I picked up a Dell Optiplex 3010 for cheap cheap over the weekend. It was a nice computer for 2013, especially in the right configuration. But it definitely has upgrade potential to get more life out of it.
The Optiplex 3010 is still fast enough to be serviceable, and can take an SSD, a video card upgrade, and up to 16 GB of RAM. This configuration will run Windows 10 well and even works surprisingly well for midrange gaming.
Get an SSD!
I slapped 16 GB of RAM and a video card in a Dell Optiplex 3010 that had a mechanical hard drive. I figured I’d just run it off the hard drive for a while. How bad could it be?
Bad. A Core 2 Duo with an SSD runs rings around it for anything other than CPU-heavy tasks.
Drop in even a $20 SSD and run the operating system on it. I’ve heard people say cheap SSDs aren’t any faster than hard drives. They’re wrong. It isn’t even close. Sure, a $35 SSD will perform better than the $20 SSD, so if you have the money for a bigger and faster one, go ahead. But an SSD belongs at the top of your essential upgrades list.
The SSD will probably have to go into the bay below the optical drives. The 3010 chassis has convenient drive sleds for 3.5-inch hard drives, but the pegs were in the wrong position for my SSD-to-3.5″ adapter. If you want to use Dell’s drive sleds, you’ll need to make sure your adapters are the full length of a 3.5″ hard drive (about 5.75 inches long).
Dell Optiplex 3010 memory upgrade
The Optiplex 3010 unfortunately only has two DIMM slots. That means you can install a pair of 8 GB DDR3 DIMMs to take it to a maximum of 16 GB of RAM. Windows 10 runs comfortably in 8 or 16 GB, so this is okay. A higher-end machine with four memory slots such as some models of Optiplex 9010 can go to 32 GB, but you’ll pay more for one of those.
Keep in mind the system runs faster with both memory slots populated with identical modules. So if you upgrade to a single 8 GB module expecting to upgrade to 16 GB later, keep in mind the system will run somewhat more slowly until you add that second module.
Video card upgrades
The onboard video on Intel’s Ivy Bridge CPUs that came standard in the 3010 wasn’t great. It’s fine for basic computing, but even a cheap video card provides a bit of a boost.
The case can be a limiting factor. If you have an SFF 3010, you can only put half-height cards in it. That limits you to an Nvidia GTX 1030 GPU. The 1030 costs a little less than $100 and is about the lowest-end card out there you can still call a serious gaming card. But it fits and it works, and its power drain won’t tax the stock power supply.
For more casual use, you can install a cheaper video card and still get a boost. For non-gaming use, you can completely get by with a Geforce 210-based card, which should cost around $30. For casual gaming, a $50 card like a Geforce 610-based card would be a better bet.
The minitower 3010s have room for bigger cards. There’s only one PCIe x16 slot, so you can’t pair up GPUs, but there’s enough room for a double- or triple-width card, as long as you’re willing to sacrifice PCIe x1 slots to do it. The issue is power. If you need more power than the PCIe slot can deliver, you’ll either need a PCIe to SATA 6-pin adapter cable, or you’ll have to replace the power supply, because the power supply doesn’t have any auxillary connectors on it.
With the adapter you can put a beefier card like a 1050ti in it.
There’s a blue tab that pushes in to free the bracket that holds the cards in. Push in the tab, fold the bracket up, and then you can remove the slot cover and install the card. No tools required, which is nice.
Power supply upgrades
Any standard ATX power supply will fit in a Dell Optiplex 3010. You may wish to upgrade the power supply if you add a beefy video card, as some people run into problems with the SATA to PCIe adapters. But don’t replace the power supply just for the sake of replacing the power supply. The power supplies in these units don’t look fancy at all, but they’re pretty good quality. They look like a $20 power supply but they’re better than that inside. You’ll have to go to the typical brand-name $50 power supply to get an upgrade in terms of wattage that’s still comparable quality to the original.
Swapping a Dell Optiplex 3010 motherboard
The motherboard in recent Dell Optiplex models is deceptive. The board in the minitowers looks for all the world like a standard micro ATX motherboard. But the connectors are slightly smaller than the standard DuPont connectors an off-the-shelf motherboard takes. And of course the pinouts are completely different. You can use jumper wires to attach to the Dell front panel connectors and break out the power button, power LED, and HDD LED connections, but you may have to solder a thinner wire to the pin section to fit in the Dell connector.
Personally, I don’t think I’d bother. I’d consider swapping in a Dell motherboard from a newer unit, but do a Google search on the panel connectors for both boards to make sure Dell didn’t make major changes on you. If you can find one that uses the same front panel connections, that’s a lower-hassle upgrade.
Upgrading the small form factor units is even dicier. Some of the very small form factor boards like mini-ITX or Nano ATX may fit, but you’ll have the same issue with the front panel connectors.
Motherboard swaps in Dells is certainly possible, don’t get me wrong. It’s just not for the faint of heart.
I’ve botched enough Intel CPU upgrades that I’m nervous about trying it in an Optiplex 3010. If you’re going to do it, I recommend taking the board out of the case so you don’t have any obstacles and don’t have to come in at a weird angle, take your time, and triple-check to make sure everything is lined up properly. Fixing bent pins in CPU sockets is possible, you you need a steady hand, small tools, and good magnification to do it.
Officially, the fastest CPU supported in these boards is an I7-3770. But unofficially, there are people running Xeon E3-1240 CPUs in these.
The i5 3470 that comes in the majority of Optiplex 3010s gives a good bang for the buck. The step from an i3 to the i5 is more noticeable than the step from an i5 to an i7 or Xeon. The benefit you get from an i7 or Xeon is more cache and hyperthreading. It’s a slight improvement, but how much depends on your application. Realistically, the CPU belongs lower on your list than an SSD, upgrading the RAM, or adding a video card. Any of those will make a bigger difference.
And you can forget about overclocking on a Dell motherboard. They just don’t support it.
The almost-free CPU upgrade
Realistically, the biggest benefit you’re likely to get from upgrading the CPU is having fresh thermal paste on it so the CPU can turbo boost at higher frequencies for longer. You can do that without replacing the CPU too. Just loosen the four screws holding the fan, clean off the thermal paste with rubbing alcohol, mineral spirits or naptha, then apply a pea-sized dab of fresh thermal paste in the middle of the CPU and place the fan back on. Tighten the screws on the fan in a crisscross pattern to help spread the paste evenly.
The thermal paste in these systems is at least seven years old and probably wasn’t the highest quality to begin with. Some people remove and replace the thermal paste on new systems just to get the slight speed boost. The difference will be bigger on an aged 3010.
The Optiplex 3010 has a 1-gigabit Realtek NIC on the motherboard. If it’s functioning and connecting up at a full gigabit, there’s no point in replacing it. Here’s how to check. If your card isn’t connecting at 1 gigabit, consider getting a Broadcom or Intel card. Here’s an Ebay link to help you find Intel cards cheap. Cheap as in less than $10. An HP-branded card will still work in your Optiplex.
Dell Optiplex 3010 Windows 10 upgrade
If your Optiplex 3010 still has its Windows 7 COA on the case, you can download Windows 10 and use the Windows 7 key to upgrade. Just enter the Windows 7 key when asked. Windows 10 automatically recognizes all the drivers in a stock 3010. You may need to install a driver for a video card if you upgrade the video card, but that’s it.