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Tested: Which PC upgrades offer the biggest performance boost for your buck?

Marco Chiappetta | March 24, 2014
Upgrading an aging PC is a bit of a crapshoot. Sure, a faster processor or GPU, more memory, or a solid state drive can significantly speed up a system. But figuring out which upgrade will yield the biggest performance increase depends on your particular use case and other bottlenecks in the rig.

In our tests, upgrading the system's processor resulted in huge gains in the Cinebench CPU benchmark and boosted overall system performance by more than 17 percent. 

Installing the faster CPU also increased transfer speeds on the hard drive, most likely because the drive was also being used as the operating system volume, and background tasks that would interrupt the drive benchmark were minimized with the faster processor.

More memory, Captain!

The baseline system's memory was running at DDR3-1600 speeds — the maximum officially-supported frequency for desktop Haswell processors — but with only one DIMM module installed, it was running in a single-channel configuration, which limits available bandwidth.

We upgraded the system with a second 8GB DIMM (at a cost of about $80), resulting in dual-channel memory configuration and double the amount of memory bandwidth. Additional memory bandwidth helps keep the processor and integrated GPU fed with data, which can increase system performance in many situations.

This upgrade resulted in 17-plus percent performance boost in PCMark 7, and the system's graphics performance — as shown by Cinebench's OpenGL test — also increased significantly.

As SiSoft SANDRA shows, memory bandwidth essentially doubled with the second DIMM installed, which helps graphics performance quite a bit.

Graphics: Going discrete

Most integrated graphics solutions — including our baseline system's Intel HD 4600 — use system memory for graphics operations. That means the integrated GPU is not only taking a portion of system memory, but it's also competing for bandwidth and resources on the system's memory controller. Upgrading to a discrete graphics card with its own on-board memory frees system memory for use by other applications and the OS.

Enter Nvidia's GeForce GTX 750 Ti. Not only is it relatively affordable at about $149, but it's whisper-quiet, draws a mere 60 watts of power, and doesn't require any additional power connections from a PSU. If your system has a PCI Express x16 slot, the GeForce GTX 750 Ti will work in it. Some other discrete graphics cards will require more power, a supplemental power connection (or two), and may force a PSU upgrade as well.

Dropping a GTX 750 Ti in the baseline system resulted in 7 percent overall performance gains according to PCMark 7, but graphics performance in the Cinebench OpenGL test went through the roof. Upgrading to a higher-end graphics card would provide even better real-world results. Available system memory bandwidth also increased by more than 3 percent.

Superfast storage

Hard disk drives have been a stalwart of desktop PCs and laptops for ages. They're dependable and available in huge capacities. But even hard drives with platters spinning in excess of 10,000 RPMs struggle to hit transfer speeds above 230MB/s or so, and access times in the double-digit milliseconds are commonplace.


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