Can you upgrade a pre-built PC?
To make it short: Yes, you usually can.
The answer may change depending on what kind of prebuilt you have, and the specific choices that your provider went for when building the system.
There are actually quite a few concerns to look out for in this area, especially if you’re looking to do a big upgrade to your system storage or graphics power.
What Makes a PC a Pre-Built? Are There Different Kinds of Pre-Built?
In this case, a pre-built refers to a full desktop PC that is fully assembled by the time it ends up in your hands.
In most cases, they will be ready for immediate use, though some shipped pre-builts may also require the removal of things like packing foam before powering on the PC.
Plus, it’s just a good call to make sure no connections are loose on a motherboard before turning on a PC, especially if it’s been shipped a long distance.
There are a few different categories of pre-built PC, though. Let’s talk about them real quick:
- Standard Pre-Built: Pretty much just a regular PC, assembled from standard market parts. Usually purchased at retail.
- Factory Pre-Built: A factory-manufactured pre-built. May boast exclusive versions of CPUs or GPUs, or unconventional case form factors. Usually purchased at retail.
- Boutique Pre-Built: Some crossover with standard pre-builts, but may also include unique or expensive custom cases or cooling setups. Come from so-called “Boutique” PC builders, usually shipped to the end-user without an in-between retailer.
Reasons why a Pre-Built might Not Be Upgradeable
Insufficient Power Supply Wattage
If the power supply inside of your PC doesn’t have the necessary wattage for your desired upgrades, especially a GPU upgrade, as these are notoriously power-hungry components, you can anticipate system instability and crashes.
…if you have a standard ATX power supply inside of your PC. ATX power supplies are generally about 86 mm tall, with 150 mm of width and ~145 mm of depth. They look like this:
Much smaller, larger, or differently-shaped power supplies may be cause for concern: if you have a non-standard PSU form factor, your options for replacements may be limited. Even more so if you’re operating with a non-standard case form factor, like a Mini ITX or HTPC build.
More on these scenarios a little later- for most people with semi-modern or newer pre-builts, a standard ATX PSU replacement should do the trick.
Your CPU Would Bottleneck Your GPU
If you haven’t already considered this, you should, especially if you’re looking to use a high refresh rate display or have particularly aged PC hardware.
CPU bottlenecks are a particular issue in gaming and heavy-duty rendering/editing tasks.
For gaming, CPU bottlenecks can restrict in-game FPS even with a powerful graphics card.
This is why high refresh rate gamers need to have high-end CPUs with great single-core performance, as this will help drive the high refresh rates (144-360 Hz and matching FPS) they’re looking to achieve.
GPU power contributes to FPS too, but GPU bottlenecks can be alleviated by lowering settings and resolution: CPU bottlenecks are a lot harder to get past than that and tend to come with hard cuts to render distance and playability where possible.
For rendering and editing tasks, you can use a powerful GPU fairly well to accelerate your workloads.
However, having a powerful CPU and RAM to keep up is just as, if not more important.
So, the first thing to do is to evaluate your CPU upgrade options and your actual needs.
Unfortunately for gamers, the improvements you may get in framerate from same-generation upgrades can be limited due to general gaming ties to single-core performance.
The improvements you can expect will be heavily reliant on the age of the games you’re playing and the architecture that you are using.
Meanwhile, more productivity or rendering-oriented users can comfortably enjoy at least some benefit from nearly every compatible-gen CPU upgrade that increases core and thread count.
Since these tasks tend to scale nearly linearly to raw multicore CPU power, adding a few cores will pretty much always improve things at least a little.
However, you may also want to consider other potential bottlenecks in your system, like RAM or storage, before getting a more expensive CPU upgrade.
Additionally, try to offload what you can to your graphics card.
Insufficient Space Inside PC
If there isn’t enough space inside of your PC for your desired upgrades, your options for potential upgrades are going to be greatly limited. This is particularly common for slim desktop towers and other, older pre-builts with unconventional form factors.
These days, most prebuilt desktop PCs use standard ATX, Micro ATX, or Mini ITX cases instead of random, unique form factors from different manufacturers.
The specific time that something is unlikely to fit inside of your PC, it will most likely be a graphics card.
Full-sized desktop graphics cards tend to be at least two PCI slots thick and anywhere from 7 to 10 inches long, necessitating that your PC in question has ample room around its expansion slots.
Most of them will also require additional PSU power cables to be run for extra power as well, which further restricts both space requirements and wattage.
If you’re stuck in a smaller case or a case with an unconventional form factor, it may be time to look into low-profile graphics cards.
These can be single-slot GPUs or half-slot GPUs. Alternatively, they can be regular GPUs that are simply short enough to fit inside your smaller chassis.
Past low profile cards, you also have low power cards.
Low power cards are graphics cards that can be run without any extra PCI Express power cables being run to them- they are instead powered by just the PCIe slot. This can enable graphics upgrades in many PCs where it otherwise simply wouldn’t be possible.
Non-Standard Power Supply Form Factor
When you’re dealing with a non-standard PSU form factor, it’s usually because you’re dealing with a factory prebuilt from a manufacturer like Dell, Toshiba, or Lenovo.
While this trend has fallen out of fashion in recent years, it’s still very prominent in PCs manufactured prior to around 2012, and still crops up on occasion today.
Having a non-standard PSU form factor makes PSU upgrades very difficult since you’re unlikely to find any compatible options just casually shopping for PC power supplies on Amazon. However, a non-standard form factor doesn’t mean you don’t have options for upgrades.
Fix: Identify Form Factor, Then Find Replacements
Since you’re using a prebuilt, you should be able to find an exact model number of your computer and look that up to find its exact specs.
Otherwise, you can also look for any identifying information on the power supply itself to help identify its form factor.
For the majority of PCs, this kind of thing shouldn’t really be an issue. However, for users with PCs that use things like Dell BTX motherboards and power supplies, this can be a real barrier to upgrades.
No M.2 or NVMe Slots
NVMe SSDs are becoming required for enabling access to higher-speed SSDs than standard SATA SSDs.
M.2 SATA SSDs, meanwhile, offers the same performance as a 2.5-inch SSD but in a far smaller form factor.
Without SATA M.2 or NVMe M.2 slots on your motherboard, you may feel a little trapped in terms of storage upgrades.
Fix: Use a PCIe M.2 Card or PCIe SSD
Fortunately, the answer lies in your existing PCI Express slots.
While I would only recommend this for users with PCI Express Gen 3 motherboards or better, you can invest in either a PCIe M.2 adapter or a PCIe SSD.
PCIe SSDs are similar to NVMe SSDs in that they also use PCI Express bandwidth, but their place in the market has been somewhat taken over by NVMe SSDs in more recent generations and PCIe SSDs at large tend to trend more expensive.
Meanwhile, a PCIe M.2 adapter opens you up to the majority of modern SSD storage options, though you’ll still be limited by your chosen adapter, motherboard, and PCIe slot.
No Available RAM Slots or Outdated RAM Generation
So you’ve opened up your prebuilt PC in hopes of upgrading your RAM, but instead found that you don’t have any more RAM slots available…or maybe your motherboard is stuck on an outdated generation, like DDR2 or DDR3.
Not being able to freely choose memory upgrades from modern options is definitely restrictive, but fortunately, you should still have options!
Fix: Find The Best DDR3, DDR4 or DDR5 RAM For Your Motherboard…OR Replace Your PC
First thing’s first: identify your motherboard and its supported RAM type. Then, identify its chipset to further determine the maximum supported RAM speed of your motherboard.
From there, finding the best RAM kit for your needs should be fairly straightforward. All you need to do is identify generation and top supported speed and you should be good to go.
However, if you are on an older standard like DDR3 or DDR2, it may be worth considering upgrading to a new PC entirely.
Even if you aren’t necessarily restricted by capacity (16-32 GB being pretty reasonable for most users), the restrictions in memory speed and older CPU architectures will see a loss in performance, even with shiny new hardware.
Upgrading a Pre-Built may not always be as straightforward as upgrading a PC you’ve put together yourself, but the procedure identical:
- Identify which components your PC consists of
- Identify what you want or need to upgrade
- Check to see if your existing components are compatible with the upgraded component (RAM, CPU, GPU, etc.)
Is Building Your Own PC Still Worth It?
While PC hardware pricing hasn’t been the best in recent years due to the ongoing chip shortage, supplies and selling prices are on a positive incline as of April 2022.
By current estimates, the chip shortage is expected to come to a proper end by the end of the year, but by the time you’re reading this prices may already be back at MSRP.
Even if prices are a little above MSRP, building your own PC can still be worth it- especially if you have specialized needs.
For example, a low-profile or SFF PC build made within your own budget, rather than being forced to pay the high prices of a boutique provider.
How Does The Chip Shortage Impact Prebuilt PCs?
The chip shortage has also inflated the price of many pre-built PCs, but some (especially from boutique providers or factory-manufactured pre-builts) are able to maintain pricing close to MSRP, at the cost of going out of stock pretty much immediately.
The situation for PC hardware pricing is still steadily improving, but prior to the shortage, most pre-builts tended to have a premium over building it yourself.
As GPU supplies improve, this is most likely to become the case once more.
Do Laptops Count as Prebuilt PCs?
Yes, though the majority of upgrade options and concerns outlined in this article aren’t really relevant to laptops.
Most laptops only allow you to upgrade storage and RAM, if at all, and you still need to strictly abide by existing memory and storage specs when doing so.
A rarer few laptops these days even allow you to run an external graphics card in an outside enclosure, providing a hybrid desktop experience of sorts.
This can be very promising if you want the portability of a laptop but still want the best desktop graphics can offer- though you will still see a performance loss with an eGPU compared to properly installing a desktop GPU in a full motherboard.
When Is The Best Time To Upgrade My PC?
Well, the best time to upgrade your PC will generally be the best time to buy the computer parts that you need to do it.
While current shortages should still be taken into account, there are some reliable trends that you as a consumer can make a note and use of.
The three major sale days for the majority of PC hardware in the US are Prime Day (July 15th-16th), Black Friday (the day after American Thanksgiving), and Cyber Monday (always the Monday after American Thanksgiving). These are the ideal days for most users to shop for their upgrades.
For more detailed information on when to buy different PC parts and what to look out for, check out my detailed Best Time To Buy PC Parts article!
Over to You
And that’s it, at least for now!
I hope that this article told you all you needed to know about upgrading a pre-built PC.
Feel free to sound off in the comments section or our forums if you need any further help finding the best upgrades for your particular PC build, or have PC hardware-related questions we can help out with.