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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Designing and Specifying PC Systems and Components | Key Non-Performance Issues In PC System Design ]

Expandability and Upgradeability

Expanding a PC system refers to adding components, peripherals or capabilities to it; upgrading usually means replacing existing components with newer ones that are better in terms of performance, capacity, or some other combination of attributes. Both are important factors in the overall value of a PC for many buyers. Having a system that is easily expandable and upgradeable provides you with flexibility. You have the power to add on to your system or improve its capabilities without resorting to the expense of buying an entirely new PC.

Most people don't think about expansion and upgrading at the time they buy a PC; after all, these are activities that take place on machines well after they are purchased. However, if you want to maximize your chances of being able to successfully expand or upgrade a PC in the future, you need to evaluate the system you are considering in terms of how amenable it is to expansion or upgrading. If you don't pay attention to this at the time you purchase, you may regret it later on. This is a common phenomenon, particularly among those who purchase pre-made PCs.

One of the keys to relatively easy expansion and upgrading is using systems that stick to standardized designs; I discuss this in the page contrasting standard and proprietary PCs. However, there are other considerations to take into account as well when designing a system to facilitate expansion and upgrading. In particular, a few components need specific attention when considering this topic:

  • Motherboard: This is the most important component in the PC in terms of allowing expansion and upgrading. The reason is that the motherboard (and its subcomponents) dictate almost exclusively what CPUs, system memory and expansion devices are supported by the system. If you want to leave room for expansion, you must purchase a motherboard that will support not just the processor, memory, video card and other core components you want today, but also those you may desire in the future. See the discussion on specifying motherboards for more details.
  • System Case: The size of the system case, and in particular the number of device bays it possesses, control the number of storage devices you can use in a system. Larger cases are more expandable than smaller ones.
  • Power Supply: Adding hardware or upgrading to faster equipment may require additional power from the system's power supply. Having additional capacity in the supply is a good idea.

When designing a system for expansion or upgrading, you must aim to strike a balance. On the one hand, you want to plan the hardware so that you can do a limited amount of upgrading and expansion in an economical way: for example, to add a hard disk, upgrade to a faster CPU, or add more system memory. At the same time, you don't want to pay hundreds of extra dollars to give yourself this expansion capability. Upgrading a system only makes sense up to a point; you are investing in possibilities in the future, and you don't want to spend too much on that. (See this discussion of planning for the future in PC systems.)

Generally speaking, I usually find a good balance to be to aim for enough flexibility to allow an upgrade or expansion within about a year of the purchase of the system, or perhaps two. Crystal balls get pretty hazy in the PC world beyond about that point, which means you could be paying for expansion capabilities you may never end up using. Of course, this is a personal decision that depends greatly on your specific needs.

Next: Ergonomics and Usability

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