PC performance boost: more RAM or a new processor?
January 19, 2009 7:28 PM   Subscribe

How can I find out if I'll get more of a performance boost in my desktop PC by adding more RAM or replacing the processor?

I'm trying to figure out which will give me more bang for my buck in terms of processing speed: adding more RAM or replacing my processor.

Here are my stats: Dell Dimension 4600, Pentium 4 CPU, 3.06Ghz, 1.5G RAM, Win XP SP3; Intel Springdale-G i865G motherboard chipset; NVidia GeForce 7600 GS video card.

I've already added more RAM, but I'm willing to give the processor replacement a go if it's worth it; I just can't figure that out. I use the machine mostly for word processing, email, web surfing, photo editing (I know, I know), and some gaming.

It may be my imagination, but (as usual) the computer seems to move slower every year. Programs take forever to load, images longer to process, occasional minute-long hangups with multiple programs running . I defrag, virus scan. CClean and delete unneeded stuff regularly. What should I do? (Please don't say buy a new one.)
posted by gottabefunky to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Upgrading the machine at this point is a wash. Your motherboard won't support a faster CPU even if one was available. You can add more ram, but you're already past the point of diminished returns.

A CPU/mobo/ram upgrade is the only feasible way to go and at that point you might as well think about an all new computer.

However, if you haven't reinstalled windows in a while, a fresh install will help you regain some lost performance, just be very careful about what applications you install moving forward. Some antivirus apps like Norton often do more harm than good.
posted by wfrgms at 7:40 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

You can get up to 3.8 ghz on a P4 chip... though I think they're still $80 or more. The ram would be far cheaper. If it were me, I'd buy 3 gigs of high-quality ram, and re-install windows, if you haven't done it recently. You may be able to overclock the cpu if you really want to try it, but keep in mind that's an "at your own risk" type adventure.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 7:47 PM on January 19, 2009

I'd bump up the RAM to 3G and reinstall Windows.
posted by sageleaf at 7:50 PM on January 19, 2009

If during these delays you see an assload of disk activity, then more RAM will probably help, a little. A wipe and reinstall of windows and your apps will probably help even more, as 1.5G is a pretty decent amount of memory for XP already. It's a lot of work as you know, because after the reinstall you'll be spending a good part of a day doing all the updates of the OS and your applications, but you'll be leaving off a lot of cruft, some of which is probably responsible for gunging up your system.

A new CPU will do little or nothing -- there probably isn't much of an upgrade path for your socket and chipset, and by now you're bound by disk i/o performance and memory speed more than CPU.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:53 PM on January 19, 2009

Nthing the RAM upgrade. I'll take extra RAM over additional processing any day of the week. No doubt that doing a slash and burn of the OS will significantly help as well, but RAM gets you more bang for the buck than just about anything else.
posted by 8dot3 at 8:00 PM on January 19, 2009

You've gotten as much as you can out of that system, and based on the things you do, I don't see anything that would be *worth* updgrading. Clean install of XP is a good suggestion though. If you're willing to put in a small bit of cash, get a new hard drive, it will probably be twice as fast as your current one.

I would just sell that one or use it as a backup machine and buy a new computer for <$500.
posted by Sonic_Molson at 8:03 PM on January 19, 2009

When you have your maximum amount of stuff open, open up the task manager (press control-shift-escape, left side keys.) Look at the second large graph from the top. It's labelled "Page File Usage" or some such, it actually represents the amount of memory (physical+virtual) that your computer is using.

Is this number > 1.5 gigs? If it isn't, upgrading your memory won't help.

Either way, the P4 is a pretty crappy processor when compared to a C2D or an i7. I'd recommend just buying a new computer. This will get you tremendous gains compared to staying on the same motherboard and upgrading.
posted by reishus at 8:27 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Format and reinstall Windows and bump your RAM up to 2GB. That will keep you going for a while and this is a perfectly appropriate machine for doing what you're doing.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:04 PM on January 19, 2009

Thanks for all the advice. So how does reinstalling Windows help performance exactly?

I don't want Vista, so would I have to buy another copy of Win XP, or can I use my old one again? (And that means I'll have to reinstall everything else, right?)

And any RAM I buy for this one will work on the next desktop I get, right? (Or only as long as it's a Dell?)
posted by gottabefunky at 9:23 PM on January 19, 2009

Oh yeah, I'm using Kaspersky 7, after a debacle with Norton 360.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:33 PM on January 19, 2009

nthing the reinstall, new hard drive option. Grab any drivers and installers for the apps you use on a daily basis, and don't install anything else until you know you need it. The advantage? You're not buying anything that can't be swapped over to a new box when the time comes to make the leap.

A friend of mine in the tech journalism business got into the habit of junking his XP install every six months, because of all the software he'd install and uninstall for review purposes. Nowadays, you can install something like VirtualBox and sandbox off some of those apps.

I hit the end of the upgrade path for my desktop system a few years ago -- Athlon XP 2700, 1.5Gb RAM -- but it still chugs along, in part because I junk . Though the service packs count as newer upgrades, Windows XP is still basically a 2001 operating system, and your hardware's good enough unless your preferred gaming options are particularly demanding. (There's always the issue of perceived slowness if you use other people's newer hardware, but that's not something an upgrade can help with.)

Last thought: some apps do have a tendency to omnomnom memory. (Firefox, I'm looking at you.) If you reinstall and use Task Manager to track memory use, while being conservative about things like browser add-ons or antivirus suites, you should be able to keep XP lean.
posted by holgate at 9:40 PM on January 19, 2009

any RAM I buy for this one will work on the next desktop I get, right?

No: I'm pretty sure the i865G is old school DDR, and new desktop motherboards now use DDR3. You'll pay a premium for DDR RAM these days.
posted by holgate at 9:47 PM on January 19, 2009

So how does reinstalling Windows help performance exactly?

Over time Windows gets cluttered. As you install and uninstall and upgrade and downgrade software and hardware drivers and move files around and generally tinker, Windows, being the slovenly wretch that it is, leaves crap all over your hard drive. The registry - think of it as like an index to your computer - becomes cluttered with garbage entries, signposts pointing to places that no longer exist. It becomes clogged up and weighed down and peformance takes a massive hit. So basically what you're doing is taking it back to square one, and it doesn't have to deal with all those overheads any more.

I generally recommend that people reinstall Windows every six months or so. Make sure you backup all your personal stuff, of course.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:57 PM on January 19, 2009

I don't know when you picked up that machine or how much you paid at the time, but realize that any $400--500 machine will perform substantially better than yours.

You should be able to reinstall your copy of XP, but you'll need a disc and might not have one. If you don't, you should be able to get one by bothering Dell about it. There may be a point in the install process where you are presented with a choice of whether to do a "clean" install or upgrade/repair XP over itself. You want a clean install.

If you get new RAM, you will not be able to install it in any new system.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:36 PM on January 19, 2009

The need to reinstall windows on a regular basis may be somewhat metaphysical, but it's a fact of life.

If you want to get more oomph out of your current hardware, can you see yourself moving to a Linux environment? You will be surprised at how fast and responsive a well-configured desktop can be, since the software isn't written with the assumption that you should throw all your hardware out every two years. I'm typing this on a 3-year old laptop with 768Mb of RAM that, basically, doesn't page to the hard disk EVER.

For most (casual) users, switching to Linux is something of a leap, and it definitely isn't without drawbacks, but things have reached the point where it's perfectly usable for web/media/personal productivity stuff.
posted by ghost of a past number at 10:59 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to chime in and agree that the best thing you can do is reinstall windows and then only the programs you need after that. Your hardware is excellent for your OS and the things you say you are doing with it.

If you are daring and somewhat sensible with your computing, I would turn off real time virus protection in favor of daily/weekly scans during your sleep. Virus protection greatly reduces performance, and frankly, the gains are minimal as long as you primarily interact with trusted sources and don't open really weird e-mails from friends that consist only of attachments (and avoid Outlook in general).

Noscript is an extension for Firefox that stops websites from running scripts that often slow down and interfere with the browsing experience. Of course, it also reduces functionality, but once you create exceptions for the dozen or so sites you use every day, the rest of the internet will be a lightning fast joy to use. You'd be surprised.

Speaking of Firefox, make sure you are using a version 3-point-something, as they made big improvements in memory usage and performance in this version.

If you don't want to reinstall, you can try to limit the number of programs that are running at startup. Look in the lower right-hand corner. Are there a lot of icons? Then there is a lot of junk running that you likely don't need. Right click on them, and if they seem unimportant, look for a way to un-check the option to run at startup.

You can also run something called "msconfig" if you feel comfortable being a little daring and directly remove items from your startup at the most basic level.

But really, a clean install that you then work at keeping pristine is the best choice.

Reinstalling windows also creates an incentive to decouple your data from your operating system, which is just good sense.
posted by Nonce at 11:38 PM on January 19, 2009

Nthing the RAM upgrade. I'll take extra RAM over additional processing any day of the week.

You guys aren't reading the question and actually looking at the mobo's specs, otherwise you wouldn't be giving this sorry ass advice.

Your at a dead in with that motherboard, cpu, and ram. You can squeeze out a little more time by re-installing windows, but you're looking at a completely new system if you want to do it right.
posted by wfrgms at 1:51 AM on January 20, 2009

It may be my imagination, but (as usual) the computer seems to move slower every year.

This is the standard symptom given by Windows when it suffers from accumulated damage to its data files. Your machine's hardware is fine and does not need an upgrade. Reinstalling Windows will bring your machine back to its original speed, and that will be sufficient.

Unfortunately, reinstalling Windows can be difficult, dangerous and long. You will unavoidably be running around the Internet looking for drivers. It's dangerous because, unless you have practice with backups, you will make a mistake and lose some files. And it's long, a couple of hours at least for people trained at it.

My advice would be to buy a new hard drive and insert the old one in a USB enclosure. This will be your backup drive from there on. Then find a friendly techie and hire him to reinstall your Windows.

Microsoft has fixed many bugs in Windows and these days it rarely damage its own data files anymore. The loss of performance you are seeing is usually caused by bugs in third-party programs. The way to avoid this is to be selective in which programs you a note to run on a machine. Ask yourself whether the company behind the software might be incompetent (Intuit) or evil (Sony). Or simply stick with open-source software.
posted by gmarceau at 3:53 AM on January 20, 2009

Your at a dead in with that motherboard, cpu, and ram.

Upgrade-wise, sure, it's a dead end. But performance-wise, the symptoms sound like classic Windows bit rot. There's no reason why a P4 system of that vintage, with that kind of everyday use, shouldn't be fairly snappy in XP. (Gaming's the one obvious exception, but that has nothing to do with the eggtimer.)

You're not going to be able to watch HD video; editing 120MB RAW images may well provoke a silicon asthma attack; you will not be able to run two virtualized OSes at the same time as your host; the prospect of wasting the next couple of months on GTA IV is denied to you. Any or all of these requirements might be a worthy incentive to upgrade. (Believe me, I've been considering it.) But a slow web browser on a 2003 box is not a hardware problem.
posted by holgate at 4:06 AM on January 20, 2009

I'd suggest to get two or three new drives, one smaller one which will hold the fresh install of the OS, one for applications or backup, and a larger one for data/media.

It's a pain to reinstall and get everything set back up the way you like, but it really does help.

In my opinion, your processor is sufficient, I would increase the RAM though. Applications these days use a lot of memory, when physical memory runs out the OS starts using swapping to disk, which severely degrades performance.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 7:55 AM on January 20, 2009

Hmm, I have installed and uninstalled lots of crap over the years. I do keep startup items to a minimum (<1>
I was running Avast and Spyware Doctor before I got Kaspersky - maybe I should go back to those, since I'd have to buy another copy of that 1-install program.

So bit rot would still be a problem even with regular CCleaner registry scrubs?

Linux is probably beyond me.

And - n00b question here - reinstalling XP would only wipe clean my C drive, right? Not touch anything on the other nice fat hard drive I installed next to it last year, with my photos and music &c?
posted by gottabefunky at 3:14 PM on January 20, 2009

reinstalling XP would only wipe clean my C drive, right? Not touch anything on the other nice fat hard drive I installed next to it last year, with my photos and music &c?

Correct. But for laughs, pop the cables out of the second HDD before you do the reinstall. It's the only way to be sure.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:34 PM on January 20, 2009

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