I only have $X to spend, so I can only make one upgrade to my PC. 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?
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.
Choose the Best Upgrade for What You Do
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:
RAM: 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).
Hard Drives/Solid State Drives: 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.
Processors: 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...
Video Cards: 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.
Now that you know what components are best for what tasks, it's time to take a look at what you already have. We've talked about bottlenecks once before, in the context of gaming, but it still applies to regular computing too. Upgrading one piece of hardware to something awesome will only take you as far as that component can take you. If you upgrade your video card but your processor is still old and slow, games aren't going to magically run everything at high settings. They may run better, but they'll still probably slow down when you have a lot of things happening on screen—since it's the processor that regulates that, not the video card. Similarly, getting an SSD isn't going to make your computer feel brand new if you still have 512MB of RAM. Take a look at what you have, see which part is the most outdated, and factor that into your upgrading decision. If you have a very old computer, you won't be able to eliminate bottlenecks completely, but at least you'll be more realistic about what kind of performance increases you'll see—and you won't waste your money on a $250 video card since it won't help your computer like it would one without existing bottlenecks. Photo by Phil John.
If you're still deciding on which component(s) to upgrade, I recommend checking out our guide to building a computer from scratch—even if you aren't building your own—as it can help you get a feel for which parts do what. For specific part recommendations, check out our list of the best current PC builds to see what some of our favorites are. Hopefully that will help you make a more informed decision.
P.S. If you have any wisdom gleaned from your own hardware upgrades, be sure to share it with us in the comments.
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