035: Upgrade rather than replace your PC

Cost of taking action: £/$/€ SAVES MONEY

When we get frustrated by our computer slowing down, it’s very tempting sometimes to think that our demands on it, or new software and other upgrades, mean that it is outdated. Because new machines are reasonably priced, we often resort to replacing them without much further thought; a new machine with a bigger hard drive and a bit more memory is always nice!

However, unless you are playing really heavily memory-sapping games that need ultra fast graphics and connections, regularly undertaking demanding work such as editing and rendering high-definition videos, or using very specialist software such as CADCAM, its not very likely that an average home or home-office user really needs to replace a machine as often as we do. Sadly, it’s often a combination of convenience and lack of knowledge that leads us to do this instead of paying a little bit of attention to making an existing machine perform better.

This action, therefore, is to consider upgrading an existing machine before buying a new one.

In fact, there are quite a few things you can do to maintain and improve a PC for general office use, studying and browsing that will save valuable resources, reduce carbon emissions, and (of course) save you a considerable amount of money. Read on for more about this.

Why is this important?

A large contributor to a personal computer’s carbon footprint – a measure of it’s environmental impact – is in manufacturing it. The other elements are transport, operation during working life, and recycling. Operating a laptop in particular doesn’t use a lot of power, and there is a reasonable chance that if you dispose of any machine properly the prospects for recycling are good (and improving all the time), especially in developed countries. Research by Dell has identified that about a third of a typical laptop’s carbon footprint is in manufacture.

Therefore, it follows, if we can extend the life of a machine, the average carbon footprint will be reduced. We discussed a similar issue around mobile phones recently.

In addition, producing computers uses precious rare earth elements, which are expensive and “dirty” to mine and refine, such as lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, terbium and dysprosium. These and others are essential in the discs, memory and other electronic components inside your machine; and on top of that they are not easily (and so rarely) recycled.

Maintain and upgrade options

We appreciate that there are limits to which machinery can be “refreshed” with a bit of attention, technology is fact moving. However, it is a safe bet that for normal household, study and office use, a machine that is up to 5 years old can be improved and given a new lease of life by various combinations of the following:

  • upgrading the memory chips (RAM, or random access memory). A stock machine produced five years ago may incorporate 4GB of RAM, for example, but be quite capable of running 8GB or 16GB. More RAM will allow your machine to run faster, particularly when you have lots of things going on in the background. Memory chips must be compatible with your computer of course, but a visit to a website such as makes this very easy indeed. Once they arrive, inserting memory is a simple DIY job.
  • replacing (or adding an additional) main disc drive. There are two things to consider here, one is the amount of disc space that is available (modern discs are massive in capacity and costs are falling), and another is the speed at which your machine can access the data. The fastest replacements or additions are solid state drives (SSDs) which completely eliminate the mechanical read/write process used in traditional hard disc drives (HDD) and are also more reliable. Again, costs are falling in recent years. Replacing your main drive is much more technical than the other steps in this list so you may need help.
  • replacing a wireless card to take advantage of new wi-fi protocols
  • replacing a tired mouse or keyboard
  • upgrading to a larger, modern (low energy) monitor
  • cleaning your computer’s registry
  • deleting old unused programmes and apps
  • “defragmenting” an existing disc drive
  • making sure that drivers and operating system updates are all in place
  • archiving your old files to a separate disc drive, freeing up space
  • checking all your computer, browser, antivirus, router and other settings to make sure they are optimised
  • clearing out the downloads and trash folders, and other temporary files using the “cleanup” app

Advantages of upgrading rather than replacing

Upgrading a machine and extending it’s useful life will:

  • reduce the use of natural resources, especially rare earth elements
  • reduce carbon emissions associated with manufacture and transport
  • cost you much, much less than a new machine!
  • add to your machine’s second hand value when you do eventually dispose of it
  • help you learn about your machine and how to maintain it, a valuable skill
  • save you the hassle of setting up a new machine and transferring everything
  • help to limit electronic waste – whether going to landfill or recycling

So please, if you can, take action to extend the life of your computer rather than buying new.

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