Most people who don’t consider themselves PC buffs buy a pre-built PC. These PCs come with all the parts assembled and ready to use.
The plug-and-play functionality is one of the most compelling reasons to buy a pre-built computer, especially if you don’t participate in any intensive computing tasks.
But, what if you bought a pre-built PC and now you want to upgrade? Do you have to buy a whole new PC?
The good news is that with a little finagling, you can actually upgrade your pre-built PC!
What’s in a Pre-Built PC?
Pre-built PCs generally come with parts purchased and assembled by a specific company. These parts are selected from in-house stock or partner companies’ stocks.
Since pre-built computers generally have parts from the brand they were assembled by, people buying pre-built PCs don’t get the same vast selection as those who self-build their PCs.
Due to the manufacturer’s loyalty that occurs with pre-built PCs, it’s imperative that you check your PC parts’ compatibility with any parts that you want to buy.
Not all PC parts are compatible with each other and you may need to buy more parts than you first thought to upgrade your PC. As a result, upgrading a pre-built PC can sometimes be more expensive than building your own PC from the get-go.
This is not to say that upgrading a pre-built PC is difficult. It’s quite simple once you overcome the hurdle of compatibility.
This issue is relatively rare in modern pre-built PCs which use parts that are standarised. However, people looking to upgrade older pre-built PCs will need to ensure that their new parts are compatible with their old ones.
Using a website like PC Parts Picker can help you determine your computers’ compatibility. PC Parts Picker is an aggregate website of PC Parts that calculates and displays their compatibility with each other.
When choosing what parts to upgrade, you’ll want to ensure that you select parts that are easiest to replace.
Now that we’ve covered what makes a pre-built PC different—and sometimes challenging—to upgrade, let’s cover all the parts you could potentially upgrade and what you’ll have to do to do so!
Upgrading Your Power Supply
Upgrading your power supply is one of the first things you should look at.
Many pre-built PCs come with off-brand power supplies that are manufactured by the company. These stock power supplies often pack exactly enough power to run the components and no more.
So, if you upgrade your PC with a part that requires more power, it will drain your power supply and could damage it in the longer term.
What Kind of Power Supply Should I Buy?
Most PCs will run fine with a power supply that provides around 750 watts of power. If you have a super-high-end graphics card, multiple SSDs, HDDs, or graphics cards, you might want to get a power supply that supplies more power.
Upgrading Your CPU
The Central Processing Unit (CPU), or the computer’s “brain,” is one of the most popular parts of a computer to upgrade. You’ll need to select a CPU that supports your motherboard’s chipset if you’re planning to upgrade your CPU.
Chipset and socket compatibility is less of a problem with AMD CPUs and their associated motherboards than with Intel CPUs. For instance, a pre-built PC that has only a Z370 chipset won’t be compatible with 10th-Generation Intel CPUs since they use a Z490 chipset.
CPUs can also be incompatible with other components. So, ensure that your CPU is compatible with all the components and future components of your PC.
Once you’ve confirmed compatibility, it’s pretty easy to change your CPU out. You just take the cooler off the old CPU and socket the new one in. Remember not to press down on the CPU when laying it in the socket. It’s not meant to click into place or move. It just needs to sit flush on the chipset.
Upgrading Your Graphics Processor
Before you can upgrade your GPU, you’ll need to ensure that the GPU you’re buying is going to be compatible with the motherboard’s PCIe slots. You also need to make sure that your power supply can provide enough power to run the GPU you’ve selected.
PCIe slots are the place where you socket various types of additional computer appliances. While most modern GPUs are compatible with PCIe slots that are generation 3.0 or newer, older pre-built computers may not have access to more modern PCI slots.
GPUs, especially modern ones, can also suck a massive amount of power out of your power supply. This can cause the power supply to run at a higher rating than it’s safe for and result in the power supply dying from overwork.
Upgrading Your Storage
If you’re out of storage, the good news is that storage is one of the easiest parts to upgrade. You’ll need to ensure that your power supply is adequate to support more storage devices, but you can easily swap out your pre-built computer’s HDD for a larger SSD without worrying too much about straining your power supply.
You’ll want to open up your case and ensure that you have a compatible port. Most SSDs and HDDs use SATA (Serial Advanced Technology) inputs to connect them to the motherboard. If you’re willing to reinstall your operating system, you can even reuse the SATA cable that came with the original HDD installed in your pre-built PC.
Upgrading Your RAM
RAM stands for “Random Access Memory” and that’s where your computer stores all the information that you download when using the computer. Everything you search for on the internet gets stored in your RAM. When you turn off your computer, the computer wipes the RAM in preparation for your next session.
When your computer’s RAM is filled up during a session (like mine is, right now, almost assuredly) the computer will overwrite what’s already written to the memory. You can’t save anything that’s stored to your RAM because it will be overwritten or wiped; you have to save files you want to your hard drive or solid-state drive. These are permanent storage options that won’t be wiped when you shut your computer down.
When replacing your RAM, you’ll have to ensure that the RAM you buy is compatible with your motherboard. The most recent RAM sticks use a socket technology known as DDR4 which allows them to connect to your motherboard. However, older pre-built PCs may still have DDR3 slots. Since DDR4 RAM is not backward compatible with DDR3 slots, you’ll need to either upgrade your motherboard or downgrade your RAM.
Is It Worth It to Upgrade Your Pre-Built PC?
This really depends on whether your pre-built PC is more modern or older. If it’s older—say more than six or seven years old—you’re almost certainly better off just building a whole new PC from the ground up.
As parts move from being industry-standard to relative obscurity they become harder to find and more expensive. This means that if your PC is only equipped with DDR3 slots and older CPU chipsets, you’ll need to buy parts that conform to those standards, and those parts may be hard to find. When a part is hard to find, it becomes much easier to price gouge the people looking for them.
The other key points you’ll want to consider are what parts came installed to begin with.
Pre-built PCs are intended to provide a PC for the lowest possible cost while maximizing the company’s profit. This means that they’re far more likely to cut corners—such as in the case of the power supply—and other components, like the motherboard, are also commonly built in-house so that they contain only the parts necessary to run the build.
At the point where you’re replacing your motherboard, you’ll pretty much be locked into replacing the entire computer; essentially if your computer’s motherboard is ancient, it’s really only a case at this point for upgrading, and you’d probably have a better experience with servicing your upgraded PC if you bought a full-size or super-tower since the case will be roomier.
If your computer comes with a modern motherboard, you’ll probably only be forced to upgrade your power supply. So, if your computer comes with a modern motherboard, it may be worth upgrading it rather than buying all new parts.
Upgrading a pre-built PC is a great opportunity for any newer PC builders who have a modern pre-built computer that just doesn’t hack it for their tasks anymore.
However, people with older PCs will probably be better served by building their new PC from the ground up.
Still, don’t lose hope! The component market is finally starting to recover from the chipset shortage and the crypto craze. Building a new PC has finally started to become a viable option for everyone again!