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What’s the Best Upgrade for an Older Machine?

You can breathe new life into an old machine.

A Computer System
(Image: canva.com)
Upgrading a computer can be a lot of work, is going to cost some money, and depends on your needs. I'll show you where to start.
What’s the easiest way (other than buying a new machine) to upgrade my 10-year-old computer?

There’s no blanket answer. It depends on what you’re trying to do with this machine and how it isn’t meeting your needs.

I do have ideas, though.

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TL;DR:

Upgrade that Old Computer

Your best options to extend the life of an old computer include:

  • Adding RAM
  • Replacing the hard disk with an SSD
  • Upgrading your display and/or video card
  • Switching to a lightweight operating system

Start with RAM

The first thing I do with an old machine I want to revive is maximize the amount of RAM installed.

How much RAM you can add depends on the specific machine. Each machine’s motherboard has a limit as to how much RAM can be installed.

New machines are frequently not fully populated. For example, your machine may have a capacity of 32 GB of RAM, but may have only come with 8GB. That’s common, particularly in older machines built when RAM was more expensive.

Examine the machine, or look up the machine’s capacity for RAM, and then install as much RAM as you can. Windows loves RAM.

It used to be that adding RAM was the first and most effective thing you could do. While it’s probably still the cheapest, there’s another upgrade that can often make a more significant difference.

Upgrade the hard drive to an SSD

SSDs, or Solid State Disks, are significantly faster than traditional spinning-platter hard disks. Replacing  an HDD with an SSD can often result in surprising performance boosts.

You’ll likely increase the disk capacity at the same time. SSDs have come down significantly in price in recent years, and will almost certainly outlast even a new machine, not to mention your older one.

There are replacement SSDs that come in the same size and shape as HDDs. This means replacing the disk is as conceptually simple as:

I’ve done this myself to good effect, and I’ve also heard from many others who’ve upgraded to an SSD and been impressed with the performance impact.

Improve your display

Get a bigger display.

I’ve been quite surprised at how much “better” a machine feels with a larger, crisper display, even as an external monitor on a laptop can make quite the difference when you’re not traveling.

For desktop machines, also consider upgrading your video card. This might be required to take full advantage of the capabilities of your new display. It can provide higher resolution and perhaps better performance than what you started with.

And, of course, if you do eventually end up replacing your machine, you can keep using the new monitor. That makes it a little easier to justify the investment in a good one.

Consider another operating system

Another alternative to lengthening the usable life of an older machine is to consider a low-footprint Linux distribution. Even the standard distributions usually require fewer resources than the equivalent edition of Windows, but there are specific distributions that require much less machine to run smoothly.

Best Lightweight Linux Distributions for Older Computers has an overview of 16 different alternatives. Personally, I’ve used PuppyLinux on occasion. I’m also encouraged to find variations of both Ubuntu and Linux Mint on the list.

If what you’re doing doesn’t tie you to Windows, a lightweight Linux distribution might be just the thing to keep getting value from an older machine.

Old versus new

Now that I’ve outlined a few different things you can do to upgrade your machine, the decision lies with you. I hesitate to call these options “easy”, because they all require you to work, research, or purchase components that you then need to install or add to the machine.

Honestly, the easiest way to do this is to get a new machine. There’s very little involved other than transferring your data.

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12 comments on “What’s the Best Upgrade for an Older Machine?”

  1. Just another thought. Before spending any money on an old computer it’s worth checking the “Passmark Score” of the CPU (http://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu_list.php). If the old box doesn’t score at least a 500 it’s not worth spending money on UNLESS you can upgrade the processor easily or cheaply. You can find used but functional processors on ebay from a few bucks. It’s a more complex upgrade, but the instructions can be found online along with “how to” videos on youtube.

    Reply
  2. FWIW, not long ago I doubled the RAM in my 6YO HP Pavilion a1540n from 2M to 4M. Nice boost, not big but noticeable. Since then however, strange things have begun happening – and I’m not blaming it on the memory upgrade.

    First, the cursor started doing crazy things when playing ordinary games like solitare, Bejeweled, etc. It would suddenly fly off the display in an unpredictable direction.
    Second, usually about the same time around 7am, the hard drive light would illuminate continuously ‘on’, the mouse and keyboard would be unresponsive, and I would have to shut down with the power button and restart to regain control.
    Finally, the video presentation became indistinct, weak colors, text characters alternating between black, red, green.

    I spent days on another pc searching the web for clues, installing drivers, adjusting video settings, etc, all to no avail. I even purchased a graphics card compatible with the machine, but could never get the system to use it even though Windows 7 said it (and everything else) was working correctly.

    Finally through in the towel and ordered a new desktop upper-low-end gaming pc that I hope will be upgradeable in future years so that I can just install new components occasionally without having to buy another new one.

    Reply
  3. I agree increasing the RAM is probably the best thing you can do to upgrade a computer, but depending on the age and RAM type of the machine, be prepared for sticker-shock. While RAM for the current generation of motherboards is pretty reasonably priced, going back a generation or two can be eye-opening. Sometime maxing out the RAM on an older PC can be more than half the cost of a new PC.
    I’ve found Crucial.com a good site for finding out what kind and how much RAM a computer or motherboard will support.

    Reply
  4. I think in most cases, upgrading a computer older than 8 years old is probably not the best bang for your buck. For example, you can upgrade the RAM for somewhere around $40-50. A new hard drive for $50 or more and a graphics card from $40 (if you can even get one that can go into your computer.) So you might invest $100-150 to upgrade, but you’ll still have an old slow computer which will probably only be able to run XP (or of course, a small Linux distro) which will soon be unsupported, leaving your computer susceptible to malware. I’d prefer to invest in a lower end computer available for somewhere in the vicinity of $250, which will be brand new, much faster and running the latest version of Windows.

    Reply
  5. Hello all.

    I have been upgrading/building computers for 15 years or so. I do it more as a hobby than to save money or have the latest/greatest hardware. My policy is to do step upgrades, usually one component at a time. My current system started with a motherboard/CPU/RAM combo about 5 years ago. Since then, I have upgraded the power supply, the RAM, and the CPU twice. I started with a dual-core AMD CPU, then a quad-core, and now have a hex-core AMD CPU. I am not a gamer, so I don’t care about the video card. In fact, I’m actually using the onboard video graphics chipset to drive a 22 inch LCD display. This way, I can keep the cost down to around $100 or less per upgrade, and troubleshoot any issues that might arise from the single upgrade. My home-built system is in a large tower case with 6 hard drives, including one SSD, 2 optical drives, and a combo floppy with SD card reader (which I don’t use any more). I usually add another hard drive when I run out of storage space, and keep the older drives around as spares. My total storage capacity is around 4 TB, not including external hard drives used for backup. So, while upgrading an older system all at once is not going to save money, you can upgrade one or two components at a time, and end up with a much better computer than you started with.

    Don

    Reply
  6. I am not a tech head, but when my Dell desktop started showing its age, my solution was to take everything of value from My Documents and transfer it to my newer laptop via an external drive – still running XP.

    Then to replace Windows XP with Linux Ubuntu – which works like a charm. A little bit of work setting it up, but I really am a novice at this stuff.

    Now I have a machine which I can turn on, update my programs, send an email, and turn off again while the laptop is still booting up.

    Reply
  7. Hi Leo
    Have not been around your excellent forum for 6 months. Reason movin house etc. But mention of older comps spurred me to enter something here. My old laptop still runnin with Vista and still the fastest I have seen to date. I usually play around with approx one other comp per week including Win 8 and even Mac’s. Remember ya did not believe this in the past. As regards older comps I believe best thing to do when they start to go wrong is to get a new one. Fiddling around, as I sometimes have to do with other comps to get them to work is not really productive, even though most of them can be made somewhat better. As to my own Vista machine I sometimes hope it will explode !..Instead so far at least if anything it seems to get faster. Have my own method of course but mostly against mainstream thinkin !!!!!!!!!!!
    PS Congrats on your new site setup..Like it !!

    Reply
  8. Just read what I posted and thought that it may have been insensitive to use the word “Explode”…A better word would have been disintegrate….Reason is for me to move on to a newer system…Would really love to get a Mac..Think they really cool !!!

    Reply
  9. I’ve been using XP Pro for many years. It has served me well. Now it’s time to move up a step and Win 7 Pro is the plan. I’m going to chunk the ASRock mobo and go with an Intel BOXDZ68BC, 16GB of either Crucial or Corsair memory and probably the Intel Core i5-3330 Ivy Bridge 3.0GHz CPU and say bye bye to my old faithful Intel Pentium D 2.8. Video card??? Uhhh…don’t know yet. I have a PC Power & Cooling power supply still in the box I bought several years ago in case my 600w Aspire PS croked, but it refuses to die.

    Reply
  10. I just needed a PC to run Spotify outside and in my garage. My old HP laptop was barely alive with Vista. Swept it clean and installed Ubuntu, manually downloaded Spotify and voila. Who knows how long it’s got, but so far so good.

    Reply
  11. As Richard and David noted, the best upgrade to an old PC is free – Backup your data files and install Linux. They used Ubuntu, but for most people moving from Windows either Linux Mint or PCLinuxOS are probably easier to use. Both will speed up an old PC significantly, as Linux is dramatically more efficient than Windows.

    Reply
  12. I forgot about maximizing the RAM. I used to do that years ago on older pc’s but never thought about it on this one. Thanks for the great tips.

    Reply

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