Add Life to an Aging PC

Computers have a limited life span.  At some point a desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone must be replaced.  Those old gadgets can be recycled, never throw electronics in the garbage, or given to someone who doesn’t need the full power of newer systems.  Saving devices from a landfill can be friendly on your budget and the environment.

When a computer is first started up it can often seem sluggish and then perform better after a few minutes.  Maintenance to the software, such as removing unnecessary programs and malware, may have been completed without the performance boost that was expected.  This happens because all of the operating system and start-up software must be loaded at boot.  Data is read from the storage drive and loaded into RAM.  The disk drive is often the slowest component in a computer system, especially when using a mechanical drive. 

When RAM becomes full the computer must use caching (called virtual memory) to take information from RAM and store it on the hard drive again.  This process of loading information into RAM and then caching it on the hard drive is one of the primary reasons old systems can be slow even after preventative care.   RAM is fast but information must be cached to the slow hard drive making applications seem unresponsive at times.  This can be seen in a delay when moving from one application to another – the computer seems to freeze for just a couple seconds.

RAM

Most budget computers only ship with 2-4GB (Gigabytes) of system RAM, 4GB is more common in 2018.  Today’s applications can require a lot of memory.  For example, my system uses 2.4GB of RAM just for Firefox.  My system uses 6.4GB of RAM to load windows, utilities, and my web browser.  If I only had 4GB of RAM my system would be forced to cache data slowing the overall system performance.  Stuttering when switch applications or browser tabs would be very common.

Check to see if your computer can have its RAM upgraded.  If so there are websites that can help you identify what to buy for your system so you get the correct modules for your system.  Desktops and Laptops often use different size RAM chips and there are several different types of RAM for each.

Storage Drive

The storage drive in a computer can be mechanical or all electronic.  A mechanical drive is called a hard disk drive or HDD.  An electrical drive is called a solid state drive or SSD.  Replacing a mechanical drive with and SSD is one of the best upgrades that can be completed to speed up an older PC.  The image below shows a benchmark of the storage drives in my daily use computer.  Windows 10 and applications are on the WD Blue SSD.  My storage for files (videos, pictures, documents, software installers, etc..) is on the WD Black HDD.  The SSD reads and average of 361MB/s (Megabytes per second) while the HDD averages 164MB/s – a 45% increase in speed.  This change alone can make an old computer seem brand new. 

Please note that these number reflect more of a typical experience and not the fastest speeds these drive can achieve.  Using a different benchmark tool other factors regarding drive performance will change the read and write speeds.  These factors are outside the scope of this blog post.

If you replace your HDD with a SSD you should always back up your computer before making the hardware swap.  You have a couple options once your data is backed up.  You can reinstall Windows and all your applications making the entire system look and operate like a new system.  Option 2 is to use a drive clone tool and copy everything from your old drive to the new drive.  Your computer will operate with all the same software and settings with the added speed the SSD provides.

CPU

The central processing unit of a computer dictates how fast a computer can complete tasks.  At the time of writing Intel’s primary lineup of consumer processors is the Core series (i3, i5, and i7) processors – in many cases a Celeron and Pentium may be replaced by a Core processor.  AMD’s primary consumer processor lineup is the Ryzen family but, AMD will not be discussed here but similar information applies.  These processors range in capability and price from value oriented to extreme performance.  It is typically only possible to upgrade a CPU in a desktop computer.  If you want to squeeze some life from your computer a CPU upgrade could be a decent option.  Your workload will determine if a CPU upgrade is an appropriate update to your system.

Each processor is designed to fit a specific computer configuration.  For example my computer was manufactured with an Intel Core i5-3470.  The processor I have fits in a socket called LGA1155.  My computer manufacturer has documentation highlighting an Intel Q75 chipset on my motherboard.  As a result my best processor upgrade option would be an Intel Core i7-3770.  When evaluating a CPU upgrade it is important to determine what will work in your system.  The Intel ARK website is the best place to locate specific information about your Intel processor.

When considering a processor there are several pieces of information to review.  The important stats to identify for this type of upgrade is the generation, clock speed, core count, thread count, and thermal design.  Intel has released the 8th generation of Core series processors.  Clock speeds have not changed a lot in the last few generations but efficiency and power consumption have been improved.   That means a newer generation chip will perform better even at a slightly lower clock speed.

The Core processor in my system is third generation, or Ivy Bridge and I must use an upgrade that fits the socket and generation of of my PC.  The core i5-3470 has 4 cores and 4 threads running at 3.2GHz.  This means the CPU has four processor cores built into the CPU and it can only perform one task on each core (4 threads).  The i7-3770 has 4 cores as well but can complete two tasks on each core providing 8 threads while running at 3.4GHz (over simplification).  The slight increase in speed will provide some benefit but the extra threads will help a lot in video and graphic editing. The thermal design (TDP) is also important.  The two processors I have selected use a 77W design which indicates how much power the CPU should use.  In general a high TDP means the processor will generate higher temperatures when operating.  If the existing cooling solution can’t dissipate the heat you could cause damage to the CPU and motherboard.  A CPU upgrade always requires new thermal paste, even if you are using the same heatsink and fan.

Benchmarks

As mentioned previously each benchmark you run can show different results.  This leaves some of the data for interpretation.  Below are some benchmarks that were run to push the hardware to its maximum potential resulting in different number from the benchmark results pictured above.

CrystalDiskMark, a dedicated disk benchmark utility, indicates my system and SSD can reach speeds up to 563GB/s.  These numbers match the speed results specified in the marketing materials from Western Digital.  This benchmark takes into account factors such as queue depth, number of items waiting to be written, and the number processor threads manipulating data.  This provides a higher throughput for testing but most users do not read data at the higher speeds.