The £50 upgrade

Features Mark Pickavance Jan 24, 2013

Mark Pickavance reveals what smart upgrades you can make to a PC for just £50

You’ve just sold that collection of original Guinness bar towels on Ebay, or your myopic Aunt puts a £50 note in your birthday card instead of the £5 she intended. While that amount money might not get you a whole new computer (yet), it might make all the difference to the one you already have. If you use it strategically. That smart purchase might be hardware, software or even a combination of the two. Here are some options, many of which could really make a big difference to a typical PC, if it doesn’t have that specific item already.

An SSD

If there is one item that can make a PC get up and go, it’s an SSD (Solid State Drive). To the hardware of your computer it looks like a hard drive, but inside is flash memory - and no elaborate mechanical mechanism with spinning discs. All they require is that you can connect a SATA hard drive, and you understand enough about computers to clone your existing hard drive to the new one. Once installed you’ll find that the system gets a noticeable kick in the pants, especially in respect of booting up and launching applications. It really is the essential upgrade of the last year or so.

The Good

You could be looking at read performance of 490MB/s and write of 240MB/s, which makes the best hard drive cower in the corner. If you’ve a laptop, you could also find that battery life improves with one of these installed.

The Bad

With only £50 to spend you might find your options are limited especially in terms of capacity. The most you’re likely to see is 30GB or 64GB, which might require you to reorganise your system moving apps and data to D: to make it work.

Recommendations

Here is a selection of affordable SSD hardware that’s all generally good, but of all of these I’d actually recommend the SanDisk 32GB ReadyCache SSD, which is oddly the cheapest. My logic in this respect is that this hardware comes with its own special caching software that allows you to place it alongside existing hard drive without any reorganisation required. As such you get most of the SSD benefits avoiding the major downside. The only catch is that unless your laptop can take two hard drives it can’t be used in that context.

Crucial 64GB V4 SSD
(£47.11 Amazon)
These aren’t the quickest SSD on offer, but you do get 64GB for your money. Read speed is 230MB/s and write is 100MB/s. Avoid the 32GB model, because they’re even slower.

Width: 100mm
Depth: 69.85mm
Form Factor: 2.5” x 1/8H
Interface: Serial ATA-300
Capacity: 64 GB
Random read/write: 10000/2400 IOPS
Three-year warranty

Sandisk 64GB Pulse SSD
(£45.70 Ebuyer)
With a full SATA-III interface and some impressive quoted read performance this looks like a bargain, but note it has lower IOPS than the Crucial V4 and it might not be as quick as you’d expect. But the price is good and the capacity is also reasonable.
2.5” SATA-III SSD
Read 490MB/s Write 240MB/s
Random read/write: 7200/1800 IOPS
Three-year warranty

OCZ 60GB Agility 3 (AGT3-25SAT3-60G)
(£42.99 Amazon)
At least OCZ is being honest when it admits that the capacity of this drive is 60GB, and not 64GB like most suggest. It also uses the excellent SandForce 2281 controller, and because of this delivers some good IOPS random read and write performance. There are faster drives listed, but not at this capacity.

SATA 6Gbps Interface
Sequential R/W up to 180/65MB/s
Random read/write:
10,000/50,000 IOPS
Three-year warranty

Corsair 30GB Nova 2 SSD
(£39.96 Scan Computers)
In terms of performance, this is by far the best SSD, as it offers the best write performance available. The downside is that 30GB isn’t much to fit a system on, and some Windows users might find it cramped with just the operating system on there. If you can shoe-horn your system onto the limited space this drive has, then it will run quickly, though you’ll need to put your apps and data elsewhere.

Sequential R/W up to 280/250MB/s
SATA 3Gbps (SATA 2) connectivity
Native TRIM support (O/S support required)
RAID Support
BGC (Background Garbage Collection)
Three-year warranty

SanDisk 32GB ReadyCache SSD
(£33.18 Amazon)
If you look at the quoted speed, you’ll wonder who would use this as it has great read performance but abysmal writing speed. What’s less obvious, though, is that this drive is designed to work alongside an existing hard drive providing very high read performance for often accessed files. It does that with some special software called ExpressCache, that looks at the files your system uses often and then copies them to the SSD in the background. The result is a major improvement in boot and application launch times, without the pain of a system transfer.

SATA-III
Read: up to 450MB/s
Write: up to 15MB/s
Three-year warranty
Simple plug-and-play caching device to boost PC performance
Teams up with your existing hard drive
Accelerate your desktop computer without replacing your hard drive
Faster boot/shut down times and improved application response times
ExpressCache software by Condusiv Technologies uses caching algorithms to automatically manage your data/increase performance

A better video card

A new video card won’t generally improve the performance of the PC, unless you’ve got a very nasty integrated solution by say, Intel, per chance. What it might do is enable you to play 1080p video smoothly, and it could also improve the resolution and detail that you can experience games. If you don’t play games or watch videos on your desktop PC then look to spend elsewhere, but for those that do £50 can go a surprisingly long way in GPU terms these days.

The Good

A discrete video card can take much of the effort required for rendering video and 3D away from the CPU, allowing it to do other things. As such, the system will seem smoother and less prone to bottlenecks; your CPU might well run cooler, too.

The Bad

Don’t expect miracles at this price point, as there will be limits to what resolutions and settings are playable. The PC will also consume more power with a better GPU, and generate more heat. Some cards might even require a bigger PSU than you’ve currently got installed.

Recommendations

Researching this article I was struck by just what great video you can get for less than £50, the majority of which is substantially better than even the very best integrated solutions (like the AMD Fusion APUs). Here are four of the best - if I was forced to make a choice I’d punt for the Gigabyte 6670, which for the money is an absolute bargain.

Sapphire HD 6570 1024MB GDDR3
(£49.99 Overclockers UK)
The AMD HD 6570 GPU isn’t the latest technology, but it’s sufficiently recent that it is still relevant. The 650MHz Northern Islands (Turks Pro) GPU has 480 Stream Processors, and 1GB of DDR3 Memory attached by a 128-bit bus.
Sapphire’s version comes with VGA and HDMI, but no DVI. Good for video playback and modest gaming. A good card, and small enough to go in any system with a PCI Express slot.

650MHz core clock, 40nm chip
480 stream processors
1024MB, 128-bit DDR3, 1800MHz effective
AMD CrossFireX compatible
PCI Express 2.0
DirectX 11
D-Sub (VGA), HDMI 1.4a
OpenGL 4.1
Shader Model 5.0
Two-year warranty

KFA2 GeForce GT620 2048MB GDDR3 64-bit
(£44.99 Overclockers UK)
If you prefer Nvidia over AMD, the GT620 is what £50 will buy you these days. But if I’m brutally honest on Nvidia’s behalf, the technology in this card is actually a rebadged GeForce GT 530. That said, it does have 96 CUDA cores, 2GB of 700MHz DDR3, and both VGA and DVI outputs. Not a bad card, but not really at good at games as some of the AMD options for the same money. This design is somewhat crippled slightly by the lack of memory bandwidth, so gamers should look elsewhere.

96 CUDA cores
700MHz core clock
2GB DDR3, 64-bit, 667MHz (effective)
5.3GB/sec memory bandwidth
DirectX 11
Dual DVI-I/VGA outputs
49W TDP
Two-year warranty

Zotac GT 630 Synergy Edition 2GB DDR3 Dual DVI HDMI PCIe Graphics Card
(£45.44 Ebuyer)
Anyone without technical knowledge might wonder if there’s much difference between the GT 620 and GT 630, where there’s actually lots. At its heart this is a rebranded GT 440, which is even older tech than the GT 620, but original card wasn’t a poor performer. It’s still DDR3 based, but has a fast clock, faster RAM, the same number of shaders, but crucially it’s has 28.8GB/s memory bandwidth. That makes it substantially better at gaming and a better option than the GT 620 at whatever price, but not as good as the HD 6570 or 6670.

96 Stream Processors
810 MHz Core clock
2GB DDR3, 128-bit,1333MHz
DirectX 11
OpenGL 4.2
Dual DVI, mini-HDMI
Max Resolution: 2560 x 1600
PCI Express 2.0 x16 cCompatible with 1.1)

Gigabyte HD 6670 AMD Radeon Graphics 1GB
(£48.78 Scan Computers)
When I first saw this card I thought it was a mistake, but no, it’s a HD 6670 for less than £50! This is a true middle order card and, as such, you get an 800MHz Turks XT GPU, wired to 1600MHz DDR3 RAM on a 128-bit Memory bus. That’s 64GB’s of memory bandwidth and 480 shader cores to kick pixels around. You also get VGA, DVI and HDMI output, and it can be used in CrossFireX mode. 

The only downside is that it need a minimum of a 400 watt PSU, which might scupper it for a few potential upgraders. The best video performance on offer, and great value for money.

480 stream processors
800MHz GPU
1GB DDR3, 128-bit, 1600MHz (effective)
Dual-link DVI-D, D-Sub (VGA), HDMI
Support CrossFireX and Avivo HD
DirectX 11
PCI Express 2.1

Hard drives

Unless they’re so small that you’ve not got a later use for them (which, in time, eventually happens), buying hard drives is very rarely a bad idea. What isn’t a good plan is to run a system with a drive that’s more than 80% full, as you soon run into performance issues from the amount of fragmentation going on. A new drive could be the best option, even if it just gives you more space to divide and conquer your data demons.

The Good

A new drive is probably faster than the one in your system, and therefore it could give a performance boost. You could also move the swap area to the second drive and gain some speed through that. With SATA, installing the drive is very easy and even those who don’t normally open their computer should be capable of adding a drive.

The Bad

Adding any item to your system does make it more complicated, and as such isn’t without some drawbacks. Depending on what you want to use the drive for you might need to clone your existing system to it, or reorganise to make use of the extra space. If you already own an identically-sized mechanism you could RAID stripe for performance or resilience, but that would mean entirely rebuilding the computer.

Even adding the drive for general use will require you to use ‘Disk Management’ to format the drive, which some users will have never seen on their systems.

Recommendations

I have a simple rule for buying hard drives, and that’s to get as much space as possible without paying silly money. With only £50 to spend the options are limited, but you can still get a good drive for the money. Here are a few you might consider:

Seagate 500GB Barracuda OEM
(£39.99 Play.com)
The Barracuda series has been a stalwart of computers for donkey’s years, and this 12th generation model is both fast and generally reliable. 500GB is plenty to install a system on, and the SATA-3 interface delivers the best performance you can expect from one disc platter and two heads.

500GB capacity
3.5” SATA-3 - 6Gbps
7200rpm
16MB cache
8.5ms access time
One-year warranty

Toshiba 500GB DT01ACA050
(£43 Ebuyer)
The same capacity as the Seagate, but more cache memory make this a marginally more attractive proposition. It also uses only 6.4 watts in random read and write operations, which is modest for a desktop drive. For those who are paranoid it also comes with a two year warranty.

500GB capacity
SATA-3 - 6GB/s
7200rpm
32MB cache
Two-year warranty

Western Digital 500GB Caviar Blue
(£47.02 Ebuyer)
Western Digital offer drives in Black (high performance), Blue (general use) and Green (economy power) models, and this one is the middle child of that family. The 16MB cache doesn’t make this the quickest drive you’ll buy for less than £50, but that’s offset by the biggest warranty, which could be worth lots in reliability terms.

3.5” SATA-3
7200rpm
16MB cache
8.9ms access time
Two-year warranty

Water cooling

I’ve built a few water cooled rigs in my day, and in generally they work better than the idea of combining liquid and electricity might first suggest. These days, rather than cutting and fitting your own plumbing, you can buy sealed systems that don’t need a reservoir or topping up. They offer significant advantages over air cooling, and they’re quite affordable.

The Good

Greater cooling for hard working systems, and quieter than most air cooling solutions. Can be used for the CPU and GPU, or both, and is ideal if you intend to overclock either of those parts. Better than any stock air cooling, and quiet too.

The Bad

Leaks are deadly, but sealed systems shouldn’t ever have them. You need a case that’s large enough to mount the radiator, so putting it in every computer isn’t possible.

Recommendations

I could only find one water cooling solution under £50, but it’s a reasonably good one so it is worth a mention.

Intel Liquid Cooling Solution RTS2011LC Liquid cooling system
(£46.85 from Aqa Labs)
As this unit is made for Intel, you won’t be surprised to find that it’s made to support only its range of hardware, and turns it back on anything made by AMD. That said, it does connect to LGA 2011,1366,1155 and 1156 systems, so any Intel kit in the last few years should be able to accept this modification.

The cooler was made for Intel by Asetek, and as they made the Corsair H50 and H70 models, they’ve got some experience in this area. The radiator assembly is designed to fit a 120mm fan position on the rear or roof of a case, and it should fit into most midi-towers reasonably comfortably. Compared with expensive air coolers it also provides more space around the CPU area, allowing for bigger RAM modules to be installed. 

You buy water cooling to keep the system from overheating, though, and this unit does that reasonably well without being exceptionally noisy in the process. It might not compare with more expensive water cooling solutions, but it’s a good alternative to spending £50 on more air cooling.

Optical drives

Most systems come with an optical drive these days, so why would you reasonably want another? Well, it could be that your existing drive isn’t as quick or reliable as you would like - or that it won’t read some of your media, Blu-ray for example. Another good reason is that having two drives greatly simplifies the duplication of discs, by providing another source mechanism. Whatever the reason, optical drives are relatively inexpensive and blindingly fast these days, so if you’ll be able to get pretty much exatly what you want - and pay for the bus home, no problems.

The Good

A system with two optical drives is always preferable over those with one, as it can be a pain if you have a disc you need to refer and another you’d like to write data to. The latest drives can also write data at speeds that making backing up much less of chore.

The Bad

Adding another internal drive involves cabling inside the PC, and the additional power draw might cause some issues if your system is marginal for power. And, drives that don’t have the right bezel colour can look horrible.

Recommendations

I’ve recommended three drives, each of which offer you something different in terms of functionality and features.

Liteon IHOS104-06 4x BD-ROM OEM
(£29.99 Play.com)
Buying a Blu-ray writer for my budget isn’t possible, but getting a drive that will read the discs is, specifically the Liteon IHOS104-06. Possibly the reason that this drive is so cheap is that it won’t write DVD or CD media either, so it’s purely a reading drive.

However, it does come with a version of PowerDVD that allows you to watch Blu-ray movies on your computer, if it has sufficient video performance. If you already have a DVD writer, and a spare drive bay, then this might be a useful addition.

32x (CD) / 12x (DVD) / 4x (BD)
Internal drive
Black bezel
SATA interface

Samsung SH-224BB/RSMS 24x DVD±RW SATA ReWrite
(£19.99 or cheaper)
The first DVD writer I bought cost a fortune, but this one can be bought at a price that would allow you to have three of them for the £50 budget amount. For a small price you get a burner that can spit out audio discs at 48x, single-sided DVD media at 24x (if you have the right media), and dual layer DVDs at 8x. This is also a retail box price, not OEM, so it comes with three coloured bezels to make sure it looks great in your computer.

DVD±RW(±R DL)/DVD-RAM -
5.25” x 1/2H
48x (CD)/16x (DVD) Read Speed
48x (CD)/4x (DVD±R)/8x (DVD±R DL) write speed
24x (CD)/6x (DVD-RW)/8x (DVD+RW)/ 12x (DVD-RAM) rewrite speed
CD Text, CD Extra, CD-DA (audio), CD-I, CD-ROM XA, Mixed-mode CD, Photo CD, Video CD, CD-ROM, CD+G (Karaoke CD), DVD-Video
CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-ROM, DVD-R, DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD+R, DVD+R DL, DVD-R DL

Samsung SE-218BB/RSBS Ultra Slim External DVD-RW Drive
(£31.49 Amazon)
You can buy external optical drives for less than this, but this is an exceptionally nice one that will look classy attached to any system you use it with. Being USB 2.0, this can be used with a desktop system, but the low power consumption of the unit is designed specifically to extend battery life on portable systems, and it’s a perfect for those with a netbook with no internal optical drive. As with most slim designs performance is limited to 24x CD writing and 8x DVD-R, with 6x on dual layer media. Yet it only requires a single USB port for all these operations, and it can write DVD-RAM if you use those. If you’re not yet convinced, it also comes with Nero 10 Essentials for Windows.

USB 2.0 Interface
1MB buffer memory
148mm x 143mm x 14mm
24x (CD)/6x (DVD-R/DVD-R DL)/8x (DVD±R/DVD+RW)/5x (DVD-RAM) write speed

RAM

The cost of memory has fallen off a cliff these days, where you can have frankly silly amounts for relatively little outlay - certainly, our £50 will go a long way, so it’s worth considering if you really need it. For those running a 32-bit OS, the general limit is 4GB, above which the system won’t recognise the extra RAM. For those with 64-bit versions of Windows and Linux you can metaphorically fill your slots to their capacity, though what improvements this makes to your system is debateable. If you’ve got 1GB or less, adding more RAM costs little and could make your system much more responsive.

The Good

Having more RAM can stop the PC beating up the hard drive every time it wants more working space, especially if you load lots of software at launch time. With memory so cheap you might as well fill those slots and reap the benefits it will bring. High performance RAM also allows more flexibility if you intend to overclock your system, but is only a very marginal gain if you have no intention of pushing your system in such a way.

The Bad

In short, not all RAM is happy in all systems. There isn’t any point buying exotic 2000MHz RAM if your system can’t use it, or if the module sizes aren’t supported by your motherboard. Do some research before splashing out, to avoid disappointment and expense.

Recommendations

If your PC can’t handle high specification XMS memory then don’t put it in, and check before you buy if the system can handle 4GB or 8GB modules. A tool such as CPU-Z (www.cpuid.org/cpuz.php#about) will tell you what you have installed already, and a quick search with your motherboard name will tell you what’s the best option.
There are tons of excellent choices that are well within the £50 limit, but here are a few options that cover the many deals you can very easily find.

Corsair 8GB DDR3 2000MHz XMS3
(£44.99 Ebuyer)
When I first started reviewing RAM, Corsair’s XMS product line was the best RAM you could get, and it’s still an excellent choice. This 8GB kit (2x 4GB) is their top of the line XMS3 variety, specified to PC3-16000 or 2000MHz running. At that speed it only offers a 9-9-9-24 timing, but you can reduce the clock speed and take faster timings if you wish. As with all Corsair RAM, if comes with a limited lifetime warranty. For the money, this is a great memory option.

2x 4GB Kit
PC3-16000
CL9 (9-10-9-27) 1.65V
Limited lifetime warranty

Patriot 8GB Black Mamba DDR3 2133MHz
(£44 Ebuyer)
If you thought 2000MHz was quick, then you’ve not seen Patriot ‘Black Mamba’ RAM, which is specified to PC3-17000. However, what really impressed us about these modules, is that they only use 1.5 volts, which shows the quality of the RAM they’ve put on these sticks.

The only caveat to running at 2133MHz is that the timing is 11-11-11-27 to achieve this speed. However, when running at 1600MHz it can offer 9-9-9-24 timings instead.

2 x 4GB kit
1.5V Voltage
PC3-17000 (2133MHz)
11-11-11-27 tested timings
Intel 6 & 7 series tested platforms
XMP 1.3 feature overclock

A new operating system

What’s important to say from the outset is that you can get a totally new OS for absolutely nothing, if you’re prepared to join the many people using Linux, of whatever flavour. However, if you must insist on spending hard cash then there is an upgrade you can afford that encompasses Windows.

The Good

A fresh start on any PC tends to make it seem better, or at least quicker for a while. If the new OS is a later version than the one you are using it might also add new functionality and features.

The Bad

Depending on how old your PC is, this upgrade might turn it from being quite usable into a complete slug, especially if you haven’t much RAM or hard drive space. It’s also entirely possible that you have hardware or peripherals for which the new OS doesn’t have drivers. Because of this, it is worth researching your equipment before committing to upgrade. You also might need to fresh install, if you’re running XP, for example. Because of these issues, don’t just jump into this upgrade unprepared.

Recommendations

There is only one, because Microsoft don’t want you buying Windows 7 these days, just their new OS. Windows 8 can be had for as little as £45, though, if you really shop around.

Microsoft Windows 8 Pro Upgrade
(£49.97 Tescos)
The latest version of Windows at a knock-down-get-it-out price. The Pro upgrade can be used to upgrade Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional or Ultimate, all versions of Vista and XP SP3. It will only in-place upgrade Vista SP1 installations, and XP users will need to secure their data and scrap their systems for a bare install. There are also no cross-architecture upgrades from 32 to 64-bit, changes of language, either.

What I’d also recommend is that if you think you may be in the market for this change, go to somewhere that you can experience Windows 8 first - it’s not to everyone’s taste, and it’s not an upgrade you’ll want to regret later. How cheap this upgrade is, given that you get the Pro version of the OS demonstrates how much Microsoft is keen for us all to get this version rather than hanging on to legacy operating systems.

An external drive

if you don’t have one of these, then perhaps it’s about time you considered buying one, as they’re ideal for either securing your data outside the PC, or moving large amounts of data from PC to PC easily.

The Good

USB has made these devices supremely practical, and they are an inexpensive option for keeping a copy of your data ready to access on another system if you have problems.

The Bad

Cheaper drives tend to be USB 2.0 specification, which isn’t super-fast for moving very large amounts of data. The power drain they generate isn’t an issue for Desktop systems but can impair laptop systems using battery power. The easy transportability of the devices can lead to them being easily lost or stolen, so never make them the single location to store anything important.

Recommendations

I wrongly assumed that I would only be able to get USB 2.0 drives for less than £50, though it’s possible to get USB 3.0 if you have that port. What’s also apparent is that external drives are roughly the same price as their internal brothers, although these are all 2.5” laptop mechanisms, which aren’t as quick as raw 3.5” internal drives.

Buffalo 500GB Ministation Plus Black Hard Drive
(£47 Ebuyer)
The Ministation Plus is the latest generation of Buffalo external storage, and in this model you get 500GB of drive space that’s entirely powered by a USB 3.0 interface. That makes it backwards compatible with USB 2.0, but also able to operate at much higher speed for those systems with the blue USB 3.0 port.

Buffalo have also equipped this drive with very handy 256-bit AES hardware encryption, should whatever your putting on the drive be commercially - or, indeed, personally sensitive and need to be protected from prying eyes. For the money, this is a great deal.
500GB external hard drive
82mm x 16mm x 11.8mm
175g
SuperSpeed USB interface (5Gbps)
Windows XP or better, Mac OS 10.4 or better
Two-year warranty

Toshiba 500GB StorE Alu2 
(£39.99 Dabs.com)
It might not have the raw performance of a USB 3.0 drive, but the Toshiba StorE Alu2 is an excellent example of what you can get for well under £50 - and, basically, why blow the budget when you don’t really need to?
The sleek aluminium enclosure will keep the drive safe from accidental damage, and the Toshiba drive is compatible with whatever OS you decide to attach it. If high speeds are not your priority, this is a great buy.

5400rpm
8MB data buffer
On-bus power: Up to 5 W
500GB
Form factor 2.5’’
USB 2.0 power/data connection
129mm x 14mm x 74mm)
175g

Final thoughts

There’s a very good argument that would suggest that you’re better hanging on to your £50, in the hope that you’ll be able to get more for your money in a few months time or some more cash will come along. Conversely, interest rates are very poor these days, so you won’t see it grow by very much sitting in a bank, in fact it will shrink in real terms.
A good investment, like many of the items I’ve mentioned could improve your computing experience and, if you have limited free time, speeding up a system could be the critical advantage you need.

The best choices are those that enable you to either do something that was previously impossible, or even allow you to develop a small business or interest from your computer. In that respect I’d always pick more hard drive space over a new mouse mat, and an SSD over an LED lighting kit - but it’s your money, not mine, and as such you need to make those choices yourself.

What I would do is to strongly consider how you use your PC, what the issues are that you’re encountering, and how best to address them. If that means spending more than this budget then you might need to adjust your expectations, or develop a new plan to build a new computer at some point in the future. Some limitations can’t be easily addressed with £50, or a lot more.

However, wisely used, you can make a big difference to your PC for this amount. Out of all the parts I’ve mentioned here, we’d probably choose an SSD first, and maybe a video card second.

What you need to remember is that eventually a PC will get so far behind the current technology that whenever you spent upgrading it you won’t circumvent the technical limitations it has. When that day comes you’ll need more than £50, but until then I’ve been impressed with what that amount could do for a PC that needs some TLC.