I’m not the first to point this out, but PCs have really reached the point of diminishing returns recently in many respects. While technological progress marches on, there’s not a tremendous subjective difference between this year’s hottest CPU and a mid-range part from two years ago. In particularly intensive applications, sure, you’ll notice it; but for the majority of users, there’s not much incentive to upgrade. For the rest, there’s likely to be one or two parts that will really get you a big benefit, while you’ll be happy with the rest of the system being 2-3 years old, and those parts will likely satisfy you at least 2-3 years more.
I used to operate on a two-year upgrade path: every other year I’d build a new machine, and in the years between, I’d make some individual upgrades (additional RAM, additional disks, faster GPU). Now I’m looking more at a 5-year path, with individual upgrades every year or two between. I really think that, at this point, anyone with a machine built in the last 3 years has little to benefit from a total overhaul. There are a few areas where everyone is likely to see real improvements:
- Operating system: if you don’t have Windows 7, get it, along with any upgrades required to meet the minimum specs. I can’t recommend Windows 8 for any user for any purpose at the current time.
- RAM: if you have a 32-bit system (unlikely if it’s less than 3 years old), you should have 4GB of RAM. If you have a 64-bit system, you should have 8GB; possibly 16GB for computer audio, video, or graphics professionals, or users running intensive virtual machines.
- SSD: you should have an SSD. Honestly. If you don’t have one, get one. They’re getting cheaper by the day, and will give you a real, noticeable performance improvement across the board. Your SSD should host your OS and applications, at the least. Let Windows 7 handle optimizing system configuration for the SSD; just do a clean install onto the SSD and let it do the rest. Ignore all the “SSD tuning tips” that require changing OS settings or disabling services. 99% of them are wrong, and the other 1% are debatable.
- Display: IPS displays are a world away from your typical bargain LCD, and they’re getting cheaper constantly. You can now get a name-brand, 24″ IPS display for under $300. If you’re a computer professional, you probably want at least two.