From the December, 1998 issue of PC Alamode
Holiday Buying Guide:
Upgrade your PC. . .or junk your PC?
 
by Lee W. Besing

As Christmas approaches, many of you may be considering whether to upgrade your older model PC, or to simply go out and buy a new one off the shelf and stick it under the Christmas tree. The margin of difference between upgrading your PC versus replacing it, has shrunk considerably from last year.

 A lot of what you decide to do will depend upon your budget. You can turn that old computer into a real work horse for a few hundred dollars, or replace it for up to a thousand. Naturally there are computers to fit everybody's budget, from the low end Pentiums to the race horse 450MHz Pentium II's with dual processors.

 You can upgrade your equipment by replacing or adding new items. In this article we will attempt to address many of the common issues to be considered when making these decisions.

 If you have a 386 or older 486 computer, with small hard drives, you will probably be wasting your time upgrading the system. You might end up replacing everything except the Monitor, keyboard, mouse and the power supply in the mini-tower.
 
 

A cheap tuneup

Adding more RAM memory to an upper end 486 (80mhz or faster) or Pentium system is a very inexpensive way to improve your system. Windows 95 works best on 32MB of Ram, and Win98 needs 64MB of Ram to really purr. You can buy and install memory yourself with little trouble or the cost of installation is usually minimal from the dealer.

 Feeling the pinch in disk space? Tried to install Windows 98 only to find out you needed at least 200MB of free disk space? Try adding a new hard drive to your system. You can replace it using Drive Copy from Power Quest to transfer the data from the older drive to a new larger drive, or simply add it on as a secondary / slave drive if you have room to mount it inside your computer. Drive Copy software costs $29.95 and allows the experienced user to easily transfer data, but it does reformat the destination drive during the process. Read the Drive Copy manual before using this and ask for help if you feel uncomfortable in performing this task yourself.

 Drive prices have dropped over 50% from last year, with 2.5gigabyte drives (2,500 megabyte) being the smallest available size at present time. I say "at present time" because they are being discontinued as newer, larger drives are placed on the market. For only a few dollars more, you can double or triple that size! The smallest drive that I normally recommend is the 4.3GB drive, but the 6.4GB is only another $30 more. And if you want to buy the largest drive you can fit in your computer, there are drives available from 8.4GB to 13.1GB in size. 

Make sure your motherboard can handle the larger drives, and if you are not running Windows 95 version B or Windows 98, you will be subdividing your drives into 2GB partitions due to limitations with the operating systems. (To tell what system you are running in Win95, hold down the "ALT" key and double click on "My Computer". A screen will pop up and you can read on the front screen what system is on the computer. If there is a "B" after the Windows 95 version, you are already capable of using the larger drives and partitions.)

 Have you been straining your eyes to read that small print on your monitor? Are the colors not quite as bright as you remember them? Is that flicker getting to be annoying? Perhaps you should consider buying a new monitor? Monitor prices have dropped almost 50% from last year. 14" monitors start around $150, 15" monitors are under $200 and 17" monitors can be found under $300. With the new digital plug and play monitors, you can virtually eliminate that hated black border around the edge and increase your viewable size on the screen. 

Video cards are another quick fix for many systems. If your video flickers and looks like infrared backgrounds while your applications are loading, consider upgrading to a MB Video card for under $50. Naturally this option varies depending upon what system you are running now, and a few systems cannot be upgraded in this manner. 

How fast is your CD-Rom Drive? You can replace that older 2x or 4x drive with a newer 32x or faster drive for less than $100. With a new Sound Blaster card and speakers, you may spend up to $200, but what beautiful sounds will fill your computer room? If you play games or music CD's on your computer, consider this upgrade.

 If you always dreamed of making your own CD-ROMS, that dream is now affordable. You can install one of the new CD Recorders to back up your data for less than $300 and you can buy the blanks for less than $2.00 each, cheaper in quantity of course. Backup your system onto a 660MB CD-Rom and save it forever! Average shelf life is 100 years, far longer than your software or computer's expected life span. Naturally you are not supposed to use the free software (included) to make illegal copies of other CD's. You can buy Re-Writeable CD-Rom units for another $100 or so, but the media is much more expensive to buy. You can write and throw away several copies of a recordable CD, compared to the cost of a single re-writeable CD-Rom.

 The hottest thing to hit the market this year is the DVD Drive. This is a sort of a super CD- Rom, but uses a different format. In fact, there are a couple of DVD formats and no standard agreed upon. So be careful what you buy and make sure you can get the recorded DVD disks for your drive. Many movies are being cut on DVD disks now, turning your computer into an expensive TV Set to entertain you.

 Tape drives are still a good alternative for backing your system. Where you would use several one time CDR's, tapes can hold from 3.2GB to 20GB of storage on one tape. As hard drive capacity grows larger, tape drives may be your most cost effective way to keep backup copies of your data. The downside to tape drives is speed of access. You have to sequentially read the tape from beginning to end to restore a single file. If it takes you several hours to back it up, it will take just as long to restore it. Tape drives are not intended to serve as alternate hard drives. The cost to buy a tape drive runs from under $200 up to $400-500, depending upon size and speed.

 Only backing up 100MB? How about installed an internal or external ZIP drive from Iomega? Internal Zips are running about $100 and connect to your system like a hard drive on the same cable. External Zip's connect to your printer port and are slower to use than Internal Zips. An alternative is the LS-120 drive, the super floppy drive. This drive can read both standard 3.5" floppies and their own 120MB disks. A competitor to Zip drives, many new systems come with these installed. Both drives cost less than $100 for the internal versions and under $200 for the external. Disk cartridges are running $8-$10 retail when purchased in 10 packs.
 
 

Surfing the Internet

How about a faster 56k modem? If you are running one of the 14.4k modems, this is a "must" upgrade. These new V.90 modems are available in the $75 to $175 price range, depending up brand name and style (internal or external). Be sure to get one that states "V.90 Standard" on the box, because there were two other 56k modems (X2 and 56Kflex) before the standard was adopted. Check with your Internet Provider for a recommendation. 

Your actual connection speed will depend upon local phone line quality and your Internet Provider's equipment. Be sure that you get a warranty with the modem. Most offer 5 year warranties and some like 3-Com (who bought out U.S. Robotics this year) offer limited life time warranties on their latest modems. If you buy from one of the computer shows, be sure you can contact the "weekend dealer" after the sale if you have a problem.

 The most common upgrade performed, is sometimes referred to as a brain transplant. Actually what you do is to replace the existing motherboard and CPU with a new one. You might need to replace or upgrade the memory as well. Be careful however, as there are two styles of motherboards available (AT and ATX) and you need to get one to fit your existing mini-tower or desktop chassis unless you plan to replace that as well. If you have a proprietary brand name computer, such as Packard Bell, Compaq, and AST computers, you may be unable to upgrade the CPU or motherboard without going back to them for parts. 

Newer computers are all using the ATX motherboard and chassis, and the older style AT boards, which have been around for many years, are being phased out by the manufacturers. Newer boards are running much faster clock speeds to support the faster CPU chips. But if you change from AT to ATX, you will be replacing your case, your keyboard and probably your mouse at the same time.

 If you want to get a moderately priced improvement in performance, consider moving up to the AMD-K6/2-3D CPU, available in 266, 300, 333 and 350MHz speeds. These CPU's fit the AT style motherboards, which fit most older cases with ease. Intel makes a Pentium chip from 166MHz to 233MHz for a bit more cost than AMD's comparable speed.

 Ready to dump that chassis and move up to the ATX board and a Pentium II CPU? These puppies run from the 266MHz thru the really sizzling 450MHz size! And if one CPU isn't enough, you can stack two of them on the same board for really fast processing! Of course the price more than doubles when you do that, but it sure does run fast! The price of upgrading into this range might make you consider junking your old PC and replacing it with a new system. You can easily spend from $400 thru $2000 to upgrade into this range of CPU's.

 The bottom line on all upgrades, is to decide how much you have to replace to get the performance you are wanting, and then decide how much it will cost to have that done. If may be cheaper to buy a new computer and pass the older computer down to the kids. If all you want to do is increase performance in a couple of areas, upgrading may be for you. If you have to perform all of the suggestions that were included in this article, junk your old PC and buy a new one.

 If, after reading this article, you decide to upgrade your PC, your next decision will be to select a shop or a consultant to perform the work or if you feel brave enough, do it your self. There are many advertisements listed every month in the PC Alamode magazine. Call around and ask for quotes. Ask other Alamo PC members for suggestions of where to do business. Be sure to ask about warranties and whether you have to bring the computer to their shop, or they come to you to do the work. There are bargains to be found and computer parts are getting more affordable every month!

 Lee W. Besing is the owner of Computer Solution Experts and has been performing computer upgrades and building new computers for over 10 years. He may be reached by phone 210-771-7075 or via e-mail at besing@computersolutionexpert.com. You can also visit his web site at http://www.computersolutionexpert.com. See his ad in this month's issue of PC Alamode