10 killer PC upgrades for less than $250

Sometimes a single component upgrade can push your PC over the edge. Allow us to make some timely holiday suggestions.

The holidays present an excellent opportunity to trick out your laptop or desktop PC, especially if Santa, your boss, or your favorite gift-giver directs a sudden influx of cash your way. And even if your holiday haul was heavy on sugarplums and light on spending money, you still don't have to break the bank to add some meaningful system upgrades. These days, you can stretch your PC upgrading dollar farther than ever beforeas the items on our list clearly demonstrate. Here are ten meaningful hardware upgrades with a ceiling of roughly $250 (and in some cases a lot less) each.

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Crucial M4 SSD 1. A solid-state drive

This ones a biggie, especially if youve already ponied up for Microsofts latest operating system, Windows 8. SSDs continue to become more and more affordable, and you can probably score yourself a decent one with a capacity of at least 200GB for about $250.

If youve done your homework and selected a speedy, problem-free SSD, you should see a huge improvement in loading times and a major lift in overall system performance, compared to what your conventional hard drive delivered. And because Windows 8 is big on hibernating your kernel, drivers, services, and other processes when you shut down your PC, a cold boot your new SSD has the potential to zip through cold boots like nothing you've ever seen before.

Our recommendation: Check out Crucial's M4. It offers 256GB of speedy, SATA 6Gbps storage, and you can find it for less than $250 retail.

Corsair Vengeance 2. More and speedier memory

It's a constant refrain among PC builders: Memory is cheap, so max it out. Indeed, if youre working with a paltry 2GBor even a more reasonable 4GByou'll benefit hugely from giving your system as much headroom as possible, especially when you're dealing with complex, memory-hungry applications.

At a minimum, make sure that youre rocking the fastest memory your system can support. Alternatively, purchase memory that gives you enough room to do some for overclocking.

Adding memory or replacing relatively slow memory with higher-rated RAM won't double your frame rates in games, and Windows is unlikely to feel two times faster, either. But the upgrade will make a substantial difference in extreme multitasking scenarios and in memory-intensive applications like Photoshop. Prices vary because not all RAM is created equal.

Our recommendation: We're big fans of the popular Corsair Vengeance line of RAM; you can get 8GB for under $45. That's a great deal.

3. A Blu-ray burner

We see your humdrum optical drive and raise you one Blu-ray burner. Though you may not do much burning to some of the more arcane formats the drive supports (an alphabet soup that includes BD-R, BD-RE, BD-R L, and many more), one of the best reasons for buying a Blu-ray burner is that youll finally be able to take your desktop PC with its aging optical disk options to the next, multimedia-filled level.

You could just buy a Blu-ray reader and call it a day, but what if you later decide that you want to be able to write to Blu-ray discs of your own? $250 goes a long way in the Blu-ray burner land, but it would be silly to have to buy an optical drive twice.

Our recommendation: You'll find a plethora of options for both internal and external Blu-ray burners, most of which will run you less than $80. We don't have a favorite brand for the positive reason that the vast majority of them are pretty darn good.

Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 4. A video card

Still using the integrated graphics that the maker built into your motherboard? Then you're letting misplaced loyalty toward your chipset get in the way of better performance. It's certainly true that some of the latest integrated offerings from Intel and AMDsuch as the H77 and A85X platformshave advanced to the point where PC enthusiasts armed with the right processors can pass the traditional, Will it run Crysis? test without needing a discrete video card.

But having acknowledged the improvements in integrated graphics, we urge you to get a discrete video card. If you have any interest in gaming at higher frame rates, at higher resolutions, and at higher quality settings, a stand-alone graphics card is your best ticket to gaming awesomeness.

Our recommendation: You can pick up an excellent graphics board for less than $250 and get dramatically better frame ratesassuming, of course, that you arent teaming up the new card with a clunker of a CPU.

5. A CPU*

We slapped an asterisk on this recommendation for a specific reason: One of the best ways to give your system a much-needed upgrade in speed and connectivity (such as USB 3.0 support) is to perform a simultaneous upgrade of the motherboard and the CPU; but to get top-shelf performance, youd have to plunk considerably more cash more than the arbitrary $250 maximum in this upgrade guide.

It's possible, however, that you may already be running a pretty good motherboardbut one that's being hobbled by a cheap, slow, non-overclockable, CPU.

Our recommendation: Though you might not see a world of difference by stepping up from a 2.9GHz CPU to a 3.1GHz chip, you could see some improvement if you throw more cores (logical and virtual) or an unlocked clock multiplier into the mix.

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