Improve Your Computer's Performance - A Guide for the DIY PC Builder

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Boost your Performance

Over the years, I've oftern been asked for advice on which new computer to buy, and my first question is "What do you have now?" And most times I find out that their current computer will suit them just fine with the addition of a few upgrades that cost only a fraction of a new computer's price tag.

So, if you're in need of better performance from your PC, don't write the old one off just yet. Approach this problem logically--I know it's tough to shake a case of "new computer fever" once it's come over you, but consider all of the alternatives before you decide to fork over your hard earned cash.

Here's an example for you. A few weeks ago, my wife had it in her mind that her old Macbook Pro (2009 model) no longer met her needs. So, we headed over to the Apple Store to look at the new models. Everything was going well, and she was well on her way to purchaing a new Mac. As she was discussing options with the sales rep, I heard her mention the main reason she wanted a new Mac was for increased storage. I thought "What?... That's it?" I should have asked more questions when she said she needed a new laptop. :-) To make a long story short, we walked out of the store empty-handed, and I took her to the nearest Micro Center where we picked up a 500GB Solid State Drive (SSD)to replace the old 250GB traditional laptop hard drive in her Macbook Pro.

It took me about 2.5 hours to replace the hard disk and transfer all of her data from the old drive. About 1.5 of those 2 hours involved waiting on all of the files to transfer to the new drive.

In the end, she had twice the storage as before, and since I upgraded her from a traditional hard disk to a solid state drive (SSD), her performance skyrocketed. The laptop went from a 2 minute boot time to just 15 seconds (I'm NOT exaggerating). Applications like MS Word and Excel open within 1-2 seconds.

How is this possible? The new SSD has no moving parts, and data is accessed directly from its flash memory. Read and write times are much faster. The power consumption of an SSD is also much lower than a traditional HDD, so that gives her increased battery life; and since the SSD has no moving parts it's less prone to failure and will far outlast a traditional HDD. So, in summary, a $399 upgrade (the price of a 500GB SSD at the time) drastically improved the performance of her 2.5 year old laptop--to the point of far surpassing the performance of its brand new $1300 replacement model. --food for thought.

Upgrade Options

There are several components in your system that are upgradeable. The trick is identifying which ones will give you the most "bang" for your buck. Some of the options are:

  1. Hard Disk Size Upgrade (solves low disk space issues)

  2. Hard Disk Performance/SSD Upgrade (helps with slow boot/slow loading apps)

  3. Memory (RAM) Capacity Upgrade (huge performance improvements possible--read more below)

  4. Video Card Upgrade (for better performing games and multimedia)

  5. CPU Upgrade (faster processing; Beware, a faster CPU may NOT be what you need--read below)

Hard Disk Upgrades

If you are in need of additional disk space, replacing your old hard drive with a higher capacity model or simply adding an additional hard drive should meet your needs. You'll need to choose which option is right for you. Replacing the existing hard disk is a more labor intensive process since you will need to copy all of your data from the old drive to the new using a disk copy/clone utility, then physically replace the old drive with the new.

If you just need more space to store files, then you can go with a simpler solution. An external drive which attaces to your system via USB would likely solve your issues. Data read/write speeds to a USB will vary greatly depending on the age/compatibility of your computer. If your computer supports only USN 1.0 devices, you will be limited to USB 1.0 speeed (~12Mbps), which is pretty slow for data transfer. USB 2.0 transfer rates can reach up to 280Mbps, and USB 3.0 can realistically transfer at up to 3.2Gbps.

When you use a USB hard drive, it's best to connect it directly to a USB port on your computer. Avoid connecting through a USB hub or any other devices. If you do, the USB drive will only function at the speed of the slowest device on the hub. For instance, if you connect to a USB 3.0 compatible hub, but have a USB 1.0 printer also attached to that hub, you're going to be very disappointed... Likewise, if you attach a USB 2.0 drive to your USB 2.0-compatible computer, but you do so using a USB 1.0 hub, your transfer speeds will drop to USB 1.0 levels.

Performance upgrades

If your goal is to increase your hard drive's performance, determine what type of hard disk you are currently using. If you are using and older IDE/PATA disk drive, upgrading to a SATA drive will improve your performance. One caveat... make sure your motherboard supports SATA before you go out and purchase a new drive. If your mainboard doesn't support SATA, you may be able to find a SATA PCI expansion board to add to your system. But, and I hate to break this to you, if your system is using one of the now-ancient IDE drives, you may be past the point of performing a cost-effective upgrade. Buying a new system may be your best option.

If your system is currently using a SATA drive, determine if it is SATA 1.0 or SATA 2.0 (SATA II). If you are using a SATA 1 drive and your motherboard is SATA 2 compatible, then a new SATA 2 drive may give you a boost.

Another factor affecting hard drive performance is the drive's rotational speed. Look for drive with higher spin rates (7200 RPM vs. 5400 RPM). You can also purchase "hybrid" drives which blend SSD technology with traditional hard disks for significant performance gains without the cost of going 100% SSD

Then there's the SSD option... If you read my story above, you should know how awesome I think these little guys are... There is a price premium for SSD, but you will definitely notice the improvements. SSDs are almost exclusively SATA, so you need SATA capabilities on your exsiting computer to utilize this technology. If you have only SATA 1 technology, a SATA II drive will work just fine with your machine. You won't gain the full speed that the SATA II SSD can provide, but the performance gain with SATA 1 SSD speeds over a traditional hard disk will still be VERY impressive.

Memory (RAM) Upgrades

Another prime candidate for an upgrade is your computer's memory or RAM (which stands for Random Access Memory). Again, you need to know what your current configuration is before you begin to purchase an upgrade. Your motherboard will only support specific types and sizes of memory, so be sure to get this right.

So, how do you know if you will benefit from a RAM upgrade? If your system is routinely running low on memory and paging memory out to disk, then a memory upgrade may be just the thing to significantly boost your computer's performance. And how do you know if your computer is running short on RAM? In Windows there's a quick way of determining this. First, make sure your computer is in a typical configuration with the applications you normally would use at the same time open. You can also wait to perform this check whenever your computer seems to slow down.

Open the Windows Task Manager by right-clicking on an empty area of the Windows task bar and selecting "Start Task Manager." You can also hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE and select "Task Manager" from the resulting menu. In the example graphic below, take a look at the "Memory" graph. See the 2.38GB value? Now look below at the "Total" number within the "Physical Memory (MB)" category. The 4096MB is equivalent to 4GB of available RAM. The computer here is doing just fine in terms of memory; however, if I intend to open more memory-intensive applications and run them at the same time, I'll need to keep an eye on it. If the number in the graph starts to get within 90% of the total physical RAM on a regular basis, it's time to increase my memory. You can see the memory percentage used on the very bottom of the window. (2.38GB / 4.0GB = ~59%; Lower is better!)

There's a catch here, though. If you're on a 32-bit version of Windows, it doesn't matter how much RAM you install into your computer, 4GB is all you can use! This is why installing a 64-bit version of Windows 7 or higher is, in my opinion, the way to go.

The quickest way to determine what memory your computer can accept is to check your users manual for your computer or motherboard. If you have a name brand computer, you can also use an online memory configuration tool to look up your make and model. The same goes for your motherboard--just look up the memory by make/model.

Determine your existing configuration (For example, if you have a computer/motherboard with a maximum capacity of 16GB of RAM and 4 memory slots, that means you would need four 4GB DIMMs to max out your memory. Using this example, if you had 8GB of memory installed, you would only need to buy 8GB more to upgrade to maximum capacity, right? Well, possibly not... It all depends on how the existing 8GB of memory is installed.

If you have two 4GB DIMMS installed with two free memory slots remaining, then you're in luck; you only need to buy two more 4GB DIMMs. However, if your existing 8GB consists of four 2GB DIMMs occupying all four memory slots, then you will have to buy all four 4 GB DIMMs to accomplish the same upgrade.

Pay close attention to memory type when ordering. Make sure the memory speed (1066Mhz, 1600Mhz, etc.), size, type (DDR2, DDR3, etc.), and socket (DIMM, SDIMM, etc.) are ALL compatible with your system.

Another word of advice... when you install memory, you should stick with the same brand/model for all memory slots within the same machine. Mixing and matching DIMMs is asking for trouble. Sometimes the subtle differences between manufacturers can cause very strange problems, including performance issues and unexplained system crashes or complete system freezes.

Video Card Upgrades

CPU Upgrades

$500 Bargain PC Kit Parts List

$1000 Gaming PC Kit Parts List

High-Performance PC Parts List

If you are interested in the "Barebones" option, here is an example Barebones bundle currently available for about $400 after rebates:

GIGABYTE 760G MB W/X4 955 and 8GB DDR3 Mem Kiticon

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This Bundle Includes:
  • GIGABYTE GA-78LMT-S2P AMD 760 Motherboard - Micro ATX, Socket AM3+, AMD 760G Chipset, 1333MHz DDR3, SATA II (3Gb/s), RAID, 7.1-CH Audio, Gigabit LAN, USB 2.0
  • AMD HDZ955FBK4DGM Phenom II X4 955 Processor - Quad Core, 6MB L3 Cache, 2MB L2 Cache, 3.20GHz, Socket AM3, 125W, No Fan, OEM
  • Cooler Master DK9-7G52A-0L-GP CPU Cooler - Socket AM2 / AM3, 4500 RPM, Rifle Bearing, 3 Pin
  • Sony Optiarc AD7280S-OB 24x DVDRW Drive - 24x, SATA, Black, OEM
  • ADATA Premier Series AD3U1333C4G9-SH Desktop Memory Module - 4GB, PC3-10666, DDR3-1333MHz, 240-pin DIMM
  • Western Digital WD10EALX Caviar Blue Hard Drive - 1TB, 3.5", SATA 6Gbps, 7200 RPM, 32MB
  • MSI R4350-MD1GD3H/LP Radeon HD 4350 Video Card - 1GB, DDR3, PCI-Express 2.0 (x16), 1x Dual-Link DVI, 1x HDMI, 1x VGA, DirectX 10.1, Single-Slot, Low Profile
  • Ultra XBlaster Mid-Tower V2 Case - ATX, MicroATX, USB 2.0, Audio, 6x 3.5" Bays, 3x 5.25" Bays, 7x PCI Slots, Includes 450W PSU, Lifetime Warranty with Registration
  • Raygo USB A Male to Mini A Cable - 6ft, USB 2.0, 480Mbps, Black. USB cable for most mobile phones, portable hard drives, and digital cameras.

If you're interested in putting together your own DIY computer kit, see my complete parts lists for a typical bargain or gaming pc.