If you're like us, you appreciate the rewards that come from a bit of DIY when it comes to computers. Rather than throw things out and start again, get your hands dirty and you'll probably even come out the other end a bit wiser.
With that in mind, here is a roll-call of basic and common upgrades and tweaks to give your system a new lease of life.
1 INSTALL MORE MEMORY
The shift to 64-bit operating systems has pushed the RAM ceiling beyond 4GB, allowing us to take full advantage of those empty DIMM/SODIMM slots. Although applications that really take advantage of anything more than 4GB are still disappointingly rare, users of photo-, video- and music-editing software are most likely to benefit from those extra gigabytes, as will certain games, which use spare memory for caching.
To guarantee maximum stability and performance, all the memory modules in the PC should be identical. Diagnostics apps such as Piriform’s Speccy
will reveal the quantity, type and speed of RAM currently inside your PC and the number of vacant slots on your motherboard. Make sure you buy the correct type of RAM (DDR3, for example) for your PC; quantity is more critical than the speed of the DIMMs/SODIMMs.
2 PIMP YOUR CASE
It might seem the preserve of fans of our sister title Atomic, but there are plenty of subtle mods that can give your PC a tasteful, unique makeover. If you’re working on a budget, then case lights are surprisingly affordable: you can illuminate the inside of your machine with LED strips, fans or cables for less than a takeaway pizza.
If you have more cash to burn, then there are ways to give your PC a seriously impressive bespoke makeover. While some companies can build custom cases for you, there’s a lot of fun and satisfaction to be had from making your own. Our sister title Atomic
is a great place to start. It isn’t always cheap but, if you’re after a customised computer, it’s the price you’ll have to pay.
3 FIT A MODULAR PSU
Standard power supplies have enough cables to cater for a fully kitted-out PC, but in reality most of us use barely half of them. The unused cables just dangle, or get lashed together and shoved in a drive bay, or even Sellotaped awkwardly to a side panel. Upgrading to a modular PSU eliminates this problem: every cable is detachable, so once you’ve hooked up all your components you can remove the unused cables and put them in a cupboard out of the way. If you add a drive later, just plug in another cable.
4 CONTROL YOUR FANS
If you’ve spent time replacing the cheap fans that arrive with your PC, then it’s worth investing in a fan controller, too. Most can be fitted in a spare drive bay at the front of your chassis and, like other upgrades we’ve mentioned, they’re surprisingly cheap: spend less than $40 and you’ll net a controller that will independently adjust the speed of three case fans. More intricate models offer a wider array of options. Some will control more fans and others, such as the $60 NZXT Sentry 2 units, take over two 5.25in drive bays with an LCD panel that provides information on fan speed and component temperature.
5 REPLACE CASE FANS
If your PC sounds like it was manufactured by Dyson every time you ask it to do something more demanding than spellcheck a Word document, it may be time to replace your case fans. The stock case fans provided inside most PCs are largely chosen for their cost-effectiveness rather than their acoustics, but it’s relatively cheap to upgrade your case fans to something that’s a little kinder on the ears.
Our very own modder and regular contributor Mike Jennings swears by the Silent Eagle SE fans from Sharkoon
. Just make sure that you have enough fan connectors on your motherboard if you’re planning to add fans to your PC – to accommodate an overclocked processor, say.
6 SOUNDPROOF YOUR SYSTEM
Passive parts make sense if you have a modest PC but, if your machine is packed with high-end gear, this isn’t possible – you’d need heatsinks bigger than a League player’s salary. Why not soundproof your system instead?
The first port of call should be sheets of foam that can be attached to the various interior surfaces of your PC – ideal for absorbing much of the noise that emanates from hard-working processor and graphics card heatsinks. Firms such as Akasa
sell noise-reduction kits that include rubber fan mounts, screws and grommets for your hard disk, and even feet for your case. They’re all designed to reduce vibrations from key parts of your PC and, at less than $50, they’re worth buying if you’re serious about silence.
7 TIDY YOUR CABLES
Your case might spare your eyes from the jumbled mess of cables running loose inside your PC, but you can probably hear the end result: your fans whirring as they try to compensate for the restricted airflow inside your system. A nice, tidy interior won’t only help minimise fan noise, it will make it far easier to perform internal upgrades, too.
There are all manner of cable-tidying solutions available, including split loom and spiral-wrap cable covers, cable braids, or plain zip-ties and Velcro. Our own John Gillooly has written an excellent piece on keeping cables neat and tidy
when building a PC.
8 OVERCLOCK YOUR PROCESSOR
Recent developments have made overclocking an easy way to extract extra performance from your PC. UEFI software has replaced the archaic BIOS systems with graphical, mouse-controlled interfaces that are much easier to use for overclocking.
To make life even easier, overclocking is now merely concerned with base clocks and multipliers, instead of the myriad settings of yore, with these two figures combining to create your overall clock speed. Take Intel’s Core i5-2500K, which has a base clock of 100MHz, a multiplier of 33 and a base clock of 3.3GHz. Up the multiplier to 40 and, provided it has enough voltage, it will run at 4GHz.
Other types of processor are also fair game; older Intel chips are usually good for tweaking, as are Black Edition or Bulldozer AMD chips, which are unlocked out of the box.
Overclocking will usually void your warranty, so bear that in mind, and the increased heat coming off the chip means you might have to invest in a beefier CPU cooler. There’s no need to spend a fortune here, though – capable heatsinks can be had for quite cheap. PC & Tech Authority contributor Darien Graham-Smith has written extensively on the subject back in issue 166 of the magazine.
9 BLOW AWAY THE COBWEBS
Excessive dust can cause your components to overheat and surrender – inevitably at the most inopportune moment possible. A can of compressed air can save you from a much more expensive trip to your local PC or office supplies retailer. Switch off your PC, remove the case, take care to ground yourself to avoid any nasty static surprises, and deliver a consistent blast of compressed air around the key components: power supply, fans, graphics card, disk drives and any other dust-accumulating nooks and crannies.
Go easy: hold the can a good 3-4in away from the components and take particular care with fan blades and sensitive connectors that won’t take kindly to an aggressive wind stream. Laptop owners should probably steer clear of such treatments.
10 INSTALL A BETTER BATTERY
By and large, laptop and netbook manufacturers will put a low-cost battery in your PC, which usually means a three-cell battery as standard. But many manufacturers will also offer a six-cell option that could effectively double the battery life of the laptop – and not always at an enormous premium.
Don’t be frightened to shop around: there are several sites that offer batteries for significantly less than the manufacturer. Just make sure you check the battery matches your exact model of laptop – even different laptops in the same range can use different types and shapes of battery.
11 GO PASSIVE
It isn’t an option if you’re running a powerful machine, but if your PC is more modest then making it silent is an easy and effective change. As long as you have room in your case for a large chunk of aluminium then a passive processor cooler can be used to tame all but the most powerful of chips, and fanless power supplies are just as common – even if they don’t provide as much raw power as active models. Second-generation Core i5 processors are the most powerful CPUs we’ve seen with passive cooling; forget it if your graphics card has any more grunt than a Radeon HD 6870.
The stock coolers that arrive attached to graphics cards can be replaced by passive models, too. They’re not expensive, are easily located online and can be attached to current-generation cards, although the most powerful chips from AMD and Nvidia are simply too hot for passive coolers to handle.
12 WATER-COOL COMPONENTS
Chilling hundreds of dollars’ worth of intricate electronics with water might not seem like the most sensible idea, but modders have been liquid-cooling for years – and now it’s easier and cheaper than ever.
Experienced companies such as Corsair and Antec produce products that require little more installation than the average air cooler. They’re assembled straight out of the box, with a small reservoir and radiator that can be attached to your case’s rear 120mm fan mount and a waterblock that screws onto your motherboard. They’re especially effective if you’re running an overclocked processor, and they also mean there’s no need to have a huge heatsink taking up space smack bang in the middle of your case – handy for access to your DIMM sockets.