which will be the final things you purchase) and ensure all the other parts are actually compatible.

Whatever you decide, be mindful that PC component prices vary wildly from store to store — be sure to check price-comparison sites like Static Ice and PCPartPicker before purchasing.

At the end of the day, while it costs more to buy everything upfront, you will likely save money in the long run. An all-new PC that’s firing on all cylinders should last you for many years. Plus, you’ll still have your old PC with all its parts intact — you can sell it, donate it to a friend or repurpose it somewhere else in the house. Good luck!

We also want to hear from readers: do you think it’s better to build an entirely new system every few years or to upgrade components as you need them? Share your opinions in the comments section below.


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  • I always advise to know your budget first and foremost. Then price up the PC you want based on all your IT research in mags and online. Finally decide where compromises can be made for budget in order to save without compromising your end goal (too much).

    It’s the approach I take and when matched up to the sweet spot in parts that are set at the budget but good enough to last me 3-5 years I always end up spending less and getting more – in the long run.

  • I too am in the same boat here.

    I built mine late ’09 – early ’10, and I’m starting to feel it struggle with today’s games, and in some case, not even run. I considered upgrading piece by piece over time, but have now decided I’m better off saving my pennies and doing a full upgrade at once.

    Like what was mentioned in the article, my decision was mainly made up by the fact that their will most likely be compatibility issues when building over time.

    But before I build a new system, I need to get my storage solution in check. Either by way of DIY or pre-built NAS, I’m still undecided, but I currently have 11 drives in my system that I want to move out before I build a new rig.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • I bought a $5000 HP Z1 Workstation via a friend who got it from me through their employee purchase program – this saved me about $3000, with me paying only about $2000. In this case I was able to save a heap more than I could buying the components.
    I was looking at upgrading the graphics card a little while ago from the current Nvida Quadro, and these things retail for more than I paid for the machine – again, another advantage of buying pre-built.
    Now, that being said, if you’ve got components that still work, you won’t have to upgrade everything, so you’ll probably save on the outlay, but not necessarily as much once you replace every part of the machine.
    There was an interesting article on here about futureproofing – don’t do it – as you’ll pay more now for parts that you won’t use until a future point in time when they’ll be cheaper (both due to the value of the dollar and that same technology always gets cheaper)

  • I bought everything except the graphics card on my last build. Bought the card a while later when it went on sale and saved $200 alone. 770 when the 900 series came out. Will do the same on my next build.

  • Don’t think there’s any real choice here. Current graphics card will almost certainly demand a new motherboard, which in turn requires a new CPU and RAM and maybe even PSU. Just do the whole lot.

    The only other item of interest is the storage. That can likely be done independent of the rest. Decent SSDs are dirt cheap now.

  • I don’t know how people are still using 08′ and older pc’s mines a 2012 build and I find its already starting to struggle with new games coming out, and its not exactly a cheap build either 🙁

  • I don’t know how people are still using 08′ and older pc’s

    Mine was built then and still holds up. Only in the process of building a new system because I don’t wanna be caught short when DDR2 RAM becomes no longer available.

    I also planned well and had mine pretty high spec (except for the GFX card) so it held up.

    It’s crazy but I save up and build the biggest and best I can while still within a set budget so it lasts at least five years. But my next build, I’m planning for 10 years as I have better things to do then build a new PC every four years or less and spend a day with memtest.

    EDIT: Reply button broken again. This is in response to @rethilgore.

  • Start by choosing the motherboard and CPU (which will be the final things you purchase) and ensure all the other parts are actually compatible.

    CPU and MB should be the first things you purchase (outside of maybe an SSD), not the last. Everything else you have depends on your MB and CPU – RAM especially, but also GPU slot type too, and any other expansion cards you might want. You likely can’t (or shouldn’t) replace any other parts until the MB is replaced.

    As @grantguest mentioned above, you probably don’t really have a choice anyway. Especially if you are upgrading a computer from 08, as soon as you replace the MB the majority of the rest of your parts will need replacing anyway.

  • i brought my computer in 2010 ($1500)

    i7 950
    8gb Ram
    GTX 460

    Over the last year ive added another 4gb of ram and a GTX 970.

    to me thats the only thing worth swapping if im going to go changing motherboards/cpu ect its time for a new PC.

    Which sucks because it would be 3k for what i would want 🙁 sucks that to build a pc thats lasts awhile costs alot more now then it did back then.

  • I personally only ever really see the videocard as the upgrade component.

    Build a good base PC. Either get a new video card or if my existing one is decent I’ll use that with a view to upgrade that in a year or so.

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