Updated on 11.03.06

Saving Big Money on a Computer Upgrade

Trent Hamm

Recently, I provided some extensive consultation to a couple looking to upgrade their home computer. They had purchased the machine in 1999 and were looking to buy a replacement machine for it with a budget of $1000, and they wanted my advice on how to maximize their purchase.

If you are a techie, please note that I am writing this article for home users who are not strongly adept with computer selection and buying. I am not interested in scaring people off by suggesting they build their own machine or anything; I’m merely making suggestions on how to optimize home computer upgrade expenses for non-technical people.

When I arrived for the consultation, the husband showed me a machine that he had spec’d out from Dell. The package he was excited to purchase had an Intel Celeron D processor running at 2.80 GHz, only 512 MB of RAM, a 120 GB hard drive, a DVD-ROM drive and a DVD-RW drive, a 17″ CRT monitor, a copy of Windows XP Pro, a Dell Laser Printer, a Bluetooth wireless keyboard and mouse, some nice speakers, and a small power supply. This package added up to $991.

I read through the specifications twice and I asked him why he had made some of these choices. He said he wanted to “upgrade” all of the features he had on his own computer. So, we went and looked at his own unit and discovered that it was very similar to what he was purchasing from Dell, but many of the components were duplicated.

The first rule of saving money on a computer upgrade is determine which components actually need to be upgraded. You do not need to replace your printer or your keyboard or your mouse or your monitor (unless you want to) or your speakers or your power supply. If you’re technically savvy, you can also salvage many internal parts for future usage.

My client already had a printer that he was largely happy with, a wireless keyboard and wireless optical mouse he was very happy with, and speakers that he was also happy with. He also had a wonderful power supply sitting under his desk, so he didn’t need that, either. He seemed genuinely surprised that he could use parts from his old computer on his new one.

Next, we looked at his software options. The second rule of saving money on a computer upgrade is never re-buy software, ever. He had already purchased a copy of Windows XP, so we scratched the copy of Windows XP Pro. He had been considering getting a copy of Microsoft Office for the machine, but I showed him Open Office instead and we decided to use Open Office for now.

Once we made these choices, we realized that we could re-spec the machine. I asked the couple whether they were committed to their budget of $1,000 and they agreed that even with the savings, they were still budgeting that amount. So we looked at machines again.

The third rule of saving money on a computer upgrade is get the most processor you can within your budget. This will always save you money in the long run, because most everything else can be upgraded with ease. We moved his machine from a Celeron D to an Intel Core2 Duo running at 2.13 Ghz. This will ensure a much longer life for their computer without worrying about changes in operating systems. I felt completely confident telling them that this processor would easily be able to handle the next version of Windows.

We also moved their system from 512 MB of RAM to 2 GB of RAM. The fourth rule of saving money on a computer upgrade is the more memory, the better (within budget, of course). We were also able to get a 19″ flat panel monitor rather than the 17″ CRT monitor. The total cost difference? $18 over the system my client had spec’d.

To summarize, here are the steps you can take to maximize your next computer upgrade:
1. Look at all of the components you have and decide which ones can be reused. The most common reusable elements are the mouse, keyboard, printer, monitor, speakers, and power supply, though you may spot other things. This also includes software, like Windows XP and Microsoft Office. Then simply don’t buy them.
2. When deciding which system to buy, the one component you shouldn’t skimp on is the processor. If you’ve maxed out your processor, then get as much memory as you can. Once you’ve done that, get as much hard drive space as you can. Other items can be upgraded later and they’re much easier and less expensive.
3. For compatibility reasons, it’s almost always worth it to go with a major name-brand vendor, because software is designed to work with their components. You might be able to get a slightly better deal with items from Joe’s Komputer Shack, but if you’re not technically proficient, it may be quite challenging to get it to work and if you have to call someone to fix things, you’ll be losing money.

You can save yourself a lot of money in the long run using these methods. I estimate that by the end of the lifetime of the computer, some smart thinking at the start will have saved my clients $1000 and likely some frustration as well.

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  1. Josh says:

    Ok, I agree with not having to re-buy Windows XP, but how can you buy a pc from dell without windows?

  2. tom says:

    I use a vintage dell demension xps t450 upgraded to a 1.4gh celeron. It’s power supply is non-standard. So when I upgrade I won’t be able to use it. Besides its only 200 watts. Dell used proprietary power supply back then. It still makes me mad.

  3. Dave says:

    I build computers for the household. Admittedly you don’t expect your readers to be that qualified, but I have a principle that applies to anyone who wants to upgrade. It’s the “trickle-down” approach; I put a new video card in my computer, but my old one goes in my wife’s computer. Her old video card may go in a bunch of components to build a computer to sell for around $200, or if it’s so old that I can’t use it, it goes to a friend of mine who lives in a poor rural district of Maine. He will add it to components of his own to make or upgrade a computer for someone who can’t afford it, or the school, or the town office. This means that one component purchase can benefit several people. If you’re thinking of buying a new component ask around and see if any of your friends would like the old one either as a gift or to buy.

  4. Kevin says:

    Two pieces of advice that I pass along to “most” people buying a new PC are:
    1) the cheapest (brand name) model of computers is more than fast enough for the internet/word processing they are likely to do.
    2) spending extra money on a bigger monitor rather than a faster computer will provide greater satisfaction. Think of it as a bigger desk in your office. My experience shows most people will increase productivity too.

  5. Workingmywayup.com says:

    Here is a nice little post about keeping your computer safer and faster. Some of the tips can save you hundreds of dollars by finding alternative ways to make your computer act faster than newer computers, also tips in case you do want to upgrade your computer and if and when you should buy a new computer.

    Twelve ways to keep your computer running safer and faster!

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