Upgrade or buy new?

Employees work on their upgraded IT

As your business IT equipment approaches the end of its useful life, there comes a point where you need to decide whether to upgrade your hardware or purchase a replacement

With the specifications of IT devices becoming less onerous and a market full of devices that can't be upgraded at all, that decision is becoming increasingly tricky for businesses looking to maximise budgets and limit capital expenditure.

Assessing the need

Before spending a penny on new hardware or upgrades, it pays to assess the role each device plays.

If a machine is used to process your business accounts but it is continually crashing, replacing it with a new computer will give you peace of mind and essential reliability. But if a failing computer is only used for basic admin tasks, you may be able to shift the work onto a more reliable, existing machine.

For older machines whose workload can't be transferred elsewhere, a memory and solid state hard disk upgrade is often a better investment than spending money on a completely new device.

Upgrading devices before they fail

It's important to make an honest assessment of what equipment failure could cost. This allows you to focus your resources on the areas that really matter. For instance, a new laptop might cost £400, but waiting for the existing computer to fail before replacing it could cost far more in lost productivity and business.

When to buy new

Computer hardware is destined to be overtaken by the software it runs, and while often frustrating, it does at least provide a valuable indication that something needs replacing.

There are two golden rules when it comes to spotting computer or mobile hardware that needs replacing:

  • Severe performance degradation. If the device in question regularly grinds to a halt or crashes and a hardware upgrade is not an option (either through the inability to do so or the absence of parts in the marketplace), it needs to be replaced.
  • Incompatibility with new software. A tell-tale sign that a device has reached the end of its useful life is when a software update is simply not compatible with the hardware in question.

If any of your devices exhibit these symptoms, it's time to consign them to the history books.

Reducing the need to upgrade with the cloud

The shift towards cloud computing means businesses are increasingly relying on third-party services rather than buying software outright.

Cloud services (often known as 'Software as a Service', or 'SaaS') rarely require cutting-edge computers because most of the heavy lifting (for example, the data processing) is carried out by a remote server. SaaS applications are usually accessed via web browsers. Therefore, if your computers have access to fast internet and are compatible with modern web browsers like Chrome - you're good to go.

Relying on cloud services may allow you to extend the lifespan of equipment without having to upgrade it. Of course, you should still anticipate hardware failures and assess the benefits offered by new equipment, but cloud computing goes some way towards breaking the cycle of having to upgrade hardware just to run the latest software.

When to upgrade

If cloud computing doesn't speed up the operation of your IT equipment, take a look at how old your computers are. Many companies are using computers that are three or four years old - past the point of reliability for most devices. Technology companies call this 'life expired'; the equipment has done the job and given good service, but it's time to let it go.

Three years is generally a good benchmark for IT replacements. Many manufacturers offer three-year warranties as standard. You should consider replacing the hardware when the warranty expires because moving parts like fans and hard disks become more unreliable after this point.

Despite this, modern hardware is increasingly built to last far longer. All-in-one computers like Apple iMacs typically have fewer moving parts thanks to solid state hard disks and passive cooling.

Should servers be upgraded?

Network servers are the heart of many business IT systems. They hold vital data, control email and enable remote working. If you have had your server for three years or longer, finding a viable replacement should be a priority.

Fortunately, we now live in an age where expensive network servers are becoming rather archaic - particularly in small- to medium-sized businesses.

Providing you have a fast internet connection, you can move your file storage and email management to the cloud with services like Microsoft 365. The costs for doing so are usually far more favourable than purchasing an in-house server and its associated maintenance contracts.

Cloud hosting also helps mobilise your workers by giving them access to their files and email, no matter which device they have to hand. Speak to your IT company, who will be able to advise you on moving to the cloud.

Upgrades for mobile devices

Although it's usually possible to perform upgrades on desktop and laptop computers, mobile devices are a different kettle of fish. Smartphones and tablets are not usually designed to be upgraded, although some models will allow you to add extra storage space by connecting a memory card.

Here's the general rule of thumb when it comes to obsolescence for the two big players in the mobile market:

  • Apple (iOS). You can get a good idea of what Apple deems to be the average lifespan for its devices by looking at the oldest products it still sells.
  • Android. Like iOS, Android is updated annually, but unlike Apple's operating system, the changes take much longer to filter down to the numerous manufacturers using this open platform. As such, Android tablets will usually last comfortably beyond the standard three-year period.

It's really important to evaluate the likely lifespan of a mobile device before you buy. There's a tablet and smartphone for almost every budget, but cutting costs initially may just result in you having to upgrade sooner.

One final consideration: if you do decide that it is time to replace your old IT devices, make sure you recycle your kit safely and protect any data they may contain.

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