Upgrading your PC

Upgrading your PC


Is your computer looking a bit long in the tooth? If so, there are plenty of ways to breathe new life into an old system.

One of the frustrating things about technology is the fact that any computer you buy always seems to be out of date the moment it is delivered. There is always something bigger, better and faster coming along, and just to rub it in, the new models will probably cost the same.

It’s wrong to assume that your PC is obsolete just because a newer model has come out. That’s just part of the computer industry’s fiendish master plan to get you to buy a new PC every 2-3 years. It’s perfectly possible to get the latest technology without starting over and buying a new system. There are various ways to improve performance and add features that won’t cost the earth.

Software and Operating Systems

For many people, the first item to consider upgrading will be software. If you’ve got an older PC running Windows 98/ME you may well be thinking about upgrading to Windows XP. It’s a tempting idea, as you can get the Windows XP Home Edition upgrade CD for about £85. XP looks a lot nicer than 98 or ME, is more stable and adds plenty of new features, so it’s a quick and easy way of giving an old PC a bit of a facelift.

However, the advice here is … if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If the software you’re using does all the things that you want it to do then you really don’t need to spend the money on expensive upgrades. Admittedly, XP does offer you a number of welcome improvements, particularly in simplifying tasks such as networking or setting up internet access. If your PC is set-up and working properly, then XP won’t necessarily make it run any better. In fact, you may find that not only does it run slower, but any existing software such as drivers for your printer, may not be designed for use with XP. Upgrading to XP could mean that you have to spend some time downloading all sorts of additional software updates and additional software. Fortunately, Microsoft has a handy little website - Windows XP Home Edition Upgrade Center (there is also an XP Pro site).

Memory

More often than not, the best upgrade you can give an aging PC is to “slam in the ram” - but don’t overdo it. For 98/ME it is recommended that you should consider at least 256Mb of memory and even getting up to 512Mb. Be aware however, that 98/ME does have a problem using over 512Mb of memory without fixing the “problem” first. With XP already on your system then you can add in as much as your motherboard will allow, 512 is enough but 1Gb will see your heavy-duty tasks such as editing full-screen video improve, and most newer motherboards will handle up to 3Gb quite happily.

You do have to open your computer to get at the memory modules on the motherboard, but it’s a fairly straightforward procedure. The manuals originally supplied with the PC will help here; they will show you the exact location of the modules and should also specify the type of module you need and the maximum capacity the motherboard can use.

There are a lot of different types of memory, with confusing names such as SDRAM, DDR, DDR2, PC-2400, so sometimes the best thing to do is just pop-out one of your existing modules and take it along to your friendly computer store. Be very aware that memory modules are very sensitive to static, so use an appropriate anti-static bag and observe the basic rules for handling static sensitive items. A better alternative is to use someone like Crucial. Memory manufacturer Crucial has an excellent website at www.crucial.com/uk that has a handy “memory advisor” feature, which will help you figure out the type of memory you need. You don’t have to buy from Crucial but they do offer good prices with free delivery and a 256Mb upgrade could cost as little as £35.

Hard Drive

Something else to consider is upgrading your PCs hard disk. Video clips, games and music downloads all add up to a large amounts of disk space being used and it doesn’t take long to fill a lower capacity hard disk to bursting point.

There are a number of options here. You could simply replace your original hard drive with a new one, but this means starting from scratch and reinstalling all the software, documents and files that were stored on the old hard drive on the new one. A task the will inevitably take a few hours if not a day to perform. An alternative is to install the new hard drive alongside the old one so that there are two disks sitting inside the PC. However, doing this can complicate things, as you need to make sure that the new disk is configured as “slave”, while the original disk is set to “master”. This can involve a bit of fiddling with “jumpers” and cables, so make sure that any hard drive you purchase includes a nice, clear manual to help you out. One last alternative is an “external” hard drive; these are generally USB and are usually an easy alternative to opening up your PC.

The most important detail to look for when buying a new hard drive is storage capacity. For the “download fiend”, audiophile or video buff I’d recommend you buy the biggest hard drive you can afford - it’ll fill up soon enough! Also look for a hard drive with a 7200 rpm speed rating, don’t settle for anything less. If your storage requirements are a little more modest, you can probably get by quite happily with a 60-80Gb hard drive.

One more technical detail to watch out for is the choice between ATA (also known as IDE/EIDE) and Serial ATA (SATA) drives. Serial ATA disk drives are faster than ordinary ATA drives, but older PC’s may not be able to use them, so remember, check this with the retailer before buying a new drive.

All the above assumes your happy with opening up “the box” and start installing a new disk drive inside. A simpler option is to buy an external hard drive instead. These can sit on your PC or desk and connect to one of the USB or FireWire ports on your PC; make sure you have either port before you buy. You can get a massive 250Gb external hard drive for £200-£250, or a more modest 80Gb for £100. Internal hard drives a lot cheaper, an 80Gb for around £40.

CD/DVD Writer Drives

Another way of adding more storage to your PC is to buy an “optical drive”, such as a CD or DVD writer. Most PCs built in the past couple of years should already have at least a CDRW, but they are a very handy upgrade for the older PC. Blank CDs and DVD’s are pretty cheap these days, so they provide a low-cost way of storing files. And, of course, they allow you to create your own audio CDs and video DVDs as well. Like external hard drives, it is also possible to hook-up an external CDRW/DVDRW drive using one of your spare USB ports.

Upgrading the connectivity of a PC

Now a word of warning... Newer PCs will have what’s know as USB2, which is almost 10 times faster than the original USB1.1 specification found on the older PC, again your PC manual should tell you what spec’ port your PC uses.

A USB2 device, such as mentioned above, can still be connected to the older port but at a slower transfer speed and will act as a bottleneck that will prevent the disk from running at full speed. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution to the problem … install a USB upgrade card that will give you an additional 2 or more USB2 ports. Companies such as Belkin and Adaptec sell these upgrade cards for about £30, though you should find other brands cheaper. This is a very worthwhile upgrade as they allow you to use all the latest USB2 peripherals. This is also an ideal way for the older PC that does not have any USB ports at all. However, watch out if you’ve got one of the really old machines, as older versions of Windows (95/98) can be a bit temperamental about working with USB devices. Always check it will work with your system.

If you have a digital video camera you will definitely need a FireWire interface card to connect it to your PC. You can kill two birds with one stone and buy a product such as Belkin’s handy combo card, which provides both USB2 & FireWire on the one card.

Graphics Cards

Hard drives and sockets are useful devices but, lets face it, they’re not the most exciting things you can plug into your PC. If you’re a “games fan” then graphics cards are a much more excitable product to get worked up about. A good graphics card can dazzle you with amazing 3D visual feasts that are starting to approach the quality you see in a Hollywood blockbuster.

The main thing to remember about the modern graphics card is that they’re primarily designed for 3D graphics which, for the home user, means games. If you’re only interested in 2D graphic applications such as office work, video or photo-editing, then a new graphics card is not an essential piece of kit.

For the games fan, the latest, greatest graphics cards are a must-have item on their shopping list. An entire article could be devoted to graphics cards alone, not least because they’ve all got incredibly confusing names. It’s hard to tell ATI’s Radeon X800 Pro from the nVidia FX 5200 Ultra, especially when ATI & nVidia (the two companies that currently dominate the graphics card market) also sell their graphics cards (or the chips that make a card what it is) to lots of other companies who then slap their own brand names onto them, making it difficult to keep up with the large variety of cards available.

But, as a quick rule of thumb, there are two details that are worth taking note of. The raw speed of a graphics card can be measured by the number of “pixels” that flash onto the screen every second (the word ‘pixel’ is short for ‘picture elements; in other words, the coloured dots that make up the image you see on-screen). This is sometimes referred to as the fill rate of the card and if you look at the “tech specs” on the nVidia and ATI websites, you’ll find that the Radeon X800 has a fill-rate of 5.7 billion pixels per second, while the FX5200 Ultra is closer to 1 billion pixels per second. This tells us that the Radeon is a top-of-the-range card aimed squarely at the hard core gamer, while the FX5200 Ultra is a more affordable, mass-market model. A quick look at a few prices on some online retailer websites confirms this, with the X800-base cards costing an average of £300 or more, while the FX5200 comes in at well under £70.

Another detail to look out for is the amount of video memory (sometimes known as VRAM) built into the graphics card. This is a special type of high-speed memory chip that helps the graphics card to process complex visual effects. Many modern games require a graphics card that has a least 32MB of video memory. High-end cards such as the X800 may have as much as 256Mb, but a good compromise for most home users is to opt for a card that has at least 64 to 128Mb. This amount of video memory should be able to cope with most of the games on the market today.

There is just one other detail that you need to watch out for. Most graphics cards produced in the last two years plug into an AGP slot on your motherboard. The latest generation of graphics cards to hit the market are designed for a newer type of expansion slot known as PCI Express. These new cards will be incredibly fast, but very few PCs have got this new type of slot at the moment; any PC old enough to need an upgrade is most certain not to have such a slot. The good news is that the majority of new graphics cards are available with a choice of interface. Just make sure the one you buy is compatible with your PC.

Sound Cards

Gamers are also one of the main audiences for new sound cards. However, most PCs released in the past 2/3 years have perfectly good sound cards that provide excellent quality stereo output. There’s really no need to buy a new sound card unless you’re planning to perform and record your own music, or you’re looking for features such as surround sound for games of films.

Processor

It’s important to realise that none of these “upgrade” options can compensate for a slow processor (CPU), the chip at the heart of the computer. If this is way past its sell-by-date, then there’s no point wasting money on a new graphics card or hard drive.

If you’re lucky, and, your system is not that old, upgrading your CPU can be an easy job. If you’re not so lucky it can begin to seem like brain surgery. The main thing that you need to realise is that the CPU can’t be considered in isolation. By itself, a CPU is just a lump of silicon. To use it properly you have to install it into a motherboard, the big, usually green, circuit board that houses all the components inside your computer.

There are two main types of CPU used in PCs these days. Intel’s Pentium processors are the most well known, but face fierce competition from the Athlon processors developed by rival, AMD. As a result, there are different types of motherboards that are designed for either AMD or Intel processors. Intel CPUs have a nasty habit of needing a different board while AMD’s CPUs can usually be upgraded to the same board.

Installing a CPU onto a motherboard is actually quite easy, because all CPUs have a number of small metallic pins on them that are arranged in a specific pattern. This ensures that it’s physically impossible to insert the CPU the wrong way round, or to insert an Intel CPU onto an AMD motherboard. This arrangement of pins is sometimes referred to as a slot or a socket, so the latest P4 CPUs use what’s known as the socket LGA755. However, earlier P4 CPUs used a different type of socket known as PGA478.

The first generation of PGA478 P4 CPUs run at a variety of speeds, ranging from 1.3GHz to 2.8GHz, so if you’ve got a 1.3 machine that is a couple of years old you might well find that you can perform a really quick upgrade simply by replacing the original processor with the newer 2.8. The newer 2.8 uses the same type socket, so it should just take a few seconds to remove the old and insert the new.

Unfortunately, things are rarely that easy and this is where it all gets a bit too complicated for comfort. For instance, there were actually two generations of PGA478 P4 CPUs, and the second generation CPUs (which run at 2.8GHz and above) aren’t compatible with first generation motherboards, even though they may have the same type socket. Doh! Another good one Intel.

And, of course, you’re completely stuffed if you’ve got a PIII PC or even something older. It will be physically impossible to install a newer CPU onto the motherboard of these older machines so the only option … other than buying a brand-new PC is … is to buy a new motherboard, CPU, and you’ll probably need new memory as well, all in one go.

The AMD fraternity have a slightly better upgrade path … If you presently have an AMD Duron, then your in with a good chance your motherboard will accept, with maybe a BIOS update to help, the newer Athlon CPU. Check your manual, it will tell you how big a CPU you could use, and then check the motherboard manufacturer on-line, and see if it requires a BIOS update.

The DIY route

Many PC magazines run articles tell you that installing a new motherboard and processor is a piece of cake and you can do it with a hangover first thing on Sunday morning while simultaneously changing the baby’s nappy … Well, they’re lying.

Installing a new motherboard is a big job. You’ve got to dismantle the entire PC for starters, removing the old motherboard and disconnecting the hard drive, power supply and all the other components that are connected to the motherboard.

Then you find out that the new motherboard needs a different type of power supply, and, a different type of memory chip, and, the new CPU give off a lot more heat than the old one and so you need to install a new cooling system as well as the baby now needing its nappy changing again … in other words you’re effectively building yourself a new system from scratch. If anything goes wrong you can’t take the system back to the shop because it’s not their fault. It can be a useful learning exercise, and an expensive one, but unless you’re confident performing surgery on your computer, it’s safe to buy a new one.

Conclusion

We may draw the line at rebuilding a PC with a new motherboard, but all the other upgrades we’ve looked at are well worth considering. A new graphics card or an extra chunk of memory can really give your PC a shot in the arm without you having to spend a fortune. Most of these upgrades are simple enough to do without giving you a nervous breakdown.

There may come a day when you have to bite the bullet and buy a brand new PC, but that really is your last resort. You may well be able to extend the life of your PC by a year or even more, which will give you time to save up for when the inevitable comes around and it’s really time to then buy a new machine. At least it should be selling at the same price you bought the last one for, but will inevitably be the latest of the day.

If you need to clarify any points, then why not post a question or two on the Forum… there is no such thing as a silly question!

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muckshifter
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