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Upgrade or replace?

Should you extend your PC's life, or are you postponing the inevitable?

Computers don't last for ever. Most computers that are less than three years old still have some useful life left in them. They may be approaching the end of their useful life cycle, but you can keep a system working effectively for you by spending a little money to update key elements.

Some companies replace PC equipment every one to two years. Why? Because they find that by the end of that life cycle, the computer is running the necessary software too slowly, especially by comparison with newer PCs elsewhere in the organisation. Or the hardware can't work with the latest versions of software, or with new devices that they want to attach to the computer.

Intel and AMD keep bringing out newer and faster processors; memory prices fall so that PC manufacturers can afford to include more in their products; hard disks are getting cheaper too, so the average PC gets a bigger hard drive. All this encourages software makers to produce better but also bigger and more demanding software.

So how does your current PC relate to the current benchmark? Can you still run the most up-to-date software - or, more to the point, the specific software you need to run?

If older versions of your software work perfectly well, you might not need to replace them and so you might not need the enhanced PC specification. But the newer software doesn't just have extra functions; it should have fixed some of the bugs and it should be easier to use. Those improvements might appeal to you.

Easy upgrades

But from the buyer's point of view, one of the most attractive aspects of the average PC is how easy upgrades are. If you can't afford a top-of-the-line machine now, or if you can't anticipate each and every functional requirement that you might have, you can always buy a more basic model and install the extras later.

Quote�Swapping out a hard disk is slightly trickier - but still not brain surgery.�End Quote

Bear in mind that some components are easier to upgrade than others. It's easy to add memory provided the PC has one or more spare slots for the memory strips (and most do). Swapping out a hard disk, or adding a second one, is slightly trickier - but still not brain surgery. The same applies to adding a second CD or DVD drive, should you want to do that.

When it comes to improving the graphics, perhaps for gaming or video editing, you might be hamstrung by the design of the computer. Some computers have 'integrated' graphics, meaning the graphics circuitry is soldered on to the main circuit board. This can be difficult or impossible to replace or bypass. If the graphics processor is implemented as a separate circuit card, however, it's easy enough to remove one and replace it with an updated model.

It probably isn't worth swapping the processor. This will be pricey - the processor is probably the single most expensive element of a PC. Buying an entirely PC might be a more economic option.

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So if you're a casual user who spends a little time on a network, emails and surfs the web through dialup or broadband, and uses your computer for basic Office applications, a tune-up may be in order. More memory and a bigger, better hard disk would probably improve performance sufficiently.

Quote�More memory and a bigger, better hard disk would probably improve performance.�End Quote

But if you need to upgrade the operating system - to move from Windows 95 to Windows XP, say - investing in upgrades probably won't be adequate. Your PC's motherboard (the main circuit board, to which everything else is attached one way or another) might not be able to move data around quickly enough to make the most of the updated components, and it may not be compatible with some of those add-ons.

Then there's the economics of the update. These days you need pay little more than �500 for a decent XP-based PC complete with flat screen, 80MB disk, CD writer, and 512Mb memory. Say you can reasonably expect to get three years' work out of that before it starts to flag; that computer would cost you around �170 per year. How much would you have to pay to upgrade an existing PC to get the equivalent capability?

What next?

Read our plain-English guide to buying the right PC.

Is it time for a change? Today's laptops are powerful enough for most tasks. Find out if it's worth spending the extra for portability.

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Spring cleaning

Some basic housekeeping might improve your computer's performance enough to postpone the 'upgrade or replace' decision altogether. Try these:

Clean out the dust. Open the case and carefully hoover up the detritus.

Recover space. Remove all the unnecessary files on your hard disk and defrag it. Windows has System Tools for both functions, or you can use commercial utilities that do an even more efficient job.

Check for viruses. If you don't already have a virus scanner installed, download one today - there are several free alternatives.

Check for spyware. It's easy to pick up 'malware' and 'spyware' while surfing the web; they clog up the system and slow things down. Use an anti-spyware utility to remove any you've picked up.

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