Upgrading without the tears

The pace of change can make your PC redundant before it's out of its box.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Innovation may be the name of the game at the cutting edge of personal computing, but technical innovation means that the average PC becomes obsolete before its plastic case has had a chance to discolour. By the time it is three years old, it will struggle with the latest office suites, graphics packages, multimedia software, operating systems and games. If you want to run with the pack, you have to upgrade, or scrap the machine and buy anew.

Whether to improve what you have or start from scratch is never an easy choice. If your machine still has its original components and is more than a couple of years old, the costs of upgrading memory, processor, hard disk, and perhaps video card, CD-Rom drive and sound card will be only a few hundred pounds less than a brand-new, entry-level machine. But a few hundred pounds is still a few hundred pounds, and if you have already upgraded some items, replaced others due to failure and have something like a first-rate monitor and excellent multimedia speakers, continuing on the upgrade path is a more promising option. Relatively minor upgrades now could keep the pack's heels in sight for another year or so and let you see what innovations are around the corner.

Stores such as Byte or PC World will supply and fit components, but you can save up to 30 per cent by buying mail-order and fitting it yourself. DIY upgrading can be straightforward once you've got to grips with the intricacies of jumper settings and the like, most of which will be explained in that reviled cornerstone of all DIY upgrading, your computer's technical manual. As a fallback, most mail-order companies provide detailed instructions. However, it is worth noting that a law of nature operates here: the older your PC and the more it needs and will benefit from upgrading, the more likely upgrades are to be awkward. When things go wrong, you either have to be prepared to struggle until things work, get on the phone to technical support or, defeating the object of DIY, pay an engineer to do it for you.

The simplest and one of the most worthwhile upgrades is to install more memory. RAM prices are low - 8Mb is around pounds 25 from Memory Bank. Increasing the memory of a slow Pentium from 8Mb to 16Mb or 32Mb makes a noticeable difference to everything you can do in Windows 95. Macs respond well, too. Software that claims to boost memory by a factor of two or more is available, but with the honourable exception of Connectix's RAM Doubler on my ageing Mac PowerBook, none that I've tried has ever significantly increased the performance of any machine I've used them on. On the contrary, they have introduced a whole new range of error messages and system crashes.

If you want more memory, buy Simms (Single Inline Memory Modules). They're easy to install, clipping into custom-made slots. To buy the right type involves checking the manual to see whether you need 30-pin or 72-pin, whether they are parity or non-parity and what speed to use. The next step is to open the machine's case and see how many Simms are already installed. Typically a Pentium will have two banks of sockets with two slots in each. If you have a free bank you can slot a matching pairs of Simms into it. If you have no free bank, you will need to remove a couple of Simms from one and replace them with higher-value ones. If you have a 386 or 486 machine, you will probably have the now-outdated 30-pin variety. Replacing the motherboard (the printed circuit board to which the main components are attached) will allow you to use newer, faster memory, but also means you will have to replace your processor with a faster Pentium one (make sure the new motherboard supports the new MMX Pentiums) and maybe your video card. Your existing sound card and hard disks should plug straight into the new board, and as an added bonus you will find when you come to install a new hard disk that you can fit a high-capacity one easily.

Installing a new motherboard is supposed to be one of the more tense upgrades, but as long as you check beforehand that the board will physically fit into your case (ie, that its fixing holes are in the same place as your old one and that you have the appropriate processor and other components to plug into it) it's relatively straightforward. Basically, you unplug everything from the old board, remove the old board, put the new board in your case and plug everything back into it. Surprisingly, it worked first time when I did it. Some vendors sell motherboards with components already fitted (ie, Evesham offers a motherboard with a 166 MXX Pentium, heat sink, fan and pipeline-burst cache for pounds 390), a very effective new heart for an older PC as long as your existing memory and video card fit it. And if they don't, another pounds 200 should get new ones. A motherboard upgrade is often a better option than a straightforward processor upgrade - a faster processor will be limited by a slow motherboard. In practice, that means upgrading a 486 with a Pentium overdrive processor gives a barely discernible difference in performance whereas a new motherboard and processor can turn it into a top-of-range machine again.

Of the other contenders for upgrading, hard disk kits are not too much trouble to fit. Physically securing an additional drive inside the case is likely to be the main problem on an older machine - a deep breath, an electric drill and some old Meccano worked for me - newer machines are likely to have space set aside. The cable connecting your original drive should have a spare connector to plug into the back of the new drive. All that remains then is to plug in the power supply cable and install the disk using supplied software.

Three years ago I had a 486 DX2 with Windows 3.1 and 8Mb of Ram. Now it's a Pentium 166 MMX with 32Mb and Windows 95. Who knows what the case will contain in the year 2000?n

Evesham (013886) 765500

Memory Bank 0181-956 7000