If you're cheap like I am and something goes wrong with your PC's hardware, the temptation is to have it fixed. My advice: Don't.
Buy a new one, at least if your computer is old enough to be running Windows XP. Computer designs improve so quickly that a 3-year-old PC looks long in tooth, and a 5-year-old is just waiting to die.
You would be lucky to get $100 if you sold a typical 5-year-old machine. So why pay a repair technician $150 or $250 to diagnose and swap out a bad hard drive or video card or memory? Even an entry-level PC for $400 will typically outperform that computer, and will have all-new components, a more-secure operating system and a warranty.
Back in 1965 Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, observed that the number of transistors and other components in integrated circuits had been roughly doubling every year since the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958. He predicted that trend would continue for at least the next 10 years.
In fact, "Moore's Law" has proven true right up through the present day, and when combined with other circuitry speed-ups has meant PCs typically double in processing power every 18 months to two years. Because the rate compounds, a 6-year-old PC theoretically has about one-eighth the oomph of a new one.
Other things factor into practical-world computing, like hardware bottlenecks and what software is involved. But the latest supporting evidence that Moore's Law will continue is the recently introduced Ivy Bridge line of Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, also known as "third generation."
Besides being more powerful than their second-generation brethren introduced last year, these processors are based on 22-nanometer dies vs. the earlier 32-nm Sandy Bridge architecture, making them far more energy efficient and freeing up chip space for additional speed increases in future iterations.
Ivy Bridge chips also have built-in graphics processors that are powerful enough for average gaming and video needs; only hardcore gamers will need a separate video card in their PC.
Moore's Law guarantees that your best plan is to replace your PC at least every five years. If you have children, that old PC can be their hand-me-down. Or you can turn it into a home file server for your own personal cloud. Or wipe the disk and give it away as a tax deduction.
Beyond Ivy Bridge, several advances in computing make buying a PC this year particularly attractive.
The biggest in terms of speed and reliability is the coming of age of solid-state drives to augment or replace traditional mechanical hard drives. Traditional hard drives are spinning platters with data magnetically encoded on them, and a tiny needle hovering above them to read the data. Solid-state drives, which use electronic flash memory and have no moving parts, are much faster at reading and writing data to be stored.
How much faster? Your mileage may vary, but a PC that takes three minutes to boot up might instead take 15 to 20 seconds. In other words, a lot. But SSDs have been too expensive to consider in ordinary PCs. That is changing, and now many SSDs can be had for less than $1 a gigabyte – still more than a mechanical drive, but the performance difference makes it worth it.
If the price still seems too steep, one solution is to have two hard drives, an SSD for the operating system and programs, and a traditional hard drive to store data – music, videos, etc. Still another is known as a hybrid drive – a mechanical drive with the equivalent of a small SSD integrated into it that stores frequently accessed files.
Another related advance in newer PCs is the move to the SATA III interface. SATA is the highway that data moves on when traveling from the hard drive to the processor. SATA III is capable of moving 6 gigabits of data per second, which is four times more data than the SATA found on machines five years ago. That is particularly important if your machine has a solid-state drive, which can push enough data to clog an older SATA interface.
Still another improvement in these machines is USB 3.0. USB 3.0 ports theoretically can transport data up to 10 times as fast as the decade-old USB 2.0 standard, which makes a big performance difference when plugging in USB 3.0 external hard drives or other equipment.
These new-generation machines are just beginning to hit the market. To summarize for shoppers: Ivy Bridge or "third generation" architecture; SATA III, also known as SATA 6Gb/s; solid-state drive or hybrid drive if possible; and USB 3.0. You won't regret shedding that broken doorstop.