Upgrades: Right on the MoneyThe right upgrades breathe new life into aging PCs; the wrong ones waste your time and cash. Here's the real scoop on today's top options, and how to get the job done.
by Eric Knorr
Smart PC users know that they often can save a buck by souping up their old computers instead of buying new ones. Carefully chosen upgrades can extend your PC's life and help you avoid the pain of migrating your data, software, and settings to a new machine. But which projects are worth the money? First we asked PCWorld.com readers what hardware they wanted to upgrade; then we turned to the PC World Test Center to performance-test the latest CPU, memory, and USB 2.0 upgrades and to work through networking and hard-drive installations--warts and all.
As you consider the possibilities for your PC, remember the golden upgrade rule: If your total hardware upgrade price approaches the $500 mark, you're probably better off buying a new machine and dealing with the migration headache instead of overspending on upgrades. Even the cheapest new PC will probably be better than your upgraded model--and it will have a warranty.
I can't seem to find a decent guide to upgrading processors. My main problem is that I don't know what processors are compatible with my computer. Then again, would a CPU upgrade be a good idea for me at all?
Al Highsmith, former electronics technician, Umatilla, Florida
This is a common question, so we tested three different PCs with several CPU upgrades. In a few cases, the speed boosts were remarkably satisfying. But before you check the benchmark results, you need to determine whether your computer is a likely candidate for an upgrade in the first place; and then you must decide whether opting for a motherboard upgrade or for a packaged CPU upgrade--or just swapping in a raw new processor--would be the best course of action.
To determine whether to upgrade, you often need more information than the class and clock speed of your current CPU--and in any case, you should verify the CPU you have. So start by downloading, installing, and running a system information utility from PowerLeap or Evergreen Technologies, the companies that manufacture the processor upgrades we tested. (Don't rely on the General tab of the System Properties dialog box--it doesn't always positively identify your CPU.)
Once you've verified the chip and clock speed, it's time to see if you qualify as an upgrade contender. Your CPU will fall into one of three groups:
- Group 1: Intel Pentium or 486; AMD K6; or earlier. So you want more speed? Buy a new computer. CPU upgrades for these oldsters are available, but you'll probably be left with a slow hard disk, an old graphics card, and too little memory. Upgrade everything you need, and the components will cost more than a new PC. Give that old hand-me-down system to someone you love. Or hate.
- Group 2: Intel Pentium II, Pentium III, or Celeron; AMD Athlon, or Duron. You may already be a winner. The (very) general rule: If you can find an inexpensive processor upgrade that will double your machine's original clock speed, go ahead and give it a whirl.
- Group 3: Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon XP. These are fast already. You may be able to find a compatible CPU with double the clock speed, but it will be expensive. Probably too expensive. Look at upgrading other components of your system first.
Some further refinements for group 2 members: If your current Pentium III, Celeron, Athlon, or Duron runs faster than 1 GHz, the advice for group 3 also applies to you: Even if you can double your clock speed, that isn't the same as doubling your system's performance. Try to squeeze another three to six months out of your current system, and then opt for a motherboard swap or a new PC.
Motherboard, Raw CPU, or Packaged Upgrade?
For group 2 members, the classiest CPU upgrade is a full motherboard replacement. You'll have the widest possible choice of CPUs, and all the speed advantages of new motherboard technology. It's not an upgrade for beginners to try, but motherboard prices are quite low--between $50 and $250, depending on how cutting edge you want to get. You'll need new memory and a new CPU, as well--raising the practical price for this upgrade to the $300-to-$700 range (see September's " Motherboard Buying Guide").
Is that too rich for your blood? Then the cheapest, simplest thing to do is to replace your current processor with the fastest CPU your motherboard will allow. First, you'll have to identify your motherboard's chip set and, in some cases, the motherboard revision number. PowerLeap's free CPU Control Panel utility, extracts all this information and more, including the processor socket or slot type and even the CPU serial number (although you won't be needing that detail).
With this data in hand, call your system manufacturer's tech support and find out which CPUs are compatible with your system. You can also visit your motherboard vendor's Web site and see which processors will work with your motherboard's make, model, and revision. If you can buy a CPU that doubles your clock speed (or thereabouts), great. For example, Intel's D810E2CA3 motherboard accepts a wide range of processors, beginning with the 400-MHz Celeron and ending with the 1-GHz Pentium III, which you can buy on the street for about $120.
All too often, however, the range of supported CPUs is limited. For example, certain revisions of the Intel SE440BX-2 motherboard, which shipped in millions of Pentium II and Pentium III systems, support Pentium III chips only in the 450-MHz to 600-MHz range. Worse, the SE440BX-2 uses the old Slot 1 CPU connector--and nobody outside of EBay sells plain-vanilla Slot 1 CPUs anymore.
Fortunately, packages from companies like PowerLeap and Evergreen Technologies can widen the scope of available CPU upgrades. For example, people who own SE440BX-2 motherboards have several Slot 1 upgrades to choose from--topping out with a fast 1.4-GHz model from PowerLeap. Basically, packaged upgrades contain circuitry designed to fool the motherboard into working with CPUs faster than the BIOS and the chip set were originally designed to accept. There is one big caveat, however: As our lab discovered, compatibility problems make these prepackaged upgrades a hit-or-miss affair.
Nice Speed If You Can Get It
First, the good news: When these babies work, they really cook. An old 350-MHz Pentium II from Quantex enjoyed the biggest boost, posting a PC WorldBench score 57 percent faster with Evergreen's $170, 1.1-GHz Performa III installed. (See the " Upgrade Processors" chart.) An old 450-MHz Pentium III Gateway Performance outfitted with a $170 PowerLeap PL-iP3/T 1.4-GHz Celeron upgrade did nearly as well, logging an awesome 56 percent speed increase. As predicted, however, anything less than double the clock speed seems hardly worth the price: When we upgraded a 733-MHz Pentium III Dell system to Evergreen's 1.1-GHz Performa III, we saw a mere 12 percent boost.
And now for the bad news: PowerLeap could only assure us that its packaged upgrades would work in one of the three systems we tested, and we didn't stumble upon pleasant surprises when we tried them in the other two. The moral here: You should check the lists of systems that the manufacturers have explicitly certified as compatible on their upgrade Web sites, or even better, submit your system details via e-mail so the companies can give you a thumbs-up or thumbs-down before you buy. If all else fails, both PowerLeap's and Evergreen's products come with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Test Report: Upgrade Processors (chart)
|SYSTEM||PC WorldBench 4 score||Evergreen 1.1-GHz Pentium III: PC WorldBench 4 score||Evergreen 1.1-GHz Pentium III: Speed boost (percent)||PowerLeap 1.4-GHz Celeron: PC WorldBench 4 score||PowerLeap 1.4-GHz Celeron: Speed boost (percent)|
|Dell 733-MHz Pentium III||81||91||12||incompatible||n/a|
|Gateway 450-MHz Pentium III||63||91||44||98||56|
|Quantex 350-MHz Pentium II||54||85||57||incompatible||n/a|
How much RAM is enough? New motherboards hold 1GB or more. Where is the point of diminishing returns?
Tom Kielick, technology project manager, Baltimore
Depending on what kind of memory your machine takes, an entire gigabyte at today's prices will probably cost you between $100 and $300, so the temptation is to say "fill 'er up." On the other hand, a few bucks is still a few bucks--or big bucks when you're talking about a company full of computers.
To find the answer to your question, we ran our application-based PC WorldBench 4 test suite on five computers with widely varying amounts of memory: 64MB, 128MB, 256MB, 512MB, and 1GB. Two of these computers ran Windows XP Professional, one ran Windows 98 SE, and two ran Windows Me. Some of the faster PCs we tested started with more memory to better mimic common configurations.
Our conclusion: For RAM, 256MB is just about right. But underneath that general advisory, you'll find some interesting data. First and foremost, the speed differences were quite small: For example, when we upgraded a 450-MHz Pentium III Gateway system running Windows 98 from 64MB to 128MB, PC WorldBench 4 ran a mere 3.3 percent faster. A 933-MHz Pentium III Dell PC running Windows Me enjoyed a healthier 6.1 percent increase with the same upgrade, but that's still nothing to write home about. Upgrading these two machines from 128MB to 256MB yielded even paler results (1.6 and 2.3 percent, respectively). And above that? Negligible.
The Windows XP machines were a slightly different story. When upgraded from 96MB to 224MB, our 1.6-GHz Athlon XP+ system from MicronPC squeezed out 8.5 percent better performance. But once again, upgrades beyond 256MB made little difference. PCs with integrated graphics, like the MicronPC Millennia we tested, reserve a certain amount of main memory (32MB in this case) for graphics use. That arrangement decreases the amount of memory available to the OS. If you own a PC with integrated graphics, you should adjust your memory upgrading plans accordingly.
Overall, these tests and others we've conducted show that a memory upgrade improves performance if it reduces a machine's resort to virtual memory (a technique that lets you load more applications and data than you have actual memory for, but uses hard disk reads and writes to accomplish the task). Virtual memory's use of the hard disk slows performance. For PCs with 64MB or less of RAM, just loading the operating system, an application, and some data can call up virtual memory, slowing your system. And that happens even sooner with larger OSs (read XP). Above 64MB, how often your system slows for virtual memory depends on how much you load into your PC (and to a degree, how fast your CPU is; slower PCs see less performance improvement for the same size memory upgrade).
With 128MB of RAM, if you keep opening mail or browser windows--as most of us do these days--you'll start slogging around in virtual memory pretty quickly, especially with a Windows XP system. At just $20 or $30 more than 128MB costs, the added headroom of 256MB pays for itself in productivity--so we'll we stick by our 256MB recommendation.
RAM Upgrades: Best Value At 256MB (chart)
|SYSTEM||CPU||Speed||Memory type||Operating system||PC WorldBench 4 score at: 64MB||PC WorldBench 4 score at: 128MB||PC WorldBench 4 score at: 256MB||PC WorldBench 4 score at: 512MB||PC WorldBench 4 score at: 1024MB|
|Dell Dimension||Pentium III||933 MHz||PC133||Windows Me||n/a||89||91||91||n/a|
|Dell Dimension||Pentium III||933 MHz||PC100||Windows Me||82||87||89||90||n/a|
|Gateway||Pentium III||450 MHz||PC100||Windows 98 SE||61||63||64||64||n/a|
|IBM NetVista||Pentium 4||1.5 GHz||PC800||Windows XP Pro||n/a||n/a||100||101||101|
|MicronPC Millennia1||Athlon XP 1900+||1.6 GHz||DDR266||Windows XP Pro||n/a||(96MB) 106||(224MB) 115||(480MB) 116||(992MB) 117|
When I upgraded my home network by adding a third PC, the new machine couldn't connect with the other PCs on the network, nor could it access the Internet. What do I do now?
Andy Ferguson, pastor, Cleveland, Tennessee
Installing or upgrading a Windows network at home or work isn't nearly as complicated as it used to be, as long as everything goes smoothly. Run into a glitch, and you can lose hours as you try new settings (some of which may add to your problems). But you don't need to.
Your first step should be to rule out physical connection or hardware problems. Check your network adapter to confirm that the lights indicating a good connection are lit. If they aren't and you're on a wired network, check your cabling. If you're on a wireless network, run the installation routine for your wireless adapter one more time and double-check your network ID and encryption settings.
If the PC's connection is good, but it won't connect to the Internet, it may have an incorrect IP address. To assign a correct one, you need to ensure that your network uses exactly one Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol server (which assigns a unique IP address to each computer on your local network), check that the DHCP server is on, and confirm that the new computer is connected to the network.
Here's how to check for DHCP: If your modem is connected directly to a computer that then shares that connection with other PCs on your network, you've set up Internet Connection Sharing (available in Windows 98 and later versions) or a similar program, and it is your DHCP server. If you're using a router, you'll find an "enable DHCP" option in the router configuration software that you can access via a Web browser on one of the working computers on the network. Double-check it, and while you're there, make sure that you have set the number of users high enough to accommodate all of your (and your guests') PCs and notebooks.
Now reboot the new PC, and see if you can browse the Internet. If not, the easiest way to get all the necessary default settings is to remove and reinstall your system's TCP/IP protocol. If your new PC uses Windows 98 or Me, open Control Panel, open Network, select TCP/IP * [ network card] (where [ network card] is the name of your network card), and click Remove*Add*Protocol*Add*Microsoft. In the right pane, choose TCP/IP, and click OK. Press <Enter> when asked if you want to reboot your PC.
For a Windows 2000 computer, select Start*Settings*Network and Dial-up Connections. Right-click the icon for your network, and open its Properties dialog box. Then select Internet Protocol (TCP/IP)*Uninstall*Yes*Yes*No. Once your computer has restarted, reopen the network Properties dialog box, and select Install*Protocol.Add*Internet Protocol (TCP/IP)*OK*Yes.
XP won't let you uninstall TCP/IP, so you must reset its default TCP/IP settings manually: Open Control Panel, open Network Connections, right-click your network icon, and select Properties*Internet Protocol (TCP/IP)*Properties*Obtain an IP address automatically*Obtain DNS server address automatically*OK.
While we're here, click the Advanced tab and make sure that the Protect my computer... box is unchecked. Click OK and Yes if asked whether you're sure you want to turn off Internet Connection Firewall. If your network is router-based, you have sufficient protection without a software firewall like XP's ICF. If one of your PCs shares its Internet connection, your firewall belongs on that system. If you don't already have one, we recommend Zone Labs' $50 ZoneAlarm Pro 3, which automatically senses when ICS is running and stops intruders without affecting local network access.
For a more comprehensive look at network setup and troubleshooting, check out May's " No-Hassle Networking Guide."
USB 2.0 vs. Firewire
I'm shopping for an external hard disk to back up several computers. I want a fast drive with a fast interface, so I'd like to add a USB 2.0 or FireWire card for the drive and the computers. Which should I choose? Which is faster?
Carm Lyman, public relations specialist, Lake Tahoe, California
You've correctly identified the two fastest interfaces for connecting external devices--and sensibly ruled out the poky USB 1.1 interface, which would be too slow for your application. Remember, though, that your immediate need for an external hard disk isn't the only factor in your decision. The whole idea behind external interfaces like USB and FireWire is to accommodate a wide range of devices, so which other ones you might want to attach should influence your choice as much as anything else.
USB 2.0 is a much newer spec than FireWire, and fewer devices currently support it. But its chief backer is Intel, which will be building support for USB 2.0 into all its computer chip sets. Other chip set vendors are behind it as well, which is why most new motherboards are shipping with USB 2.0 ports built in. This guarantees that manufacturers of digital cameras, camcorders, hard disks, scanners, CD-RW drives, and so on will build support into their devices. In addition, USB 2.0 ports can receive USB 1.1 devices. That's a fairly minor issue, since virtually all PCs four years old or less already have a USB 1.1 port, but it makes the transition to USB 2.0 much easier.
Having originated on the Macintosh, FireWire is typically an add-on for PCs. Nonetheless, by the time you read this, you'll still have a wider selection of FireWire than USB 2.0 devices on the market to choose from--especially among digital video camcorders, where FireWire appears to have established a permanent niche. And such companies as ATI and Creative Labs are beginning to build FireWire ports into their graphics cards and sound boards, respectively.
Finally, our performance tests confirm that if there's one thing you shouldn't worry about in comparing the two interfaces, it's speed. (See the " USB vs. FireWire" test report.) Although USB 2.0 supposedly supports throughput as high as 480 megabits per second versus FireWire's 400 mbps, FireWire actually turned out to be slightly faster. But these differences may flatten out over time as newer USB 2.0 devices are refined.
Our conclusion: If you want the widest compatibility with future devices, go with USB 2.0. If you're primarily interested in digital video, choose FireWire. Or as long as you're going to the trouble of adding an expansion card, why not buy one that supports both interfaces? At about $100 on the street, Adaptec's DuoConnect is a little pricey, but you get three USB 2.0 ports, three FireWire ports, a six-foot FireWire cable, and Sonic MyDVD 3 video editing software. Not a bad purchase if you want to be prepared for anything.
For either interface, the upgrade is simple. Turn off and unplug your PC. Use an antistatic wrist strap to prevent static damage while working inside your PC's case. Locate an empty PCI slot, and remove the metal slot cover. Gently insert the new card and fasten it down using the screw you removed earlier. Plug your PC back in and turn it on. Once Windows boots, it should detect the new card and prompt you to install drivers. Follow the manufacturer's directions for any software that came with the card. With the drivers installed, you should be able to start using your USB 2.0 or FireWire devices by plugging them into the new card.
Hard Drive Management
My computer came with a 20GB hard drive. Right now, I've filled about 8GB. Should I think about adding a second drive if I want to dabble in digital audio and video? Should I leave the original 20GB as the master drive with the OS installed--or are there advantages to reversing the two?
Spencer Pasero, educator, Batavia, Illinois
If you're interested in video editing, you've picked the only application that can overflow today's high-capacity hard drives. Music won't do it--unless you plan on exceeding 50,000 or so MP3s. Digital photography won't come close. But video? Hard-drive manufacturers get on their knees and pray that more people will start making movies on their PCs. Most hobbyists work with digital video in 720 by 480 resolution with 5:1 compression. That works out to a space requirement of about 3.6MB per second. If you dedicated an entire 80GB drive to video, you would have room for only about 6 hours worth--enough for an editing studio, but not for storing your creations. That takes a CD-RW or rewritable DVD drive (see our September buying guide to rewritable DVD drives).
As for swapping the old and new hard drives, you seldom see a noticeable performance difference between two drives of the same vintage. Rather, where you will store critical files, such as your OS and apps, may be the better basis for deciding whether to switch the drives.
Swapping makes more sense when your old drive is a low-end 5400-rpm model and your new unit is a top-of-the-line, 7200-rpm unit with an extra-large buffer. In general, it's a good idea for the drive that the system accesses more frequently to be the one with the greater kick.
In that case, your first step is to install the new drive so you can copy everything over. Follow the manufacturer's directions to install the drive, and be sure to set the new drive as a slave. The best way to copy is by using drive imaging software; this ensures that everything--apps, data, settings, hidden files--will get moved from the old drive to the new, completely duplicating your current setup. Before you start, back up any data you may already have stored on the new drive (you can just copy it to the old drive if it will fit); to be safe, you should do a full backup of the old drive, as well. And make sure you have the manufacturer's documentation for both drives.
If you run Windows XP, you'll need to use either the XP-compatible drive imaging software that may have come with your hard drive or a commercial product like Norton's Ghost 2002, PowerQuest's Drive Image 2002, or V Communications' Copy Commander (PowerQuest's DriveCopy doesn't support XP at this writing).
Once everything is backed up and you have imaged the 20GB drive to the new drive, shut down the PC, ground yourself, unplug the power cord, and open the case. With documentation in hand, switch the jumpers on your hard drives so that the new drive is the master and the original drive is the slave (using a pair of tweezers makes this a lot easier). Ensure that both drives have power and IDE cables connected, plug in the PC's power cord, and turn it on. If everything boots up fine, reclose the PC; if not--and if a double-check of cabling and of master and slave jumper positions doesn't reveal an error--switch the jumpers back, reboot, and start over.
After you have successfully booted with the new drive, you can format the 20GB drive to make room for other stuff: Open My Computer, right-click the drive, and choose Format.
Eric Knorr is a California-based freelance writer on PC technology.
Pre-Upgrade Tips: Before You Start...
Once you have the upgrade hardware in your hot little hands, you'll want to dive in and get it done. But that instinct can get you into trouble. Here are a few practical tips to help ensure that the whole process goes smoothly. (For more ideas, see Hardware Tips.)
- 1. Image your drive. No, you probably won't kill your hard drive, but everyone should create a perfect image backup of the entire hard disk on occasion, so that applications and data can be restored in a flash to a replacement drive. So why not do it now? CD-RW discs provide the cheapest, easiest backup medium. At the very least, copy crucial data files off your hard disk before you start.
- Save this number, XP users. After a major hardware upgrade, Windows XP may balk when you boot, telling you that the operating system has already been installed on another system. To reactivate XP, call Microsoft at 888/571-2048 and give the rep the Product Key that came in the shrink-wrapped box.
- Back up your BIOS. It's always a good idea to have the latest BIOS version from your system vendor, but updating a BIOS is serious business: If the upgrade fails, you can't boot your system. Usually, depending on the system vendor, performing a BIOS upgrade involves creating a bootable floppy that contains the upgrade routine. So make sure you download your current BIOS and create a bootable floppy for it as well--if the new one fails, at least you can load the old one and boot.
- Double-check expansion boards and cables. Often, a card that doesn't work hasn't been pushed in all the way--even though the retaining screw is tight. And it's all too easy not to plug a cable in completely, to forget to reconnect it, or (even worse) to plug it in backward or to bend or break one of its pins. Remember, too, that some newer cards--particularly for high-end graphics--must be hooked to your system's power supply to work.
- Don't wear polyester. This tip applies to any situation, but particularly to upgrades, since polyester clothing generates static electricity, which can destroy electronic components. To release any static buildup before you pop the hood of your computer, it's a good idea to touch a grounded piece of metal, such as the fan grille on the power supply while your computer is plugged into a grounded outlet. But do unplug it afterward; even when "off," modern PCs use a trickle of power that will damage your PC if you manage to direct it where it doesn't belong.