The holidays present an excellent opportunity to trick out your laptop or desktop PC, especially if Santa, your boss, or your favorite gift-giver directs a sudden influx of cash your way. And even if your holiday haul was heavy on sugarplums and light on spending money, you still don't have to break the bank to add some meaningful system upgrades. These days, you can stretch your PC upgrading dollar farther than ever before—as the items on our list clearly demonstrate. Here are ten meaningful hardware upgrades with a ceiling of roughly $250 (and in some cases a lot less) each.
1. A solid-state drive
This one’s a biggie, especially if you’ve already ponied up for Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 8. SSDs continue to become more and more affordable, and you can probably score yourself a decent one with a capacity of at least 200GB for about $250.
If you’ve done your homework and selected a speedy, problem-free SSD, you should see a huge improvement in loading times and a major lift in overall system performance, compared to what your conventional hard drive delivered. And because Windows 8 is big on “hibernating” your kernel, drivers, services, and other processes when you shut down your PC, a cold boot your new SSD has the potential to zip through cold boots like nothing you've ever seen before.
Our recommendation: Check out Crucial's M4. It offers 256GB of speedy, SATA 6Gbps storage, and you can find it for less than $250 retail.
2. More and speedier memory
It's a constant refrain among PC builders: Memory is cheap, so max it out. Indeed, if you’re working with a paltry 2GB—or even a more reasonable 4GB—you'll benefit hugely from giving your system as much headroom as possible, especially when you're dealing with complex, memory-hungry applications.
At a minimum, make sure that you’re rocking the fastest memory your system can support. Alternatively, purchase memory that gives you enough room to do some for overclocking.
Adding memory or replacing relatively slow memory with higher-rated RAM won't double your frame rates in games, and Windows is unlikely to feel two times faster, either. But the upgrade will make a substantial difference in extreme multitasking scenarios and in memory-intensive applications like Photoshop. Prices vary because not all RAM is created equal.
Our recommendation: We're big fans of the popular Corsair Vengeance line of RAM; you can get 8GB for under $45. That's a great deal.
3. A Blu-ray burner
We see your humdrum optical drive and raise you one Blu-ray burner. Though you may not do much burning to some of the more arcane formats the drive supports (an alphabet soup that includes BD-R, BD-RE, BD-R L, and many more), one of the best reasons for buying a Blu-ray burner is that you’ll finally be able to take your desktop PC with its aging optical disk options to the next, multimedia-filled level.
You could just buy a Blu-ray reader and call it a day, but what if you later decide that you want to be able to write to Blu-ray discs of your own? $250 goes a long way in the Blu-ray burner land, but it would be silly to have to buy an optical drive twice.
Our recommendation: You'll find a plethora of options for both internal and external Blu-ray burners, most of which will run you less than $80. We don't have a favorite brand for the positive reason that the vast majority of them are pretty darn good.
4. A video card
Still using the integrated graphics that the maker built into your motherboard? Then you're letting misplaced loyalty toward your chipset get in the way of better performance. It's certainly true that some of the latest integrated offerings from Intel and AMD—such as the H77 and A85X platforms—have advanced to the point where PC enthusiasts armed with the right processors can pass the traditional, “Will it run Crysis?” test without needing a discrete video card.
But having acknowledged the improvements in integrated graphics, we urge you to get a discrete video card. If you have any interest in gaming at higher frame rates, at higher resolutions, and at higher quality settings, a stand-alone graphics card is your best ticket to gaming awesomeness.
Our recommendation: You can pick up an excellent graphics board for less than $250 and get dramatically better frame rates—assuming, of course, that you aren’t teaming up the new card with a clunker of a CPU.
5. A CPU*
We slapped an asterisk on this recommendation for a specific reason: One of the best ways to give your system a much-needed upgrade in speed and connectivity (such as USB 3.0 support) is to perform a simultaneous upgrade of the motherboard and the CPU; but to get top-shelf performance, you’d have to plunk considerably more cash more than the arbitrary $250 maximum in this upgrade guide.
It's possible, however, that you may already be running a pretty good motherboard—but one that's being hobbled by a cheap, slow, non-overclockable, CPU.
Our recommendation: Though you might not see a world of difference by stepping up from a 2.9GHz CPU to a 3.1GHz chip, you could see some improvement if you throw more cores (logical and virtual) or an unlocked clock multiplier into the mix.
6. A PCI-based Wi-Fi card
Are we crazy? No, we’re just sick of stringing cables all around our homes and apartments. Gigabit networking will beat the best speeds of a Wi-Fi connection, but going all-wireless isn't unreasonable if you primarily concern yourself with browsing the Web, updating Facebook, playing World of Warcraft, and talking to your friends online.
As long as you aren’t trying to transform your desktop into a multiuser streaming hub for your living area, an 802.11n Wi-Fi connection (aka, Wireless-N) should be just fine for your typical needs. You’ll still likely be able to stream high-quality movies, depending on your connection—which is why
Our recommendation: We suggest that you go for a multiple-antenna, PCI-based wireless card over a relatively wimpy USB-based Wireless-N adapter. You should be able to find a good PCI-based unit for under $65.
7. An aftermarket CPU cooler and larger case fans
This suggestion applies to desktop owners who are sick of hearing the din generated by CPU and case fans.
An aftermarket CPU cooler can give you better performance than a typical stock cooler. More important to the user we have in mind, it will likely be quieter. The same same thing goes for aftermarket case fans: Larger fans that run at a lower rpm rate offer greater cooling potential, and in many instances do so at a lower decibel reading.
Our recommendation: Many good aftermarket CPU coolers and fans are available. A quick scan through the CPU cooler offerings at Thermaltake reveals prices ranging from $15 to $100, with most options falling in the $40-to-$60 range. Fans, meanwhile, typically cost $10 to $20 each. The crucial factors here are making sure that your system can accommodate the increased size of the components you choose and installing them properly.
8. A new case
Many case options, ranging from budget to midrange, cost well under $250 and can provide you with a completely new experience beyond your rig’s standard setup.
Perhaps your current case only sports USB 2.0 headers on the front, and you want to upgrade to USB 3.0—to match your new USB 3.0-friendly motherboard. Or maybe you’d like to switch to a case that’s more upgrade-friendly than the tiny, screw-filled system you have now. Or it could be that you want to add visual punch under your desk, with all the lights, fans, glowing LED strips, and touch-panels you can get your hands on.
Our recommendation: Check out the Fractal Define R3, an inexpensive ($120) chassis that looks as good as it functions.
9. Liquid cooling
With this upgrade under your belt, you’ll have graduated from “computer enthusiast” to “die-hard system builder.” But making the big leap to liquid cooling doesn't have to an exercise in masochism. The cooling capabilities of liquid-based systems tend to be superior to anything based on traditional air-cooling methods. This is a crucial consideration if you want to overclock your CPU or GPU.
You'll also find that you can eliminate a significant amount of noise when you rely on liquid-filled tubes instead of noisy fans. And, of course, liquid cooling looks neat, especially if you’re sporting clear tubing filled with pretty (or UV-reactive) fluid.
Our recommendation: Our do-it-yourself liquid cooling system came in at about $220, but models in the popular Corsair Hydro line will set you back far less. Be sure to invest a little extra money in some towels, just to be safe.
10. The biggest hard drive you can find
If you’re jonesing for raw speed, the solid-state drive described in item number one is your ticket. As noted earlier, though, a hybrid drive like the Seagate Momentus XT can pair a 7200-rpm standard hard drive with flash memory, yielding SSD-like performance with plenty of storage capacity; and a 750GB hybrid drive can be yours for about $140. Yet another option is to go strictly for cavernous storage capacity: You can snag a 2TB hard drive from Western Digital’s Caviar Black line for about $170.
Our recommendation: Hard drive prices aren’t great right now, but if you’re tired of living small and/or slow, you should treat your computer to a boost in storage (with a hard drive that breaks the terabyte barrier) or speed (with a hybrid drive).