A Menu of UpgradesDon't throw out that PC just yet. The right combination of system upgrades can give it a new lease on life--without breaking the bank.
Michael Desmond is a freelance writer and author of Microsoft Office 2003 in 10 Simple Steps or Less. He is still looking for the perfect upgrade.
Deciding on what additions to make to your PC can be like eating Chinese dim sum or Spanish tapas. There are a lot of morsels to choose from, and it can be hard to keep track of how much you're spending and when you should be finished.
Whether your computer is six months old or six years old, there's a lot you can do to pep it up. And I'm not just talking about getting more speed. An upgrade that helps your PC do something it couldn't do before--like play the latest games, capture video, or hold more MP3 files--is often as good as simply kicking it into high gear.
But what may work wonders on a two-year-old Pentium 4 PC could be an extravagant waste of money on a decrepit Pentium III desktop. To help you decide which upgrades offer the most bang for your buck, consider the following a la carte menu of options. One or two of these items may provide the boost your system needs to last another year or more. May we recommend a little RAM and some Windows XP?
Just keep in mind that the more you order from this menu, the greater your shock will be when the check arrives. With brand-new systems going for as little as $500, you don't want to overspend on upgrades.
In addition, no upgrade will restore a doddering PC to past glory. Nor can an upgrade make an old computer work like today's cutting-edge systems. Even if you replace the CPU (central processing unit), aging components like motherboard chip sets may conspire against you. Still, a hearty portion of RAM and a side order of high-speed USB could at least make you feel like you're using a new PC--without running up an obscene tab. Bon appétit.
Upgrade: System Memory
Why To Do It: Disk churns constantly; system slows badly when switching between programs Cost: $50 to $100 Performance Impact: Significant
At the Chinese buffet of upgrades, system memory is like an egg roll--always a safe bet. When applications ask for more memory space than your PC can offer, Windows responds by shuttling bits between memory and the hard disk. The resulting slowdown is atrocious. Any PC with less than 256MB of RAM is primed for an upgrade, and anyone running Windows XP should consider a bump up to 512MB.
Just be careful: There are many flavors of system memory. Check your documentation to ensure a proper match, and peek inside the case to see if you can fit another stick of RAM next to what's already there. In some cases, you may need to replace the existing RAM with higher-capacity modules. Before you do anything, read "Q&A About RAM," which accompanies this story.
Upgrade: Operating System
Why To Do It: System crashes frequently; newer applications and games won't run reliably Cost: $80 to $300 Performance Impact: Moderate
Is it time to bite the bullet and ditch Windows 98? If your system is running well, probably not. That said, Windows XP is clearly the best operating system Microsoft has produced since the days of DOS. PCs with the RAM to handle Windows XP can run for weeks or months without requiring a reboot or experiencing a crash--a far cry from the house of cards that is Windows Me.
But therein lies the rub: To make the switch to Windows XP, you'll need at least a 1-GHz processor, 256MB of RAM, and a 60GB hard drive. Users with systems more than three years old will probably find the climb to Windows XP too steep. But if your system is up to the task, or you can afford to upgrade it before shelling out for Windows XP, you'll be pleased with the results.
Why To Do It: Screen updates slowly; programs take a long time to load and complete tasks Cost: $100 to $400 Performance Impact: Moderate
Let's get something straight right now: A processor upgrade is not for everyone. An upgraded CPU simply can't overcome obsolete motherboards and sluggish memory. Picture a Ferrari Testarossa stuck in bridge traffic, and you get the idea. It can also be a complicated upgrade: The pins that attach the CPU to the motherboard, the system BIOS, and other components that interface with the processor need to work together nicely or you could be throwing money down the chute.
Still, a new processor can make sense for power users who want to top off the performance of a newer PC. The rest of us can make a case if we can get at least a 50 percent increase in clock rate for less than $150. (Clock rate is the number of cycles per second a CPU operates, measured in gigahertz, or a billion cycles per second.) For example, owners of Pentium 4-based desktops running at 1.4 GHz can move up to a 2.4-GHz chip for about $130.
There are scads of processor types, so shop carefully to ensure a proper match. You can upgrade some aged PCs to a newer CPU family with products like the oddly named PL-ip3/T from PowerLeap. This package can jump a system from a 400-MHz Pentium II to a 1.4-GHz Celeron based on Pentium III technology.
Upgrade: Hard Drive
Why To Do It: System takes forever to start; applications load slowly; Windows produces "out of disk space" errors Cost: $60 to $400 Performance Impact: Minimal
There are two kinds of hard drive upgrades: One in which you add a second drive to hold more files, and a second in which you toss out your existing hard disk and put everything on a bigger, faster model. Either way, new hard drives fall into that category of upgrades that won't necessarily shift your PC into overdrive, but will instead let you do new things.
A 200GB internal drive runs $160 or so, and capacious 400GB models are just around the corner. Most new hard drives provide ample space for holding all those MP3 files and digital photos you've been accumulating. Today's drives generally work with even the oldest motherboards--buy a drive using the ATA/133 or ATA/100 interface and you're set.
If you're up to the task, moving all your programs and files to a bigger, newer, faster hard drive may give you a performance boost. See if your old drive spins at 5400 rotations per minute--replacing it with a 7200-rpm drive will help applications and large files load more quickly. Also, look for a drive with an 8MB disk cache, because this type of on-board memory helps speed things up. And today's new Serial ATA drives are faster than their predecessors. (See "Hard Drive Upgrades," which accompanies this article, for more on these new drives.)
Upgrade: Graphics Card
Why To Do It: Screen updates slowly; new games fail to run at full resolution if at all Cost: $100 to $450 Performance Impact: Moderate to significant
If you use your PC for e-mail, word processing, and light Web browsing, a graphics card update should be low on your list of upgrades. But gamers, videophiles, and digital photo enthusiasts can gain a lot of extra performance by replacing a two-year-old graphics card. New models--like the ATI Radeon 9800XT and cards based on the NVidia GeForce FX graphics chip--are pricey, but offer advanced 3D graphics and digital connections to flat-panel displays.
A new graphics card can also turn your PC into a media center. For example, the ATI Radeon All-in-Wonder cards include built-in TV tuners and everything you need to capture and output video to and from camcorders, VCRs, and DVD players.
Upgrade: External Ports
Why To Do It: Fast external peripherals can't connect to your PC; USB 2.0 devices operate slowly or produce error messages Cost: $20 to $70 Performance Impact: Minor to moderate
Want to get the most out of your old PC? Consider a low-cost PCI card that adds USB 2.0 and FireWire ports to the back of your computer. These ports offer fast connections to a growing list of devices that includes scanners, digital cameras, external hard disks, and optical drives. They even let you hook up camcorders and other consumer electronics gear. For about $70 you can get an Adaptec DuoConnect card with three USB 2.0 ports and a pair of FireWire ports--just the thing for expanding your PC's horizons.
As with a second hard drive, extra ports won't speed up the system itself. But new high-speed ports let you download pictures from your digital camera or upload songs to your MP3 player faster than before.
Upgrade: Registry Management
Why To Do It: Windows and applications load slowly; system produces frequent error messages Cost: Free to $50 Performance Impact: Minor to moderate
Looking for a budget upgrade? How does "free" sound? Just cleaning up your Windows Registry can make your system more spry. Check out RegClean, a utility that scours obsolete entries from the Windows Registry to help speed system and application load times and reduce frustrating crashes.
Windows XP users may want to consider Registry Mechanic, a $20 program that's available as a free trial. Another option is Iolo's $50 System Mechanic, a more comprehensive suite that includes a competent Registry cleaner.
Ultimately, upgrades are a great way to extend the life of an aging PC. Just be sure you don't squander money that might be put to better use on a new computer. To paraphrase the late Senator Everett Dirksen: You spend a couple hundred here and a couple hundred there, and pretty soon you're talking about serious money. That's a lot of dim sum.