How to Know When to Upgrade Your PC

How to Know When to Upgrade Your PC
Photo: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/Gizmodo

I recently upgraded my PC thanks to some encouragement from my French bulldog, Remy. Turns out there are only so many times a 17 kg dog can enthusiastically slam his bodyweight into a desktop tower before something stops working.

Only my graphics card suffered irreparable damage, but since I’d already been thinking of upgrading prior to Remy’s mishap, I decided to go ahead and upgrade most of my components (including my motherboard and CPU) anyway. This particular PC hadn’t been upgraded in years and was starting to show its age — fans running non-stop, games and programs crashing, etc. I had already been running diagnostics and tweaking various settings for months, but I was procrastinating pulling my PC out from under my desk until Remy forced my hand.

It was time to pull out this tower and upgrade it. (Photo: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/Gizmodo)It was time to pull out this tower and upgrade it. (Photo: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/Gizmodo)

Waiting until your dog physically knocks the graphics card off its axis is not how I’d recommend setting an upgrade schedule. For one thing, it is better to replace components before they die a tragic, fiery, bulldog-induced death, because when a component dies it can drag other components (or data) with it to the grave. While working components are still usable in other builds, as test modules or even as emergency replacements, dead components are usable as scrap metal and that’s about it.

So, is it time to upgrade your PC? There’s no one-size-fits-all upgrade schedule, but there are some general guidelines to follow and diagnostics you can run to determine when — and what — you should upgrade to keep your PC running like you built it yesterday.

Identify the issue

If you’re reading this, you probably already feel like your PC could use an upgrade — maybe it’s running a little slower, or crashing a little too often, or maybe you want to play Cyberpunk 2077 on max settings and your graphics card is from 2010. First we need to figure out exactly what the problem is, because performance issues aren’t automatically caused by outdated or failing hardware.

The author's pup, Remy, shows no remorse for the damage he did to this graphics card. (Photo: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/Gizmodo)The author’s pup, Remy, shows no remorse for the damage he did to this graphics card. (Photo: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/Gizmodo)

PC components are, relatively speaking, fairly durable. So, as long as they’re not subject to a lot of physical jostling and French bulldog hip-bumps, they’re probably not going to actually die from the wear-and-tear of old age before you decide it’s time to replace them. (That doesn’t mean they can’t die, just that they’re unlikely to die of old age.)

Your components will, of course, start to “feel” old — even if they’re working just fine — but exactly when they start to feel old depends on several things, including whether there have been any major tech breakthroughs since your last upgrade and how impressive your components were when you first bought them. Higher-end components often have cutting-edge tech (like USB-C before it was cool), and are therefore slightly more future-proof than their budget counterparts.

There’s also the main confounding variable: you, and what you want to do with your PC. A Twitch-streaming gamer has very different upgrade needs than a freelance writer, even if the freelance writer writes mainly about upgrading PCs.

Generally speaking, you should expect to get at least four to five years out of most components before the need to upgrade becomes urgent. Some upgrades are driven more by what specs the newest games need rather than what your PC needs, strictly speaking; graphics cards generally have a shorter upgrade cycle of two to three years.

What’s inside your PC?

Before you get started, you should figure out the manufacturer and model of various components: motherboard, CPU, graphics card, RAM, HDDs/SSDs, cooling system, PSU, case, and any other networking devices or drives. I recommend downloading a free, comprehensive diagnostics tool such as HWiNFO or CPU-Z, or simply opening up your PC. Tracking your components in PCPartPicker will make it easier to find compatible upgrades.

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Alright, now let’s dive in to diagnose what’s wrong with your PC and how to fix it.

Problem: Speed

There are many, many, many things that can cause your PC to run slowly. It could definitely be your components — maybe you need more RAM, maybe your hard drive is full, or maybe incompatible components are causing a bottleneck somewhere. But it could also be something else. Before you use a slow PC as an excuse to go out and buy 128GB of RAM, try decluttering your hard drive, disabling startup programs, and running an anti-malware/antivirus scan just in case.

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If you’re certain your computer is squeaky clean, organised, and free of viruses and search toolbars and Google Chrome’s inexplicable 472 processes, it might be time to upgrade your hardware.

Upgrade your RAM

Adding more RAM is one of the easiest and most affordable upgrades you can make (and it’s also the most likely to help you with those 472 Chrome processes), but only if you need it. The “if” is important! RAM, or Random Access Memory, is your PC’s short-term memory — it’s what your PC uses to store processes it’s performing right now, but if you don’t use all (or most) of it, more of it won’t do anything. For example, if you only use at most 6GB of RAM at a time, you will see no difference in performance if your PC has 8GB or 128GB of RAM.

To determine how much RAM you’re using, right-click the taskbar and open the Task Manager. Go to the Performance tab and click Memory; here you can see how much RAM you’re using in real-time. Keep this window open while you perform various tasks and check to see if you’re getting close to the cap — if you are, it’s probably time to upgrade your RAM. To do this, you’ll need the specs on your motherboard and your current RAM sticks. While you can mix some RAM sticks so long as they’re the same type (DDR2, DDR3, DDR4), cas latency, timing, and voltage, it’s usually better to just…not, if you can help it.

These days, 8GB of RAM is generally the minimum requirement for an average user. Gamers will want to start with at least 16GB and might want to go up to 32GB, though 32GB is still overkill for most people (even gamers). If you have 32GB+ installed and you don’t have a plan for it, then RAM is probably not what’s slowing your PC down.

Add an SSD

Adding more hard drive space — specifically, an SSD or solid-state drive — is the other easy and affordable upgrade you can make. This is also an upgrade that makes sense at any time, especially if, like me, you always need more storage space.

To figure out how much hard drive space you currently have, right-click on the start button and open File Explorer. Navigate to your main disk drive, right-click on it, and open Properties. You will see a summary, including a chart, of how much space is free on that disk. Generally speaking, it’s best to keep your drives at least 15-20% open to prevent fragmentation.

Photo: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/Gizmodo, In-House Art

The author’s old motherboard.

Photo: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/Gizmodo, In-House Art

New motherboard!

Problem: Crashes

A PC that keeps crashing isn’t necessarily due for an immediate upgrade, but this issue is often caused by the same things that cause computers to slow down. First, clean up your disks and drives, purge your startup menu, and flush out the malware. I would also suggest you update drivers (old Nvidia drivers are probably responsible for 75% of my PC crashes), and perhaps run some cleanup software to get everything in good shape.

If your PC crashes and you’re not sure why, try checking the Reliability Monitor in the Control Panel. The easiest way to find this is to search for it using the search feature on the taskbar. The Reliability Monitor shows you a history of your PC’s stability over time, and catalogues Critical Events (displayed as red X’s) and Warnings (displayed as yellow exclamation marks). Click on any day to learn more about an incident and hopefully what, exactly, cause your PC to crash. While the Reliability Monitor won’t necessarily give you a straightforward answer about why your PC crashed, it can help you identify patterns or programs that could be causing problems.

Problem: Temperature

If your PC keeps crashing and your desktop fans are running at top speed when all you’re doing is watching Netflix, this could be a sign that your PC is running way too hot. Heat means death to your PC, so don’t wait until you see sparks fly — download a temp-tracking diagnostic tool (I like CoreTemp) to find out exactly how hot it’s running. CoreTemp sticks a rainbow of core temperatures in your taskbar so you can see exactly what’s going on as you perform various tasks.

All CPUs are slightly different when it comes to ideal operating range and gaming temp thresholds, so you should look up your exact model (you can find this in CoreTemp’s summary) to find its safe operating ranges. Although all CPUs are slightly different, there are some general temperature thresholds to keep an eye on. When your PC is idle, an ideal temperature to shoot for is close to 40 degrees Celsius. If you’re playing a game or doing something else intense, temperatures should be in the 70 to 80-degree range, though it’s OK if they occasionally go higher — so long as they don’t stay there.

Clean your damn PC

So you’ve determined your PC is running way too hot. The most likely culprit: dust. It clogs up fans, heatsinks, and all of your PC’s case ventilation holes until what was once an adequately-cooled system is a hot metal box of CPU death. Grab a can of compressed air, an anti-static brush, isopropyl alcohol, cotton swabs, and a pair of goggles and get all the dust out of your chassis. You’ll be shocked at how much cooler your PC runs. Note: Compressed air can damage spinning components (like fans), so clean those with a brush or cotton swab/alcohol instead. And keep your vacuum away!

While you have your PC out, you may also want to replace the thermal paste between your CPU and its heatsink. Thermal paste usually lasts a few years so it’s unlikely that dried up thermal paste is causing all of your heat problems. If, however, you didn’t build your PC, or you’re using a stock CPU cooler that came with thermal paste pre-applied, this is a good time to apply a better-quality thermal paste. My favourite is Arctic MX-4.

It may be time to replace your thermal paste. (Photo: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/Gizmodo)It may be time to replace your thermal paste. (Photo: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/Gizmodo)

Upgrade your cooling system

All the cleaning in the world can’t help an inadequate cooling system. The easiest way to upgrade your cooling system is to simply add some case fans. They’re cheap and you can stick them just about anywhere, assuming you have room in your case. (If you don’t have room in your case, you might want to consider upgrading to a larger case.) Case fans plug into the motherboard, so you may need to check the motherboard to make sure you have enough connections. Also, make sure you place your fans correctly — the idea is to move hot air out of the case, not have all your fans shoot air toward each other.

If you’d like to push your system even further (e.g., overclock your CPU), you’ll need to upgrade to liquid cooling. You should definitely triple-check compatibility before doing this, because a liquid cooling system may require a bigger (or different) case and a more powerful PSU, and changing your case is like building a whole new computer.

Problem: Can’t run Cyberpunk 2077

Sometimes you just need a new graphics card. Well, maybe not need. But if you want to play the newest, hottest, most graphically-sexy ray tracing games, you need a graphics card that supports that. There’s not much else to say, here — if you want to play a game that your current graphics card can’t handle, it’s time to upgrade your graphics card (same with any other component that’s holding you back).

There are two routes to upgrading your graphics card: You can buy two cheaper, less powerful graphics cards and use them together, with either Nvidia’s SLI technology or AMD’s CrossFire technology, or you can buy one expensive, powerful graphics card and not worry about the ins and outs of multiple graphics cards.

Multiple graphics cards

The graphics card upgrade cycle tends to be shorter than other components’ upgrade cycles, partly because graphics cards are so hyped up. This means you might have a decent, relatively new graphics card when you feel like it’s time to upgrade. If that’s the case, you might be able to save money and still get a good boost in graphics performance by going with two decent, relatively new graphics cards instead of one ultra-powerful brand new graphics card.

There are some (or several) caveats. First, if you want to use two graphics cards together, they must be the same card — same specs, but not the same manufacturer. Second, not all graphics cards can be used in multi-card setups, and not all motherboards can support multi-card setups — you’ll need to check your specific graphics card/motherboard combo to make sure. There are also some other potential logistical hurdles you may face, such as case size (two graphics cards take up twice the space) and PSU (two graphics cards take twice the power). Heat is another factor to consider, because graphics cards produce a ton of heat, and two graphics cards produce even more.

Using dual GPUs with SLI or CrossFire is actually moot with the newest generation of cards. Not only are new graphics cards really powerful, but Nvidia’s RTX 3000 cards don’t support SLI anymore — not to mention the fps gain with SLI support in the past wasn’t a lot at all. If you must use dual GPUs, you’ll get the most out of Nvidia or AMD’s older cards.

It might just be easier to upgrade to the newest, most powerful single graphics card…if you can grab it before it sells out.

If you’re upgrading your PC this season, tell us why (and what parts) in the comments.