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Upgrade or Buy A New PC?

Personal computer technology keeps speeding forward at a breakneck pace. Depending on how quickly a manufacturer rolls out new machines, it's only a slight exaggeration to say that the PC you purchased last month is already obsolete. If you bought late in a given cycle, chances are good that a newer (and maybe even less expensive) model has already replaced it. If you're one of those folks who always buys the latest and greatest, well, more power to you. Most of us, however, live in a world of limited budgets.

If your PC is getting long in the tooth, you have several options. You can, for example, upgrade your current system by adding new components or replacing some of its existing ones. Or you can just buy a new machine.

[Click here to view our PC upgrade service]

But before you decide what to do, it's a smart idea to do a bit of soul-searching and take a hard look at why you're unhappy with your existing PC. Is it too slow? Does it have reliability problems? Do you want to play the latest PC games, work with images from your digital camera, or edit video from your camcorder? Those are good reasons to consider an upgrade or new PC purchase.

However, you might also want to consider the possibility that your existing PC does meet your needs. Despite the seductive call of new, ultra-fast PCs stuffed with the latest features and tons of storage space, the bottom line is that many of us just don't need that much PC power. If most of your time is spent sending e-mail, surfing the Web, doing household bookkeeping, or even writing the next great American novel, you really don't need the blistering speed and bells and whistles of the latest models.

On the other hand, a few judiciously selected upgrades could help you ease into more-sophisticated computing without busting your budget. And although the computer companies won't like to hear this, upgrades can allow you to put off purchasing a new system for months, perhaps even years.


How Old Is Too Old?

Before we look at the types of PC upgrades you might consider, it's important to talk about which computers are worth upgrading. The best measure is the age of your PC. If your computer is less than two years old, it's a good candidate for upgrades. If your PC is much older than that, there's really no point in trying to upgrade it. PCs that are three, four, or more years old are simply unable to take advantage of the newest components such as hard drives or graphics cards.

In some cases, specific upgrades--such as processors aren't available for older PCs; in others they'll work, but at slower speeds. For example, while you can install one of the newest mega-space hard drives in your old PC, it won't work at maximum speed. Some older PCs also require special upgrade components--such as memory chips--that are difficult to find or so expensive that upgrades just aren't economical.


When to Buy New

Aside from the age of the PC, there's no hard and fast rule for when upgrades just aren't worth it. But if you decide to upgrade most of your PC's components with higher-end options, the price can quickly approach the cost of a brand new PC. In that case, you should opt for a new computer, which will give you a system where everything is designed to work together using the latest technology.

In addition, some applications require superfast systems. That's particularly true for editing video from camcorders or playing the latest eye-popping computer games. These require very fast processors, oodles of RAM, and big high-performance hard drives. Admittedly, you can get by with an upgraded system, but you'll have to live with compromises. You can, for example, edit video on an older, upgraded system, but you'll spend time twiddling your thumbs while the system catches up with you. And you won't be able to use some of the more advanced video effects that would be a piece of cake for a brand new system.


Tips on choosing the right CPU for you

The CPU (central processing unit) is the brains of the computer and it is the central component that determines how powerful and expensive your system will be. The performance of the processor, which is measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz), determines how quickly the computer responds to the requirements placed on it and the higher the number, the faster the processor.

The two major players in the CPU market are Intel and AMD. While each has their individual strengths and weaknesses, both offer processors with comparable levels of performance. Here's a breakdown of their offerings:

Entry Level - AMD Duron and Intel Celeron - These chips are designed for inexpensive computers and are best suited for office applications (word processing, accounting), Internet access and light multimedia tasks (viewing video, digital photography, etc.). While you see PCs powered by these chips with the same speed rating as more expensive processors, they are missing a few features that are found in their pricier cousins. The most important of these is the size of the cache. Cache is where the processor stores frequently accessed instructions or data for faster performance. For example, Celerons are equipped with 128K of cache while a Pentium III has up to 512K.

Mid Level - AMD Athlon (200 MHz bus) and Intel Pentium III - These chips provide a solid mix of power and affordability. They do a good job of handling more processor intensive tasks like audio/video editing and 3D imaging as well as speeding up the rest of your computing tasks.

Top Of The Line - AMD Athlon (266 MHz bus) and Intel Pentium 4 - These are the fastest processors available. They're best suited for those who put a premium on multimedia performance and power-hungry applications like computer aided design.

While it might be tempting to buy a PC with a 3.0 GHz Pentium 4 instead of a 2.4 GHz, it's not necessarily the most economical decision. The newest processor to hit the market usually does not have enough of a performance improvement over its predecessor to justify its high price. You can find a better deal by buying a couple of speeds below the leading edge.


Moving Data to Your New PC

If you do opt for buying a new PC, you've probably wondered, "How do I move my stuff from my old PC to my new one?" It's a major consideration, but there are answers. If your new PC comes with Microsoft Windows XP already installed, as it probably does, XP includes a "Files and Settings Transfer Wizard" that will help you copy essential data from your old PC. (On your XP system, click Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, and then choose Files and Settings Transfer Wizard.) If you don't have a home network, you'll need a special cable to connect your old and new computers.

However, one thing the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard doesn't do is transfer your applications to your new computer. You'll need to reinstall them. To do the whole job, you can use a program like Eisenworld's $30 PC Relocator, which transfers all your applications in addition to your files and settings.


Choosing the Upgrade Path

Upgrading a computer isn't rocket science. If you're handy with a screwdriver, you can do it. But it does require some careful, methodical work. If you're all thumbs, or the impatient type, you can still forge ahead on the upgrade path, but it's not a bad idea to get a computer-savvy friend to help.

[Click here to view our PC upgrade service]

One caveat: Don't expect to be able to upgrade your PC's microprocessor. Two to three years ago, processor upgrades from companies such as Kingston and Evergreen Technologies were readily available and popular. But they're usually not an option anymore because today's motherboards are designed for specific processors running at specific speeds. And even if you could upgrade to a faster CPU, you'd find that it wouldn't make a huge difference in overall system speed. The processor is just one of the many components in a PC that must work together for maximum performance.


Memory - RAM - Random Access Memory. RAM is by far the easiest and most productive of upgrades to do. RAM is your computer's short-term memory, which it uses to store the information that you are working on. Adding memory will allow your applications to open faster. There are a great number of different types of memory (EDO, PC66, PC100, PC133, DDR2300, DDR3300 etc.).

The SDRAM DIMM is the most widely used memory type in older standard desktop systems. SDRAM has various speeds; 66Mhz (PC66), 100Mhz (PC100) and 133 Mhz (PC133).

NOTE: DIMM stands for dual inline memory module

Only buy the correct speed for your motherboard. You need to check the motherboard's specification before making the purchase. If the specs says that the motherboard only supports 100 MHz SDRAM, then buy only PC100 SDRAM only.

66MHz modules will not work on a 100/133MHz bus speed.

While some 133Mhz module will work on 100Mhz motherboard, do not assume all 133Mhz memory work on 100Mhz motherboard.

In addition, please check with motherboard manufacture to see if the motherboard bios support 256MB(32x4) or 512MB(64x4) new standard. If not, it will only read half of the memory capacity even though your computer starts up normally.

Please contact your motherboard manufacture to update the bios to accept (32x4) or (64x4) new standard.

Generally, for motherboard that accept (32x4) or (64x4), it must be able to take 512 MB in each memory slot, If the motherboard doesn't support (32x4) or (64x4) standard, please order the (16x8) or (32x8) standard.

If you are upgrading an old mb (say P3), choose PC133 256 mb double sided SDRAM. It fits all older motherboards that do not support single sided SDRAM.

Most desktop computer use non-ECC (error correction), non-registered, and non-buffered memory modules.

ECC and registered memory modules are normally used by servers that require these features and ECC memory are far more expensive than the non-ECC memory.

CL stands for CAS Latency.

When a module is labeled CL2 it means there are only two clock cycles before the module can send the first block of data.

CL3 means there are three cycles before the first block of data is sent.

Cl2 is considered to be a small percentage faster than CL3 modules.


Hard Drive

Hard Drives - Internal Storage - After RAM, hard drives are the next most popular PC upgrade. Drives keep getting bigger, and prices keep falling. The longer that you own a machine, usually the more files and information you build up. It won't be long until that drive will be full. Adding an additional hard drive will allow you to store much more data. A large number of PC desktops will have space to run multiple hard drives (which would appear as a D: drive along side C:) and they are very inexpensive to add. IDE hard drives work on a Master and Slave system, whereby two devices may attach to each connector, one is a master and one is a slave device - your new drive will need to be set to the right setting.

CD-RW Drive

Optical Drives - Internal and External Optical devices - CD writers, DVD writers and Combo drives are available. These can fit either internally to your machine, or externally. These devices allow archiving and additional storage, and the ability to write your own CDs and DVDs. If your PC didn't come with a CD-RW drive that allows you to create your own CDs, adding one is a relatively simple upgrade that adds real utility to your computer.

Graphics Card

Graphics Cards - The graphics card is the device which your system uses to display on its monitor(s). A new graphics card can render images on your screen faster, produces sharper and higher-resolution images. There are two types; AGP and PCI.

AGP is a newer technology and can handle cards with up to 256MB of memory, allowing the fastest possible output. It is worth noting that if you have a slow processor then these make less of an impression. High end graphics cards require cutting-edge systems with fast processors (usually at least 2 GHz) and lots of RAM.

PCI is an older type of connection, there are PCI graphics cards that you can buy, but they are of a lower spec than those available for the AGP slot.

Sound System

If you're into PC music, a new sound card and latest-technology speakers make a difference you can hear. A new sound card and speakers can give you a sound system that rivals the stereo system in your living room.


Since you spend all your PC time looking at your monitor, investing in a newer, bigger monitor can be better than getting a new PC. Your eyes will thank you for it. If your old PC came with a 14- or 15-inch CRT monitor, stepping up to a 17-inch or even a 19-inch tube will make all the difference--especially if you roam around unwieldy spreadsheets regularly.

Or, you can opt for one of the hot new flat-screen LCD monitors. They're bright and crystal-clear. And prices are falling: You can opt for a big 17- or 18-inch LCD for a few hundred dollars more.


FireWire - FireWire is a high speed connection used by many external devices. Mostly it is used for the import/export of digital video and connection of high speed storage devices. FireWire can be added very cheaply into a free PCI slot, and is a user upgradeable part. Once you have FireWire you can add external hard drives, external CD/DVD writers and many other devices to enhance your computer.

USB - USB is stands for Universal Serial Bus and has two revisions. USB 1 is used for the connection of printers, scanners and mice, it has a slow connection speed (ideal though for these devices), the majority of new peripherals are USB - so a cheap USB card can expand the connectivity of your machine considerably.

USB 2.0 is the second revision of the USB connection it has a much faster connection rate and, like FireWire, can be used for a wide variety of storage and optical devices. USB 2.0 is backwards compatible with USB 1, so a USB 1 device will work on USB 2 - and the other way around, albeit at a slow speed.

IDE - IDE is the most common internal device connectivity, it is used for CD writers, hard drives and removable media. In larger PC desktops it is possible to run out of IDE connectors on the motherboard, but still have space for more devices, in these cases an additional IDE PCI card can help by giving you extra connections.

SCSI - SCSI stands for Small Computer Systems Interface and is used for connection of hard drives and CD drives internally, and scanners. SCSI is a fairly difficult connectivity to master, and requires a great deal of thought beforehand - it can provide the fastest internal transfer speeds but at a cost (SCSI hard drives can be up to 6 times more expensive than their IDE equivalents ). A lot of high end scanners also use SCSI to get the fastest throughput.

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Last Update: 17 October 2002