One question that I get quite often is how to decide if you need a new PC or not. To start with, if your current PC is meeting your needs and you are happy with it, then that is all that really matters. I really mean that! You should never feel any pressure or insecurity about your PC hardware. A PC is just a technological tool that is supposed to make it easier for you to do what you need or want to do.
That said, if you are not happy with your current machine, how do you decide if you need a new PC? This post is going to cover a few ways to approach this decision using a data-driven approach, which I hope will make the decision easier.
Needs vs. Wants
If you ever had a “Psychology 101” class you have probably heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The gist of this idea is that if you have any problems meeting your more basic needs, then you are also going to have problems achieving your higher level needs and wants.
Even though this theory has been criticized in later years, I still think it is useful for examining your reasoning and motivation behind potential decisions. Thinking about this sometimes restrains me from buying things I just want vs. things I actually need…
When it comes to personal computers, you should think about what tasks you actually do with your machine. Are you using it as part of your job or career or is it more for recreational purposes? If you use it as part of your job, is the speed and reliability of the machine hurting your productivity or work performance? If you use it for recreation, is the speed and reliability of the machine hurting your enjoyment of whatever you are doing?
At one end of the spectrum are people who do paid work where they are regularly waiting on their machine to finish a task. If their machine was faster at whatever it’s bottleneck is for its current workload, they could be more productive, possibly do more work, and also have more time to do other things. For this use case, hardware upgrades are usually very easy to justify and often have a quick payback period. Anything that makes their machine faster is usually a big win.
In the middle are people who occasionally do things that put stress on their current machine. Sometimes they are waiting for the machine or sometimes they can’t do something they want to do because of the capacity limitations of the machine. For recreational use, maybe they are unhappy with their current machine’s performance in some new game. This is where the decision is a little more complicated. Do you really need a new machine (or component upgrade) or do you just want it?
At the other end of the spectrum are people who mainly do common “office” type tasks that don’t really stress their machine in any way. They very rarely are waiting on their local machine, and don’t have much reason or incentive to upgrade their hardware. For this use case, an older, slower machine is not usually a big issue. That doesn’t mean that a fast new machine wouldn’t be nice, but it is probably not a priority.
How Old and How Fast Is Your PC?
Knowing the age and relative performance of your current machine is very important as part of this decision making process. You might have an older machine that was very fast when it was new, that still compares pretty well to a brand new machine. On the other hand, perhaps your machine was not very fast when it was new, and it is now extremely slow relative to a typical new machine.
One easy way to start to figure this out is to download and run CPU-Z. This free utility gives you a lot of useful information about your machine. This includes the CPU model, motherboard, memory amount and speed, and a quick synthetic CPU benchmark. I have a video about how to use CPU-Z here. Once you know the exact CPU model, you can use your favorite search engine to find its specifications and how old it is.
For Intel processors, you want to find your CPU in the Intel ARK database to get all of the gory details. One of your top search results should be that CPU’s listing in the ARK database. The ARK database gives you most of the specifications and the date that it was introduced.
For AMD processors, AMD has a Processor Specifications page that can be useful. Honestly, just doing an internet search for the model number is usually quicker. Doing a search for the model number plus the word “review” will help you figure out how old the processor is.
CPU-Z Benchmark Result
The synthetic CPU benchmark in CPU-Z takes about 20 seconds to run. The CPU Single Thread result is a measure of the single-threaded performance of your CPU. Basically, how fast it is. The CPU Multi Thread result is a measure of the total CPU capacity of your system.
You want to make sure that you minimize any other activity on your system when you run the benchmark. It is also a good idea to run it at least three times, and average the results. After you have done this, you can compare your results to a selection of reference processors. You can also compare your results to a wider selection of processors online.
The reason for doing this is to get a very quick general idea of how your CPU compares to other CPUs. In my experience, once your CPU-Z Single Thread score is below about 300, your system is going to feel noticeably slow compared to high-end new CPUs. The best current AMD Zen 2 Ryzen desktop processors are usually in the 510-540 range, while the best current Intel desktop processors are usually in the 530-570 range.
If your Multi Thread score is below about 1000, your system will really struggle with all core workloads compared to something faster and newer with more cores. For reference, a 16C/32T AMD Ryzen 9 3950X has a Multi Thread score of about 11,000, while a 32C/64T AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3970X has a Multi Thread score of about 21,000.
From an age perspective, any Intel processor older than a Sandy Bridge and any AMD processor older than a first generation Ryzen is going to be very slow by modern standards. If you have one of these, I would be thinking about a new system if at all possible.
Can You Upgrade Your Existing PC?
If you don’t want a new machine, is there anything you can do to improve the performance of your existing machine? If it is a desktop machine, the answer is probably yes. Despite this, spending money on your old machine may or may not make sense. If it is a laptop PC, your upgrade options are going to be much more limited. I covered this in more detail here.
Depending on the age and existing components in your current machine you probably have a few different options. Possible upgrades are also going to depend on your workload and what bottlenecks you are seeing. Here is what I would look at upgrading on an existing machine:
- Swapping a magnetic HDD for a SATA SSD as your boot drive will make a huge difference in everyday performance. If you already have a SATA SSD, going to a larger capacity model may help a little bit. Jumping up to a PCIe NVMe SSD or an Intel Optane SSD would be the next step. The increase in daily performance is not going to be as noticeable though.
- Memory (RAM). DDR4 and DDR3 memory is relatively inexpensive. For casual and moderate usage, getting your RAM up to at least 16GB and preferably 32GB can be very beneficial. For professional usage, maximizing your RAM (meaning 32GB to 128GB for most machines) can be very helpful.
- If you are doing things that are GPU dependent, then a GPU upgrade could be a good investment. Right now is not the greatest time to buy a new GPU though, since both NVIDIA and AMD are in the midst of new product releases. You also need to be careful that your power supply can handle your new GPU.
- If you are seeing CPU bottlenecks, then a CPU upgrade might make sense. This is especially true if you can find a used CPU at a good price. You should make sure that a CPU upgrade is actually going to give you a noticeable performance bump. With some generational upgrades, the % improvement is very small.
How About an Example?
Lets say you have an existing desktop system with an Intel Core i5-2500K processor in a Z77 motherboard with 8GB of RAM. This system has a 1TB 7200rpm hard drive for the boot drive and is using Intel integrated graphics. The CPU-Z benchmark score for this system is shown below.
The 4C/4T Sandy Bridge processor in this system was released in Q1 of 2011, so it is pretty old. It was the top of the line for a Core i5 Sandy Bridge processor, and it was considered a good choice for a gaming processor back then.
This system can still do good work as is for casual usage, but it will be pretty marginal for moderate usage, and completely unacceptable for professional usage. Depending on your usage pattern and budget, I would probably want to just replace this system with something newer.
If replacement is not possible, here is what I would do, in order:
- Clone the existing 1TB HDD to a 1TB SATA SSD
- This would cost about $90-$125 for a new drive
- Try to find some used DDR3-1600 RAM to get the system up to 16GB or even 32GB
- Going to 32GB would be about $100-$125
- Get a discrete GPU. Which one you get would depend on your workload and budget
- This could range from $150-$250, depending on what you got
- Try to find a used 4C/8T Intel Core i7-3770K Ivy Bridge processor to replace the existing Sandy Bridge processor
- This would cost about $125-$150
- This would get the Single Thread score up to about 380, and the Multi Thread score up to about 1850
I wouldn’t go too far down this component upgrade road before I would be thinking about a replacement with a new system. Here is an example system that would be much more capable than the upgraded old system. A Ryzen 5 3600 CPU will have a Single Thread score of about 510 and a Multi Thread score of about 4000. That is a big jump from the upgraded old Intel system.
Obviously there are other benchmarks you could run to measure things like memory performance, graphics performance and storage performance. You can also find specific gaming and application benchmark results from respected YouTube channels and websites.
If you have any questions about this post, please ask me here in the comments or on Twitter. I am pretty active on Twitter as GlennAlanBerry. Thanks for reading!