Computer system upgrades can extend an old computer’s life considerably, even after it becomes too old or too slow for today’s software. Computers have come a long way since my first one — an AT&T with an 8 MHz 8088 processor with 64 kilobytes of memory and a 10 MB hard drive. Now I have a Toshiba notebook computer with a 2.5GHz AMD 64-bit processor, 8 GB of memory, and almost 2 TB of storage capacity.
Computer manufacturers want you to think that when the components of your present system become obsolete for one reason or another, you have to buy a whole new computer to keep up with technology. This, however, isn’t true. With the right combination of motherboard, CPU, and memory, you can keep using what looks like your old computer.
If you buy the right motherboard, you can keep performing system upgrades by installing newer and faster CPUs for quite some time. Let’s take a look at my recommendations for motherboards, CPUs, and memory, then move on to putting them all together.
System Upgrades: Computer Component Recommendations
When it comes to system upgrades that entail component swaps, the first thing you need to ask yourself is whose processor do you want? Do you want to save a little money and go with an AMD processor that generates more heat, or do you want to save a little energy, spend a little more and go with Intel? The argument between the two camps is long, storied, and quite vociferous and, other than saying that my preference lies with Intel, I’m not going to get into it here. If you have the time, Tom’s Hardware does an excellent job of describing the ins and outs of both processor families. Suffice it to say, you want the fastest CPU with the most onboard cache memory that you can afford.
Your next choice is going to be the motherboard. You have to know what CPU you’re getting before knowing what kind of motherboard you can get because the way the CPU attaches to the motherboard is different for both. If you’re leaning towards an Intel chip, my two top choices are the MSI Z77-GD80 and the Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UP5 TH.
Both motherboards offer DVI and VGA interfaces, so you can send your video to either a monitor or a DVI-enabled TV (most of them today). They both also support full THX surround-sound output and have plenty of back-panel USB 3.0 ports. For the über-gamer, they both also support a multiple monitor setup with the right hardware (You’ll have to read the reviews to figure that out). These are in the $250 range on average.
For those going the AMD CPU route, I recommend the ASUS F2A85-V Pro and the ASRock FM2A85X Extreme 6. The ASUS board, coming from an industry giant, is about double the price of the ASRock board at an average of $140. Features of both boards are similar to those of the MSI and Gigabyte from above, except they can only use an AMD CPU.
Now you need some new memory. All the motherboards mentioned use DDR 3 (Double Data Rate Gen 3) DIMMs (Dual Inline Memory Modules). The AUS and ASRock boards support up to 64 GB of memory, the MSI up to 32 GB and the Gigabyte supports up to 16 GB or memory.
When buying memory, you want to buy the best brand possible, since you don’t want to have to worry about it going bad. I prefer Kensington and Corsair, as they both offer lifetime warranties on their products and are in the middle price ranges normally.
If you’re upgrading a really old computer, you’ll probably also need to buy a power supply. I recommend PC Power and Cooling. Ask the salesperson at the store.
The Assembly Process
This may sound like a daunting process, but, in all actuality, if you read the motherboard manual thoroughly before beginning, it shouldn’t take more than an hour to have your computer back up and running, faster than ever.
First, you need to open the case up. Some cases have latches and others have screws, while some have both. Place it on a table at a comfortable height, where power is accessible. Keep the power cord plugged in, so you can use the case to discharge static.
Carefully disconnect the cables, labeling them as to where they go in the process of doing so. You want to label them because sometimes the connectors for certain things look very similar to those of others, like USB and Firewire front panel connectors. If there are any cards connected to the mainboard, you need to remove them as well. Set these cards aside.
Next, remove the screws that secure the motherboard to the posts in the case. Hold onto them, you may need them for the reassembly. Carefully lift the motherboard out of the case and set it aside. Next, refer to the motherboard manual. There will be a section on configuring the board for your CPU. Follow those directions exactly, making note of the specs of your CPU.
Here’s where you’ll need to refer to the motherboard book. Some require you to use screws to attach the board in the case. Some of those will require you to use felt washers on both sides of the screws to isolate the motherboard from the case, while others will tell you to not use felt washers. Follow the directions closely.
Next, insert the memory in the appropriate memory slots, paying attention to the keying (see images above). Make sure they snap into place, but don’t force them. If they won’t go, you have them in wrong. With the memory seated, connect your drives and front panel connectors (headphones, microphone, USB, etc).
Believe it or not, you’re done. Boot up and the operating system will update drivers for a few minutes, or maybe longer — and you’re done with possibly one of several future system upgrades!