How to join the fast lane without stalling; Today's high-powered software may make your old computer look like something out of the Ark, but as this four-page guide shows, you can extend its life without breaking the bank

How do I make my PC run faster?

In the past, the only way to speed up your computer was to get a more powerful CPU - the microprocessor or "chip" that is the brain of the machine. Now you have to be subtler: the trick could well be to combine a faster processor with extra memory.

Until last year, upgrading a processor involved replacing the complete motherboard, which includes a plethora of additional components. A new Pentium motherboard would cost at least pounds 250. But in 1995, Intel, which makes the PC chips, introduced a new type of "Overdrive" chip that can be slotted easily on to the motherboard, which should allow you to upgrade your 486 to a faster version, or even a Pentium. These chips cost from pounds 80 for a faster 486 to pounds 180 for a Pentium.

The arrival of Windows 95 and other "fat" software has meant there has been massive demand for chips that increase random access memory, or RAM. These chips are expensive (it can cost at least pounds 100 to upgrade from four megabytes to the eight Windows 95 needs), which is why they have been a prime target for thieves.

This means you should be careful who you buy from, and avoid bargain- basement offers: the market rate is pounds 25 to pounds 30 per megabyte. The memory supplier Datrontech guarantees new chips with parity checking and serial numbers. Also, keep an eye out for cache chips, a special type of memory that holds the most recently used instructions, increasing speed appreciably.

In recent years the process of fitting new RAM has been simplified greatly. Your PC is likely to have free slots into which you simply push the new chips; this might mean discarding existing memory chips to make room, but as these retain a resale value, your original investment has not been wasted.

What if it still feels slow?

In that case, you have hit upon one of the most overworked parts of your computer. Much of the computer's work involves no more than pushing pictures around the screen. For example, not only does a Windows 95 machine have to copy a file from A to B, but it also has to draw a 20-frame animation of a flying piece of paper. It comes as no surprise, then, that the happiest users of the new system are those with fast graphics cards. Every PC will have some kind of graphics board, but you can buy "accelerator" cards with specialised chips to speed the commonest tasks - opening and closing windows, for example. They start at pounds 100. The more memory a card has, the more colours can be displayed: 65,000 "High Colour" is possible with 2Mb, and more than 16 million "True Colour" with 4Mb, although only a graphics expert will be able to tell the difference.

Will I have faster Internet access?

Salesmen have used the lure of the Net to sell bigger machines. But the speed of any online service depends almost entirely on the capabilities of your modem. Certainly, more memory helps to run the newest, flashiest versions of the Netscape World Wide Web browser, and is almost mandatory for the Microsoft Network, but the throughput and decompression ability of your modem is paramount. Remember that the standard modem is V34 capable of 28,800 kbps speed.

The market for such devices has been shaken up by the arrival of Phillips' first offering: a user-friendly 28.8k device retailing at around pounds 150. Other manufacturers are sure to follow this lead. It will probably be the last modem upgrade you will ever need: standard phone lines can't carry much more data, and mail-order retailers such as Powermark are poised to bring digital ISDN lines into the home.

One very cheap upgrade for older machines is indispensable for a Net connection: a fast serial port, known as a 16,650-type chip. Many older machines have a primitive and unreliable connector as default, which severely taxes the computer's main processor. For about pounds 25, a 16,650-type chip permits not only faster speeds, but also greater reliability, with less of the "stalling" with which Net surfers are familiar.

I've run out of disk space. What shall I do?

If your PC isn't Plug and Play compatible, fitting a new hard disk is likely to be the most painful of upgrades.

Both choosing and fitting a new hard disk requires some technical knowledge, and a lot of tinkering. As well as adding the new disk, an additional controller card may be needed. Worse, crammed cases rarely accommodate an extra disk and its cabling with ease. The combination of disk and a fresh controller, however, is likely to improve performance, particularly if they use enhanced EIDE technology, or if the system has a spare "local bus" slot - the wide-bandwidth connector on your machine.

Surprisingly, the market has been slow to appreciate the complexity of the process and introduce out-of-the-box packages of disk, card, cables and instructions in the way multimedia bundles are marketed. Maxtor is one exception; otherwise the components arrive raw, usually without even screws.

Fortunately, this is only one part of the story. Yesterday's industrial back-up software is being transformed into a flexible and friendly storage option that could do away with the need for a new hard disk. Iomega's removable Zip drive plugs into the computer and acts as a giant floppy disk drive. The Zip offers 100Mb of storage for a tenner. It is an attractive and thoughtful package: chunky yet light enough to carry. The spring will see the launch of a high-end Jazz drive, with 1Gb disks available for around pounds 100.

What about multimedia?

The best way to convert your computer into a multimedia machine is to buy a kit containing a sound card, CD-Rom and speakers. Creative Labs leads the way with two outstanding bundles. Its three packages are aimed at general-purpose home-users and game-oriented users. Aztech, meanwhile, offers good software, while Sony has a well-engineered option. In each case, a four-speed CD-Rom is the standard.

While Creative Labs' basic SoundBlaster 16 is still recognised by nearly all PC games, many have synthesised effects targeted at a different card, the AWE-32 card. In each case, check that the latest "drivers" are available, either from the supplier or off an online service such as CompuServe. Without these tiny pieces of software, the system won't be able to recognise the new peripherals. Windows 95 drivers seem to be particularly scarce.

Definitions: things to buy, make bigger and speed up

Microprocessor: often referred to as the brain of the machine, the "CPU", or simply the "chip" (although there are actually dozens of chips in the box), it dictates the speed of the machine. A faster chip can perform more instructions, and can in theory do the same work faster.

Hard disk: the fixed disk on which the computer's programs and data are held.

Memory: Silicon Random Access Memory chips allow information to be held in an electronic form that can be accessed rapidly. With insufficient RAM, the information has to come from the hard disk, which is much slower.

Multitasking: this takes advantage of the speed of the chip to swap between two programs at once so quickly that it appears as if both are running at once.

Peripherals: any hardware that plugs into the computer, such as a printer or modem.

Disk doublers: software utilities that squeeze more data on to a hard disk by using compression techniques.

Plug and play: a recent innovation in the PC world - although standard on Macs and most other computers - in which the system automatically recognises its own "limbs" or peripherals.

Shareware: software that can be downloaded from the Internet or another offline service. You can try it for free, usually for 30 days.

News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Business Analyst/ Project Manager - Financial Services

    £60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client in the Financial...

    Science Teacher

    £85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

    Year 6 Teacher - Flintshire

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Key Stage 2 Teachers needed in Flintsh...

    Year 6 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Year 6 Teachers urgently needed for su...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits