Skip to main content

Often times a simple hardware upgrade can remedy a sluggishly performing workstation or desktop. But exactly which hardware upgrade you should select depends on the performance issues that you encounter. Users should also conduct a few diagnostic checks of their computer to identify the root cause of the sapped performance, and by doing so it should also reveal the appropriate hardware upgrade to explore. Here we will outline some of those checks, and pair performance issues with suggestions for making the right hardware upgrade. The instructions in this article are geared for Windows users, but the overall guidelines apply to Mac users as well.

Run diagnostics before upgrading

We advise running a few checks before making a hardware purchase, as performance issues can stem from software or system configurations. System checks work best upon a fresh reboot.

task manager
Task Manager gives you a good idea of the RAM that applications consume—a key indicator of a computer’s performance. Open Task Manager by pressing CTL + ALT + DELETE. Open the Processes tab, and look out for programs that seem like they don’t belong—especially if they’re consuming a lot of memory or CPU compared to others running in the background.  These may be unwanted programs (also called PUPS) which are signs of a malware infection.

Reducing the number of programs that open upon startup may restore some of your computer’s lost performance. To do this in Windows 7:

  • Go to the Windows “Start” button and type “msconfig”
  • Click the Startup tab to view all the programs installed as a startup option
  • Uncheck any unwanted programs.

In Windows 8: Simply right-click the taskbar to run the Task Manager, then select “More Details” and find the startup tab. Uncheck any unwanted startup programs.

Take a look at the Performance tab in Task Manager as well. This will show CPU usage measured in a percentage. A high percentage means the processor is running near peak. It also shows a graph for memory usage history. If the line is high on the y-axis, this means you’re consuming near the maximum RAM.

Windows has other tools for removing unneeded files from the Hard Disk Drive (HDD). These files can affect performance as well. The Disk Cleanup tool removes downloaded program files, temporary files, and files in the recycle bin. Disk Cleanup is found in Control Panel in current versions of Windows. Also in Control Panel, Disk Defragmenter rearranges data on the HDD so it is more efficient.

It is standard practice to run one other cleanup tool in tandem with the Windows tools. A commonly mentioned freeware tool among IT pros in the Spiceworks community is the CCleaner tool, which has similar properties to the Disk Cleanup and Disk Defragmenter features in Windows.

Finally, it is also advisable to run a malware scan, especially should you discover anything that seems out of place with any of these preliminary diagnostic checks. More details about this in our article on malware scanning considerations.

The diagnostic checks are meant to remove unwanted files from your computer and optimize the existing hardware for best performance. If you still find your computer struggling to run the programs or applications you need, you probably need to upgrade the hardware. The diagnostic checks should have given you an idea where your performance is coming up short. Applying the appropriate hardware upgrade is relatively straightforward after that.


Slow load times mean upgrade the Hard Disk Drive (HDD)

If programs are loading slowly, or if you have noticed that you’re near capacity when you were running the disk defragmenter, upgrading to a secondary (or a larger) HDD will help overall performance. Many desktop computers have a spare bay that supports a secondary internal HDD. For a laptop computer, you will likely need to use a SATA-USB adapter or SATA-USB enclosure to install an external HDD.

If you are upgrading from one smaller HDD to one larger HDD, you must first clone the existing drive (source disk) onto the secondary HDD (target disk). There are numerous freeware applications that simplify this, and HDD vendors usually offer software out of the box with the HDD. Keep in mind this process may take several hours, especially for a larger HDD or if there is a USB adapter involved.

A hard disk duplicator is a handy tool for cloning HDDs without tying up your computer.

Solid State Drives (SSD or Flash memory) add speed for extra price

An SSD shares basically the same functionality as an HDD, storing memory on interconnected metallic chips as opposed to the HDD’s spinning platter. Without getting too deep into the science behind SSDs, understand that you will pay more per GB for Flash memory (1TB HDD is in the $45-$55 range; 1TB SSD is in the neighborhood of $420) and you’ll get faster app launches and boot times. The usual speed difference amounts to seconds rather than minutes, but since we are starting to see prices come down on SSDs, more users are making the investment due to the noticeable increase in responsiveness.

SSDs offer enhanced durability as well since they involve no moving parts—another selling point, especially if used with a laptop or tablet, which generally experiences more drops, wear and tear.


Slowness while multitasking is symptomatic of RAM deficiency

Larger applications consume more RAM, which is why you may notice sluggishness when browsing the Web with a program like Photoshop running in the background. Adding RAM is a cheap fix—4 GB of DDR3 RAM retails for under $40. A good general rule for making a RAM upgrade is to check how much memory comes standard on a newer PC and upgrade up to that level. Standard desktop computers typically come with no less than 4 GB RAM installed, and workstations geared for production work usually come with 8 GB. If your machine is more than four or five years old and you haven’t made an upgrade, you’re probably running 2 GB of RAM. If you are using your machine for anything more than basic Web browsing and word processing, you are likely noticing a drop-off in performance as applications undergo upgrades and demand more memory.

Check the motherboard before considering a new processor (CPU)

Buying a CPU apart from a computer is generally reserved for building a workstation from the ground up. Dropping a new CPU into a system that’s several years old generally isn’t a cost-effective option; additionally, a new CPU may not be compatible with an older motherboard.

Consider the warranty with upgrade costs

If your computer is more than three years old, the warranty is likely expired. This is something that should be considered in the decision to undergo a hardware upgrade in the first place. Think of a warranty as something that adds value to buying a new computer or laptop. On the other hand, if your computer is still under warranty, a hardware upgrade—especially if done DIY—may void the warranty.

We hope that these pointers will aid making your computing experience faster and more responsive. You can also find useful information regarding compatibility for making an appropriate hardware upgrade on our product pages.

Six Hardware Upgrade Considerations for Better PC Performance
Article Name
Six Hardware Upgrade Considerations for Better PC Performance
Often times a simple hardware upgrade can remedy a sluggishly performing workstation or desktop. But exactly which hardware upgrade you should select depends on the performance issues that you encounter.
Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

More posts by Adam Lovinus

Join the discussion 2 Comments

What's your take?