If you are anything like me, every time you sit down at your PC you think of all the component upgrades you could invest in. The problem is that there simply isn’t enough cash in the world to do everything you’d like to (for most of us at least – good riddance to those of you that have that kind of cake). Using my own experience I’ve compiled a short list of the most cost-effective upgrades you can make to boost the joy you experience every time you use your PC.
Although not technically a component, the Operating System is the central piece of every computer. Through the OS we interact with programs, the internet,
all of our connected hardware, and so on. If you’re not using the latest Microsoft offering, you’re missing out – very simply. Windows 7 is designed to work with the latest hardware, taking full advantage of 64-bit architecture, Solid State Disks (SSDs), USB 3.0, multi-core processors, and an abundance of other new technologies. Combine these advantages with the sleek and convenient Aero User Interface (UI) and media and security features and Windows 7 becomes a necessity to improve every PC user’s experience.
My Recommendation: Unless you’re a serious IT professional who demands full-drive encryption, Windows 7 Home Premium will fit your needs. It has almost all the bells and whistles (all the ones that matter in my opinion), is much cheaper than the more feature-rich versions, and will get you and your PC in the Windows 7 game with minimal damage to your ability to pay other bills on time.
Keyboard & Mouse
If you think about the ways you really interact with your PC, you’ll realize that it all starts in one place – at your fingertips. That’s why it’s so important to use a nice keyboard and mouse, and the reason I chose it as one of the best upgrades for the money. Most people don’t know what they’re missing with keyboards and mice that came with their PC until they upgrade.
Two weeks ago I bought a new keyboard, and honestly it’s made all the difference between dreading when I have to type and absolutely loving every second I use it. My previous keyboard was a cheaper wireless combo with a mouse (I think it cost around $50 USD), and after using it for 2+ years I’ve learned a few lessons. First, don’t get a wireless keyboard unless you absolutely need to move around with it. Even inches away from the wireless receiver there were missed keypresses. Also, it’s important to know what type of keyboard you prefer. There are two types of keyboards – mechanical and membrane. Most older (like 1970′s and 80′s) keyboards were mechanical, meaning they had springs and gizmos under the keys that registered keypresses and returned the key to their original position. Some people like the sound and feel of these keyboards. However, they are pretty expensive. Most keyboards are now membrane keyboards – they have a small piece of rubber underneath the keys that acts as a spring. In this category we find a couple different types of keyboards. These can range from very cheap (what you’re using now) to very pricy (gaming keyboards with LED lights, customizable keys and built-in LCD touchscreens) In general, find a corded keyboard that feels nice to you and you can’t go wrong. It will most likely be a big upgrade from whatever you’re using now.
My Recommendation: I now use the Apple corded keyboard with numpad. This is pretty significant given my general distaste for Apple products (design aside). It’s chiclet style keys almost completely eliminate typing errors while feeling great to type on, the aluminum enclosure looks spectacular and is very sturdy, and it has 2 USB ports on it for easy hookup of peripherals. Easily the best $50 USD I have spent on my PC.
Likewise, a good mouse is important. Based on experience with my previous mouse I also recommend wired mice, unless you absolutely need to move around the room. Wireless mice tend to lead to missed mouseclicks, “jumpy” movement tracking, and what I call “ghost” clicks. Nothing illustrated this better than my gaming – coming around a corner to pop off a shot or two at an enemy and inexplicably emptying the whole clip. Thanks cheap mouse. Whether you are a gamer or not, gaming mice are the way to go here. Almost always corded to avoid latency and mis-clicks, these mice have solid build designs, reinforced mouse buttons for better life of the mouse, and better tracking sensors. Most of these mice have adjustable sensors to fit your preference (and most look pretty cool too). I promise that $100 USD set aside for a decent keyboard and mouse will make a huge difference at the end of the day.
My Recommendation: The Razer Abyssus - a simple, fairly inexpensive three button gaming mouse from a company with a stellar reputation. This mouse feels great in the hand, doesn’t have a huge footprint, is super accurate and tough, and looks pretty sweet with the blue LED accent.
More or faster RAM
About 5 years ago Windows Vista was released, and with it was a huge jump in the minimum supported amount of RAM (64MB in Windows XP, 1GB in Windows Vista). At the time I had a newer laptop with 1GB of RAM that qualified for a free upgrade to Vista. When first using Vista I was disappointed with the performance of the OS, but read that 2GB of RAM was recommended. My first RAM upgrade made my life so much easier – Vista ran like a dream on a 2GB RAM PC.
RAM upgrades are still a great choice for an upgrade, and a good deal if you want performance for your dollars. A decent amount of RAM for any PC is usually around $100 USD and is an easy upgrade for almost any level of PC user. After carefully reading your PC’s manual and purchasing the right amount and type of RAM, expect around 15-30 minutes of actual work. The effects are usually immediate and long-lasting. Programs launch more quickly, multitasking has less lag, and it generally takes a burden off of your system.
My Recommendation: I can’t recommend a certain product, as RAM depends on motherboard support, but I’ve had good experiences with RAM from both Kingston and G.Skill.
A Solid State Disk as your Windows Drive
Although Solid State Disks (SSDs) are still an up-and-coming technology in consumer PCs, I feel the recent price reductions and the amazing performance gains merit them a spot in my Top 5. Unlike traditional Hard Disk Drives (HDDs), which store data on a spinning disk using a powerful magnet, SSDs have no moving parts. Think of them as a very, very large USB drive that can be connected directly to your motherboard and take full advantage of the speed of newer SATA technologies. SSDs have much greater read and write times than traditional HDDs, but are much more expensive per gigabyte of storage.
Because of the price and storage limitations of SSDs it is common to buy a lower capacity SSD and use it as the Windows boot drive while keeping all applications and data on a separate drive. 60 gigabytes is a good size that allows enough space for a Windows installation, along with Microsoft Office, while still having 20-25 gigabytes of free space. A good 60GB SSD can cost around $100 USD, but those with a sharp eye for deals can often find them cheaper than that. I nabbed myself a 60GB SSD last week for $80 USD. Preparing for a SSD and moving around applications and data takes quite a bit of time and effort, but the sub-30-second boot times, instant sleep and wake, and blazing fast application openings and multitasking makes it well worth the work.
My Recommendation: I just spotted this Kingston 64GB SSD - for $64 USD! One dollar per GB? Yes please!
While you interact with your PC through the keyboard and mouse, the PC interacts with you through your graphics card and monitors. This area is another good bang for your buck investment. Whether it be TV, movies, gaming, or using the web in general, our PCs have become more visual than ever. It makes every aspect of computing more enjoyable when you can watch or play in HD.
If you have an older PC, consider upgrading the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU). If you don’t already have a dedicated GPU, this will take a big strain off of your CPU and RAM. On-board graphics (on the motherboard) share memory (RAM) with the rest of the system and use CPU power to render graphics. If you do have a dedicated GPU, you’ll simply improve what your system is capable of. Try to find a GPU with output ports for DVI and HDMI. They will carry the picture to your screen digitally at higher quality, as opposed to analog (VGA). HDMI will make connections to HDTVs easier as well. Replacing the GPU is usually as simple as opening the case, removing the old card, inserting the new card in its place, and rebooting your machine.
My Recommendation: This MSI Nvidia GT440 card uses a newer chip technology to deliver higher quality graphics with less power consumption and heat. This type of card would be able to run most modern games on very high settings. It’s also priced very competitively at $80 USD.
Most newer PCs have HD-capable GPUs installed. If you’ve only replaced your tower and still have your old monitor – replace it! Trust me, the newer HD screen resolutions make a big difference. When purchasing a new monitor, make sure it’s widescreen (most are, and 16:9 ratio as well) and can support a screen resolution of 1920×1080 (roughly equal to 1080p quality). Also, double check that they have DVI or HDMI input. These digital interfaces offer the best quality picture and will be compatible with most GPUs. A good quality 20″ HD LCD monitor can be had from $100-$150 USD.
My Recommendation: I have this 21.5″ Acer LCD Monitor. Athough it doesn’t have an LCD backlight or glossy finish, it delivers a very high quality picture and is relatively inexpensive compared to the monitors with all the bells and whistles. It’s great for watching HD movies, gaming in high resolution, and even word processing. And look at that stand! It looks mean…
Contrary to undertaking a complete overhaul or rebuild of the internals of your PC, these upgrades are relatively inexpensive but have a big impact on how you interact with your PC and how it interacts with you. By focusing your hard-earned dollars on these small upgrades you’ll ensure that your experience at your desk will be an enjoyable one. Let me know in the comments what your favorite inexpensive-yet-worth it upgrades are and why!
Ed note: What upgrades have you made that you consider to be the best value for money?