If you’re like most tech enthusiasts, you’re always wishing that you had more to spend on your favorite gadgets and upgrading your gear. There’s always newer, faster and better hardware coming out from the OEMs. Alas, most of us need to stick to a budget for our tech upgrades. There are some upgrades which are worth every penny and others which may seem like gimmicks after the initial excitement.
Here are a couple of rules of thumb when it comes to saving on new tech:
- In very few cases does it make sense to be a first adopter. Once a new standard has had a year or two to mature, prices come down drastically with the bugs worked out. Those who purchased Draft-N or Draft-AC wireless routers would know. When the final devices were approved by the Wi-Fi alliance, there were compatibility issues.
- Buy one generation older than the latest technology. Sometimes, you can get 80% of the benefits for 50-60% of the price of the cutting-edge technology. For example, you might consider a laptop with an Intel CPU from one generation prior, or the Samsung Galaxy S6 rather than the S7.
- Consider what tech you rely on the most daily. If you’re a road warrior whose business lives and dies by your laptop, it’s absolutely worth paying more for the Windows Ultrabook or MacBook that will make you more productive. Upgrading the tech you’ll most frequently use over it’s lifespan (e.g. 3-5 years for a laptop, 2-3 years for a smartphone) is the best value for your dollar.
- Don’t “hoard” tech on sale, if it doesn’t benefit you immediately. Like a car, PC equipment is a steeply depreciating asset. A year from now, you’ll almost always be able to buy later version tech for less than the gear you see on sale today.
We decided to put together a list of which tech upgrades will give you the “biggest bang for your buck”, i.e. improved experience for each dollar spent.
New Wireless Router
If you’ve passed over a router upgrade as Wi-Fi has advanced through the generations (802.11n, 802.11n dual band, 802.11ac), now may be the time to consider one. After all, the average home has more than 5 connected devices: smartphones, tablets, laptops, TVs and IoT devices.
Especially in a densely populated environment, like a condo, the 2.4 GHz spectrum shared by Wi-Fi equipment prior to Wireless-N, Bluetooth, microwaves and baby monitors is increasingly “noisy” with interference. If you have a fast internet package, such as one above 100 Mbps, you’re not getting everything you’re paying for if your router is holding you back. Also, if your ISP provides a modem-router combo, putting it into “bridge” (modem-only) mode and connecting your own router typically gives you better performance.
Routers do have a limited life-span because they work hard 24/7, generating a lot of heat the wears on the electronic components. If you’re having to power-cycle your router more frequently, it’s a good sign that it’s in need of replacement.
Switching to a Wireless-AC router, which are all dual-band for 2.4 GHz and 5GHz, is like night-and-day. If all of your devices are compatible with the new standard, you can even put your router into “5 GHz only” mode to give your neighbors a break.
The highest speeds currently offered are AC-5300 or AC-5400, which uses up to 8 antennas to deliver speeds up to 5400 MBps combined over N and AC bands. These high-end routers will run you about $300-$500 dollars.
If you’re currently using a Wireless-N router, the biggest upgrade will be jumping to AC, even if it’s just an AC-1200 or AC-1750 router like the TP-Link Archer C7 for less than $100. If you’re looking to splurge a bit more, you might want to consider the Netgear Nighthawk AC-1900 Router (R7000) for $179, which boasts additional features like 1 x USB 3.0 and 1 x USB 2.0 port for file and printer servers.
Best Value Router: TP-Link Archer C7
Best Mid-Range Router: Netgear Nighthawk R700
Most routers nowadays are plug-and-play. You can easily set them up in 5 – 10 minutes and enjoy fewer Wi-Fi drops and much higher streaming speeds immediately, as long as your client hardware is relatively recent. If you bought a laptop in the last few years, chances are it already supports Wireless-AC, you just need a compatible router to benefit from it.
If you haven’t upgraded your router, this is one of the first tech upgrades to tackle. Your entire Internet experience depends on it, and you’ll just be frustrated as you upgrade your other tech if your Wi-fi is flaky. Do yourself a favor and upgrade to a Wireless AC router, preferably AC-1900 and above to future proof yourself.
Solid State Drive for Your Laptop or Desktop PC
A new solid state drive (SSD) is probably the single most effective upgrade you can add to your computer to improve its performance. Particularly if you’re coming from a traditional, spinning hard disk drive (HDD), the performance gains are enormous. But even if you already have an SSD, it can be worth looking into one with a larger capacity or higher read/write speeds, because SSD technology has got significantly better over the years.
SSDs use semiconductors called NAND flash to deliver read/write performance hundreds of times better than even high-end HDDs. Because there are no moving parts, an SSD is almost more resilient to physical damage, eliminating the risk of a hard drive crash from “head collision.” This is particular important for laptops, which are moved all the time while switched on.
If you have a computer where your biggest gripe is slow boot-up or application load times, don’t give up on it yet. The gains in processor performance have been marginal in the latter generations of the Intel Core processors, yet a brand new computer always seems a lot faster. Why? Almost all mid-range to high-end PCs come with SSDs out-of-the-box. By upgrading to a SSD, you can experience similar performance gains.
The type of SSD you will need depends whether you have a laptop, desktop or Ultrabook.
Standard laptops will use a 2.5-inch SSD through a SATA connector. Before you consider this upgrade, first check if your laptop uses a SATA or M.2 SSD (discussed below).
- The Samsung 500 EVO is extremely popular, with a good balance between price and performance. For years, this has been the best selling SSD. A 250 GB Samsung 500 EVO SSD costs only $89.99, with SATA 6GB/s support, read/write speeds up to 540 MB/s and 520 MB/s, respectively.
Price-per-Gigabyte Comparison for Samsung 500 EVO Series
|Samsung 850 EVO SSD (120 GB)||$0.641||$76.95|
|Samsung 850 EVO SSD (250 GB)||$0.360||$89.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO SSD (500 GB)||$0.286||$143.00|
|Samsung 850 EVO SSD (1 TB)||$0.308||$308.06|
|Samsung 850 EVO SSD (2 TB)||$0.314||$628.60|
The best value is the 500 GB model, based on lowest price per gigabyte. For higher speeds, you might consider the Samsung 850 PRO SSD line. Generally, it is better to buy an SSD with a much larger capacity that what you expect to store, because SSDs will decline in performance when they are near full capacity (over 90%).
If you want to save even more, consider ADATA. It’s a reputable brand from Taiwan that constantly challenges Samsung on price. The ADATA Premier SP550 is also highly rated on Amazon (4.6/5) and goes for $112.99 for 480 GB. The advertised speeds are comparable to the Samsung (560 MB/s read, 520 MB/s write), but be forewarned, in real-world conditions users do experience slower speeds with the ADATA over the Samsung – so we would personally go with the Samsung. It’s just another option to keep in mind, that’s all.
- 7% slower sequential read speed
- 65% slower sequential write speed
Desktops are more flexible. They can use a 2.5-inch (with a bracket) or PCI-Express (PCIe) SSD, depending on your motherboard compatibility.
- PCI-Express SSDs have the highest performance and cost. PCI-e Gen2 x8 SSDs, typically made by enterprise vendors like Micron or Fusion-IO for servers, can read at speeds up to 3200 MB/s. They are also single layer cell (SLC), rated for a longer life span than most consumer drives, which are multi (MLC) or triple (TLC).
- Prosumers, such as gamers or media artists, might go for a PCI-e x4 SSD like the Kingston Digital HyperX Predator ($152 for 240 GB, $351 for 480 GB).
- Most consumers are perfectly fine with inexpensive, 2.5-inch SSDs that plug directly into a standard SATA port, same as the one used by laptops. Don’t forget to pick up a 2.5 to 3.5-inch bracket and adequately long SATA cable to make sure you can mount your new SSD in your computer’s chassis
Ultrabook, Business Notebook, or Intel NUC SSDs
Ultrabooks and high-end business notebooks tend to use M.2 SSDs, which support higher transfer speeds than SATA SSDs. The Intel Next-Unit-of-Computing (NUC) mini-desktops also support M.2 SSDs as a low profile alternative to the SATA interface.
Many ultrabooks, compared to conventional laptops, do not have a user-serviceable bay to let users upgrade the storage post-purchase. In many cases, the SSD is soldered directly onto the motherboard, so customers are stuck with the amount of storage they purchase at the outset. This is a tricky tactic that computer manufacturers like Apple use to mark up configurations with larger storage, way beyond the actual cost of the memory itself.
If you’re lucky enough to have a laptop with an M.2 SSD slot, like the Dell XPS 13 or some Lenovo ThinkPads like the T440s, you should research the physical dimensions of the factory-provided SSD to determine what will fit within the slim chassis. Opening the laptop without voiding the warranty, or damaging it can also be a concern. In reality, this can become more of a “hack” using specialty tools and guides like IFixIt, rather than a run-of-the-mill upgrade.
Some laptops with M.2 SSDs also refuse to recognize third-party SSDs. In those cases, it is better to salvage a SSD from another laptop of the same manufacturer or even better, the same model using a source like eBay. Here’s a compatibility list that may be helpful.
Image used under Creative Commons license, courtesy of Rob Lawton