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Upgrading Your Computer, Part 2

By Rob Kay & Jeff Bloom

Last week we looked at various components that we thought would be key in upgrading an older computer without spending a lot of cash. The main issue is that you can soup up your computer in so many different ways it can be downright confusing deciding what path to take. Sometimes, with an older computer you may be better off giving it to your 10 year old nephew rather than putting another dime into it. In other instances it makes sense to build on top of what you have if one more component will make a big difference.

Ask Yourself Some Hard Questions

Before you even consider pouring your hard earned cash into an aging PC, you’ve got to take an objective look at what you use it for. What are your applications? Are you just surfing the net or doing word processing or…are you going to get into digital audio/video and graphics? Are you a gamer? Do you do a lot number crunching? If the answers to these latter questions are no, it might not be a good idea to dump a whole lot of money into an old machine.

We think the the cut off point in a computer upgrade should be no more than $500 to $600. If it costs you more than this to upgrade your machine you’re better off spending $1000 and getting something brand new (along with a warranty).

To help you decide what technical specifics you need to look at when upgrading a typical Windows 95/98 (Pentium) machine we think you should ask the following questions:

How much (RAM) memory is in the system?

Most experts agree 64MB is fine. Beyond that, performance does not improve all that much. (Fast RAM goes for about $60 per 32 megs).

How much room do you have left on your hard drive? How fast is it?

If you are going to do just one thing, consider upgrading to a bigger, faster drive. With prices for a decent 6 gigabyte unit as low as $150 you can’t go wrong. A fast drive can make a considerable difference. Of course it’s always good to have more storage too.

What type of video card are you running?

We think you should have at least an 8 MB card (which can be had for as low as $75). As we mentioned earlier, we liked the 16 MB Viper 550 but you might also consider the Voodoo3 series from STB that start at around $100.

Have you upgraded your BIOS?

The BIOS is the program a personal computer's microprocessor uses to get the computer system started after you turn it on. It can often be upgraded for free by going to the web site of your motherboard manufacturer. The newest version can speed up your box by ensuring that all your computer’s components run cohesively.

How new is your computer’s OS (Operating System)?

If you are running Windows 95, you want version "OSR 2.5. In truth, 98 is actually slower and offers little in the way of improvements except perhaps its greater compatibility with the Microsoft Web browser.

What about a new CPU?

If you are running a microprocessor slower than a 166MMX, and you have upgraded your machine to the specs outlined above, a faster CPU can make a very significant difference especially for those who use applications that do a lot of number crunching or heavy graphics work.

Final Reflections on the Upgrade Path

If you are looking to save money and get more bang for the buck out of your old computer, choose your upgrade path carefully. All you may need is a new hard drive, a video card or perhaps some additional RAM. Unless you have a specific chore we suggest not throwing everything but the kitchen sink into your old computer. Be judicious and choose your components carefully. Often the sales people at some of the better local stores such as PDC Systems know the technology and may provide you with some advice. Keep in mind that your machine is only as fast as your slowest component. Thus turning an older machine into a speed demon may take more resources than your budget allows for.

Rob Kay is a Honolulu-based public relations practitioner who specializes in technology companies. He can be reached at rkay@pactechcom.com or 539-3627. Jeff Bloom is the founder of Computer Training Academy/Network Resource Center, a computer educational school also based in Honolulu. His contact is jeffb@cta.net or 839- 1200. Suggestions for column topics are welcomed.

Pacific Business News - Friday June 18, 1999

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