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Should you replace or upgrade PCs?

Are you weighing replacing or upgrading your computers? Find out how to decide between the two options.

Your computers need change. Your business grows and adds people, and you buy new computers. Technological progress, Moore's Law and ever-falling component prices combine to make it nearly impossible that the machine bought today will be identical to the same brand and model number that you bought a year ago. With product lifetimes of just six months, the availability of machines meeting your specifications (whatever those specs are) changes from week to week.

No matter how carefully you plan for growth and change, within a short time you'll end up supporting many different PC configurations. But when existing workers or a group needs newer (faster, bigger, smaller, more powerful, lighter, quieter, insert-your-own-adjective-here) PCs, you face a major question:

Do you simply buy new machines, especially at the never-lower prices of current commodity PCs? Or, does it make sense to upgrade existing systems (more memory, greater disk storage, new optical drives, faster graphics or even more powerful CPUs) without throwing out what you're already using?

Upgrade recommendation: Don't

These days, unless you're changing out a single component or simply replacing a malfunctioning PC part, it seldom pays to upgrade. You can get quality, up-to-date, brand-new computers for a few hundred dollars -- computers that are faster, more powerful and probably cost less than whatever you are already using. Buying new may not actually cost any extra dollars.

Consider a major desktop upgrade: faster CPU, $100 to $150; additional 256 MB or 512 MB RAM, $100 (Surprise! the slower DRAM for your vintage machine actually costs more per megabyte than the faster memory chips in new computers); new 40-plus GB hard drive, $100. We're already up over $300 in hardware.

If you were to open up the old PC and update it, assuming it's a highly qualified person doing the task, it would take up at least two hours of time, which adds another $100 to $200. At this point, we're approaching the outlay for a brand-new, brand-name system with comparable specs.


But that's just the beginning. Say you upgrade a bunch of PCs. This means that you have a box full of old circuit boards (aka hazardous waste), outdated, small-capacity memory chips of little use and less market value and a miscellaneous

When you figure in labor costs, buying a new PC to gain more power
or added capability won't really cost much more than upgrading an older machine.


collection of hard drives. Each of these contains personal information from the previous user and, worse, proprietary and confidential company data on your products, customers and processes.

It's tempting to think that you can recoup at least a part of your expenses to date by selling the old hardware, especially those disk drives, but you still have to guard the proprietary data they may contain. You can't just surplus the stuff and heave it into the dumpster or donate it to your local rehabilitation workshop. No, first you need to completely wipe clean those drives using multiple-overwrite or low-level formatting software, which takes still more time that you have to pay for.

Given the remarkably low cost of disk storage today, the most practical, cost-efficient alternative that protects your company and its data may be to physically smash the drives (via sledgehammer or hydraulic press) so that they can never be used again. Then pay to dispose of the remains properly, because they still contain circuit boards and hazardous waste materials.

Bottom line

The choice seems pretty clear. When you figure in labor costs, buying a new PC to gain more power or added capability won't really cost much more than upgrading an older machine, and you'll end up with faster, newer, better equipment.

There's just one little hitch: What do you do with the old PC? Yes, replacement and upgrading present almost exactly the same data-protection risks and materials-disposal problems, but buying new means even more physical material to dispose of, including the metal or plastic case, the motherboard and the packing and shipping materials. It's worth looking into programs that recycle PCs and components for nominal fees. In the end, you can always pull and smash the old PC's hard drive and then pay someone else to dispose of the old machine.

Russell Kay is a consultant and freelance writer in Worcester, Mass., and a former technical and reviews editor at Byte and Computerworld magazines. Contact him at

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