There comes a time in every PC gamer’s life when they realize their gaming PC won’t cut it anymore. When a new triple-A title brings your rig to its knees, you know it’s time to upgrade. Thankfully, the beauty of PC gaming is that improved performance is often just a new component or two away. But that requires knowing how to upgrade your gaming PC in the first place, and that’s not something that just comes naturally.
That’s where our guide comes in. This article should tell you everything you need to know, from identifying the parts holding you back to selecting your new parts. Let’s get started.
What Should I Upgrade on My PC?
Before you start spending money, you need to figure out the essential PC upgrades for your rig. Unless you want to go nuclear and buy a whole new desktop PC, this is a vital step to ensure that you spend your money wisely.
One of the best ways to see what PC components (if any) are holding you back is by checking your CPU, GPU, and RAM usage in a game you’re struggling to run. There are a few ways to do this, but our favorite is RivaTuner Statistics Server’s (RTSS) on-screen display. You’ll need to install MSI Afterburner and RTSS, as we’re relying on Afterburner’s monitoring tools to give us the info we need.
RTSS lets you bring up an in-game on-screen display (OSD) showing CPU, GPU, and RAM usage (amongst other metrics). We’re going to use these metrics to identify the PC parts that are holding our framerates back.
If you’re not keen on installing MSI Afterburner, you can also use Windows’ built-in Task Manager to track these metrics. The Performance tab will show your CPU, GPU, and memory usage, much like the RTSS OSD. However, we think RTSS’ OSD is a lot more convenient, as you won’t have to keep Alt-Tabbing out to check Task Manager.
Identifying GPU Bottlenecks
Let’s illustrate graphics card bottlenecks with Cyberpunk 2077 running at native 1440p with raytraced reflections and lighting enabled. Pay attention to the OSD in the upper right:
As you can see, my GPU—a Zotac RTX 3080 Trinity OC—is at 98% utilization, while my AMD Ryzen 5 5600X is sitting comfortably in the 60-85% utilization range on all cores. This indicates a reasonably well-balanced rig with a minor GPU bottleneck. I’d benefit most from a GPU upgrade here, as my CPU still has enough spare performance to feed a more powerful graphics card.
A decent gaming computer will almost always have a slight GPU bottleneck, so this usage pattern isn’t something to worry about too much. Modern games tend to hit the GPU harder, so maxed-out GPU usage will be the norm. While you’re here, note your GPU temperature, too. You want this to be around 80 degrees Celsius or lower. If not, you may have to address your rig’s cooling.
However, an issue arises when you have a lop-sided ratio of GPU usage to CPU usage. This screenshot from the recent Half-Life Ray Traced source port is a good (if somewhat exaggerated) example:
My GPU is at 99% usage, but my CPU is sleepwalking through the scene with less than 10% usage on most cores. This indicates a severe GPU bottleneck. Half-Life Ray Traced uses pure path tracing for the lighting, which is incredibly GPU-heavy. However, the base game is still the original 1998 Half-Life, so there isn’t much for the CPU to do here.
The simple geometry, small levels, and minimal amount of draw calls mean that the CPU can essentially idle while the GPU breaks its back calculating all the fancy lighting. If I wanted more than 120 FPS in this scene, I’d need to upgrade my graphics card to something with improved graphics and ray-tracing performance.
An RTX 4080, for example, would do wonders here and likely push me close to the 200 FPS mark. A CPU upgrade won’t have any benefit here, as my 5600X is handling the game perfectly well, as the sub-10% usage on the cores shows.
Another GPU-related bottleneck can be your GPU’s video memory (or VRAM). VRAM stores graphics data, ensuring that your graphics card has quick access to information such as textures. Higher settings and resolutions will use up more VRAM. Case in point: Doom Eternal at 1440p and Ultra-Nightmare settings.
In the screenshot below, Eternal uses nearly 9 GB of VRAM (denoted as MEM in RTSS). I’m fine with my RTX 3080, but you will have issues if you’re using a GPU with 8 GB of VRAM or less.
Using more VRAM than is available can result in significant hitches as the game swaps data in and out of slower system RAM. So you’ll want to ensure that your graphics card has enough VRAM to run your games at your monitor’s native resolution and preferred graphics settings.
If you’re regularly using more VRAM than your GPU has, you’ll either have to downgrade settings and resolution or upgrade your graphics card to one with more VRAM.
Identifying CPU Bottlenecks
Let’s look at the other common bottleneck in a gaming system, the CPU. We’ll return to Cyberpunk 2077 to illustrate this. I’ve dropped the resolution to 1366×768 and disabled ray tracing, which reduces the load on my GPU and creates an artificial CPU bottleneck.
Note how the GPU usage is now at 48%, compared to the 98% usage earlier. My RTX 3080 is chilling here. In contrast, my 5600X is working at full blast, with 80-90% usage on all 12 threads.
While the precise percentages will differ, this sort of disparity between CPU and GPU usage is the classic sign of a CPU bottleneck. The CPU simply can’t send data to the GPU fast enough, which stops your GPU from performing as well as it can.
If you see a similar usage pattern in-game when you’re running at native resolution, it’s a sign that you need a new CPU. Upgrading your GPU would be wasteful here, as your CPU simply isn’t powerful enough to supply the GPU with the data it needs.
You should also pay attention to your CPU temperatures, as an overheating CPU will slow down to maintain safe temperatures. The best way to know if it’s running at a reasonable temperature is to compare it with reviews of the same CPU. If it’s in the ballpark, you’re good. If not, you may want to consider a new CPU cooler to avoid any thermal throttling issues.
When to Upgrade RAM and Storage
RAM upgrades are the easiest to judge. Simply look at the memory usage while gaming; if it’s close to or hitting your total RAM capacity, you should upgrade. If it isn’t, you’re safe for the moment and can focus your attention elsewhere.
Storage upgrades are also straightforward, although it depends on what you’re after. Only you can judge if you need more room for games and files, and we recommend you upgrade whenever you feel like your drives are starting to get a bit too full. You can often just slot in a new drive, so it’s a really convenient upgrade.
How Do I Upgrade My PC?
Now that you’ve identified the parts that need replacing, you can start thinking about what parts you want to buy. However, this isn’t just about purchasing the best-performing components; you’ll also need to worry about compatibility.
If you’re a gamer, a GPU upgrade will likely be the best way to improve your computer’s performance. Unless you’re severely CPU bottlenecked, a new graphics card is a great way to boost framerates and enhance the graphical quality of your games.
Getting a new GPU is relatively simple: read reviews and look at benchmarks to find a GPU that’ll offer the best possible performance upgrade within your budget. We recommend sticking to GPUs with at least 8 GB of VRAM, but what else to prioritize is up to you. If you like ray tracing, for instance, you should check ray tracing benchmarks and choose a GPU that excels in those areas.
At the time of writing, Nvidia has a clear advantage in ray tracing and AI-assisted technologies such as frame generation. AMD’s graphics cards lag in ray-traced workloads, but they’re still competitive in traditional rendering. Hence, they’re worth considering if you don’t need all the fancy tech Nvidia’s cards offer. Intel is a distant third here, but its Arc cards continue to improve as the company works on its drivers.
But before you run out and buy a new graphics card, here are a few compatibility issues to consider before you spend your hard-earned money.
First, you’ll want to ensure your new GPU will fit in your PC. This is crucial if you use a smaller Mini-ITX case, as not every graphics card will fit inside these smaller enclosures. It’s less of an issue if you have a standard mid-tower case, but it’s still good to be on the safe side. Monster GPUs like the Nvidia RTX 4090 can be up to 14 inches long, so you’d best ensure you have room before dropping $2000 on a graphics card.
You should also check whether your current power supply (PSU) has enough wattage to support your potential new graphics card. The easiest way is to use a power supply calculator to tell you how much power your upgraded rig will consume. If it’s below your current power supply capacity, you’re good to go. If not, you can opt for a less-power-hungry GPU or upgrade your PSU to match (more on this later).
Finally, bear in mind your current monitor’s refresh rate and resolution. Sure, the RTX 4090 is a beast that can push 200 FPS at 4K in some games, but what’s the point if you’re only running a 144 Hz 1440p monitor? You’ll just be wasting money and electricity rendering frames your monitor can’t display.
Compared to upgrading your graphics card, a processor upgrade is a bit trickier. Choosing CPUs can be a headache, with confusing model numbers and no real way to judge performance based on specs. A 4.0 GHz CPU from one generation won’t perform the same as a 4.0 GHz CPU from another, even if they have the same clock speed and cores.
As with GPUs, there are several compatibility issues to consider when upgrading. First, identify whether your new CPU is compatible with your motherboard’s CPU socket. Intel and AMD CPUs aren’t interchangeable, and you’ll have to stick to the same manufacturer if you want to upgrade your CPU without changing motherboards.
But socket compatibility issues don’t stop there. Even within the same brand, you must ensure that your new CPU is compatible with your current motherboard’s CPU socket and chipset. Let’s take AMD CPUs as an example.
If you’re running an AMD Ryzen 7 3700X, which is an AM4 socket CPU, you should be able to upgrade to a Zen 3 CPU like the Ryzen 5 5600X without changing motherboards. The newer CPU uses the same socket and is backward-compatible with older chipsets.
However, newer Zen 4 CPUs like the Ryzen 5 7600X won’t work, as they require a new AM5 socket. It isn’t physically compatible with the AM4 socket that Zen 2 and Zen 3 CPUs use, so you’ll need an all-new motherboard if you want to buy the 7600X. It’s the same story with Intel, so pay attention to the socket when purchasing a new CPU.
Like with GPUs, the best way to choose a new CPU is to check reviews and benchmarks to identify products that perform significantly better than your current PC’s processor. Ideally, you want these reviews to compare CPUs in the games and productivity tasks you use, whether it’s CS:GO or a video editing suite.
This is the simplest way to choose an upgrade. But if you want the nitty-gritty, check out our guide to choosing a CPU for a complete rundown of all the important specs. Both Intel and AMD make good products, and you can’t go wrong with either brand.
However, depending on your current motherboard, you may find that you don’t have any feasible upgrade options. If that’s the case, you’ll have to start budgeting for a new motherboard to go with a new CPU. Let’s discuss that a bit later.
RAM is one of the easiest (and quickest) upgrades you can make to a gaming PC. It’s not always the most transformative, but adding extra RAM will make a ton of difference if you’re regularly bumping up against your current capacity when gaming.
For most rigs, adding RAM is the most common upgrade you’ll be doing. If you want to add to your existing RAM sticks, buy RAM with the same specs (speed and latency) as your current RAM. Your memory will only run as fast as the slowest kits installed, so there’s no point buying faster RAM if your old RAM is going to hold it back.
To make things simpler, we suggest replacing your current kit instead. Installing a new RAM avoids compatibility issues regarding memory speeds and latency, ensuring your RAM performs at its best.
How much RAM you need will depend on what you use your computer for. However, we consider 16 GB the minimum for a modern mainstream gaming rig. You could also go for 32 GB, but most gaming rigs won’t benefit from that much RAM. No matter what capacity you go for, though, make sure you use two sticks for dual-channel memory.
Upgrading to faster RAM is less common, but it isn’t unheard of. Some games scale incredibly well with faster memory, even on DDR4 RAM, so it may be worth considering if you’re after ultra-high framerates. Generally speaking, though, most of you will only need to worry about RAM speed if you’re running DDR5 RAM.
Moving from DDR5 4800 C40 RAM like this 2×16 GB Corsair Vengeance kit to a DDR5 5600 C28 kit like this 2×16 GB G.Skill RipJaws kit will net you significant improvements in your minimum framerates. It’s a worthwhile investment if you’re running a high-refresh-rate monitor.
The main thing to watch when upgrading RAM is to ensure you’re purchasing the right type of RAM for your motherboard. DDR4 and DDR5 RAM aren’t interchangeable. If you have a DDR4 motherboard, you’ll need DDR4 RAM. The same goes for DDR5.
Physical clearance is another issue. Some CPU air coolers will overhang your RAM slots, limiting you to low-profile RAM kits. Check your cooler’s manual, as it’ll list the maximum compatible RAM height. Stick to this unless you’re willing to change CPU coolers to add more RAM.
Need a bit more help? Check out our guide to choosing RAM for more in-depth info.
There are two main reasons to upgrade your storage. First, you may be running out of free space for all your files and those crazy 150+ GB game installs. In that case, it’s simply a matter of buying a new hard drive or solid-state drive and installing it in your system.
However, if you’re still running games (or your operating system) off of a traditional hard drive, it may also be time to upgrade your storage for performance reasons. Solid-state drives (SSDs) use flash memory, which reads and writes data much faster than the spinning disk in a mechanical hard drive.
This reduces load times and makes your system feel more responsive overall. In some situations, you can even halve your loading times by upgrading to a SATA SSD, which isn’t bad for a cheap upgrade.
There’s no reason not to have at least one SSD in your system, especially considering how affordable they now are. For example, you can get a 1 TB Silicon Power NVMe SSD for around $50, which was unheard of just a few years ago. If you don’t have any NVMe slots, you can go for a 1 TB Teamgroup T-Force Vulcan Z SATA SSD for a similar price.
If you want to add storage, ensure you have free SATA ports of M.2 slots on your motherboard for the new drive(s). If you don’t, you’ll have to replace one of your older drives with the newer one. This usually entails juggling as you shift your old files to the new drive, which can be a hassle.
While SSDs hold the speed advantage, traditional hard drives are still great for mass storage. Yes, SSD prices have come down significantly, but an 8 TB HDD will still be significantly cheaper than a similarly-sized SSD. The faster read and write speeds of SSDs don’t matter much if you’re only storing video and music files, for example, so the lower cost-per-gigabyte of HDDs gives them the upper hand here.
For more info, check out our HDD vs. SSD comparison, where we dive deeper into specs such as transfer rates, reliability, and power draw.
Changing motherboards is one of the most tedious upgrades you can do, as it involves taking apart your entire rig. You’ll have to unplug all your hard drives and SSDs, remove your graphics card, take off your CPU cooler, pull your RAM kits, and even pull your CPU out of its socket.
Swapping motherboards is a last resort, but it’s sometimes the only option. For example, you may not be able to find a drop-in CPU upgrade if you’re running an older motherboard with an outdated CPU socket. In that case, you’ll have to buy a new motherboard compatible with modern CPUs.
Note that motherboards come with different CPU sockets and chipsets, limiting them to products from either AMD or Intel. The product name will indicate the chipset. For example, Asus’s Prime H770-Plus is an Intel H770 chipset motherboard that’s only compatible with 12th and 13th-generation Intel CPUs like the Intel Core i5-13400.
Similarly, the MSI MAG B650 Tomahawk is an AMD B650 chipset AM5 motherboard designed for Zen 4 CPUs like the AMD Ryzen 5 7600. It’s all quite complex, especially if you’re new to motherboards. Thankfully, our guide to choosing a motherboard should fill you in on chipsets, sockets, and other specs to consider before deciding on a new motherboard.
Note that changing motherboards will rarely, if ever, directly impact your gaming or productivity performance. Thus, you should only upgrade if your current board is stopping you from installing the upgrades you want.
Upgrading your power supply unit (PSU) is another challenging PC upgrade. While you won’t have to remove parts (aside from the PSU), switching power supplies in an assembled system involves a lot of fumbling around with cables. Some people (yours truly included) find it incredibly frustrating, so it’s not an upgrade you’ll want to do very often.
Besides, changing your PSU isn’t something that’ll suddenly give you more frames per second or reduce load times. Instead, it’s an upgrade you should only perform when your current part simply can’t handle the new parts you’re planning to install.
In the PSU’s case, you should only get a new one if your current PSU isn’t powerful enough for your new hardware. The easiest way to determine whether you’ll need a PSU upgrade is to use a power supply calculator. Select your parts from the drop-down menus and see how much power your new, upgraded rig will draw.
If your new rig draws more power than your PSU currently outputs, you’ll need a new power supply. If not, you’re good to go. That said, we also recommend upgrading to a higher-wattage PSU if your new parts draw 80 to 90% of your curr`ent PSU’s maximum power. That’ll give you some leeway to absorb power spikes and transients, which could otherwise trip your power supply’s protection circuits.
Cooling isn’t particularly sexy or exciting, but it’s an essential part of a gaming build. Overheating CPUs and GPUs will throttle back and slow down, robbing you of precious frames in-game. High temperatures also make your fans run faster and louder, which can get annoying.
If you’re using a stock CPU cooler, you’ll benefit significantly from swapping to an aftermarket CPU cooler. A wealth of options are available, depending on how hot your CPU runs. If it’s a mainstream four- or six-core CPU, you can likely get away with a single-tower cooler air cooler like the Arctic Freezer 34 Esports Duo. However, higher-heat, high-core-count CPUs will likely require a 280 mm or even 360 mm AIO.
High GPU temperatures are slightly harder to tackle, as you can’t change your graphics card’s cooler. Improving your case’s airflow is the best way to reduce GPU temps, and one of the best ways to do that is to install new, higher-performing case fans. You can also experiment with fan placement to try and push more cool air to your GPU’s cooler.
Before you rush out and spend money, though, it’s worth experimenting with fan control software and tweaking your fan curves to improve cooling or reduce noise. Check out our in-depth guide to fan curves to find out more.
Of course, you could always go all-out with a custom water-cooling loop. It won’t be necessary for most rigs, but if you’re planning to upgrade to an RTX 4090 and Intel i9-13900KS, then you’ll need all the help you can get.
Transplanting your rig into a new case doesn’t happen often, but there are times when it might be essential. You may find that your current case doesn’t have the room for that high-end GPU you want. Or maybe your rig runs too hot and needs more airflow, which your present case can’t provide.
In those situations, migrating to a different case may be the only solution to your woes. It’s the most tedious upgrade of them all, as you’ll essentially be building a whole new computer. But it can be worth it if it lets you install the hardware you really want.
There are a ton of PC cases out there, from high-performance airflow cases to tempered glass-heavy statement cases perfect for displaying your build. Take your time and see what’s available and within budget; after all, choosing a PC case is very subjective; what excites one person may be uninteresting to another.
That said, you’ll want to make sure your new case fits all the hardware you want, whether it’s your GPU, that massive tower CPU cooler, or all those hard drives you need to store your videos and photos. There are many more considerations, of course, but you’d best head over to our guide to choosing a PC case for all the details.
So, there you have it: how to upgrade your PC, from identifying bottlenecks to choosing upgrades, all in one place. It can be difficult to wrap your head around, but take your time and review our in-depth guides before committing to anything.
Eventually, we’re confident that you’ll be able to make intelligent and informed decisions, no matter the component that needs upgrading. Choosing upgrade parts is only half the battle, though; if you need help installing these new parts, then check out our guide to building a PC for advice, tips, and tricks.