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Top three inexpensive desktop upgrades -- in bang-for-the-buck order

Here are some quick pointers about how to go about inexpensively refreshing your hardware. Our expert outlines the top three upgrades in bang-for-the-buck order.

It's no wonder that with today's economic uncertainty and tight budgets, organizations are commonly pushing out hardware refreshes by a couple of years. But there's usually still some money for incremental improvements that can increase the service life of the desktop hardware assets in which you've already invested.

What are the three best areas to spend a little money to get a lot of life back out of your existing hardware inventory? Let's take a look.

Historically, more RAM has always been the cure for sluggish systems. While Windows 7 made many improvements to the default memory usage of running machines, many corporate-issue laptops and desktops still cheap out on memory, offering 1 GB or less.

Windows 7 and typical Microsoft Office applications really sing at 2 GB of RAM, and if you have graphics- and multimedia-intensive workers using Photoshop, Lightroom or video editing software, you'll want to equip them with 4 GB of memory -- that way, you're not paying them to stare at an hourglass while they work.

Cons? Laptops and some of the slimmer desktops have limited memory: 4 GB may not be possible; just 2 GB. And some of these systems dedicate a portion of RAM to graphics rendering, an approach particularly popular with low-end onboard graphics chipsets. Still, 2 GB is the sweet spot, so if you're not there, this is where to focus. The cost is $100 to $200 per machine, perhaps less.

Solid-state drives (SSDs)
These little drives, which are basically large amounts of super-high-performance flash memory, take the weakest link in a desktop computer -- its disk subsystem -- and make it fly. Even in older PCs, the performance difference can be significant. Make sure that you already have a couple of gigabytes of RAM on these machines, however, before you start going hot and heavy into the SSD upgrade.

Cons? SSDs don't address local capacity shortages, since they are pretty expensive beyond 128 GB. On a network with centralized storage and folder redirection, however, this is much less of an issue. Also, remember to use a Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) controller with Advanced Host Controller Interface support -- this is the only way to support the SATA TRIM command, which is essential to maximizing performance. Most systems purchased within the past two to three years support this operation, so this is likely to not pose a problem for all but your oldest machines. The cost is about $250 per machine.

A new monitor or two
This suggestion will probably be a source of debate, but giving each employee a large monitor or two should result in a massive improvement in productivity. This goes double for mobile users. They're most likely not on the road all the time, so they must have a home base -- whether that's on your corporate campus or in their home offices.

Buying a couple of monitors and maybe a docking station for these folks would markedly improve their ability to work on two documents, examine and analyze spreadsheets, respond to emails and meeting requests quickly, and more. It's like buying someone with stacks of paper and folders on their physical desks another desk with twice the space. They'll say, "Ah! Now I can spread out." The metaphor works with virtual desktops, too.

And now that Windows Server 2008 R2 supports multimonitor Remote Desktop Protocol sessions, even your virtual desktop infrastructure can handle the productivity investment you'll make. It will cost between $125 and $150 for a decent 19-in. monitor. Give these monitor improvements and upgrades serious consideration as your organization moves forward into 2012.

Read more from Jonathan Hassell

Jonathan Hassell
is an author, consultant and speaker residing in Charlotte, N.C. His books include RADIUS, Hardening Windows and, most recently, Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual.

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