The Ultimate Guide to Upgrading a PC

January 19, 2016 | By Mason Dunlap | PCDIY

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One of the many awesome and appealing aspects of PC gaming is the ability to selectively upgrade your system’s individual components. Whether you’re in need of newer hardware to keep up with today’s modern games, or you just enjoy having the latest and greatest tech inside your case, give this article a read to learn about upgrading your PC.

PCPartPicker will be your best friend when trying to figure out whether or not the shiny new parts you are ogling will work with your current hardware. It performs compatibility checks across all the parts you input and red flags any issues. Save yourself from buyer’s remorse by making sure your purchases are compatible before learning otherwise the hard way.

Here’s what you should consider when upgrading a PC:

Identifying Bottlenecks

Some individuals enjoy sporting the newest tech that’s hot off the press, while others reside in the camp of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Either is completely fine, but if you belong to the latter group and are looking to upgrade, start by identifying where your current configuration is struggling. Unless you’re rolling in green, it will probably feel bad to undergo the process of purchasing and installing a new component, only to realize it didn’t yield any gains!

CAM is a PC monitoring solution that provides beautiful and informative readouts of your system’s status, allowing you to see where any bottlenecks might be occurring. I highly recommend using this free software to first identify if your slow gaming experience is being caused by overloaded CPU, GPU, RAM, etc. This will help guide your hardware purchases so that no penny goes to waste!

GPU Upgrade

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As a gamer, it’s likely that the graphics card is going to be the focus of your attention when upgrading your PC. If you’re shooting for high resolutions, frame rates, anti-aliasing, and other things associated with glorious HD gaming, then you might be in the market for a new GPU. Selecting one can be a daunting task, however, given the wide variety of components actually available.

Model Number

Arguably the first place to start when looking to upgrade your GPU, the model number is an easy identifier of whether a card is better than your current one. Take for example, my GeForce GTX 960. The “960” is the model number. A GeForce GTX 970, by comparison, has a bigger number and is newer. Newer cards are typically accompanied by better memory bandwidth and clock rates. In short, go up the model number ladder when upgrading!

VRAM

One of the things you’ll want to pay attention to when shopping for a new GPU is a card’s video RAM (VRAM). Be sure to take note of its bandwidth rating, such as GDDR5 vs. GDDR3. Just like with the card’s model number, a greater number after the “GDDR” is better. GDDR5 is faster than GDDR3, so make sure to pick a card with better bandwidth.

You’ll also see the VRAM stat presented in gigabytes (GB). As a general rule, if you are concerned about frame rates, aim for cards with more VRAM to help ensure more stable fps measurements.

If you’re experiencing frame drops during your gaming sessions, check CAM to see if your GPU’s memory load is hitting it’s limit. If it’s topping out, then it’s probably time to pick up a card with more VRAM.

Core Clock

Another common measurement is a GPU’s core clock. This is commonly presented in gigahertz (GHz), though some cards fall short of the 1GHz mark and will be listed in megahertz (MHz). As a general rule of thumb, higher core clocks equal more power and better frame rates, so keep this in mind while comparing prospective cards against each other.

CPU Upgrade

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If you see that bottlenecks are occurring in your CPU, then it’s time to pick a new processor.

Model Number

Just like GPUs, a higher number in a CPU’s model number represents a newer and more powerful processor. For starters, aim for a greater model number than your current one when upgrading your CPU.

Clock Rate

A CPU’s speed is rated in hertz, usually listed in GHZ, and as you have probably surmised, higher clock rates equal greater processing power. This rating communicates how many cycles per second the processor is capable of completing, so when shopping for a CPU that can do more and do it faster, try picking one with a high clock rate.

Core Count

A CPU’s core count is the number of physical cores it possesses onboard. Most modern CPUs have multiple cores, and as a general rule, more cores means more performance when multitasking.

It’s important to note that most games currently don’t make use of more than 2 cores, but in the future, we may see games require greater core counts. If you perform a lot of multitasking, such as rendering, or gaming while livestreaming, then you’ll want to select a CPU with a greater number of cores.

Keep in mind that your new processor might merit a new motherboard purchase as well, depending on its socket type. As a result, this type of upgrade can get expensive, so choose wisely.

Motherboard Upgrade

If you’re in the market for a new motherboard, you should check out this NZXT blog article that covers the 5 most important things to consider when selecting a motherboard.

Your motherboard ties all your other components together, so it’s crucial that you select a board that plays nicely with all the parts in your build. From CPU socket type and chipset to form factor, PCPartPicker will be a lifesaver by telling you when a piece in your system is incompatible with your motherboard selection.

RAM Upgrade

If your friendly neighborhood CAM software is showing bottlenecks in your available RAM, it’s time to upgrade. A RAM upgrade has the potential to significantly speed up your computer if RAM is the source of your slowdowns. Here are some things to consider when shopping:

DDR3 vs. DDR4

Your CPU determines whether you can use DDR3 or DDR4 RAM. Consult your CPU’s manufacturer or PCPartPicker to check for compatibility. Many might argue that there aren’t huge gains to be had using DDR4, but it’s still newer than DDR3 and may yield greater returns in the future.

Speed (MHz)

As with other components covered in this article, higher MHz ratings means more speed. Take care to check and see what your motherboard supports before purchasing new RAM, though! Too high of speed ratings might lead to instability, so do your homework and avoid going overboard.

CAS Latency

This stat represents how quickly data is made available upon request. The lower the number, the faster the RAM makes data available. Aim for lower CAS ratings for faster performance.

Size

RAM comes in a variety of sizes, rated in GBs. As gamers, 4GB is typically a safe low-end, and 8GB should be more than comfortable for our needs. Check CAM to see how much you are currently using under normal circumstances to help give you an idea of what size you need to upgrade to. If you do a lot of multitasking or want to run other programs in the background, you’ll benefit from more RAM.

Storage Upgrade

If you’re only using HDDs in your rig, it might be time to make the jump to SSD. Larger storage capacities are becoming available at lower prices, so relying more heavily on SSDs is a much more realistic option these days. Of the primary benefits resulting from an upgrade to SSD, wildly faster boot and load times are the sweetest. Be sure to check out my article on the NZXT blog that covers the benefits of SSDs in greater detail!

Cooling Upgrade

As you drop in more powerful hardware, temperatures inside your case may start to rise. Your new components might be able to do more work, but they might also produce even more heat in the process. You always need to keep your components cool, so it might be time to ditch your stock air cooler or even your aftermarket air cooler and switch to water-cooling. Water is better at removing heat than air, so a water-cooling loop can keep your components cooler more efficiently.

PSU Upgrade

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Always be sure to keep track of how much power your PSU needs to be supplying. Too little wattage is a sure-fire way to kill your computer. As you add in new components, be sure to keep track of how much energy they require and how that factors into your setup’s total power consumption (also remember that overclocking can increase power requirements). If your PC’s needs exceed what your current PSU is capable of delivering, you definitely need to drop some cash to pick up a bigger power supply.

Never skimp on the quality of your PSU. While you can do away with niceties like modular cables to save some money, make sure to pick a unit from a reputable manufacturer. Give this article a read to uncover the secrets to buying a good power supply unit.

Case Upgrade

Aside from being an aesthetically pleasing upgrade, you may need to upgrade to a new PC case for other reasons like internal space requirements. Maybe you have your heart set on a really powerful GPU, or you want to switch to a water-cooling loop. Chances are that if these components are particularly big, they might not all fit together in your current case. Fortunately, NZXT’s website features a handy compatibility checker that allows you to quickly see if the NZXT case you are looking at will accommodate various other components you are considering for your build. You can also bust out the old wooden ruler and compare your current case’s interior space against the measurements listed on any prospective part’s manufacturer’s website.

Double-Check Before Checking Out

Make sure to spend some time doing research about the parts you are considering as upgrades. Think about whether or not you really need to upgrade a certain part of your system; CAM will help you identify bottlenecks. If you’re a gamer, you can also check the system requirements for the games you want to play to gain a clearer understanding of the kind of hardware you might need to buy.

Also remember that many of these parts interact with and affect each other, so be sure to double-check that you’ve covered all your bases before checking out (for example, make sure you don’t need a bigger PSU or bigger case to accommodate your new GPU).

Feel free to contact the NZXT support team if you have any questions. We hope that you have a smooth upgrading experience and build something extraordinary!

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Mason Dunlap

Mason Dunlap

Mason “MasonRL90” is a Social Media Specialist, Rocket League Ops, and Influencer Program Manager at NZXT. His goal is to grow the Rocket League community through great content and personal involvement in the scene.