As an IT consultant, I am frequently asked for either an opinion or a judgement call regarding whether or not a system is a better candidate for upgrades, or for replacement. The answer is never absolute, but there are general guidelines and variables to consider.
CPU and motherboard technology has advanced greatly in recent years. The last generation of Intel processors nearly doubled the performance of every processor preceding it. The first easy question is a matter of speed and performance: does your current system provide sufficient processing power to accomplish day-to-day tasks?
The answer to this question will create spinoff questions. If yes, then congratulations, your computer still has life in her, but more questions must be asked. If no, then one must identify where the performance bottleneck is taking place. If the system is several years old and is consistently struggling to keep up with daily demands, then CPU is the likely culprit. If the system suffers only when running multiple programs at a time, then this is due to limited memory.
Any desktop computer consists of the same core parts: processor, motherboard, and memory. Devices such as hard drives, DVD-ROM drives and the power supply can typically remain in place after an upgrade, assuming the power consumption has not dramatically increased. When core parts are upgraded, in most cases it will require other core components to be replaced as well. For example if you were to upgrade a processor from 2008 to a current-generation model, you would also be required to replace both the motherboard and ram to support the upgrade. When replacing these components, replacing the power supply should be considered, but may not be necessary.
Hardware obsolescence and security are a big part of why large enterprises have established system life cycles – usually this cycle lasts about four years. Sometimes less for laptops.
Laptop systems are engineered to be integrated devices and as such, the only user replaceable parts are the hard drive, memory, or battery, which limits the upgrade options available and is another reason why they have a shortened life expectancy.
Hardware prices have come down considerably in recent years. At the time of this writing, Intel has recently released a new processor, codenamed "Sandy Bridge", and the most expensive chip weighs in at about $300, but it outperforms Intel’s own chip from the last generation at well over $1000.
Beyond the hardware limitations, it should be noted that upgrading to a current-generation system will often mean moving to a newer and more secure operating system. In the case of Microsoft, Windows XP is an extremely popular operating system and has been around for nearly ten years. However, the age of the system and the limitations of the software have strained Microsoft to maintain support for it. XP and many technologies contained therein are no longer secure and will not be patched to secure them. Some businesses will require XP because of internal business software requirements, but measures should be taken to ensure security is tightened. Special attention must be paid to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6, which even Microsoft is pushing people to stop using. Despite the much-discussed flaws of Vista, security wasn’t one of them – and Windows 7 has successfully erased the bad taste left by its predecessor.
Apple’s OS X enjoys similar upgrades to its systems. Those who are still using OS X 10.4 do not enjoy the benefit of Apple’s Time Machine backup software, better spotlight search performance, and security among hundreds of other features added. Apple hardware is famously more compatible with their operating systems and do not usually require a hardware upgrade to enjoy an updated operating system.
Another question that might be asked is if there are any recurring issues that would add to the cost of ownership of the older computer.
Some looking to upgrade will ignore a vital part of the process. Will a current-generation system support your peripherals? Many old printers and scanners or other legacy hardware are no longer supported by the manufacturer, especially in light of the push to 64-bit from 32-bit operating systems. 64-bit systems require 64-bit drivers and will not function without them.
As previously mentioned, some applications will only work with older operating systems, for example anything based on DOS or old, unsupported .NET Runtime engines cannot be used in current systems. This has also contributed to software being pushed to "the cloud" since web applications work with any browser or operating system (multi-platform or OS agnostic).
Of course purchasing a new system will usually require a transition or migration. The length of time involved is directly related to the speed of the old system. If the old computer is a circa 2001 Windows 2000 or XP relic, expect things to drag on for a few hours, so the cost of having a technician do this should be considered as part of the bottom line. Even speedy systems will generally take two hours. Every workstation is different and so are their needs, but a minimal migration involves moving files, and configuring email. Using new software will also come with a learning curve – a large one if moving between Mac Linux or Windows PC.
The choice, of course, is up to the owner. Is the system just a play computer or a mission-critical workstation? Does the value of a new computer outweigh the value of upgrading the old? Does the cost outweigh the benefits? The same basic principle of car insurance companies applies here: if the cost of upgrading or repairing the current model is greater than half the cost of a new model, it’s time to write off the old one.
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