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When And What To Upgrade

Computers represent one of the most frustrating major purchases a person can make. The amazing leaps in technology that make computers more capable each month hurt the very customers who buy them. As every PC owner knows, the rapidity of technological advances is matched only by the speed at which the “state-of-the-art” PC you bought last week loses its value.

In any other industry, this inversely proportional relationship would seem insoluble. It would be like buying a car, only to have the automotive industry change the formula for petrol each year so older cars could not run on it. You could either spring for a new engine and exhaust system, or buy a new car—there would be no cheap solution. Computers, on the other hand, are amazingly resilient. They are designed to be modified, expanded, and enhanced. Best of all, these life-extending upgrades get cheaper by the day, and are increasingly easy to install. We have come a long way from the beginning of the computer age, when a simple upgrade required programming knowledge, soldering skills, and enough money to fill a swimming pool.

Knowing what to upgrade, then, is the problem. A PC contains so many individually upgradeable components that it is difficult to tell which replacements will make the biggest difference. The time also inevitably comes when either no upgrades are going to help a PC, or upgrading simply is not financially sensible when compared to the cost of a brand-new computer.

In this article, we will break down the major individual components that make up a personal computer and look at the costs and benefits of upgrading them. We also will discuss the technologies that define state-of-the-art for each component. We will not make any specific recommendations, since this is not a review article, but we will let you know what to look for when shopping around. Unless we note otherwise, upgrading any of the following components should be easy enough for someone with even rudimentary PC knowledge.

Motherboards :

Computer components are worthless unless they can work in concert together, and the motherboard lets this vital cooperation take place. Directly or indirectly, every device on a PC connects to one slot or another on a relatively enormous circuit board, and it has a tremendous impact on overall system performance.

The motherboard regulates the overall speed that the system RAM and CPU communicate at, depending on the system bus employed. The current best bus speed for desktop systems is 100MHz, but faster system buses will be introduced this year.

When to upgrade. Typical users rarely upgrade their motherboards. Advanced users generally replace their motherboards when it cannot support another piece of hardware they want to upgrade. For instance, if you want to upgrade to a processor using Slot1 technology, and your current motherboard supports only Socket7 processors, that motherboard must be upgraded before the new processor can be installed (slots and sockets) dictate how a processor connects to the motherboard). Furthermore, if a user wants to add some new hardware but all the motherboard’s slots and ports are in use, that user will have to either get rid of a currently installed piece of hardware to make room or get a motherboard with more input connections.

Replacing a motherboard is one of the most difficult computer upgrades. It requires messing with settings on the board itself and reinstalling all of the hardware attached to the old motherboard. With prices as they are, when a motherboard upgrade becomes necessary it usually is best to spring for a new computer with all-new components including the motherboard.

The best hardware. Top-of-the-line motherboards have plenty of PCI and memory slots and a speedy (100MHz or more) system bus architecture and accept Intel Corp.’s Pentium III or Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s (AMD) Athlon processors. Also, look for AGP 4X (Accelerated Graphics Port) and USB (Universal Serial Bus) support.

CPUs :

Few components affect overall computer speed like the CPU (central processing unit). These are the Pentiums, Celerons, and AMD K6 chips you see listed in all the computer specifications, with speeds measured in megahertz (MHz). Higher numbers mean faster speed. Other factors to consider are the Level 1 (L1) and Level 2 (L2) cache speeds and sizes and any special instruction sets (like Intel’s MMX). As far as cache sizes go, bigger is better, and you should try to find a processor where the cache runs at the same speed as the processor—some run at only half the processor’s speed.

When to upgrade. If your computer is doing everything you want it to do, don’t worry about the processor. If programs are bumbling along or refusing to run, add more memory. If that doesn’t solve the trouble, look into buying a new processor.

One of the problems with a processor upgrade is that your motherboard may not be able to handle the CPU you want to add. You can learn more in our “Upgrading your CPU” article.

The best hardware. It is difficult to argue against Pentium III processors—aside from their relatively high price. The fastest Pentium III at the time of this writing runs at 600 MHz, has 32KB of L1 cache, and 512KB of L2 cache.

AMD’s 600MHz Athlon (formerly K7) also represents the top of the desktop processor heap.

RAM :

RAM (random-access memory) is another component that can add much zip to an aging PC. Fortunately, unlike CPUs, RAM is cheap. RAM is used for high-speed data manipulation. Because of RAM’s solid-state (no moving parts) nature and other factors, data stored there can be accessed by other PC components thousands of times more quickly than if that data was sitting on a mechanical device like a hard drive. Unfortunately, all the data sitting in RAM is lost when the power is turned off, meaning it must be transferred to a permanent storage device if you want to save any of it.

When to upgrade. If your PC and budget can handle it, try to have 128MB of RAM installed. 64MB will do in a pinch, and most PC owners do not use software that could even take advantage of more than 128MB of RAM.

The best hardware. The best RAM depends on the computer you are using. Current monster systems use PC100 SDRAM, which can shuttle data around at 100MHz. Soon, PC133 SDRAM (running at 133MHz) and Rambus Inc.’s 600MHz RDRAM (Rambus DRAM) should be in use, and other technologies are in the pipeline.

Hard Drives :

RAM is perfect for short-term storage, but if you want to keep any of that data when the power goes out you will need a hard drive. These mechanical devices use magnetic storage technology to store data on round platters. A drive head on the end of an arm picks information up from the spinning platters.

Several specifications are important when it comes time to choose a hard drive. The spindle speed, measured in revolutions per minute (RPMs), tells how fast the platters spin and gives a rough estimate of the drive’s overall speed (higher numbers translate to a faster drive). Average seek time is the amount of time it typically takes the read head to access information on the drive. It is measured in milliseconds (ms), and lower numbers are better.

Several entries usually are displayed for various transfer rates, but you only need to worry about the sustained transfer rate. This figure is measured in MB per second (MBps), and bigger numbers mean faster performance. Ignore the burst transfer rate entirely when comparing drives. The interface used by the drive is very important, as it affects the rate at which data can be transferred between the drive and the motherboard.

When to upgrade. Most users will feel more constrained by the size of their hard drive than its speed. PC users typically need 200MB of free space on the hard drive for virtual memory, so if the free space on your drive is nearing that limit it may be time to think about upgrading. You can save a lot of money, however, by rolling up your sleeves and deleting seldom-used programs and files from the hard drive.

The alternative to adding a new hard drive is to supplement your current drive with a removable storage device. Products like Iomega Corp.’s Jaz and Zip drives may not be as fast as your dedicated hard drive, but their ability to store large amounts of data on removable disks can lighten the hard drive’s load.

The best hardware. The best hard drives have a good combination of high rotation speeds, low seek times, fast transfer rates, large capacities, and speedy interfaces. The fastest drives spin at least at 7,500 RPM—and preferably at 10,000 RPM or higher—with seek times of less than 10ms. The largest drives for desktop PCs can store 20GB or more of data—one IBM drive we saw while researching this article holds an amazing 37.5GB. To make certain the drive you are buying can shuttle information at maximum speed, choose one that uses either an Ultra ATA/66 (a.k.a. Ultra DMA/66), or Ultra SCSI-2 interface. You can learn more about these terms in the “Upgrading Hard Drives” article.

CD-ROM/DVD-ROM Drives :

Computers have been coming standard with CD-ROM drives for years, and for good reason. CD-ROMs store a goodly amount of data in a compact space and can read that data relatively quickly. These drives slowly are being supplanted by DVD-ROM drives, which use disks that store 4.7GB or more of data, as opposed to a CD-ROM’s 650MB.

CD-ROM speeds are listed with numbers like “36X.” A 36X drive spins 36 times faster than a 1X CD-ROM drive. 1X equals a sustained data transfer rate of 150KB per second, so it must follow that a 36X drive reads data at 5,400KBps, right? Of course not. These numbers are theoretical, and only a newer CD-ROM drive with several lasers can read at high speeds across the entire CD-ROM.

DVD-ROM speeds also are listed in terms like 6X, but the “X” here is not the same as a CD-ROM “X.” The base speed for a DVD-ROM drive (1X) is equivalent to a transfer rate of about 1.34MB per second.

When to upgrade. CD-ROM speeds have reached incredible new highs in the last few months, but the difference between an 8X drive and a 50X drive is more dramatic in theory than in practice. If applications that access the CD-ROM are running fine with your current setup, save your money. If the computer hiccups when the CD-ROM drive is accessed, or if access is agonizingly slow, look for an upgrade. Consider a DVD-ROM drive, as they can read CD-ROM and DVD-ROM discs.

The best hardware. If you are upgrading, try to get a 6X or faster DVD-ROM drive. To save a lot of money, try one of the 50X or faster CD-ROM drives that use several lasers to speed things up.

Modems :

Modem is short for modulator/demodulator, referring to the device’s ability to convert analog telephone signals into digital signals a computer can understand, and vice-versa. It is the device used most often to connect desktop PCs to the Internet. Modems rated at 56Kbps are so prevalent now that it doesn’t make sense to get anything else.

Stay away from software modems. These devices usually have the name WinModem on the box, and they rely on the CPU to do much of their work. Non-WinModems have special hardware built-in that lets them perform the work themselves.

When to upgrade. There typically is little reason to upgrade a modem. Upgrading from a modem with an ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) interface to one with a PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) interface or USB (Universal Serial Bus) can improve overall system performance, and maybe even increase connection speeds. Upgrading from a WinModem to a modem that performs all its own work definitely is worth the money. The PC will gain stability, and there will be fewer problems while browsing.

If cable modems are available in your area, and you can afford the service, sign up. Just make certain the connection is bi-directional, as some services let users get data through the cable, but force them to send data through a typical phone-based modem connection. Other alternatives like ISDN and DSL also are viable options for achieving high connection rates, but both require special hardware and are beyond the scope of this article.

The best hardware. Users looking for a modem should get a non-WinModem 56Kbps model using the V.90 standard and equipped with either a PCI or USB interface. Cable currently is the overall fastest option available for home use, so you may want to consider the service if it is offered where you live.

Video Cards :

The video card resides on the motherboard—typically in a PCI or AGP slot—and sends data to your monitor. Two important specifications for a video card are the built-in RAM and the capabilities of the RAMDAC.

More RAM means more colors are supported at higher refresh rates and higher resolutions. A card with 16MB of RAM, for example, can support 32-bit color at a refresh rate of 70 Hz and a resolution of 1,600x1,200. The only way to achieve a higher refresh rate is to lower the color-depth, or use a video card with more RAM or a better RAMDAC.

RAMDAC is an abbreviation for random-access memory digital-to-analog converter. Most monitors are analog devices, and it is the RAMDAC’s job to convert digital signals from the video card memory into signals a monitor can use. RAMDAC speed is measured in Hz, and higher speeds mean better overall image quality at higher refresh rates.

When to upgrade. If you play video games and demand only the best performance, plan to upgrade your video card often. Otherwise, consider upgrading if your current video card has less than 4MB of memory. Another good time to upgrade is if your video card cannot take full advantage of your current monitor. An amazing 21-inch monitor’s image quality is reduced immensely when the device is getting its information from an inferior video card.

The best hardware. Video cards with 350Hz RAMDACs and 64MB of RAM should be hitting the shelves soon after this article goes to print. Look for advanced features like television output (and input) capability, 3-D hardware acceleration, multiple-monitor support, and expandability options.

Sound Card :

Most people do not worry about upgrading their audio hardware, but a small outlay of cash can make a tremendous difference. Older sound cards used an ISA interface, which is slower and more resource-intensive than a modern sound card using a PCI interface. The latest sound cards also employ advanced 3-D-audio algorithms to provide a convincing surround-sound experience—even when only two speakers are used. Installing a new sound card is simple, and you can get a top-notch model for well under $100.

When to upgrade. Unless audio fidelity and advanced sound features are very important, there is little need to upgrade a sound card that is doing its job. The current crop of 3-D-sound cards use technology that still is not perfected, and likely will not be mature until next year. Unless you are a die-hard game fanatic, this upgrade can wait.

The best hardware. Look for a sound card with built-in 3D audio acceleration, integrated Wavetable support, and a PCI interface. All of these elements will take some of the strain off your main processor, freeing it for tasks that are more important.