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So your store-bought PC is getting a little long in the tooth and its performance is showing signs of age. You might be tempted to just toss the machine and replace it with a newer model, especially when you see that more powerful OEM PCs can be had for as little as $500. But before you get on the horn to Dell, ask yourself this: What would a power user do (short of having built their own rig to begin with, naturally)? The answer: upgrade.
In many instances, you can achieve even greater performance gains with a $500 upgrade than you can from a new $500 machine. Even Dell’s proprietary builds can be retrofitted into better shape.
The skill is in knowing when it’s right to upgrade and how much upgrading is warranted. Too often, what begins as a simple upgrade can end up as a box full of regrets. Instead of achieving blistering performance, people often find that they’ve just thrown good money after bad hardware.
This brings us to the first rule of upgrading: Know your needs. Are you after higher frame rates and the ability to game at higher resolutions? You’ll need a new graphics card. Are you tired of waiting hours for your video editing to finish or the eternity it takes to edit your photos? A new CPU is in order.
After you’ve determined your goals, set a budget. Can you spend $200 or $2,000? Finally, the hardest question will be whether it makes sense to even perform an upgrade. This is the part that usually trips us all up. Folks are often compelled to upgrade old machines out of loyalty, as though that box of silicon, tin, and plastic was the starship Enterprise. The truth is that it’s just a bunch of commodity parts that you probably can’t sell on eBay for a quarter of what you originally paid.
So ask yourself, does it make sense to spend $250 on a 3.4GHz Socket 478 Pentium 4 for that old 2.6GHz P4 box? Do you really want to buy a $200 AGP card for your Athlon XP system? We’re not so sure.
Even worse, like plumbing and car repairs, oftentimes upgrades can cause you to replace more parts than you originally intended. Say you buy a hot, new AGP card for your Athlon XP 3000+ box. You’ll soon discover that the PSU in your vintage machine is underpowered. New PSU. Cha-ching. But now that swanky PSU doesn’t fit in your case. New case. Cha-ching. In the end, you just spent $500 for minimal performance gains.
Over the following pages, we’ll walk you through three real-world upgrade scenarios using three very different old off-the-shelf computers, so you can see first-hand our approach to bringing these rigs up to modern standards. Your upgrade needs won’t necessarily be the same, but by understanding how we made our decisions concerning what to upgrade, you’ll be more prepared to tackle the task yourself.