Normally we don’t get too in depth on howtos that cover computer hardware upgrades but since many of our users are looking to upgrade computers for their business or family we thought we would take a quick look at how you can get the most bang for your buck and extend the life of your system.
Now if you are going from a very old computer like we are. Our system is a Pentium 2.6ghz single 32bit core with all ide drives running windows XP Professional, then you will probably need to upgrade most if not all of your system.
Here we will look at all of your options and try to explain why we made the choices for our system and what reasons may require you to make other choices.
As always budget is the first thing and we will talk about how you can search for deals and if it is better to purchase a completed system rather then build your own. We will be building our own system so we will give you the inside look at the hardest parts of upgrading.
Pre Build Decisions
First you should evaluate the system that you have now.
Our system was not running at the time that the upgrade decision was made. Unfortunately this did cost us in some saving through deal shopping but being close to a few good national computer stores did allow for about $60 in Rebates and some good initial prices.
Waiting until your computer dies is not optimal because not only do you miss out on shopping online for deals a system failure could mean loss of data or difficulty recovering data from old drives. The best thing is to think out your options when you know your system is near the end of life.. we had been doing this for a while so the decisions were quick when we went to the store.
Planning allows you to know what you must buy and what your choices are.
Can you upgrade a few internal parts like Ram and CPU without upgrading your drives, motherboard and case? Will you need a new operating system and which one fits you best.
Also what choices will extend the value of your system for the longest period of time. Often you do not want to go with the fastest options because they will quickly be replaced or discounted in a few months. On the other hand if you go with the slowest performing parts to save money you may find you need to update sooner.
The decision of which CPU your system will have will dictate many other options in your full package.
Today there are three basic options for CPUs
Atom Processors that are on the lowest end of performance but are well suited for systems that are very lightly used, needed to be small and energy conscious. Atom processors are often found in very small desktops, Laptops and other small devices. They can provide enough power for a basic media center, web surfing and basic office applications. They are not suited for Gaming computers, Servers or heavy business needs such as CAD, Photo Editing or heavy database use.
The next two choices are not only performance choices but manufacture choices.
Intel and AMD processors are available in a wide range of applications. These companies offer a range of choices from budget to high end computing. Apple is also another consideration but you can not build an apple computer. If you are someone that wants one then simply go to the store hand them your platinum card and hope you get something you can use.
I will have to say all the years working on computers I have always found Intel products to be the best value when it comes to their CPUs. Their other hardware is not all that great but their CPUs always seem to be the best overall deal.
I have worked on and repaired AMD systems and I have many friends that enjoy them. They are not all that different then Intel systems and the only problems that they seem to have today is Heating issues and availability of parts. Most parts are available at all stores that offer both Intel and AMD computers but you may find the selection is not the same. Such as cooling fans and heatsinks.
Comparing the speed differences of a AMD vs Intel system can be very tricky. You will need to visit a few Hardware Performance websites and see if you can find side by side comparisons. I wish you good luck with that because testing across brands is pretty poor in the past few years. This is because software testing has often been tricked by special hardware features and when false results are published it makes these test sites look bad. In addition there are so many options that can increase or bottle neck performance such as ram speed, harddrive speed and addon boards and even when and which country the CPUs were made that side by side comparisons are pretty much a joke.
So with all these questions how do you choose a CPU?
The decision is actually pretty simple and it will depend on your use of the system and the cost.
Both AMD and Intel offer a selection of three levels of processors in their current product line. We will look at the Intel options if you wish to go with AMD you will need to do your own research but you will find that this basic concept is true across manufacturers.
The three basic levels are Value, General Use and High Performance.
Within each of these levels will be about 3 processors that split the range of cost and performance, Value 1 2 3, General 1, 2, 3 and High Performance 1, 2, 3. This is basically true for the current i3 through i7 family as it was for decades with previous processors.
In addition to the three basic levels of processors in their current line you will find previous models that are still being widely distributed. I do not suggest that you go with a previous model processor that is not compatible with new mother boards unless your current motherboard can support the new CPU. The reason for this is it is a bad investment. You will be paying a lot of money for processors that will soon be off the market and can not have supporting hardware updated to extend the life of the computer. For instance our older computer uses IDE hard drives. We could have upgraded to SATA with a hard drive controller card but they often cost half as much as a new motherboard. It is a bad investment.
Picking between an i3, i5 or i7 level processor.
The first thing you should understand is that because all of these processors have the same number of pins that plug into the motherboard socket you can start with an i3 and then in a year when prices come down buy a i7 processor. You could also find a motherboard that offers a few higher end features for $45 more and place a i3 processor in it and never upgrade the CPU.
Second when buying any of these processors you want to look for a Sandybridge Version 2 cpu or newer version. The first versions of the “i” family have a fault in them that can corrupt your hard drive.
The i7 processor is the Fastest processor and if you are using it in a business doing heavy work it will pay for its self in your first project. You want to get CAD and other processor intensive tasks done as fast as you can. You don’t want your high priced employees or yourself waiting for things to happen just because you wanted to save $200. They are also great for Gaming and if you want to beat your friends or have better graphics this is your choice. Expect to pay extra for everything in this type of system including heavy demands on computer cooling.
The i3 family is a budget processor that is great for general business needs BUT it is the only processor to offer very low power needs. These processors can run at 35watts meaning outfitting a room of tech support people can be done without calling in an electrician. For home use a 35watt processor makes a better choice for a Media Center or even a small pc for the kids room. These processors are often used in all in one computers that have the CPU mounted on the back of the Monitor. Cooling is not a problem in these systems. A Stock Intel cpu heatsink and fan is more then you will need.
The i5 family which is the choice for the system we are building. This processor has a lower wattage version that runs at 65watts and a higher performance processor that runs at 95watts. This processor like the others can be overclocked and the i5 2500 version we are using comes unlocked to specifically allow this but we will not be overclocking our system. Overclocking may be an option when you need to boost your power for a short time to render some 3d animations or play some games but it is not recommended for general use. This level of processor will complete both general office and higher end tasks within a reasonable amount of time.
The new intel processors have built in video processing so you can make use of it and not even purchase a video card but if you want the highest performance you can go with an upgrade video card for better general gaming or CAD work and for the highest demand CAD work you can get Rendering cards that have an amazing amount of power. The highest performance cards really dictate the use of an i7 processor but with our i5 2500 General CAD, photo and video processing works just fine with on board video. When considering the choice of a CPU don’t worry about its video processing ability. If it is available then make use of it if not then you can get a card. And if your needs are high or if you need dual monitors you will need a separate card.
This system will see a variety of different uses so an i5 is best and because there was a store sale on processors we went with a middle to high i5 processor rather then the cheapest version that was only $10 less.
So although price is a consideration it is not the only consideration .. if it is your only consideration then you would probably be best going with a i3 that is on sale and waiting for a i7 to come down in price in a year or two. If heat, size of computer and power consumption is your most important concern then an i3 is also your choice. If you run a CAD office then you put your final projects on i7’s and the rest of your engineering staff on i5’s then your secretaries on i3’s
Once you picked your CPU your motherboard comes next. First you will need to match your socket pin count to make sure your cpu can be used. Next you want to look at the board’s features.
Newer boards will have decent video support HDMI and VGA sockets buy what you need to support your monitor or television.
Network support is not just limited to Wired anymore some new boards actually have wireless support built in.. Few but some.
Ram sockets the number of ram sockets is important if your demands are high. Normally boards will come with 2 sockets that can support 8gigs of ram. This is enough for most applications however servers and dedicated rendering stations will require more ram.
PCIe sockets. Some boards only come with one board adapter others come with up to 5 or more. You should really limit your use of addon cards in your system because it increases power needs and it causes cooling problems because air can not flow easily around the cards.
Operating System Choice
The i family of processors and all of the new AMD processors are 64bit processors so it is important that you select a 64bit operating system. Microsoft has both home and professional versions of their operating systems and Windows 7 home professional 64bit can be purchased for business use and offers almost every feature that the full versions do.
If you are running a server then if you can support all of your software get the 64 bit version of Linux, BSD or whatever OS you use.
Using a 32bit OS with a 64bit CPU will most likely work but you will run into bottle necks and your system will not take full advantage of your more powerful hardware. Although XP Pro had been our choice for years and supported every piece of software we needed to run the choice to switch to Win7 64bit and still use older 32bit applications was not a concern. Our OS will run faster and that means we can multitask until newly compiled versions of our apps are released.
Power Supply and Case
To upgrade to a new system means you need to know your current system and the requirements of your new system.
Lets start with your Case and Power Supply.
Although new motherboards will fit in older cases the older USB ports and other feature connectors may not connect to your motherboard. New motherboards will require USB2 or USB3 connectors but your old external devices will still work.
Power supplies will need to have SATA hard drive connectors they are smaller black connectors. You may also need a special video card connector.
If you need to upgrade then you can pick a low cost mid tower case with power supply included for about $45 or you can go with any better case that offers all of the front case options that you need.
Since most new motherboards are MATX you will want a MATX capable case.
Prior to picking up pieces that you find on sale you should put together a list of parts that you think might meet your needs.
Know your price range and allow for options of different manufacturers.
Once you have compiled a full list of items you need you should start with the ones you definitely can not do without. For instance no matter which CPU, Motherboard or Case we select we know we will need Windows Operating System so that goes first on the list. We also know that getting Windows on Sale is pretty uncommon so if we see a sale we are going to grab it.
You should have a list that gives part number for the item and then prices from each retailer. Online retailers are great but remember to factor in shipping if you won’t make their minimum free shipping purchase limit.
Making your purchase from more then one business is fine as long as the hassle of dealing with more retailers results in a fair amount of savings. You shouldn’t run around just to save $5 on something unless they happen to be on the way.
Hopefully you will find some items that are discounted dramatically but with that often comes rebates. Rebates are fine if you are willing to wait weeks for your rebate check or deal with calling support to make them issue your rebate.
When we purchased our Ram we got 2 sticks and they both came with a $15 rebate. The rebate came on a American Express Gift card which sucked and they split the rebate and didn’t give the full $30 .
Between the initial filling out and calls made to get $15 took about 2 hrs of our time.. Maybe that is not worth it. You will need to decide.
Assembling your System
Once you have purchased all of the items you need you can begin assembling your new system.
I use to build computers for a while so I became accustomed to which parts should be installed first.
It is best to start with your Case if you need to install your power supply do that first.
Installing your hard drives is next because you want them in place before you drop in your motherboard.
Next you should install your CPU and Ram in your motherboard before you mount it in your case. CPU’s are difficult to align when in the case and mounting your Heatsink and Fan will be extra difficult.
Now you can pull the back plate off of your case and install the plate that comes with your motherboard. Each motherboard should come with its own adapter plate.
If you know you will be installing feature cards like a Video Controller then remove that access plate from the case.
Install the motherboard in the case after you have pulled back all of the wires from your power supply.
Now connect the ATX power supply connector to your motherboard. You may need to break off an adapter or attach one to the ATX cable connector. They slide into place and a diagram should be provided with your motherboard.
You can now attach your hard drive cables.
Attaching your feature connectors is next … your instruction manual should come with a USB Pinout for your front case connectors that you can use to match up the connectors. This takes a little bit of time. Your front case audio connectors are next and make sure that you connect the correct ground.
Finally you can install your video card if you have one and attach your monitor.
Everything should be connected and you should verify your connections prior to plugin in your system and giving it the first boot.
Booting Your System
When your computer boots for the first time it is best to keep the case cover off so you can make sure that no wires are near any fans and so you can see your motherboard’s on board led that will tell you power is reaching the board.
Your computer will go through a series of beeps and you will be shown your BIOS setup.
Read your instructions and go through the menu to set your date and time and any other features you need to set. Your system will need to reboot and when it comes back up you will be in your bios again.
Now you want to go to your CPU Temp and allow your system to sit for a good 15 minutes to verify there are no increased in CPU Temp. If you have a heating problem you will be alerted by a siren type beep and your system should shutdown without causing harm to your CPU.
Installing windows can suck or it can go well. In our case we found that our Printer driver was not available so we had to hunt down a generic from a different manufacturer that provides limited support.
If you are connecting to the internet or a local network then you want to make sure that you are connected physically before you begin the install.
If you have periferals like the printer we have that won’t work.. or other devices you want to make sure they are connected.
Windows will find these items later if you connect them but it is just easier to do it once and move on.
You want to have some test audio and video files ready to make sure your audio connections work ok.
You want any driver disks that were sent with addon cards although if you are connected to the internet Windows Update will probably find them for you.
Retrieving Your Old Files
If you need to upgrade your harddrives then you probably have a lot of data that you want to transfer to your new computer. The easiest way to do this is to get an external hard drive case for about $20 and mount your old drives in it.
Transfer all your data files but forget about copying any software that you don’t have the install files for.
If you need a new office software product I strongly suggest Open Office because it is free and it is a quality product.
You can also search SourceForge for a variety of free open source products that can supplement your system.
The cost of our full system was about $150 less then a comparable system purchased from a manufacturer pre-assembled but in addition to saving money we were able to double the size of the drive and jump up to a faster processor by doing the work ourselves.
Like I said we didn’t have time to shop for excellent sales but we did find some rebate. And we also benefited from having a large discount retailer that now has a brick and mortar presence in our area. .. we aren’t going to suggest the name but its not a normal big box.. its a company that we all knew a while ago that went out of business … then was bought by an online retailer.. That is where we lucked out.
Anyway planing is how you make things work better and reading reviews for any part you want to buy is only a click away.
So Plan, Learn then Build.