NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, July 2007
Thoughts on Upgrading PC Hardware and Software
By Dick Maybach, Columnist,
Brookdale Computer User Group (BCUG) Brookdale, NJ

n2nd@att.net (click to email author)

Obtained from APCUG with the author's permission for publication by APCUG member groups.

I can think of three valid reasons for upgrading a PC: (1) to try something new, (2) to improve performance, and (3) to solve a problem. Trying something new means you are treating your PC as a hobby. In this case you don’t really need to upgrade, but you want to. Just bear in mind that there are risks, which means that you may get more adventure than you planned on. Improving performance is difficult to justify, unless your system is very old. Almost any system will do just fine surfing the net, word processing, balancing your checkbook, etc. Upgrading your hardware will often provide no discernable speed-up, because the speed is really limited by your typing speed or Internet connection. Upgrading your software may actually slow things down, because newer software has more features and requires more computer resources. This leaves problem solving. Your hard disk may be full; your motherboard may have only old, slow version 1 USB ports; or your bank may require a recent version of Quicken for on-line banking.

You shouldn’t upgrade to Windows Vista unless you replace the PC, and even then you may have problems. A friend of mine bought a new Dell PC with Vista and found his old printer wouldn’t work and he could no longer access the Internet. Operating system designers can’t possibly test every combination of hardware and software. As a result, they concentrate on new components, since most operating system sales are for new computers, and there may be problems with older peripherals and software.

You should back up all your files before you make any system change, no matter how trivial. And any time you open your system case, you should use a grounding strap to avoid damaging components with static electricity. This is especially important during the approaching winter months, when the humidity in your house is low.

Let’s look at the easy upgrades first. Adding RAM is usually not difficult; just plug it in and look at your CMOS screen to be sure the PC has recognized it. (Of course you must use the correct chips. Check your PC manual.) You can usually add new peripherals, such a CD-ROM, DVD, or a second hard disk drive without problems, although if you have already filled all of the available ATA slots, you will have to add a second disk controller. Take your system to a reliable shop if you have doubts about your abilities. Replacing a hard disk is somewhat more difficult, because you must transfer all your software to the new unit, which requires disk copying software. You can’t just copy your files with Windows Explorer.

More adventuresome is installing a new motherboard. Be aware that upgrading your motherboard may not result in a noticeable performance improvement unless you also upgrade your hard disk and/or your video controller. If your current motherboard is very old, you must also upgrade its case and power supply. Changing the video controller or monitor is also not too hard. Most monitors are plug-and-play so Windows should automatically recognize your new monitor.

When you buy new peripherals, be sure you get any drivers they need. Many PC manufacturers don’t include a complete Windows, but strip off all the drivers except for the equipment they sell you. If necessary, download any missing drivers from the Internet before you change your hardware.

An alternative to an upgrade is a complete new system, and the vendor will insure that all the software and hardware plays well together. This leaves your old system intact so you can transfer your files without risk of losing anything.

Regardless of your approach, you must also choose where and what to buy. Where is a choice between mail order and a local dealer. What is a choice between name brand and commodity hardware.

The choice between mail order and local dealer depends on how much experience and time you have. The low profit margins in PC hardware mean that both component manufacturers and system assemblers spend little time on testing. Dead-on-arrival hardware and infant mortalities are common. When this happens you are entirely dependent on the company that sold it to you. If you purchase from a mail-order firm, you must either trouble-shoot any problems yourself or ship the entire system back to the seller, while a good local dealer can often make repairs in a few hours. You are trading off convenience for cost, because using mail order can often save you a few dollars.

Name brand hardware costs more than its commodity equivalent. The difference is between Sound Blaster and “Sound Blaster equivalent”. I favor name brands. You can be sure that every vendor of software that uses sound has tested its products with Sound Blaster cards, but it is impossible for a small manufacturer to test its sound card with every program.

The less you pay for a system, the more likely it is to contain commodity parts. System manufacturers and assemblers usually purchase components on an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) basis, and most parts sold at computer shows are OEM. The cost of these is less because the dealer relieves the manufacturer from all customer support. This means that the component manufacturer often won’t even talk to the end purchaser. Your only warranty is from the seller, and you must select him or her with care.

Finally, schedule any upgrade when you have some time. Plan on taking a weekend for simple jobs and more for complex ones. I’ve found that I need a couple of weeks (not full time of course) to get my PC fully functional after reinstalling an operating system for example.

This article has been provided to APCUG by the author solely for publication by APCUG member groups. All other uses require the permission of the author (see e-mail address above).

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