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4-categories-of-computer-hardware-2Q. Should I upgrade my RAM/hard drive/processor/video card or my RAM/hard drive/processor/video card? Which one will give me the biggest performance boost?

A. Every version of this question is different for every person that asks it, so it’s difficult to give a definitive answer based on only the parts available. Some upgrades will be better in certain situations, and it all depends on what you already have, too. That said, we can give you the information you need to make the decision pretty easily. Here are the two things you’ll want to keep in mind.

There is no “best” upgrade for everyone. It all depends on what you use your computer for. If you do a lot of multitasking, or your work involves applications that require a lot of memory (e.g., you run a lot of virtual machines), RAM is going to be a solid upgrade. If you play a lot of games, a new video card is more likely to increase performance, while video editors would probably like a faster, multithreaded processor. Here’s a breakdown of possible upgrades and what they’d be good for:


The motherboard is probably the most complex PC component to upgrade, but modern operating systems and standards have taken much of the pain out of swapping in a new one. (Even so, ancillary issues such as software activation make the task of upgrading a motherboard more annoying rather than less.) Before choosing a motherboard, you need to understand the purpose of the system you’re upgrading or building. Will it be small in volume? If so, you’ll want to use a micro ATX or mini ITX board. Are you planning to overclock? Then you’ll want to in­­corporate a board that offers robust voltage regulation and good cooling over those voltage regulator modules (VRMs). Looking to build a minimalist office PC? Make sure it has built-in video output connectors and low cost.
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While RAM is easily the cheapest upgrade you can make, most modern computers aren’t going to see a huge performance benefit from upgrading. Usually, 4GB should be enough for the average person—it isn’t going to make most apps run faster and it isn’t going to improve gaming all that much. If you’re still rocking 512MB, it could definitely be worth an upgrade—but otherwise, you can probably pass. Exceptions include people who use a ton of programs at once, use RAM-intensive applications like Photoshop or a video editor, and people who run virtual machines in programs like VirtualBox or VMware, which require you to set aside a chunk of RAM for those machines. The more RAM your virtual machines have, the faster they’ll run (and the less they’ll steal from your actual OS).
We’ve talked about this a lot before, but it’s worth repeating: Upgrading to a solid state drive (SSD) is one of the best upgrades you can make in terms of general speed boosts. An SSD can speed up your boot time and the launching of applications, though it isn’t going to encode video any faster or make your games run more smoothly (though they will load faster). An SSD won’t make web sites load any faster, and it isn’t really worth it if you only use a few applications. It’s especially great for those using slow-launching programs (again, like Photoshop) or launching many applications at once. Upgrading your regular hard drive to a more spacious hard drive (that is, a non-SSD) will only help your speed if you’re regularly running out of space.
The first thing you’ll want to note is that processors are not as easily upgradable as RAM and hard drives. Laptops and pre-built desktops are sometimes upgradable, and if you built your machine yourself, you can always upgrade to a faster processor with the same socket type. This upgrade would be most useful for those doing processor intensive tasks that make you wait—like encoding video or audio. Multi-core processors will help with multitasking, especially when these intensive processes are involved. Faster processors can also help boost gaming, but not as much as…
If you’re a gamer, this is where you probably want to upgrade. Nothing boosts your gaming performance like a new video card, and it’s easy to find one in your price range. If upgrading to a new card is too expensive, you can always try to buy a second video card and put it in SLI or Crossfire, which essentially means having two of the same video card for extra performance (though it requires a compatible motherboard). If you aren’t a gamer, then you don’t need to look too closely at video cards, considering any semi-modern PC can handle everything else you’ll throw at it, including HD video. Focus on the other upgrades instead.
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