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Planning Your PC Upgrades for 2004 How to evaluate your current hardware and plan for the future

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Planning Your PC Upgrades for 2004
How to evaluate your current hardware and plan for the future

Introduction

Although its way too late to wish you a Happy New Year, its never too late to plan your computing year. Whether your computing life revolves around the calendar year or you use your own version of a fiscal year (starting your upgrade year when you receive your tax refund, for example), youll get more for your upgrade dollar if you plan your upgrades carefully.

Buy or Upgrade?

As any trip to a computer or electronics store will show you, its never been cheaper to buy a powerful desktop or portable PC than now. Buying a brand-new system is usually cheaper than upgrading an aging system thats never been upgraded. However, unless you opt for a custom-configured system, buying new usually forces you to accept what the vendor offers. Highest-performance video cards, hard disks, monitors and other peripherals arent usually available in preconfigured systems unless you buy from a boutique vendor who specializes in extreme performance/gaming systems. If your system is less than two years old and youre satisfied with most of its features, upgrading its shortcomings may be a more satisfying strategy.

Identifying Major Weaknesses in Your Current System

You shouldnt upgrade your system until you determine exactly what it is you dont like about its current configuration. Some issues are pretty straightforward:

  • Need more hard disk space? Get a bigger hard disk!
  • Need more real estate on your Windows desktop? Get a bigger monitor!

Sometimes you need to think a bit harder about what you want. For example, if you have two monitors of satisfactory size (17-inch or larger CRTs or 15-inch or larger LCDs) but your system can only use one monitor, you can get a larger desktop by switching to a dual-display video card. This option has two benefits: you can re-use existing hardware, and you can get the additional 3D performance and features that a new video card is sure to provide.

The increasing popularity of portable computers can also complicate matters. If you use desktop and portable computers which both need more storage space, you might prefer to invest in an external drive with Hi-Speed USB (USB 2.0) interfacing because you can share it between the systems.

Researching Your Hardware External Ports

After you determine what you dont like about your current system, its time to take a look around and inside. If youre considering adding an upgrade to the outside of your system, you need to identify the systems existing ports. Chapter 17 of Upgrading and Repairing PCs, 15th Anniversary Edition provides a comprehensive guide to USB, IEEE-1394, serial and parallel ports. Check out Chapter 18 to learn more about PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, Chapter 16 to learn about audio ports, and Chapter 15 to learn about video ports. My book Upgrading and Repairing PCs: Field Guide also provides a quick-reference chart of most external port types.

However, just because you see a port on the back, front or sides of your system, dont assume its ready to work. For example, some systems with Hi-Speed USB ports use them as USB 1.1 ports because the Hi-Speed USB feature isnt enabled in the system setup program or because Hi-Speed USB drivers arent installed. To determine if Hi-Speed USB ports are working, check the Windows Device Manager; open the System icon in the Windows Control Panel and click Device Manager or Hardware, Device Manager. A system with Hi-Speed USB ports (up to 480Mbps) will list USB Enhanced Host Controller in the Universal Serial Bus portion of the device listing. Universal Host Controllers support only USB 1.1 speeds (up to 12Mbps), as shown in Figure 1.

You can use the Windows Device Manager to learn about other ports in your system as well. However, sooner or later youll probably need to open your system, especially if you want to add an expansion card or internal drive.

If youre planning to add Hi-Speed USB or IEEE-1394a peripherals to a portable computer, you might need to add a CardBus card with these ports. Combo cards with both port types are available from many vendors.

Researching Your Hardware Internal Components

When your system is open, you increase the chances of damaging sensitive components such as memory and the processor. Take the precautions outlined in Chapters 22 and 23 of Upgrading and Repairing PCs, such as an anti-static wrist strap and workmat before opening your system.

Even if youre an old hand at upgrading systems in general, every system is a little bit (or even a lot) different than the last one. Even if youve kept the original system or motherboard manuals, you should visit the vendors website to download the latest information. This is especially useful if your manuals have been lost or if you received very little or no documentation with a new or used system.


Sidebar: Determining Where to Get Information

Some vendors mark motherboards or cases with detailed information to help you determine brand and model number. If your system is a white box system built from components, this information might not be present. Ive found that the SiSoftware Sandra system information utility (download the standard version free from the SiSoftware Zone at http://www.sisoftware.co.uk) is a very useful tool for determining motherboard vendor and chipset information as well as processor and memory types installed and lots of other information.


After you open your system, check for the information you need for the upgrades youre considering:

  • Check for empty 3.5-inch wide drive bays for hard disk upgrades
  • Check for 3.5-inch or 5.25-inch drive bays with removable covers for tape, CD, DVD or other removable-media drive upgrades
  • Check the number of drives connected to each ATA/IDE channel to determine if you can add an additional ATA/IDE device. Some recent motherboards have two additional ATA/IDE channels which can be used for an ATA RAID array or for individual drives, depending upon the BIOS configuration.
  • Check for a 4x or 8x AGP slot if you want to upgrade to high-speed, dual-display video. Even if your system currently uses integrated video, you might have an empty slot.
  • Check for empty PCI slots if you want to add high-quality sound, additional IEEE-1394 or Hi-speed USB ports, or Gigabit or Fast Ethernet
  • Check the clearance around your processor if youre considering a faster processor. If you prefer a third-party heatsink, especially on an AMD Athlon XP-based system, keep in mind that some heatsinks are so wide they could damage nearby components.
  • Check for empty memory sockets if youre considering a memory upgrade.
  • Check the rated capacity of your power supply if youre planning to add an AGP card, additional drives, a faster processor, additional memory or bus-powered USB or IEEE-1394 external devices. These devices require additional power and could push a marginal power supply beyond its limits. I provide a power use calculator and recommendations for power supply upgrades in Chapter 21 of Upgrading and Repairing PCs, 15th Anniversary Edition.

Planning Your Upgrades

After youve researched your system, inside and out, its time to plan your upgrades. Focus on upgrades that will bring you the most productivity in a computer used for work or the most fun in a computer used for recreation.

A Single Upgrade with Multiple Benefits

Dont overlook the potential to get more than one benefit from a single upgrade. For example, if you add an 8x-write rewritable DVD drive to a system which has a CD-RW drive onboard, you get these benefits:

  • Easier CD media backup: read with one drive, write with the other
  • Faster system backup with fewer discs: use DVD instead of CD
  • DVD movie playback
  • DVD movie creation

Similarly, adding Hi-Speed USB ports to a system which lacks them improves the performance of every Hi-Speed USB device hooked up to it, and makes adding additional devices easy.

Budgeting for Your Needs

When you plan your upgrade, consider both the benefit of the best, and what your budget can afford. For example, if you play a lot of high-end PC games, you probably want to get a video card with the latest ATI or nVidia 3D chip at a cost of over $300. However, if youre more concerned about dual-display functionality than with maximum speed, you can buy a mid-range ATI or nVidia-based card for half that amount.

My rule of thumb: get the best products you can afford for critical functions, and consider mid-range solutions for tasks you dont perform as often. I recommend staying away from very low-cost solutions because they often lack support and might not work over the long haul.

Conclusion

Upgrading an existing system is still a useful (and enjoyable!) way to create a system thats perfect for your needs. Be sure to review my articles about major PC system and peripheral technologies for more specific information about upgrades, and check my list of resources. Good luck and good upgrading!

Resources

Check out the following websites for product reviews and links to vendors:

Toms Hardware
http://www.tomshardware.com

Anandtech
http://www.anandtech.com

PCMagazine
http://www.pcmag.com

PCWorld
http://www.pcworld.com

TechTV
http://www.techtv.com

Copyright©2004 Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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