10 Inexpensive Ways to Breathe New Life Into an Old PC

SSD and Ram in a laptop
Jason Fitzpatrick / How-To Geek

Why buy a new computer when the one you have just needs a little spring cleaning and some inexpensive upgrades to give you many more years of service? Here are some easy tips and tricks to rejuvenate your old PC.

Is Upgrading an Old PC or Laptop Worth It?

If you read tech publications or spend time on computer-centric forums, it seems like the topic of conversation is mostly focused on what’s new, what’s the best, and general chatter replacing old gear with something new.

It’s really easy to get caught up in the idea that you need something new and that everything over a few years old is hopelessly outdated. The reality, however, is that outside of people chasing benchmarks, trying to play new release games in 4K with all the settings maxed, or those dabbling with AI art or language learning models that are very resource intensive, most people simply don’t need expensive upgrades.

You don’t need a cutting-edge computer for day-to-day stuff like browsing the web, watching videos, and playing undemanding but popular games like Stardew Valley. But we understand your computer might feel sluggish after all these years, and you’d like to give it a little boost. So let’s look at inexpensive ways to make an older computer feel fast and fresh again.

Upgrade the Primary Drive to an SSD

Upgrading your computer’s old mechanical hard drive (HDD) to a modern solid-state drive (SSD) is probably the single greatest PC performance hack around. It works for laptops and desktops alike, and everything from your boot time to your day-to-day experience with the computer will improve.

Over the years, we’ve put SSDs in countless old computers for friends, family, and neighbors, and every time the change blows people away. While you can chalk up some of the performance improvement between using an older computer and a newer computer to the general hardware changes over the years, when the older computer has a mechanical hard drive, and the newer computer has an SSD, a big portion of that snappy modern feeling is the SSD. You can get some of that snappy-new-computer feeling by upgrading.

Better yet, the price of SSDs has tumbled over the years. You can pick up a decent size SSD from a reputable company for dirt cheap now. How dirt cheap? Here’s a 480GB Kingston SSD for $26 and a 1TB Crucial SSD for only $52.

Crucial MX500 1TB

This is still one of the best SATA SSDs available, making it a great option for replacing a hard drive in an old PC.

When upgrading an old PC or laptop, there’s no reason to pay $200-400 for the most premium SSD you can find. Just swapping out a dusty old mechanical hard drive for an inexpensive SSD is a massive upgrade.

Here’s how to clone your existing hard drive if you don’t want to start from scratch with your new SSD.

Add More RAM

Upgrading to an SSD and adding more RAM to an older computer is like a one-two punch to significantly boost performance.

In the worst-case scenario, if you don’t have enough RAM for the operating system and applications you’re trying to run, you’ll run into crashes at the application level, or the whole computer might crash. Better-case scenario: the computer keeps running but constantly bumps into the limitations of the RAM, and an excessive amount of resources are chewed up just moving data in and out of the RAM in an attempt to optimize it. Even though that nice new SSD will make that a more pleasant experience than you’d have with your old HDD, it’s still not ideal.

Like SSDs, the prices are quite reasonable if you’re not shopping for the newest and most cutting-edge stuff (which, if you’re upgrading an old laptop, is hardly a concern). Jumping from 8GB to 16GB of RAM is a huge performance boost for an old PC and one you can easily make for around for as low as $20-40, depending on what kind of RAM you need. Here’s a basic Crucial-brand laptop 16GB (8GB x 2) kit for only $35.

You’ll need to shop carefully to buy the right memory for your particular machine, but it’s a modest effort and expenditure for a solid upgrade.

Audit Your Startup Programs and Installed Apps

Whether you’re trying to speed up an old or a new computer, it’s always wise to audit your startup programs. But it’s especially wise on older computers as there has been more time for more clutter to accumulate.

Haven’t used iTunes in ages? Why is it installed, and why do a handful of iTunes helper applications need to load every time you start your computer? The same goes for any other old apps taking up a lot of disk space, launching on startup, or both.

If you’re not actively using something as part of your day-to-day workflow, there’s no reason to have it (or a helper app related to it) load every time you start your computer. And if you’re not using the application anymore, get rid of it. Here are some tips for Windows and macOS to help you tidy up.

Wipe the OS and Start Fresh

Removing things from your system startup and tidying up is great, but sometimes what you really need is a fresh start where all the years of digital debris, seen and unseen, are stripped away.

This is especially useful if you’re refreshing a prebuilt PC or a laptop that came loaded with lots of bloatware you don’t need or want.

Ideally, you don’t want to restore from a backup or recovery disc that will just re-install all the bloatware you’re trying to get rid of. Instead, it’s best to do a fresh installation of the operating system or to use something like the “Reset This PC” function in Windows to wipe it back to a fresh bloatware-free installation.

Consider a Different OS Altogether

Windows 10 runs really well on old hardware—especially with an SSD upgrade—but if you’re trying to breathe life into hardware struggling with Windows, you might want to consider a different operating system altogether.

There are lightweight Linux distros like Puppy Linux that can run on older hardware. If you’re looking for more of a Chromebook-like experience that turns an old computer into a cloud terminal, you can always take Chrome OS Flex for a spin.

This option is great for really old hardware, but if you’re not ready to jump to a different operating system and give up a familiar workflow as well as certain apps or games that are likely not available on the alternative OS, then it’s worth checking off everything else on our tips list first.

Clean Out the Dust

Computers are really good at protecting themselves from benign neglect, and one of the ways that do that is to automatically throttle performance if things get too toasty.

Sometimes, there are no obvious warning signs. The computer just runs slower, tasks seem to take longer, and so on. One the extreme end of things, if you’re dealing with a laptop with its tiny exhaust fans clogged with dust bunnies, the computer might outright crash because of high temperatures but that’s usually not the case.

Opening up the computer and thoroughly cleaning it with an air compressor or can of compressed air is a very cheap and very effective way to ensure the source of your performance hit isn’t a CPU cooler so caked with dust, it might as well be wrapped in felt. Cleaning the dust out of a PC is easier than a laptop, but cleaning the dust out of a laptop isn’t as daunting as it seems.

Upgrade the Fans and CPU Cooler

Speaking of the CPU cooler and keeping your temperatures low, if you’re running a computer with the cheap stock fans that came with it and the basic CPU cooler, it’s worth checking to see how much a basic upgrade would set you back.

The difference between the little hockey-puck cooler that came with the PC and something beefier like a tower-style cooler is significant.

While you’re at it, you might consider swapping out or adding case fans. Replacing old fans with something nicer, like quiet, high-performance Noctua fans, will give you move more air through your case with less noise. The nice thing about using quieter fans is you can add them to unused fan openings on your case, and you won’t notice much difference (if any) in the overall fan noise despite using more fans.

Upgrading the ventilation and coolers on a laptop isn’t really an option, but if you’d like to keep your laptop cooler to boost performance, you can always park it on a laptop cooling pad.

Reapply Thermal Paste

If you upgrade the CPU cooler, you’ll have to replace the thermal paste. But if you’re not upgrading the CPU cooler, it’s not something that might cross your mind.

Thermal paste doesn’t last forever. Over years and years of use, it can dry out or otherwise lose effectiveness. It might not seem like a big deal if your thermal paste shrinks a little as it dries out, but every bit of contact between the CPU and/or GPU chips and their cooling apparatus is crucial.

“Repasting” is the process of cleaning off the old thermal paste and applying new paste. It takes a little more effort than dusting out your PC, but you can get a tube of high-quality thermal paste for under ten dollars.

Upgrade Connectivity with USB Dongles and Expansion Cards

Sometimes our motivation for upgrading isn’t that the computer is too slow to do what we want but that it simply lacks the necessary ports or connectivity standards we need.

For example, if nearly all your devices now use USB-C connectors and cables, it can be annoying that your old PC is stuck with basic USB ports. Fortunately, it’s easy to add USB ports to a desktop computer with an inexpensive expansion card like this model that includes USB 3.0 and USB-C ports.

The same goes for things like missing Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connectivity. Let’s say you’d like to use Bluetooth accessories with your old computer but it doesn’t support Bluetooth. No problem, adding Bluetooth to a PC is as simple as buying a cheap Bluetooth adapter.

The same goes for adding Wi-Fi—adapters are cheap and plentiful. You can add Wi-Fi to a computer without it (or with outdated Wi-Fi hardware) by adding a USB adapter or a dedicated Wi-Fi card. Just because your computer predates Wi-Fi 6 doesn’t mean you can’t give it a little upgrade.

Replace the Monitor and Other Peripherals

I have more than a few old laptops hanging around that, from a raw processing power and performance standpoint, have a lot of life left in them. But the screen quality and size, as well as the physical build of the laptop (cheap chiclet keyboard, generic trackpad, etc.), all leave a lot to be desired.

You might have something similar to say about your old laptop or desktop: that it’s not necessarily the speed with which a particular application opens that has you thinking about a new computer, but the dull-looking screen, mushy keyboard, or other issues that aren’t directly related to the internal hardware. It’s worth getting a new mouse and keyboard if your old ones are unpleasant to use. Life’s too short for the misclicks of a worn-out mouse.

Monitors have improved substantially over the years, and it’s worth swapping out that old budget monitor with a newer model or docking your laptop so you can use a proper keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Freed from tiny keyboard and cruddy screen on your old laptop, you’ll likely find you enjoy using it a lot more.

Updating your monitor isn’t cheap compared to, say, dusting out your PC or picking up a $50 SSD, but it’s a great upgrade, and unlike device-specific updates (like RAM that will only work in your old laptop, but not a future replacement) you can use the monitor, as well as the new mouse and keyboard, with any computer or laptop in the future.

However you approach our list of tips, though, we’re sure you’ll be able to squeeze a little bit more performance out of your old hardware. Maybe all your old PC needs is an SSD and some extra RAM to help you cruise along until questions like “Should I buy a new computer for Windows 12?” are serious considerations.

 

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