Posey's Tips & Tricks

PC Hardware Refresh: Not as Easy As Expected

It may take some extra considerations to swap hardware in custom setups. Here's some issues I recently ran into.

As we entered 2024, one of my big priorities has been to refresh the IT hardware that I depend on every day. I had actually hoped to get the hardware refresh done during the holidays when everything slows down, but shortages and supply chain issues have made for slow deliveries. Even now, more than a month later, there are a few parts that I am still waiting on.

My hardware refresh plans center around two main areas. First, I am replacing my storage hardware that has been in use since 2019. Second, I am replacing quite a few aging PCs and other devices such as tablets. Some of these device refreshes are just that -- replacing an old device with a new one. Others involve gutting custom-built PCs and replacing most of the components with hardware that is more current.

Going into this hardware refresh, I actually expected the storage refresh to be the more complex part of the process. Anyone who has ever replaced production storage arrays can appreciate how much planning and effort is involved, especially given how important it is to avoid causing any downtime or data loss. So far, it has been my PC refreshes that have required the most planning.

Initially, I really hadn't given all that much thought to my PC refreshes aside from selecting the hardware that I wanted to use. As I began to get ready to upgrade the first PC however, it began to occur to me how much work was actually going to be required.

Normally, the upgrade process should be simple. At a high level, it would involve backing up the PC, installing all the new hardware, installing Windows and then restoring the backup. The fact that I don't have any data stored on any of my PCs would only serve to make the process easier. Unfortunately, there were a couple of issues that kept the upgrade process from being quite as simple as I had hoped.

The first of these issues was the idea that a hardware refresh is a great time to clean up a PC's contents. The machines that I am upgrading are each four to five years old. During that time, I have installed and occasionally removed plenty of software. Sometimes this software has been something that I needed to write about and, for whatever reason, couldn't install on a VM. In other cases, the software consisted of applications that I wanted to try, but that just didn't end up working out. Of course there are also applications that I have used for a particular project and then never touched again once the project was done. For example, I renovated my office a couple of years ago and installed a CAD application that I used when planning the renovation. Even though the CAD software did a good job, I haven't had a reason to use it since completing the renovation.

A second and more pressing reason for the upgrade process being a bit more complex that I had initially hoped for was the transition to Windows 11. To date, the only production machine that I have ever upgraded to Windows 11 is my laptop, which I only use when I travel. All of the computers that I use on a day-to-day basis are still running Windows 10. I am sure that there are those who would disagree with me (which is fine), but for various reasons I just think that Windows 10 is a better operating system than Windows 11.

Unfortunately Microsoft has scheduled the Windows 10 end of life date for October 14, 2025. Even though that is still a year and a half away, the Windows 10 end of life date will occur before my next PC refresh, which typically happens every five years. I also had to consider the fact that because I am replacing every component in my PCs (except for fans and power supplies), there is a really good chance that I would not be able to reuse my existing Windows 10 licenses. I'm not even sure that Microsoft still sells Windows 10 licenses. If they do, it's well hidden on their Website.

With all things considered, it just made more sense to perform a clean Windows 11 installation on all of my upgraded machines, rather than to attempt to restore my existing Windows 10 deployments and then upgrade to Windows 11.

Of course, I still had to consider my applications. There are a handful of applications on each machine that I depend on every day. That being the case, I had to make a list of the applications running on each PC, pick out those that I still need and verify that I still had installation media and license keys for those applications. Interestingly, this process also meant accounting for custom applications. The first PC that I am upgrading, for example, contains a custom PowerShell script that I use to create air gapped backups. Because it is a script as opposed to a true application, it would not be listed on an application inventory report. Hence, I had to be extremely careful to make sure that I made a copy of any custom code.

Another important step in the preparation process was to make sure that I had drivers for any special hardware. For the most part, I am not using anything that's all that unusual. Windows 11 should natively include drivers for the vast majority of my hardware. Even so, there are a few hardware devices that required special consideration. For example, I have a "recording PC" that is equipped with a high-end studio microphone. Another computer is equipped with a digital drawing canvas. And of course, I am using a printer for which Windows 11 might not natively include drivers.

It's really amazing just how much planning is sometimes required prior to replacing a desktop PC. It would be so easy to overlook something important. Even so, I am hedging my bets. As I work through the refresh process, I am not initially going to be blanking any of the existing hard drives. That way, if something were to go horribly wrong I can revert to my previous configuration without losing anything in the process.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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