Upgrading your PC – A Detailed Guide

We don’t think you need any by-the-book introduction to what PC hardware is; we know that there are hundreds of sites out there dedicated to enlightening you on the very subject. So we decided to put together exactly that which is not easily found, except on enthusiast forums normally filled with such jargon that spoofs the average Joe like you and me – A simple, concise and easy-to-follow guide to upgrading your PC. Note that this is by no means a hardware guide. It is simply here to give you a pointer as to what to look for when upgrading the internals of your system.

When to Upgrade Your PC:

We all know that re-installing Windows, defragmenting hard drives and the occasional overclock only go so far in improving the performance of your system. After all, the hardware remains the same. How much more can you possibly squeeze out of it? If your computer has hardware that is more than about five years old, you should begin thinking about an upgrade, if not an entirely new PC altogether. If your computer is older than that, do remember that ten years ago the 733MHz Pentium 3 ruled the world. Technology changes and improves very fast, and computing power approximately doubles every ten years at any given price.

In order to keep from being left in the lurch, it’s important to keep up with newer developments. Because it will happen that as time goes by, your computer will have more and more difficulty running newer versions of the simplest of programs like Yahoo! Messenger. If your computer has seen a fair number of years go by, then this is a telltale sign that it is not able to easily handle the lighter programs of today. Contrary to popular belief, a new installation of Windows hardly solves anything, apart from placating your heart. The first time you run the computer, it might start up faster. But the whole thing is, that’s because there are no additional programs running. It should be kept in mind that your computer will still run programs at the same leisurely pace that it used to (unless, of course, it was a registry problem or your memory was acting up).

Things like Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office should not have difficulty running on your computer, because these are basically everyday use programs which should, well, not have difficulty running. Even the most casual of computer users need these programs or equivalents, and if they’re causing a problem, it spells trouble. A basic home computer shouldn’t cost more than $400. Cough it up and you’ll have trouble-free operation of everyday applications for a couple of years. Gamers will require more powerful systems; but a great rig that will run 3 years easily without being outdated can be built for around $600-$700

What to Upgrade:

If you’re simply looking for an upgrade, and that’s about it, it’s good to start with the oldest parts of your computer first. Normally, the motherboard and processor are the best places to start. It’s a good idea to upgrade both at the same time, to avoid bottlenecking the potential of any one component. But if you believe they are recent enough to be able to do the job decently, then buying more RAM for your system is a superb quick fix. This will give your computer a small performance boost, which might be all you need for the time being.

However, if you are looking for some specific need-based upgrade, then you probably know what it is you want. For example, a hard drive if you’re running out of space is a very logical conclusion.

So, here goes…

Motherboard composition. Copyright Tom's Hardware

Motherboard: As the name implies, this is the mother-of-all-boards in your PC. It contains many factory-included features, and also contains expansion slots should you wish to add more capabilities. In short, the motherboard acts as an interface between your CPU (which does the actual running of the program) and virtually every other component of your PC. Normally, it contains slots for RAM, and also PCI/PCI Express slots, the number of each depending on your motherboard’s make and model.

What to look for in a motherboard:

  1. The socket: The socket should be same as the socket of your processor, otherwise things will not work out. If possible, try going for a motherboard socket that is forward and backward-compatible with future/preceding generations of CPUs. This is an advantage because your motherboard will then be able to support a CPU a generation or two into the future should you at some stage wish to upgrade your CPU only, or you could keep your current processor and upgrade your motherboard only. AMD has a tradition of offering backward-compatible processors, so that the newest AM3 and AM3+ socket processors will fit on older AM2 socket motherboards.
  2. The chipset: This is a group of chips on the motherboard, designed to work together in interfacing the CPU with the external devices, and is usually marketed as a single product. They are often made up of two chips, the northbridge and the southbridge. The northbridge links the CPU with very high-speed devices such as RAM, while the southbridge links the CPU with slower devices such as PCI interface buses. The southbridge often includes integrated peripherals, so make sure the chipset has adequate support for the latest connectivity technologies, such as USB 3.0 and the most current of Ethernet.
  3. The front-side bus speed: This is very important in determining the overall speed of your system, especially if it is performance-oriented. The bus is just like a main cable connecting the CPU with devices such as the hard drives and PCI cards via the chipset. This is because if you have a discrete graphics card, you need a fast bus speed in order that your motherboard can relay information between the CPU and your graphics device quickly. It often happens that slow bus speeds ‘bottleneck’ the potential of a good CPU and a powerful VGA device. It is always a good idea to aim for the highest affordable/available bus speed to obtain the most possible performance out of your system.
  4. The Memory Slots: These slots can go a long way in speeding up your system. The more there are, the greater the amount of memory you can slap on your motherboard. However, do take note of the maximum amount of memory your motherboard can support. Normally motherboards have between two and six memory slots, depending on the price bracket and their intended use. Maximum supported RAM clock, as well as the type of RAM supported, must be taken into account.
  5. The RAM clock determines how fast the memory is able to read/write data, and  the type of RAM also influences this. The newest technologies allow for multiple read/writes simultaneously, as well as tandem operation of memory modules for better performance at lower power ratings. Currently, DDR3 is the fastest (and best) available memory, with clocks going up to 1600 MHz and even beyond. Considering that DDR3 is cheaper than DDR2, do NOT vouch for the DDR2 standard, unless you have intimate relations with it that you do not want to break under any circumstance.
  6. Expansion Slots: These are slots that can be filled with add-on devices to increase the functionality of your system to your liking. You should look for:
    -At least one PCI Express x16 slot. This is a necessity for the addition of external Graphics devices. Even though integrated graphics will run your computer, integrated graphics chipsets are weaker than full-house graphics cards, which become a necessity should you want any graphics-intensive work doing. Note that performance-oriented motherboards may have up to four such slots, so that multiple graphics cards can be accommodated and run in parallel for greatly enhanced visual processing capabilities. SLI is NVidia’s version of this idea, Crossfire is ATI’s. If you are going for a multi-card setup, do look for the number of access lanes available in SLI or Crossfire setups (normally there are 8 or 16) which are normally written as follows: ‘3-way SLI (x16, x8, x8)’. This means that the motherboard supports running three NVidia graphics cards in parallel, with one operating on 16 lanes, the remaining two on 8 lanes.
    -At least two PCI slots. This is a must-have should you wish to add any further peripheral device, such as a dedicated sound card or a wireless LAN (WiFi) card.
    -At least one PCI Express x1 slot. This is the successor of the PCI slot, which it will eventually replace. It is also used for the same purposes, although it is much faster.
  7. Onboard Connectors: These are necessary for connecting your peripheral devices. A motherboard should have at least one floppy disk connector (though they’re redundant now), two-three IDE connectors (for a hard drive and an optical drive), and two or more SATA ports. SATA is a format poised to replace IDE. Make sure that there are ample USB connectors on the panel of the motherboard, as well as mouse, keyboard, and network connectors. If the motherboard has an integrated graphics device, then it should have a VGA output port as well.
  8. SATA Storage interface speeds: If you’re getting a new motherboard, make sure you get one that has at least a 3.0 GB/second SATA interface, this is the speed with which the mobo interfaces or “talks” to your hard drives.
  9. USB ports: With the number of devices leeching off our USB ports growing all the time, it is now a necessity to get a motherboard with a lot of ports. Usually I find six to eight ports will do the trick, however make sure they are at least USB 2.0 ports, if not the newer USB 3.0 standard.

The Core i7 Processor

Processor (CPU): This is the small square-ish chip placed firmly in its socket on the motherboard, usually found under the largest heatsink on the motherboard. The CPU is the actual ‘brain’ of the computer and performs all the instructions required to run a program. It is responsible for reading an instruction within a program, understanding it, then delegating the relevant parts of the instruction to each section of the CPU so that it is carried out, and then storing the result in memory as an output. It normally consists of three main parts. The Arithmetic Logic Unit (ALU) does the actual logical comparisons required; the Control Unit executes or stores the results coming out of the ALU; and the Registers store the data to be executed next. CPU speed is normally rated in terms of clock speed and Instructions per Cycle (IPC). All CPUs have a built-in clock that operates at a certain frequency. It is in discrete multiples of the clock cycle that instructions are carried out. For each ‘cycle’ of this clock’s oscillation, the number of instructions the CPU can carry out is determined. Then the total number of Instructions per Second (IPS) is calculated. It is this that actually determines the effective speed of the CPU.

The following should be noted whenever considering a new CPU:

  1. The socket. It is this that determines the compatibility of your CPU with your motherboard. Both must match for the CPU to fit in the motherboard. However, if your CPU is backwards-compatible with older motherboards, do check the manufacturer specifications as to what older sockets the CPU will fit into. Unnecessarily forcing the CPU to fit into a different socket can damage the pins of the chip and render it unusable. Some AMD sockets are quite useful in that they are backward compatible, take the AM2+ for example. It will support both AM2 and AM3 processors so you wont have to worry about replacing the mobo quite so often.
  2. The clock Speed: This as the name implies, is the frequency of oscillation of the built-in reference clock. Therefore, the faster your clock speed, the more the CPU can get done in the same amount of time
    Note that it is always helpful to check whether the processor you are looking at is part of a larger family of processors, all of which share the same architecture. This means that they are physically the same inside. Therefore, if you buy a processor that has the same innards, yet there is another processor that has a higher clock speed, then this means that your own CPU is also able to go a little faster. This will give you overclocking headroom should you wish to go that route later on. Combined with the fact that your chip was cheaper than the faster one, you can easily obtain a greater performance/price ratio.
  3. The IPS rating. Whenever available, look for this as the last word in indicating the processor’s computing power. This is the overall ability of the processor to execute programs as quickly as possible. The higher this is, the better off you will be.
  4. The power rating. This is often written as TDP (Thermal Dissipation Power). This is how much power the CPU draws (and then converts into waste heat) in order to function at full speed. Lower power ratings are better. They reduce the energy consumption of your system, by both reducing the energy dissipated as well as reducing the need for a massive CPU cooler to be fitted on top to do away with the dissipated heat, which, of course, draws further power. This is also a factor you need to consider when judging the compatibility of the processor with your motherboard. Even though your motherboard might have the same socket and be able to accommodate the processor easily, it just might not be able to supply the power the CPU needs to run.
  5. The cache. This is in effect the onboard memory of the processor. It is here that the processor stores immediately relevant and important information when executing the instructions of a program. There are currently three mainstream levels of on-board cache, L1, L2 and L3. L1 is the most expensive to produce, L3 the least, explaining why modern processors have more L3 cache than L2 or L1. However, L1 cache is faster than L2, L2 is faster than L3. By faster we do not mean speed or anything, but that the access time is lesser. Normally the greater the amount of cache, the faster the processor is able to perform, because it can easily store a larger amount of immediately relevant information onboard instead of sending it to the comparatively far-off RAM and then recalling it from there when needed. Normally, a good processor should feature at least 512 Kb of L1 cache and 2 Mb of L2 cache. L3 cache, where available, is an added bonus. The greater the amount of cache, the better, but it comes at a price.
  6. The operating temperature. Normally glossed over by many guides, it is vital that you take this into consideration. This is because each processor has a range of ambient temperatures where it fill function best. For example, some older AMDs are rated to run at ambient temperatures of up to around 55-63 degrees Celsius. This means that they will heat up faster and be less efficient in hotter environments than other processors rated to run at higher temperatures because they are nearing their maximum limit of operation.

Corsair XMS3 RAM modules

Memory: commonly referred to as RAM (Random Access Memory), this is essentially a temporary storage space for your computer, where it stores the information necessary for processing. The processor can then access this information much faster that if it were to look it up from the hard drive all over again. This kind of memory is slower than the processor’s own cache, but has smaller access times than the hard drive. The RAM communicates with the processor through the bus, via the northbridge. There are two standards in use currently, DDR2 and DDR3. DDR stands for double data rate.

Look for:

  1. Memory clock. This factor determines how fast each read/write operation is carried out. The faster the clock, the better. However, it should be kept in mind that your motherboard should support the clock. this can easily be verified by consulting its documentation. The faster, the better, provided your motherboard supports it-and you can afford it. These days memory is dirt cheap, get around 4 to 8 GB if you like to multitask. Avoid any memory clocked below 800MHz. If you can, get 1333 or 1600 DDR3 for the best price-performance ratio.
  2. Capacity. This determines how much data the memory module can accommodate. Here, more memory space is useful if you run processes that require a lot of memory each. It is highly unlikely that you’ll be running more than two-three very heavy programs at most, so 4-6 GB is more than enough for most people’s needs, more often than not 6GB is on the excessive side. If you daddy drives a Bentley and your house boasts an indoor sauna, then you might want to go for the full-house 32 GB modules currently produced only by Samsung. Where possible, try to use double DDR2 modules or triple DDR3 modules in parallel for enhanced performance. Thus, double 2GB DDR2 sticks in parallel can do more than one 4GB stick. However, should you wish to increase your memory at a later stage, you will then need extra slots on your motherboard to accommodate both the old and the new modules. For using a 3-pack RAM combination, you will need a motherboard to support it; keep an eye out for X58 motherboards.
  3. Heatsinks. Although not found on every memory module, heatsinks can greatly reduce running temperatures of the heat-prone memory chips. This can translate into overclocking headroom should you wish to go down that route. Corsair’s XMS2 series of modules is a perfect example of heatsink-fitted memory. Some high performance memory modules have factory fitted water cooling solutions as well.
  4. Overclocking. If you really wish to squeeze every last drop out of your memory, you will need good cooling (maybe water cooling). As an aside, do not forget to increase the voltage in small increments. Always remember, overclocking will void your warranty!

MSI Radeon 4890 Cyclone

Video Card: Often referred to as the graphics card or simply GPU. Unless you are using the integrated graphics found on some motherboards to give the display output to your monitor, it is this card that is in charge of virtually rendering graphics objects in memory and then presenting them to the display output. Each video card contains a GPU (graphics processing unit) that is like an auxiliary processor, dedicated to the graphical aspect of programs. It also has dedicated VRAM (video RAM) for the sole purpose of storing the rendered frames temporarily until they are displayed.

What to look for when considering a video card purchase:

  1. The slot:  These days graphics cards use the PCI Express 2.0 x16 interfaces in the motherboard. Older cards had an AGP port, but it’s now completely obsolete.
  2. The GPU/Core Series: Video card manufacturers are in the habit of naming a family of gfx cards (shorthand for graphics cards) based on one GPU as a ‘series’. So, for example, most of the ATI Radeon 6xxx HD series has the same GPU architecture. Likewise the NVidia 5xx series. Newer GPU architectures use more efficient and powerful technology than older methods, and thus newer GPUs present a better price/performance ratio. Unless, of course, you find a last-generation flagship video card; it is probably likely to have a lower price because it is, well, outdated. Note that it probably won’t have the latest DirectX capability, but will normally have equal or better graphics performance than newer video cards at the same price (at the cost of longevity, of course).
  3. DirectX supported: DirectX is for most purposes Microsoft’s graphics framework. It is responsible for helping software communicate with the graphics hardware. Ideally, a good video card should be compatible with the most current version of DirectX, and at worst, should not be more than one version of DirectX behind the times. This is necessary to ensure that you get the best possible experience out of your video card, the greatest compatibility and the best longevity. These days the most recent major version is DirectX 11.
  4. VRAM: Dedicated VRAM (Video RAM) is as important to graphics processing as RAM is to regular processing and computation. The greater the amount of VRAM, the greater the space available for ‘frames’ that the video card can process and store in memory to be displayed in sequence. Therefore, two identical video cards differing only in the amount of VRAM they have will be near-identical in performance at resolutions up to 1024×768, but at greater resolutions, the frame rate of video-intensive programs will be dramatically increased for the card with the higher amount of memory. Any new card you buy should have at least 1GB of VRAM. Higher end models go all the way to 4GB
  5. The core clock: This is the speed at which the GPU operates. Note that higher clocks tend to squeeze out a more frames per second, but these video cards tend to run hotter and waste more power. Plus, they tend to be slightly more expensive too.
  6. SLI/ Crossfire capability: If you are building a multi-GPU setup, you need to look for cards with this capability. Keep in mind that you generally need two identical cards to pair them together.
  7. Memory Type: It’s best if you stick with the latest technology, GDDR5. DDR3 is fast becoming a thing of yesterday.
  8. Cooling Solution. With a high-end card, you need to make sure it gets plenty of cooling. Make it a point to avoid passively cooled cards; this means the card has only a heat sink and no fan. The stronger the video card, generally the greater the cooling required. Do note that some VGA coolers are widely acclaimed for their abilities to keep brutal video cards at low temperatures, and MSI’s Twin Frozr is one of these. It’s always best to read up a couple of reviews to find out what the best in the business is, and then shoot for it.

Hard Drive: All of us know what these are for: To store data. There are two types of hard drives commonly used nowadays: The regular magnetic drives that are found on (almost) every PC; and the newer solid-state drives (SSDs). SSDs have the benefit that they are much more damage-resistant and faster than regular drives. However, being a recent development, they are rather on the expensive side. The rules for buying a hard drive are fairly simple:

  1. Type: If you are a regular user, without too many performance-oriented demands of your PC, it is best to stick with the regular hard drives available on the market. However, if you need very fast response times, a better option is to go for the newer SSDs (solid state drives) on the market. These are expensive, though, so it is wise to install your operating system and your heaviest programs on an SSD and make up the rest of the space you need with regular drives.
  2. Capacity: This is simply put the amount of space available on the drive. These days you can easily get your hands on high capacity drives quite cheaply. All PCs have multiple-HDD (hard disk drive) capability, so you can expand your storage space as your requirements grow. A good budget starting point would be the Seagate or Western Digital 500GB hard drives. If you are thinking of an SSD, 60GB ought to be enough to contain your windows files. But if you want to install your favorite games on the SSD for maximum performance, you should consider one with a much larger capacity.
  3. RPM (for standard hard drives): this is basically how fast the storage platters spin inside the drive. The faster they spin, the quicker the access time and better performance. If you are a gamer, it’s a good idea to steer clear of the 5400rpm ‘Green’ drives. 7200rpm drives generally, offer good performance. There are some good 10,000 rpm drives that offer great performance like the Western Digital VelociRaptor; it is a great gap filler between the slow ’regular’ HDDs and the faster but much more expensive SSDs.
  4. Cache: The HDD cache size is important. Cache refers to the amount of data the HDD is capable of having ready for processing. More MB is better.
  5. Connector Format: You should check your motherboard for the types and availability of hard drive connectors. The two types of cables used are IDE and SATA. If a SATA port is available, it should be preferred over IDE. This is because whereas IDE has a maximum data transfer rate of 133 MB/second, SATA is rated at 150MB/second and SATA II Provides around 3.0GB/second transfer speeds. The latest incarnation is the SATA III interface which has a whopping 6.0 GB/second speed (look at the newest Seagate drives). Plus, SATA cables are easier to manage and provide less hindrance to airflow through the computer casing than the belt-width IDE cables.

A modular PSU. Note the customizable wiring option.

Power Supply Unit (PSU): The function is well-defined in the name. It regulates the mains AC voltage and outputs steady DC voltages to run the computer. Things to note are:

  1. Wattage. To be on the safe side, the rated Wattage on your power supply should exceed by 10-15% the combined power requirements of your CPU, the video card and all the other peripheral devices such as hard drives, and so on. There are many helpful tools available online to help calculate your power requirements exactly.
  2. Connectors. Your power supply should have at least enough power connectors to fulfill the requirements of your system. Unless necessary, one cable should not have an extension attached to power more than one device.
  3. 80 PLUS Ratings. A good indicator of your PSU quality and reliability is the 80PLUS rating. It certifies that the PSU has over eighty percent efficiency (which reduces your power bill and results in less heat in your system). Most PSUs from top manufacturers including Antec, Coolermaster and Corsair have this rating.
  4. SLI /Crossfire: If you are building a multi GPU setup, naturally you need to look for multiple PCIe connectors on your power supply. This is the 6+2 pin. Also, keep an eye on the amperage your GPU setup needs. Heavy duty cards like the Radeon 6990 HD require multiple power connections.
  5. Modularity: Many of the newer PSUs in the market are modular, which means you can remove the cables you don’t need, instead of having to hide them somehow in your casing where they impede air flow. Although there are both pros (mainly the ease-of use and cleanliness of the system wiring) and cons (mainly the high price); rumors abound about modular power supplies having reliability issues.

As a conclusion, note that longevity is an important consideration when upgrading your computer, to keep from the hassle of another upgrade becoming vital  every two years. Faster is normally better, but then it’s almost always more expensive too. Making computers from scratch, or upgrading systems, is more of an acquired skill and requires some time and thought to get it right. It’s all about balancing all the parts together according to your needs and within your budget limitations. Keeping your requirements in mind will help you arrive at a system that does best the things you want it to do. For example, if you need a PC for office work (without much graphics involved), you might consider omitting a dedicated video card and going the integrated graphics route. On the other hand, if gaming is your thing, and you only play specific games, you might not need all that much hard drive space, but a powerful video card would be a necessity. Similarly, unless you are a multimedia design enthusiast or video editor, there is no point in getting a six-core setup. Almost all current games are optimized for quad cores.

Also, no one thing definitely improves the performance of your computer. So it’s good to have a well-balanced system. A PC with a reasonable amount of memory and a reasonable video card will run games better than a PC with a massive video card and a small amount of memory. In that this might sound contradictory to the above paragraph, the distinction is that function-specific aspects of computer hardware should be tuned to one’s needs (such as video capabilities or hard drive space), but components like the motherboard and CPU that form the backbone of a computer’s computing power should be upgraded evenly. Slapping an awesome processor on your outdated motherboard will simply limit the awesomeness of your processor A wiser approach would be to get a new motherboard/CPU combination, both of which are the best options within your budget.

And on a final note, read the reviews! As far as making an informed choice, reviews go a long way towards helping you shortlist the best-performing components within your price range, improve your understanding of the hardware and inform you beforehand of reliability issues.

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Posted on June 20, 2011, in Guides and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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