Thursday, 6 September 2012

Budget PC Upgrades

Upgrading your PC without spending a lot of money can involve some tricky decisions. Aim too high, and you won't be able to afford the upgrade without exceeding your budget. Aim too low, and you might not be spending enough to justify upgrading at all.

In this guide, we'll show you the best upgrades you can buy for under £150. Whether you spend that money all in one place or on several upgrades it up to you you, but follow our advice and even a fairly modest expense can yield some impressive results.

Prices quoted are current as of 29th May 2012

Case Upgrade

The case isn't necessarily the first component on your mind when you consider upgrading your PC, but eventually it's going to be necessary. Maybe you've run out of space for components, maybe you're concerned about the running temperature of your PC, or maybe you just want something that looks a little sharper and sleeker housing your PC. Fair enough. A good case can last for years and years, but buy at the absolute budget end of the spectrum and you'll get flimsy, bog-standard workmanship with poor cooling. If you want to save money, buy a case without a PSU and reuse your existing one - it can knock £20 to £30 off the price.

Cooler Master Elite 330 (silver/black) - £34.99

The Cooler Master brand is well loved at the high-end of the case market, but this budget effort, the Elite 330, proves an excellent choice for the more conservative spender as well. The Elite 330 is a generously sized mid-tower with ample space for a full ATX motherboard and PSU, and more drive bays than buyers at this price will ever need: four 5.25" bays and seven 3.5" bays. The bays also contain a screw-free locking mechanism for easy installation and removal of new hardware (but you can take these mounts out and use traditional screws if you prefer).

It looks comfortably middle of the road - sleek enough to house a gaming PC, but understated enough for an office or business situation too. Hefty-looking vents and a filtered mesh frontage help to maximise airflow around expansion cards, offering cooling features you won't find in the cheapest cases. Active cooling is provided by a 120mm exhaust fan (supplied).

A padlock hook provides security. Only a rather fiddly expansion card mounting bracket (which, unlike the drive mounts, can't be removed) lets this case down. At this price, it shouldn't break the bank, but it has the potential to last and last.

Motherboard Upgrade

Upgrading a motherboard on a budget isn't that difficult - the more you spend, the more features you'll get, but there are plenty of boards around that meet the needs of most consumers without costing the world. A bigger problem is that any substantial motherboard upgrade is going to involve changing the RAM and CPU as well, but the design of current CPU platforms suggests that you should spend money getting a decent motherboard first, and then the RAM and CPU can be upgraded around it in the future.

At this point in time, you can get the best deal buying a Sandy Bridge Z68 motherboard - it has on-board graphics, and can be overclocked a little (though budget PCs aren't designed for gaming performance). There are newer boards, but they're also more expensive, while older ones aren't significantly cheaper. A Z68 board will give you an LGA11 55 socket and support for the Intel Core chips' GPU capabilities, but they're common enough that you won't have to spend a lot.

Gigabyte GA-Z68AP-D3 - £84.98

One of the cheapest Z68 boards available, the Gigabyte GA-Z68AP-D3 is firmly in the budget camp, so you might be wondering which corners have been cut. Well, the Z68 chipset places most of the burden on the CPU, so there's not much that can actually go, and this one trumps others by giving you get a few extra features for your cash.

An on-board HDMI port is a particularly nice touch, allowing you access to high-definition output without the need to buy a separate graphics card. If you have an old monitor, the lack of a VGA port might frustrate, but DVI converters aren't hard to come by. in the future, but you don't get an on-board SSD drive. With seven expansion slots, two SATA 6Gbps and four SATA II, there's a lot of scope for future upgrades, and ultimately this is a strong Sandy Bridge board that should remain competitive for a while yet.

RAM Upgrade

Cheap RAM is normally a bit of a gamble, because manufacturers compromise on the quality of materials and Q&A testing in order to keep the price low. This means that if you buy the cheapest RAM, you should test it thoroughly for defects before using it for any length of time - not just to avoid crashes but so you can get a replacement if it's faulty! Budget RAM won't include a heat spreader or any fancy visuals, and while it isn't much cheaper than the good-quality stuff, if you're buying in bulk the savings will quickly stack up.

Corsair Value 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 - £23.98

At less than £25 for 4GB of RAM, Corsair's Value range will augment even the weediest PC to modern standards. It isn't designed to handle a lot of stress, so don't try anything silly like overclocking it, but if you're interested in performance computing, this is the wrong price to be doing it at.

The PC3-10600 1333MHz sticks arguably offer poor bandwidth, but unless you're an obsessive benchmarker, there's no chance that it would ever be apparent. For the majority of uses, the speeds here will be more than satisfactory. A single 4GB stick would arguably be more convenient, keeping more slots free on your motherboard, but it's also a tad more expensive.

The only real problem with RAM this cheap is that it's very easy to look ahead and find something demonstrably better for only a little extra money. RAM prices are so low at the moment that the difference between mid-tier products and budget products is paper-thin. In that sense. Corsair Value RAM isn't necessarily a good deal in terms of the balance between price and performance, but if spending as little as possible is your goal, you can be more than comfortable buying it.    


CPU Upgrade

A CPU upgrade can be hard to justify at lower prices, not least because any decent upgrade is going to involve changing your motherboard as well, and that's yet more expense to juggle within your budget.

However, there's something to be said for a little forward thinking. If you're planning a chip upgrade that takes you to a new hardware tier, don't spend too much money on the chip itself. Instead, concentrate on buying a good motherboard so you can replace the chip in a year or two and still have something that competes.

In this case, that means getting on the Sandy Bridge/ Ivy Bridge ladder, and if that's your plan, there's one chip practically designed for people who want to do that.

Intel Pentium G620 2.6GHz - £469

The Pentium G620 is a dual-core 2.6GHz 'entry-level' product, meaning it lacks the additional features of the Core series. It does, however, come with an Intel HD Graphics 2000 GPU, which means that with a compatible motherboard (one that's H67- or Z68-based) you won't need a separate graphics card - though don't expect to do a lot of gaming with this alone.

This is the lowest-priced Sandy Bridge processor on the market, but the fact that it's a Sandy Bridge CPU at all means you could potentially upgrade it to the fastest Core i7 at some point in the future without changing any other hardware in your machine. Clearly, that's a point in the chip's favour.

With no Hyper-Threading features, the Pentium G620 is strictly a dual-core system, but light users should find this adequate.

The only real disappointment is that its controller only supports 1066MHz DDR3 memory, so if you buy faster memory than that, you won't see the full benefit. It's not the greatest chip, but it'll fit the latest motherboards, and that alone gives you a strong platform for future upgrades.


Graphics Card Upgrade

If you don't already have a graphics card in your machine, even a cheap upgrade should offer substantial improvements, but that doesn't mean you can buy just anything. Even at this price range, graphics cards are competitive and vary widely between brand and manufacturer, so pay close attention to reviews and specifications before paying anything.

Asus GeForce GT 440 1024MB GDDR5 - £59.99

Despite being at the absolute bottom end of graphics cards, the Asus GeForce GT 440 has a few things going for it, and should offer decent performance at resolutions of 1680x1050 in most games, stretching to 1920x1200 if you turn the detail down a little.

The appeal here is that it has bags of GDDR5 memory in it, rather than DDR3. The GF108 GPU is less powerful than the similarly priced AMD Turks, but the GT440 has twice the memory bandwidth of AMD's DDR3-based equivalents, which improves performance and helps makes it a preferable purchase, but only just.

Before you buy this graphics card, make sure you have a PSU that can handle the strain. It draws power from the motherboard (rather than a dedicated six-pin connector) and you'll need at least a 450W power supply to use it. Remember to factor in the price of a new PSU if you're running anything less powerful than that.

Storage Upgrade

If you're looking to upgrade your computer's storage capacity, forget about SSDs for the moment - they're simply not cheap enough to offer any true bargains right now. However, traditional hard drives are still great investments, because they last a long time and give you instant benefits, and in many cases have no hidden costs associated with them.

That said, if you're planning to buy a SATA drive and don't have a SATA motherboard, you'll need to address that. There are a few options, but your best is to buy a PCI SATA controller to plug into an expansion slot. A Startech SATA II controller costs £19.99, while a SATA 6Gbps controller is £29.99. Both will offer faster speeds than IDE.

Seagate Barracuda 1TB [ST1000DM003] - £74.99

A terabyte of extra space should be more than enough to keep even the most dedicated data-hoarder satisfied for a year or two, and Seagate is a name with a reliable history behind it.
The 64MB cache is higher than most competitors at this price, and the SATA 6Gbps interface means you're getting the fastest possible connection without having to spend a lot of money.

It's possible to go a little cheaper on a new hard drive, but you won't save a lot of cash and will lose out on capabilities. The cheapest SATA 6Gbps drive offered at is a 500GB Seagate Barracuda with only a 16MB cache. Given that it has half the storage and a quarter of the cache, you might expect a fairly radical price drop, but it's actually only £14 cheaper than this, its close relative.

And to further prove that there are no bargains to be found by skewing cheaper, even the SATA II version of the 1TB drive is the same price as this, the SATA 6Gbps version. That's why I 
strongly recommend the Seagate Barracuda 1TB over anything cheaper,even if you're aiming for a budget upgrade.

Budget Buyer's Advice

If you only have a small amount of money to spend, you want to make sure it gets spent on the areas that are going to make the most obvious improvements to your system. For general users, RAM is usually a safe bet. The benefits of adding more RAM to your machine apply to multiple areas of activity, from web browsing to image editing to gaming, and the low cost means you get a lot of value out of a little money.

The benefits of a new CPU are similarly wide ranging, but the outlay is higher. Spend money on a processor upgrade and you probably won't have much left to spread around, not to mention that upgrading your CPU might also require an upgrade to your motherboard (if your current motherboard's socket has been retired). It's a surefire way to get results, but potentially much more expensive.

Of course, if you're primarily interested in improving the performance of your games, it's always worth spending money on a new graphics card - particularly if you don't already have one. As with CPUs, there's a high initial spend, but if you spend a lot of time playing games the expense should be more than offset by the amount of use you get from your new purchase. 

Upgrade to Windows 8
You can still get Windows 8 even if you don't want to splash out on a new computer. visit our sister site PC Problems Fixed, for more information on how to upgrade and install windows 8.

Still, the problem with one upgrade is that it can lead to many more, and we don't mean because your new purchases might be incompatible with your old hardware. Once you get bitten by the upgrade bug, you may want to spend just that little bit extra next time it comes to upgrading one of your PC's components. And for that reason, we can't help but point you towards my next guide:


  1. It’ll be best to buy a new one if it comes down to upgrading the motherboard itself. The difference between the upgrade and the new one is not that big. Buying a new one will assure you of good overall performance.

    - Benita Bolland -

    1. Sure, upgrading the motherboard gives you a starting point and pretty much dictates the rest of the components.

  2. “If you only have a small amount of money to spend, you want to make sure it gets spent on the areas that are going to make the most obvious improvements to your system.”--- Before you upgrade your PC, you have to know what parts call for improvement. Is it the memory? The processor? Or the motherboard? Then it is time for you to find a great quality and affordable parts available for your PC.

    Ruby Badcoe

    1. Very true Ruby. Its also important to understand that whilst upgrading certain components like CPU or memory alone, these new buys wont necessarily give you a solid performance boost. This is due to the bottleneck effect that is caused when the rest of the components physically cant keep up with the speed of the new kit.

  3. “Aim too high, and you won't be able to afford the upgrade without exceeding your budget. Aim too low, and you might not be spending enough to justify upgrading at all.” -- This one’s certainly true! So, in my opinion, what you need to do first is to determine which part of your PC needs the most attention. From there, you should check your budget and see if you can perform the upgrades you need.

    Lakendra Wiltse

    1. Hi Lakendra, the problem I have with wrighting these tech blogs is that my posts seem outdated very fast. I have missed out SSDs in this post, as of now this is the best upgrade you can make for your PC or Laptop in terms of speed you will notice straight away. The prices are comming down all the time.


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