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Things You Need to Upgrade Your PC

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Authors T.J. Lee and Lee Hudspeth discuss the important preparations for performing hardware upgrades -- preparations that seem obvious, but are actually easy to overlook.
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The very thought of pulling the cover off your computer and tinkering with its innards has given more than one tough hombre a case of the willies. The insides of a PC look like a prop left over from a Star Trek Borg episode. But we're here to tell you that performing hardware upgrades is something even the most timid earthling can do with a little thought and preparation.

A Proper Work Area

Before you start taking your computer apart, be prepared. Much of what we'll talk about in this section might seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how easy it is to overlook the obvious when fussing with computer hardware.

Before you even think of beginning an upgrade, give some serious thought to your work area.

Plain Speaking - It's All in the Cards

If you've never taken the cover off a computer and gazed at its internal workings, it can be downright intimidating the first time. All kinds of stuff is in there, wires are running this way and that way, and there are strange metal boxes. Don't panic. With a little guidance and experience, you'll be popping boards in and out with ease.

Here's the short course to get you started. A number of circuit boards are inside the computer case. These are the green, plastic-looking things with all the weird and shiny stuff sticking out of them. A circuit board is just a bunch of electronic flotsam and jetsam stuck together in a base of epoxy on one side and all connected together by spidery lines on the other. These lines are what makes the circuit in circuit board. Therefore, it's important not to scratch one of these lines or crack the epoxy of the board.

Each circuit board, also known as a peripheral card (or just card), performs a function, such as handling the graphics output to your monitor (graphics adapter card) or dealing with sending sound to your speakers (sound card). The board contains the electronics necessary to perform the function, relieving the motherboard of the need to have that function built into it.

Cards connect to the motherboard by plugging into a bus slot and communicate with the motherboard and the central processing unit through that connection. This design makes upgrading possible; you easily can change out one graphics card for another without having to replace the entire motherboard.

Remember to handle circuit boards carefully when removing and installing them, and always handle them by the edges. You don't want to twist or stress the boards themselves. Pretend they're old and valued photographs and you don't want to bend them or touch the actual photo part. Figure 3.1 shows an example of a typical circuit board.

The motherboard and various cards can be attached to other devices inside the case by cables. Some cables are flat and range from narrow to several inches wide. Other cables are just a number of wires twisted together. Some cards don't connect to anything inside the case but have cables plugged into them where their connectors protrude from the back of the computer.

Don't let the complexity of all the junk inside your computer throw you. You don't need to know how to build a circuit board to remove one from a computer or pop in a new one.

Figure 3.1
Handle peripheral cards with care.

Moving the Computer

Don't pull the cover off a computer that's installed under a desk and start working on it in the dark, lying on your side with a flashlight clenched in your teeth. Please, we've tried this and are here to tell you that it does not save time in the long run even if all you want to do is swap out a sound card.

Take the time to move the PC to a real work area out of the way of pedestrian traffic, preferably up on a solid table (see Figure 3.2). This will go a long way toward saving both your back and your sanity. Getting the PC up off the carpet is a good idea because static electricity and computers do not go together. A good static buildup from rolling around on the carpet can arc from you to a delicate bit of silicon, rendering it useless.

Figure 3.2
An uncluttered work area is essential to a smooth upgrade.

Clearing the Clutter

If you're installing several new components (or setting up a new system from scratch), you'll be amazed how quickly you find yourself up to your elbows in empty boxes and packaging materials. Allow for this and figure out where you'll stack the boxes before you start unpacking. Uncrate one component at a time so you don't wind up with manuals, instructions, spec sheets, CDs, and the like scattered all around, causing you to get lost in the empty boxes and discarded packaging materials.

Save the Boxes

Open the component's box carefully with a minimum of collateral damage to the box and any Styrofoam packing blocks that might be inside. Save the original box, packing materials, internal plastic bags, twist ties, and related materials in case you have to repackage the component and return it to the seller. This is especially important when dealing with equipment purchased via mail order. Most vendors will always want the item returned in its original packaging.

Okay, that's easy enough for small boxes, but what about the giant monitor and system boxes? Granted, they're a pain to store, but you should save them, too—at least for a month or so. If you have room in the garage, keeping the box for as long as the warranty runs is not a bad idea. Trust us, you won't be happy trying to box up a monitor for shipment without the original packaging.

While we're on the topic of clutter, be sure you set up a NEAT box (if you don't already have one) for the system on which you're working. NEAT stands for New computer Emergency catchAll Trunk and can be anything from an old shoebox to a large plastic trash bag. We, however, highly recommend you purchase a Rubbermaid (or similar brand) plastic box that's approximately 12" wide, 16" long, and 8" deep (see Figure 3.3). Add to your NEAT box everything that accompanies each component—manuals, install disks, specification sheets, instructions, CD-ROMs, licenses, invoices, packing slips, spare parts, screws, twist ties, cables, connectors, and so on. A NEAT box ensures that you have to search for things in only one place. Everything that relates to a given system should be stored in its NEAT box. If you have more than one computer, set up a separate NEAT box for each of them.

Figure 3.3
A NEAT box contains everything related to a particular PC.

Importance of Good Lighting and Ventilation

When picking out and setting up your work area, don't overlook adequate lighting. Some cables are color-coded, meaning you need to see the colors to know which side is which. Some of the parts you'll be working with are small and have smaller jumper blocks on them. In addition, they have tiny letters written next to the jumpers so you can identify them, so get as much light as you can. However, you'll still need a good flashlight and possibly a magnifying glass in your toolkit.

Ventilation is a good idea, too, because no matter how well you clean out your system prior to working on it (as we'll discuss shortly), some dust will still be inside the case.

Disconnecting the PC

Most people have a natural reluctance to moving the computer from where it is to the work area. Unplugging all the cables from the system and hauling it out from under the desk can be a hassle. Older computer chassis force you to unplug everything from the back before you can open the case, but more recent designs let you pop the side off the system with everything still connected. Resist the temptation. Instead, disconnect everything and move the system to your work area.

If you're nervous about getting everything hooked back up correctly when you put the system back, don't be. Use a marker to label each connection on the back of your PC and then tape a tag to each cable and label them accordingly. When you are ready to reconnect the system, you just match the cable tags to the connections on the system and plug them in. If you don't want to mark up your computer chassis with a marker, you can tape a piece of paper to the back of the chassis near the connectors and label them that way (see Figure 3.4).

Figure 3.4
Labeling each cable and connection port makes it easy to reconnect everything after you've finished your upgrade.

When you're disconnecting a system, be sure to first power down the computer and then unplug the power cord. This is important because some systems are designed so that power is still going to the motherboard even though the switch is off. You can damage your computer, to say nothing of yourself fussing around with a PC that still has the power cord attached. Unplug the cord!

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