Bring an old PC up to speed

Many of us are using PCs that are several years old – and if the hardware is still doing its job, that’s fine. However, the march of technology quickly leaves such systems behind. If you ever want to upgrade your ageing hardware, it can seem like your only option is to junk it and buy a whole new system.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In this feature, we’ll guide you through your options for revitalising your supposedly outdated hardware. Whether it’s a comparatively recent Windows 7 system or a decade-old clunker, you might be surprised at how upgradeable it is.

A three-year-old PC

A PC purchased in 2010 isn’t exactly old, but some of the core technologies will already have been superseded – in particular, the CPU. If it’s a laptop system, the processor probably won’t be replaceable at all. A desktop system will likely use either an Intel Core 2 processor or a “Westmere” Core i3 or Core i5 model. Both of these platforms were superseded in 2011 by the more powerful Sandy Bridge architecture, which introduced a new socket and chipset; unless you’re willing to replace the entire motherboard (see Replacing the motherboard, below) there’s very little scope for a significant upgrade. The situation is similar with AMD processors: after the Phenom II range, the chip-maker switched to new chip sockets, dubbed FM1 and AM3+, which won’t be found on motherboards of this vintage.

However, there are other things you can do to give such a system a boost. In 2010, a low-cost PC may have come with 2GB of RAM. If that’s the case with your system, it could be dragging down performance by requiring the OS to frequently use the hard disk as extra virtual memory, especially if you regularly switch back and forth between modern applications.

The obvious solution is to add more RAM. Going up to 4GB should smooth out performance; if you want to go higher, check that you’re running a 64-bit OS, since 32-bit systems can’t address more than this.

Adding memory is a great way to smooth out performance on older hardware

Also, check the technical documentation for your motherboard or laptop to determine the maximum supported amount of RAM. It’s a good idea to check how many RAM sockets you have free, too – do you need to replace existing DIMMs, or can you simply add to them? Lastly, remember that in 2010 both DDR2 and DDR3 were in use; you’ll need to check which type of module to buy.

Another thing you can do if your system is constantly thrashing the hard disk is switch to a solid-state drive (SSD). This will make any PC noticeably snappier and smoother – and a PC from 2010 will certainly support the SATA standard used by today’s SSDs, so you don’t need to worry about compatibility.

There are two caveats, however. First, your system will probably have only a 300MB/sec SATA II connector, so there’s no point paying extra for a 600MB/sec SATA III drive – you won’t see the full benefit of its maximum speed. Second, to benefit fully from an SSD, it should be your system drive. Ideally, that means carrying out a fresh installation of Windows and all your applications. If you use imaging software to copy Windows from a mechanical disk to an SSD, you should get Windows to re-rate the disk afterwards, so it knows to enable TRIM and treat it as an SSD. To do this, open a command prompt and type “winsat disk”.

Upgrading the RAM and moving from a conventional hard disk to an SSD should make your PC feel much faster, despite its older CPU. If gaming performance is a concern, you can also freely upgrade the graphics, at least on a desktop system: the PCI Express slots on a 2010 motherboard are fully compatible with today’s most powerful graphics cards. These slots are also your gateway to conveniences such as USB 3 and Gigabit Ethernet, if your system doesn’t already have it.

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