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Upgrading Your Computer, Part 1

By Rob Kay & Jeff Bloom

It happens to everyone. At some point a hard drive crashes on an older computer and you are left with the question about whether to upgrade or simply replace the box entirely. This happened to one of our home machines the other day and we’ll explain how we dealt with this minor catastrophe and what hardware we think is best to use for an upgrade.

When the hard drive went clunk, the first thing we did was look at replacing it. There are lots of choices of hardware but in particular we like Seagate, Quantum and IBM. These are top rated manufacturers and it’s best to go with quality or you will find yourself in our position—replacing your disk drive. At the very minimum you should purchase a new drive with at least four gigabytes of storage.

We decided to go with Seagate’s latest Ultra ATA class drive called the Medalist which comes in sizes ranging from 3.2 to 17 gigs. For home office use the 6.5 gig unit was ideal and the price, just under $200, was right. The Seagate unit was extremely fast and handled everything from computer-intensive applications such as Adobe Photoshop to downloading large files off of the Internet. In short, it’s more than adequate for the home office.

Continuing the Upgrade

The overall performance of the computer was much faster with the new drive but our machine, a 166 Mhz Pentium chocked with 64 k of RAM, was by Internet standards old and we wanted to transform it into a speedburner without spending a lot of money.

The next logical move was to replace the video card. The video card is key to processing graphics and also helps in speeding up Internet downloads. Both of us like to tinker with graphics programs and sometimes computer games so we wanted something that could do some heavy lifting. For these purposes we suggest a card that has at least 8 megs of RAM.

Decent cards are not that expensive nowadays and we turned to Diamond Multimedia, which has a line cards called the "Viper" series which are excellent for business graphics as well as games. We looked at the Viper 550 which sells for about $100 and has 16 MB of RAM. It is competitively priced and performs very well in comparison with other brands. Another board to consider is the new Voodoo3 2000 which comes in both AGP or PCI configurations and is priced around $130. This board is also extremely fast and offers great bang for the buck performance. We like it because it’s optimized to run both with the AMD and Intel microprocessors.

Once the new video card was in place the performance was snappier yet. However at this point we decided to add a new sound card. We admit this was not entirely a business decision. The technology for sound cards has evolved drastically over the last few years and "gamers" now expect very high standards when it comes to the quality of the sounds ranging from crashing cars to shrieking space aliens. So we decided to treat the kids around the house (some of whom are decidedly middle-aged) to an early Christmas. We went again to Diamond Multimedia which has a top of the line unit called the "Monster 300" which you can buy on the street for about $100. Our card was up and running in no time and the audio quality was terrific.

We might have been satisfied at this point but we still had one issue that wouldn’t go away—an older processor with (gasp) four year-old technology. It was in a word, slow and we wanted something that was at least equivalent to a modern, entry level machine.

What to do?

The final upgrade we did was to the microprocessor itself—the guts of the machine. This is something that heretofore has not been an easy task. Fortunately there are companies that have addressed this issue by producing customized upgrades that they claim really are "plug and play". We looked at two of these upgrades see if they lived up to the hype. The first unit we installed was is manufactured by Kingston, a Fountain Valley, California firm better known for memory upgrades.

Their unit, though not the most powerful upgrade available, is based on the 366 Mhz K6-2 AMD chip. This is certainly powerful enough for virtually all home office applications and very reasonably priced at around $200. As the Kingston people promised, removing the old chip and popping in the new more powerful upgrade was hassle-free. The whole process took less than 15 minutes and the performance was vastly improved.

We also looked at several new products from Powerleap, a New Jersey company that makes the most powerful PC upgrades on the market. We first tested their 400 Mhz K6-2 AMD chip (which retails for $229.95) and their even more powerful AMD K6-3 a just released upgrade which is close to state of the art for desktop machines and has a street price of about $350.

The 400 Mhz K6-2 model (which is slightly faster than the Kingston unit) took all of two minutes to install and also performed flawlessly. It was truly a case of plug and play. The even faster K6-3 presented a few challenges in the compatibility department. However we let our friend, Eric Agrigado at Douglas Engineering of Honolulu, take a look at the unit. Eric found that the K6-3 worked with two out of three computers he tested. He told us it was also a breeze to install and it more than doubled the speed of his computer aided design applications. He offered to buy it on the spot.

The lesson is this: If you already have a souped up computer with plenty of RAM, a fast hard drive and a good video card (as is the case with Douglas Engineering) you are a perfect candidate for a microprocessor upgrade. Otherwise, it might not make sense.

Next week we examine the key decisions that you need to make when upgrading your machine or whether it’s better to just purchase a new one.

Pacific Business News - Friday May 28, 1999

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