While you could buy a new PC every couple of years just to keep up with the latest technology, it’s usually more cost-effective to upgrade parts on the one you have. Desktop PCs are much easier to upgrade than laptops, but both can benefit from replacing certain components - you just need to know which parts you should be upgrading and when.

Most PC upgraders can be divided into two groups — those that upgrade to the latest technology purely for the sake of it and those that do it only when necessary. We’re only dealing with the latter group here, since the former probably don’t need any advice on upgrade options.

Windows Pro box

The main reason for upgrading a PC is that it’s a few years old and is starting to run slowly. A thorough digital clean-up to remove old applications and unwanted files can help here, but it won’t work miracles.

Upgrading to a new version of Windows can also highlight the deficiencies in an older PC, particularly if its specification is below that recommended by Microsoft. Bear in mind that such ‘system requirements’ are usually a minimum and you should aim much higher when upgrading hardware to run Windows 7 or Windows 8.

To see if your PC makes the grade, check out the system requirements for Windows 7 and Windows 8.

[Related article: Seven easy ways to clean up your PC]

Memory matters

It’s always best to consider cheaper upgrades first and memory - or RAM - is top of that list. Signs that a PC needs more memory include long waits when you launch a new application or switch to an existing one, and lots of audible hard disk activity - known as ’thrashing’ - when you do both.

This happens because Windows uses spare hard drive space as virtual memory when it’s short of the real thing and physical hard drives are significantly slower than the chip-based RAM when it comes to transferring data back and forth.

RAM

Any PC with 1GB of memory or less is ripe for upgrading and at least 2GB is advisable for Windows 7 and 8. How much memory your PC can use depends on how many free memory slots it has and how much memory it can support, which in turn depends on its motherboard.

Whether you have a desktop PC or a laptop, the Crucial.com memory checker should tell you what memory your PC can use. All the RAM chips in a PC have to be of the same capacity – if you have two 512MB chips, you’d have to add another two 512MB chips rather than a single 1GB unit - but don’t worry too much about this: memory prices have plummeted in recent years, so it’s more cost effective to buy as much as you can use and get rid of any old chips.

If your PC won’t accept as much memory as you need or want, your options are limited. A desktop PC will need a new motherboard (see below) to fix this, but this isn’t a practical option for a laptop.

Sort out your storage

Storage is something else that’s usually ripe for upgrading - either a PC doesn’t have enough disk space, or it’s just too slow.

You have several options when it comes to adding more storage  – change your hard drive, add a second drive, free up space using external, network or cloud storage, or look at the latest generation of solid state drives.

Samsung SSD

A solid-state drive (SSD) can give a much-needed speed boost to a desktop or laptop PC, compared to a cheaper hard disk drive (HDD). Although they’re expensive, as long as the rest of the PC is up to scratch, SSDs can give a new lease of life to a sluggish computer, particularly one that’s slow to start after switching on.

 

Get better graphics

Graphics cards - the part of the PC that controls how pictures and video is displayed on your monitor - are seldom a concern unless you want to improve the display quality or you want to play a new 3D game and your current graphics card isn’t powerful enough.

Graphics Card

In both cases, limited resolution options or sluggish performance suggest an upgrade is on the cards, but there are too many factors to consider to go into much detail here.

Graphics card upgrades are only possible for desktop PCs, though, and buying a high-end card only makes sense if the rest of the PC’s specification (the processor and memory) can match it. Fitting a new graphics card is very straightforward, but you will need to determine which kind of card your PC’s motherboard is compatible with before buying - the manufacturer’s web site or other documents should help here.

 

Pick a more powerful processor

The processor is the part of the PC that makes the single biggest different to its overall performance. If your PC is slow and is more than five years old, a processor upgrade is something to consider. Again, this is only an option for desktop PC owners and, again, you’ll need to know which processors your motherboard is compatible with.

[Related article: Give Windows XP a new lease of life]

Unless your PC is very old, you’ll probably be able to buy a newer, faster, processor (although not necessarily the very latest model) that will fit into the same socket as your current one - a process that takes just a few minutes. You’ll need to check with the PC’s manufacturer to see what the options are here and the worst-case scenario is that your existing motherboard won’t support the most recent processors - but you could buy an older compatible one cheaply and still benefit.

Intel processor box

Motherboards can be upgraded, too, but this is venturing into costlier and more complicated territory. Buying a new motherboard to complement a new processor may also mean you have to buy new memory and perhaps a new graphics card, which adds to the cost. So unless you’ve already made a serious investment in upgrades to your current PC and will be able to reuse them with a new motherboard, buying a new PC altogether is a simpler option.

 

Consider a new computer

Upgrading a PC only makes sense if you can replace the parts you need for less than the price of a new computer. Unless you have a powerful PC which you use for gaming or demanding tasks like video-editing, this probably won’t be the case. New desktop and laptop PCs are surprisingly cheap these days, so don’t think a new one isn’t on the cards just because you don’t have much to spend.