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Speed Up Your Computer's Performance Inexpensively

By Rob Kay

If you want to give your computer a shot in the arm without spending a fortune (or an arm and a leg) adding a few megabytes of DRAM (dynamic random access memory) is the quickest, least expensive way to go.

Basically DRAM is where all your work is stored before you save it to your hard disk. Thus, the more memory you have, the faster your programs, such as word processors, spreadsheets, and even Internet applications will run. Another big plus is that you can "multi-task"--that is run more programs simultaneously if you have good surplus of memory. For example, as this is being typed on our computer we're running a word processing program, an email program, a spreadsheet, and a session of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer running simultaneously.

This gets back to the main point:

The amount of memory you need is dependent upon on how you use your machine. 16 megabytes is the minimum amount needed for Windows 95 or if you're running NT Workstation, you'll need 32 megs.

If you are not a "power user", that is if you just run mostly word processing and perhaps an occasional visit on the Internet, 16 megs will do fine. On the other hand, if do a lot of graphics (such as desktop publishing), heavy number crunching with large spread sheets or accounting programs, or spend a lot of time on the Internet you should have at least 32 megs of DRAM. If you plan to get into video conferencing or other intense multi-media applications that deal with full-motion video, consider buying 48 to 64 megs or more is better yet.

DRAM is cheap

The good part of this story is that DRAM is inexpensive and like sex, there's no logical excuse not to have enough. Because of oversupply from manufacturers DRAM prices have fallen drastically over the past several years. You can buy 8 megs of memory for about $40, 16 megs for about $70 and 32 megs for about $100 at computer stores or through mail-order companies.

However...before you rush out to Costco, Computer City or your neighborhood computer store, check with your digital guru to make sure that you purchase memory chips that are compatible with what you already have. If you don't add memory that is compatible with what you already have, things just won't work.

DRAM comes in tiny rectangular chips that snap into slots on your computer's motherboard. They are available in different sizes, configurations, capacity and speed. For example, an older PC will generally have SIMMs (single inline memory modules) but the newer systems use DIMMs, (dual inline memory modules). Although it's not difficult to open up your box and add DRAM chips, unless you know what you're doing, let somebody who knows replace the memory. This is generally something that can be done in under 15 minutes so you won't be paying for a lot of labor.

Adding a New Video Card

Popping in a new video card can also dramatically speed up the performance of your "box" as we call computers in the trade. You canbuy a 4 meg VRAM card from $100-200 and get dramatically increased performance. Because programs nowadays are graphical (as opposed to text-based on older systems) a faster video card can go a long way to speeding up your computer. To do this is routine. Simply replace the old board with a new one. This involves removing the computer case, loosening a few screws and installing new software drivers. The whole task shouldn't take more than fifteen to 20 minutes.

Popping In a New Microprocessor

In addition to adding memory, popping a newer, faster CPU (the "brains" of the computer) can also be a good and usually inexpensive way to make your system snappier. For example if you have an older Pentium (say a 100 MHz machine) replacing it with a 200 MHz chip will boost your computer processing power by 30 % or more. Unless you are doing heavy number crunching you may not see a huge increase in speed except when you turn your computer on or when you open a program for the first time.

Upgrades, such as Intel's vaunted "Overdrive" are manufactured by other companies such as Cyrix, IBM, AMD and others which offer kits. However, as in all things in life, it's not as simple as unscrewing cover and snapping in a new chip. If you have an older machine, say a 486, a newer Pentium chip will not (despite what Intel told us before) function on your machine.

However, an older Pentium machine should accept a faster Pentium chip. Again, this is where your computer guru will come in handy. By looking at the motherboard and determining when it was manufactured he or she will be able to advise you what type of upgrade will work. Although the prices for CPU's are not as cheap as memory, the prices are dropping every day. Like old model cars, manufacturers like to clear the decks and consumers can get good deals on very fast (but not top of the line) chips. You could have a 200 MHz (Pentium class) chip from Cyrix installed in your machine for around $200 or a Pentium 200 MMX for $250 . (Note: If you only have a limited budget to spend on your computer, say $150 or less, adding DRAM is the cheaper way to go).

If you are contemplating upgrading a 486 class machine it's probably better to give it to your nephew and buy a new computer. Sometimes the cost of rebuilding a machine that too outdated is more than what you'd pay for a new box.

Summary: Our feeling is upgrade DRAM first, video card 2nd and processor 3rd. If you can do all three, all the better. Remember the first commandment of computers, "you're only as fast as your slowest link". Figure on spending around $500 for the total upgrade which could increase the speed of your computer from 50 to 75%.

Pacific Business News - Monday, January 26, 1998

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