PC Hardware in  Nutshell, 2nd Edition

Revitalize Your PC

by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, authors of PC Hardware in a Nutshell, 2nd Edition

Dell, Gateway, and other PC makers would have you believe a one-year-old system is outdated and a two-year-old system antique. Intel and AMD say you're missing the boat if you're not running the latest Pentium 4 or Athlon XP. ATI and nVIDIA try to convince you to buy their newest video cards to replace the perfectly good video card you already have. It's not surprising these companies push new, high- end hardware. That's where the margins are. They're in business to make profits, not to protect your investment.

Don't fall for the marketing hype. The truth is that nearly any PC running a 600MHz or faster processor is adequate for most purposes, and a processor that runs at 1GHz or thereabouts is sufficient for all but the most demanding tasks. In difficult economic times, it's sensible to make do with what you have rather than replace it with a new system. That's true whether you have a corporate fleet of hundreds of PCs or just one or two PCs at home. But it's also true that making some inexpensive upgrades to your current system can extend its useful life significantly.

We recommend the following guidelines when upgrading PCs:

  • Most one-year-old systems need little, if anything, in the way of hardware upgrades. At most, you might want to pop the lid and add some memory.

  • Two- to three-year-old systems benefit from most or all of the upgrades discussed in this article. Rather than spend $1,000 or more to replace a system, you can spend a small fraction of that to bring an older PC up to current standards, or nearly so. In practical terms, you'll notice few differences between an upgraded, older PC and a new system.

  • A system that's more than four years old is probably not a good upgrade candidate. Every component is too small, too slow, and nearing the end of its design life. Replacement parts, particularly memory, may be unavailable or extremely expensive. Even the case and power supply may be incompatible with current components. One wag called upgrading such a system, "jacking up the radiator cap and rolling a whole new car underneath it." We recommend replacing a system this old, although it may continue to provide useful service for less demanding duties.

Based on feedback we've received from readers, here are the most popular and cost-effective upgrades for older systems:

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PC Hardware in a Nutshell
By Robert Bruce Thompson, Barbara Fritchman Thompson

Add Memory

Adding memory is the single most cost-effective upgrade for most older systems. Memory prices fluctuate daily but, even at their highest, memory is cheap in absolute terms. Even if your motherboard has no free memory slots, memory is inexpensive enough that it's little hardship to replace some or all of the current memory with new modules.

Many older systems have 64MB or less, which is at best a marginal amount of memory for running current operating systems and applications. Upgrading a Windows 9X system to 128MB and a Windows 2000/XP or Linux system to 256MB or more can increase performance noticeably, particularly if you keep many windows open or if you run memory-hungry applications.

Choosing the correct memory module for your system is straightforward. Visit the memory configurators offered by Crucial or Kingston and enter the details of your system or motherboard. The configurator lists only modules that are compatible with your system. We recommend using Crucial or Kingston memory; using generic or off-brand memory often causes system instability and other problems. The minor savings simply aren't worth the headaches.

Replace Your Hard Drive

Hard drives in older PCs typically run at 3,600 to 5,400 RPM, much slower than current 7,200 RPM units. Installing a new 7,200 RPM hard drive can boost system performance noticeably, particularly for disk-intensive tasks, such as database searches. You'll also find that programs load, and data files load and save, in about half the time. The other benefit, of course, is that even the smallest current hard drives have much larger capacities than the largest drives sold two or three years ago. Current hard drives are inexpensive, too, with high-capacity models selling for as little as $2.00 per GB. Seagate and Maxtor IDE drives are fast and reliable. We prefer them to some other brands with which our experience has been less satisfactory.

Upgrade Your Optical Storage

Few older systems have anything more than a CD-ROM drive, because DVD- ROM drives and CD writers were expensive components when those systems were made. Nowadays, a good DVD-ROM drive costs $50 or so, and top-notch CD writers sell for $150. Replacing an old CD-ROM drive with a DVD-ROM drive allows you to read the increasing number of software distributions, games, databases, encyclopediae, and other materials supplied on DVD-ROM. Although corporate PCs seldom need them, CD burners are one of the easiest and most useful upgrades for a home or SOHO PC. Besides allowing you to duplicate commercial CD-Audio discs and program CDs, a CD burner provides a fast, inexpensive, and reliable means of backing up your data.

If you need a DVD-ROM drive, choose the Hitachi GD-8000 or the Toshiba SD- M1612. For a CD writer, choose one from the Plextor PlexWriter series, which are available in various speeds but are otherwise similar except for price. Better yet, buy one drive that does it all. The Plextor PlexCombo 20/10/40-12A costs little more than a standard CD writer, but adds DVD-ROM support. The PlexCombo reads CDs at 40X and DVDs at 12X, writes CD-R at 20X, and rewrites CD-RW at 10X. We now consider it the standard optical drive for mainstream and higher systems, and an excellent choice for upgrading an older PC.

Replace the Processor

If your current system runs at 400MHz or slower, you may be able to double or triple processor performance by installing a $50 Celeron or Duron processor. There are many potential pitfalls in upgrading processors. Older, slot-based systems may be difficult or impossible to upgrade with socketed processors (although many older Slot 1 Intel systems can be upgraded with a socketed processor by using a slocket adapter). Even if the new processor physically fits the motherboard, it may be incompatible with the chipset, draw more power than the motherboard can provide, or not be supported by the latest available BIOS. Problems like these are more common with Intel-based systems, but also occur with AMD-based systems.

Still, with a bit of research, you should be able to determine which current processors your motherboard supports. It's worth spending the time to do that, because a successful processor upgrade has an immense payoff. At minimal cost, you may be able to turbocharge your older PC to performance levels not far behind current models.

Do a Brain Transplant

If you find that an in-place processor upgrade is not feasible, don't give up hope. For a surprisingly small cost, you can replace both the motherboard and the processor, which in effect gives you a new system. One of the best-kept secrets in the PC industry is the ECS K7S5A motherboard, which sells for $50 or so, and is one of the most stable motherboards available for AMD processors. The K7S5A accepts either standard SDRAM or DDR-SDRAM (although not both at once), which means you can reuse your existing memory. Add a $50 retail-boxed AMD Duron processor and you have the equivalent of a new system for only $100 and an hour or two of your time.

Before you undertake any system upgrade, spend some time researching your current system. It's difficult to make optimal upgrade decisions unless you know the details of your current configuration and what alternatives are available to you. In the course of your research, you may uncover potential problems. Recent Dell systems, for example, use what appear to be standard ATX motherboards and power supplies, but are wired differently. Installing industry-standard components in a Dell system may literally destroy the system -- motherboard, processor, memory, power supply, drives, and other components. That's an extreme example, but less severe issues are common. Discovering them early in the process can save considerable time, money, and aggravation, and make your upgrade uneventful.

If you decide to upgrade your system, your first step should be to visit and study our current recommendations for upgrade components. We also recommend the current edition of PC Hardware in a Nutshell as a resource. You'll find hundreds of tips, suggestions, and other aids to a successful upgrade. If you plan well and choose components wisely, you may find that a quick, inexpensive upgrade can double the useful life of your PC.

O'Reilly & Associates recently released (June 2002) PC Hardware in a Nutshell, 2nd Edition.

Robert Bruce Thompson is a coauthor of Building the Perfect PC, Astronomy Hacks, and the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders. Thompson built his first computer in 1976 from discrete chips. Since then, he has bought, built, upgraded, and repaired hundreds of PCs for himself, employers, customers, friends, and clients.

Barbara Fritchman Thompson is a coauthor of "Building the Perfect PC" and "PC Hardware in a Nutshell." She runs her own home-based consulting practice, Research Solutions.

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