It seems like everything is becoming more affordable and “disposable” with today’s devices and computers.  However, there are still a lot of upgrades you can perform to make your current computer or laptop last longer.

CPU

The brains of any computer is the central processing unit (CPU), which generally controls how quickly things happen on the system. CPUs from the most recent generation often outperform previous models by a significant margin. The key here is generation, not expense. The best performance for your money is often found just below the top of the line model. A quality Intel i5 CPU, for instance, can be a better buy than a more expensive Intel i7, especially if the latter is from a prior generation.

It’s important to note that newer CPUs may not be compatible with your current system. Always check with your computer manufacturer, or motherboard documentation, to see if a newer CPU is available for your machine.

Many websites provide CPU benchmarks (performance evaluations) along with price estimates and can be quite helpful in determining which CPU is right for you.

RAM

Processing power doesn’t mean much if your system slows to a crawl when running multiple applications. While programs are running they resides in RAM (random-access memory), so it can be accessed quickly. Too many applications running at once and your RAM fills up. Run additional applications and the system has to start swapping data back and forth from RAM to the hard drive, drastically slowing things down.

The bare minimum amount of RAM for any serious computer is 4 GBs. For anything over that you’ll need a 64-bit version of Windows, which is fortunately very common these days. I recommend at least 8 – 12 GBs of RAM in order to keep things running efficiently, although more is always better. Unlike swapping out a CPU, which requires a bit of care, RAM upgrades are usually very easy. Remember, depending on chipset and operating system, not all memory may be utilized.

Graphics Card

For certain applications, like gaming and video or graphics editing, the video card or Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) is a key component in providing high resolution display/playback without sacrificing performance. A modern dedicated video card, rather than an integrated GPU, is the key to a great playback experience and it may be cheaper than you think.

Graphics cards typically come in a tiered product line where the lowest-end is appropriate for basic computer tasks and the highest-end is designed for more intense tasks like video games. A graphics card from the middle tier is typically sufficient for multimedia applications (photo editing).

Operating System

Remember, all ram in your system may not be utilized unless you have an operating system that supports it. A 32-bit operating system (OS) is going to limit you to 4 GBs of RAM and that’s not a limitation you want. It is also worth noting that support for Windows XP, including new security updates, has been discontinued. This makes it a great time to consider making the jump to Windows 7 or Windows 8.

Drive Storage

Hard drives provide long term storage for everything from the OS to photos. They are also a single point of failure and frustration. Getting the right storage solution can greatly reduce failures and downtime.

Start by determining how much storage you need. For most people, several hundred megabytes (MB) is a great start. People with more taxing needs (photographers, videographers, etc.) should instead be looking at storage in terms of terabytes (TB).

It’s also helpful to look at drive speed, as it can have a big impact on overall system performance. A traditional hard drive (HDD) is relatively cheap but also a bit slow by today’s standards. You’ll see HDDs rated in RPMs where 5400 is slow, 7200 is faster, and 10000 is high-end. For a system with snappier response time consider getting a solid-state drive (SSD). Installing your main operating system on one of these drives can really help (or even creating swap space on the SSD).

Hybrid drives are also a new option, having SSD and HDD technology in a single unit. These drives tend to be faster for a lot of operations, relative to HDDs, but also provide a large amount of storage.

While you’re thinking about added storage, remember that HDDs and SSDs can fail. Keep your data backed up on another drive (typically an HDD) in order to prevent data loss. External HDDs are a great option for this particular use. Also remember that external drives should be for backup a NOT the only source for your data–they tend to fail (or be knocked off coffee tables) frequently.