Good news: There might still be life in your current computer. You just need to improve the aging hardware’s speed and reliability with one of these affordable upgrades. Better news: Each hack is simple enough that you can attempt it yourself.
1. Connect an external hard drive
When your computer runs out of disk space, it has no room to temporarily save and swap data as you work on files. This means, as room starts to run out, your machine may begin to slow down or start crashing on a regular basis. Plus, of course, you won’t have any space left to save anything new. Plugging in an external hard drive can alleviate this problem in minutes.
To find the right hard drive, you may have to choose between portability and capacity. So-called “portable” drives, such as Seagate’s 1TB Backup Plus Slim ($56 on Amazon), pull power entirely from a computer’s USB, and more importantly, they take up very little room. Drives with more storage space, such as Western Digital’s 8TB My Book Desktop ($170 on Amazon), are typically larger and heavier than the portable options, but they also provide faster read and write times.
If you really want to reduce those read and write times, pass over the conventional hard disk drive (HDD), in favor of a solid state drive (SSD), such as Samsung’s 500GB T5 Portable ($160 on Amazon). However, you’ll have to pay for that extra speed: Although the Western Digital and Samsung drives we’ve mentioned have similar price points, the HDD drive has 16 times the capacity of the SSD. And if you aim for a 2TB version of the Samsung drive—which is still only a quarter of the capacity of the Western Digital one—you’ll have to shell out $700.
Whatever drive you choose, make sure it has the right connections and cables to plug into to your computer. For example, some may link up via USB port, and others by Thunderbolt. This information should appear prominently on the device’s packaging or online description, but if you’re not sure, just ask the retailer.
Once you’ve chosen your hardware, upgrading is easy. When you plug your new disk into your computer, the operating system will automatically recognize the device and walk you through setting it up. This process differs on Windows and macOS, but both of them provide troubleshooting help. With your new drive connected, you can transfer videos, images, music, and other files to the new device, freeing up space on your main hard drive.
2. Add an internal hard drive
As we’ve discussed, freeing up space on your hard drive is great for your computer’s health—but an external hard drive isn’t the only solution. If you’d like to avoid adding another gadget to your life, and you have some DIY expertise, you can install a second internal hard drive in your computer. This is a more technical and time-consuming process, but it creates a more streamlined look.
Before you dive in, be aware of a couple caveats. First, any time you’re messing around with your hardware, you need to safely back up your data before you start. Next, this process won’t work on all computers. You’ll need a device with a second drive bay, so that rules out laptops and all-in-one machines like Apple’s iMacs. If do you own that type of computer, you might be able to replace the original hard drive with a more capacious one—but that process is much more difficult, so we’re not including it in this roundup of easy upgrades. Last, you don’t need to be an expert to add a second hard drive, but you should be comfortable with a screwdriver.
When you go shopping for your new internal hard drive, make extra sure that your choice is compatible with your computer’s make and model. You can also look for installation guides that reference your specific device—for example, this one covers the Dell Inspiron 3650—to see which drives they recommend. As with external hard drives, you should also consider whether you’d prefer a slower HDD drive, such as Western Digital’s 2TB Black drive ($110 on Amazon), or a faster and pricier SSD drive, such as Crucial’s 2TB MX500 ($483 on Amazon).
Once you have your new drive, the installation process follows the same basic outline. Slip an anti-static strap onto your wrist to ground yourself, power down and unplug your computer, and open up the chassis. You should see an additional drive bay underneath the original drive, where the new hardware can slot in. Finally, you link up the cables for data and power. To see the type of connectors you need to look for, consult a tutorial video like this walkthrough from MasutaGaming or this one from KillerTech. Just be aware that you’ll find slight variations in the components’ design and layout, depending on the type of machine you own. For specifics, look up your computer’s particular make and model.
3. Upgrade your cloud storage
The final option for increasing your hard drive’s available space sits in the cloud. Specifically, you can move the bulk of your personal files to a cloud-storage service. Many of these services let you delete local copies of a file once you’ve moved the original online, which frees up valuable room on your old machine’s hard drive. (This also makes it easier to move your files to a new computer when you do decide to upgrade.)
You can choose between several excellent cloud-storage services, including Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, and iCloud. For more information on your options, check out our guide to backing up photos in the cloud, which has some tips you can apply to any type of file. Your choices depend on the type of computer you own (Apple users might lean toward iCloud and Microsoft fans toward OneDrive), the amount of storage you want, and how much you’re willing to pay for that space.
Although these cloud-storage services do offer some free space, you don’t get much before you have to start paying. As for the price, the exact cost depends on how much space you want to buy. The minimum tier (the least money for the least space) for each service is $2/month for 100GB on Google Drive, $10/month for 1TB on Dropbox, $2/month for 50GB on OneDrive, and $1/month for 50GB on iCloud.
4. Install more RAM
Random access memory, or RAM, is your computer’s “thinking” space. It uses this type of memory to hold data for currently-open applications. When your RAM has too much to do—think dozens of browser tabs, way too many applications, or a huge video file—your computer’s speed can slow to a crawl. To prevent this issue, install extra RAM.
As a preliminary step, you should research the amount of RAM built into your specific type of computer, and how much extra it can take. This upgrade works better on desktops, which have bigger cases with more physical space for memory. However, certain laptops do let you add RAM. As with an internal hard drive, you should remember to back up your data before you start, and look up an online guide specific to your computer’s make and model. For example, this video covers a Dell XPS 15 9560 laptop, this one goes for an iMac, and this one takes you through the process on a desktop PC. If you can’t find a guide for your machine, then it may not be compatible with this upgrade.
If it is, then start shopping. RAM comes in sticks, such as Corsair’s 4GB modules ($45 on Amazon), which slot into your computer’s motherboard. Before you decide, consult that guide to make sure you’re getting the right product.
When you’re ready to install the RAM, you start similarly to the internal hard drive installation: Wear an anti-static strap and turn off your device, unplugging it from external power. Then, follow your guide to find the right slots inside your computer case, and plug in a new RAM module or two.
5. Slot in a new graphics card
If your existing computer relies on a built-in graphics chip, it might struggle with tasks like gaming or image and video editing. Even playing oversize videos can slow it down. To boost its performance, plug in a new graphics card.
Like a second internal hard drive, this upgrade is really only an option for desktop PCs, which are larger and contain expansion ports for new cards. As a first step, peek inside your computer case and check for a spare expansion slot on the motherboard. (To help make sense of your computer’s guts, look up your make and model online.) If you can’t find an expansion slot, then you won’t be able to pull off this upgrade.
Depending on how you use your computer, you might not need a high-end card. Although gamers and cryptocurrency miners focus on expensive hardware, everyone else can pick up slightly older, but still very decent, cards for much more reasonable prices. In other words, you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to make your computer noticeably better at rendering complex graphics on screen. Cards like Gigabyte’s Radeon RX 550 ($115 on Amazon) and EVGA’s GeForce GTX 1050 ($150 on Amazon) offer good performance without breaking the bank.
Before you’re ready to fit the card, like with the other internal upgrades we’ve mentioned, you’ll need to slap on that anti-static wrist strap, fully power down your computer, and unplug it. Open the case, slot the graphics card into the correct expansion port, then connect it to the computer’s power supply and to your display. Again, for specifics, try to find a guide that matches your type of computer. That said, the basic procedure is the same across different models, so you could also check out a couple of our favorite video tutorials and apply that information to to your particular machine.
6. Invest in a bigger monitor
One way to improve your computer experience—even if it won’t speed up the machine’s performance—is to pay up for a bigger monitor. If you’re stuck on an old laptop with a tiny screen, think about adding another display. This provides more screen room for applications and games, allowing you to compare multiple apps on the same screen or see all the extra detail on your favorite TV show. Just make sure your computer can run a second screen: Check for a display output port somewhere on the chassis.
Most monitors will be compatible with lots of different computers, but it can’t hurt to check the online description or packaging to make sure it will work with your machine. For good-quality options that won’t cost too much, we like HP’s 23.8-inch FHD IPS Monitor ($130 on Amazon) and Sceptre’s 24-inch E248W-19203R Monitor ($101 on Amazon). That said, you can find a variety of other options at every conceivable price point.
For this upgrade, you don’t need to crack open your computer. Just plug in the monitor and get going. For more details, check out our guide to setting up a second computer screen.
7. Upgrade your keyboard and mouse
Tired, cramped laptop keyboard with worn-out keys? An unreliable wireless mouse that makes your wrist ache? As these input peripherals age, they acquire a coat of grime and they also become less responsive. So while you’re improving your computing experience, consider investing in a shiny new keyboard and mouse. As with the monitor, this won’t make your old computer run any faster, but it can definitely increase your enjoyment and stave off thoughts of upgrading your machine.
This is a particularly cheap improvement, and it works for any type of desktop or laptop. If you’re worried about running out of laptop ports, you can buy wireless peripherals and connect them via Bluetooth.
We recommend a kit that bundles a keyboard and mouse together. For example, Microsoft’s Wireless Desktop 2000 ($36 on Amazon) and Logitech’s MK545 Advanced ($60 on Amazon) both offer good value. And neither require that you crack open your computer to install them.
8. Add extra ports
If you’ve maxed out the ports on your current computer, or you didn’t get many to begin with, think about investing in an extension hub. As manufacturers knock more and more ports and slots off their machines, an external hub can replace those missing connections. This makes a particularly big difference when you’re traveling, allowing you to connect a laptop to a meeting-room projector or a hotel-room Ethernet cable.
For decent products, look for something like Hyper’s USB-C Hub ($90 on Amazon) or Wavlink’s USB 3.0 Universal Docking Station ($79 on Amazon). Both of these make it easier for you to slot in memory cards, connect a second screen, and obtain extra USB ports.