What upgrade do you need to make your computer faster?

This is without a doubt one of the most common questions I get asked. Even people with new computers don’t seem satisfied with the speed of their machines. Desktop, laptop, and even tablet users are wanting their devices to go ever faster.

What the typical user does not seem to understand is that the question is far more complex than it seems. Just like with a car engine, replacing one component may, or may not, increase performance where you want it. Let’s take a look at common speed related issues and then see how we can approach making them faster.

The first thing we need to know is exactly what is it that we are trying to make faster. The most difficult  issue I face with customers and this question is trying to pry out of them what is it that is too slow. Is it only when you are browsing the internet or checking email? Slow to boot up and get ready to use and then it is fine? Slow when they get three or four images opened in their image editing program but fine otherwise?

One of the most common situations is it is only slow when they are online. Some people may really only use their computer for online activities so they may think “everything is slow” when it fact the machine behaves completely normal until you open a web browser. If that machine launches local applications such as notepad, paint, and calculator quickly (or their equivalents on a Mac or Linux machine) but anything in a browser is crawling there are several things to look at.

I always run a speed test from a website like www.speedtest.net first. If my results come back reasonably fast (say 1.5Mb or faster download and 100ms or faster latency/ping) then I install a new browser such as FireFox or Chrome and see what happens. If the speeds from the test are too slow then I start looking to see what they are paying for which is usually on a bill from their internet service provider.

If they are paying for a much faster service than they are getting then it is time to call the internet service provider and see what is going on.

Assuming that the internet speed test is acceptable and switching to a different browser does not solvel the problem the next step is to run a spyware scanner or three and make sure they system is not infected with something. You can also check the hard drive and verify it is not close to full or malfunctioning.

While it certainly is possible that replacing your router will increase your internet speed it is very unlikely that this will cause the internet to be slow enough for a typical customer to start complaining unless it is malfunctioning.

The next most common issue is that the machine really is slow all the time. It takes longer than it should to boot, surfs the internet slowly, and launches locally installed applications slowly as well. In this case, assuming there is no malfunctioning hardware and no spyware or viruses, would most likely benefit from upgrading the hard drive to an SSD.

A Solid State Drive (SSD) is a replacement for the standard hard drive used in most computers today which is substantially faster. When I say substantially faster I mean Ferrari versus Pinto faster.  I am talking Usain Bolt versus your grandmother in high heels faster. I’m talking about a kid eating cauliflower versus eating pizza faster.

SSDs are where all the data on your computer is read from and written to. They increase the speed of the entire machine, everything it does, substantially. They can even boost the speed at which web pages load and email downloads although slightly less dramatically than the speed at which things happen locally.

I no longer have a computer that does not boot off an SSD although I do have a couple of machines that uses traditional hard drives as mass storage drives such as to hold pictures and movies. Yes, it makes that much of a difference (I did mention Usain Bolt, right?).

The last common thing I run into is when people open large or multiple documents and then things tend to slow down. As soon as you close all this stuff the machine starts to speed back up. This is often due to the PC running out of memory.

If your computer has at least 4GB of RAM memory then you should have plenty for daily use such as surfing web pages and sharing pictures. If you need to edit large pictures, edit video, or use a lot of programs at once you may need more. If you have less than this you should look at upgrading.

8GB of RAM is usually more than sufficient for anything a home user needs to do and generally sufficient for all my business clients.

For serious photo editing (thing professional photographer) and moderate to high end video editing you should be looking at 16GB of RAM.

One common mistake people make is concentrating on their processor or CPU. This is the “engine” of the computer and does indeed dictate the speed that the machine can process data. The reason this is a mistake to worry about is that for most people in most situations an older Core2duo CPU with 16GB of RAM running on a nice SSD will run rings around the latest i7 processor with 4GB of RAM and a standard hard drive.

Upgrading the CPU really only makes sense when you are doing computationally heavy activities such as transcoding videos or playing newer games that require high frame rates such as modern first person shooters.

Speaking of higher frame rates, upgrading the video card can really be important in FPS games. Even though the video card may be really important, the fastest video card in the world will be restrained by a slow hard drive to here too an SSD can really provide a benefit.

So is there a one size fits all upgrade that helps everything? Yes and no. If you are not trying to tackle a specific problem with the computer and it generally runs well, just slow, then you can replace the hard drive with an SSD, upgrade the RAM to 8GB, and if playing higher end modern games upgrade the video card to wind up with a computer that is faster over all.

If you decide to pursue that, my personal favorite SSDs are the Samsung drives. Memory is a little different as not all memory manufacturers make memory for every machine but I would try to stick with Crucial or the Corsair XMS series if I could.

Good luck!