Community IT and Technology Local Economy

Before you buy a new computer – read this!

Martyn Welch, IT specialist and Remake volunteer, shares his top tips for reducing IT waste and keeping our devices running better for longer.

Alternatives to a New Computer

Computers are an increasingly important tool, in fact an essential tool for engaging in many parts of our modern lives, something that certainly accelerated in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As someone who has been playing and working with computers for a long time (long enough to remember the BBC Acorn), I can attest to the fact that both the software and hardware that make up a computer have become more complex over the years. As much as it might not seem like it sometimes, these systems are built by mere humans and whilst they try their best, bugs and other issues do find their way in. These bugs are frequently used by malicious hackers to infiltrate other people’s computers with computer malware, frequently attempting to steal passwords and bank account details or causing issues that they can use to force payment from the computer’s owners. It is therefore essential that computer users follow good practices:

  • backup your important documents frequently,
  • be careful what you download,
  • ensure you have up-to-date virus protection, and
  • ensure that your computer is otherwise as up-to-date as possible.

Why might I need a new computer?

With Windows 7 reaching the end of its support in January 2020, many otherwise functional laptops and desktops are no longer receiving security updates for their OS (or “operating system”, the main piece of software running on a computer). These security updates form a very important part of ensuring that a computer remains secure and thus for many this is seen as necessitating the purchase of a new computer.

Likewise, as time goes on and our needs change and grow, we place more demands on our computers, they can often slow down. Many will look for a new device at this point.

Depending on the age of the computer in question and the needs of the user, there may be alternatives to completely replacing what you have.

Firstly, for those still running an older, unsupported, version of Windows, it is possible upgrade many computers to the latest version of Windows – Windows 10 – for a fraction of the cost of a new PC. The “minimum requirements” for Windows 10 do not differ from those of Windows 7, so most systems running Windows 7 should be able to handle running Windows 10.

If your system is already running Windows 10, but is running slowly, there are options that may help. Many of us will have installed extra software on our computers over time. Some of this software may have configured itself to run in the background and may still be, even if it’s not really being used any more.

Ensuring that you don’t have lots of extra bits of software installed and running that you don’t use can be a good first step, freeing up your computer to do the things you do want it to do more quickly.

If that isn’t enough, then there are frequently upgrade options that can be looked at to make your existing computer more efficient.

But please note, before considering many of the options below it would be very much advisable to safely back up any important documents that you have and to consult with someone with established expertise before starting if it would be problematic should something go wrong. 

Why computers slow down

Computers store information about what they are doing in their memory. When tasked with doing lots of different or complex things, the computer can run out of memory and much like us, resorts to writing some of it down. This slows down the computer, but for many laptops and desktops, this memory can be upgraded, with more memory your computer doesn’t so easily reach the point of needing to take the slow steps of writing things down and reading them back a little while later, making them do things faster.

A lot of the time, it may be necessary for your computer to write and read things from its storage. This is unavoidable, but storage technology may have progressed since your computer was bought and there may be options to upgrade the storage in your computer. Many slightly older computers will have “hard drives”, whilst many newer computers will come with “solid state drives”, that fulfil essentially the same purpose, but which can be read and written faster by the computer. Many older computers with hard drives can be retrofitted with solid state drives, making them read and write things faster and thus, again, making it do things faster. (Please note that this will require some significant work as the computer’s software, including its operating system, is stored on the storage and thus will need to be re-installed on the new storage.)

A further option, though typically only an option for desktops, is to see if the processor (the heart of the computer) can be upgraded. For many older systems it may be possible to purchase a more powerful processor second hand to replace the existing one and increase the computers speed.

All these options can typically be done at a fraction of the cost of buying a new computer.

If these aren’t possible for whatever reason, or aren’t enough, there may be other (though more invasive) options to gain some extra life out of your existing device. There exists a number of alternative (and free!) operating systems that can be installed on many computers instead of Microsoft Windows. Whilst not having the same selection of software, if you’re OK with making some changes with respect to the software you use and the computer in question is used for modest word processing, spreadsheet work and/or web browsing (including consuming media with services such as Netflix), then these alternatives can provide what is needed and can generally run better on older hardware. These alternatives, such as the various versions of the Linux OS and even operating systems very similar to Google Chrome OS (as installed on Chromebooks) can usually be installed for free, giving what may have been considered an unusable device a new lease of life!

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