Home Office: Upgrade or Buy New? Part 1

It's a question I had to face: My wife, Judy, wanted a faster PC. Not just wanted one, mind you--she really needed something that had the processing oomph to load Microsoft Outlook in less than 10 minutes. (That's her estimation, not mine, and it's not one I'm about to quibble over.)

I thought it might be a good time to share some of my upgrading experiences. So this week and next, I'll let you know how I made the decision, offer upgrading advice, and tell what I've done with the leftover equipment. And who knows, you might want to kill a few harrowing days on an overdue upgrade or two.

Follow Up: To Zip or Not To Zip

I love it when you write; it helps me get a better feel for whatever it is I'm doing here. When I tried a change to how I handle "Dig This" files, I heard from you--en masse. Zipped files to download or unzipped to play, that was the conundrum.

Now that I have your opinions, advice, and rocket-launched flames, I'll figure out what is good for everyone. One thing's certain, though: I'm switching to a bigger, faster, more robust server that can handle the downloads.

Making the Upgrade/Buy New Decision

If you've ever worked on a loved one's computer, you know what I mean when I say I was in treacherous territory. Think about it: You'll put up with some inconsistencies on your PC. I know I do. For example, there's one gnarly USB driver that never loads correctly. If I want to use the device, I have to power it down and turn it back on. I'd rather live with this rather than spend a week tracking down the problem. But call it guilt or some irrational fear--either way, I wouldn't dream of taking that attitude with someone else's PC, especially Judy's.

My rationale for deciding whether to upgrade her PC or buy a new system was fairly simple. I looked at two things: The speed of the existing computer's CPU and the cost of adding more RAM. I figured that if the processor was fast enough (it wasn't) and adding RAM was cheap enough, I'd buy the RAM and add a bigger, faster hard drive. So I checked prices for a 512MB stick of RAM of the type that fit Judy's PC and choked on the price tag. (There's cheaper RAM, but it didn't match with Judy's systemboard requirements.) Between the cost of RAM, and both a new systemboard and CPU, I decided on buying a new system.

To come to that conclusion, I used a slew of articles and columns, and I recommend you read them to help you with your decision.

Here's a good column from our Hardware Tips guy, Kirk Steers. The question he poses--and answers--is "Can You Postpone That New PC Purchase?" Scroll through it and you'll find help determining the components you're most likely to need to justify a new PC. You'll also get Kirk's take--his "rules of thumb"--for whether a CPU upgrade is worth the money.

And in "Do You Need a New PC or Just a New Motherboard?" Kirk gives you some more of his hardware insights. He explains the importance of a systemboard's form factor of (something I didn't think about); talks about choosing the right CPU; and shows you how to figure out how many slots, ports, and connectors you ought to have.

Quick quiz: When's the only time you can use "motherboard" instead of "systemboard" at PC World? When the copy editor is dozing. [Note to Copy Editor: Keep snoozing.]

Dig This: The best I could do on Escape, a tough and deeply annoying game, was 9 seconds. I could probably do better with my eyes closed. You'll find out right away that bumping the black frame ends the game. [Thanks to D. Littlefield, who reports a equally annoying score of 55+ seconds.] [Note from Editor: It's highly addictive. I spent the afternoon playing this and got nothing done.]

More Help

Here are two older articles that you may find useful in making your decision (I did). You need to pay attention to the concepts and advice about making the upgrade vs. new decision, rather than to specific product recommendations.

For instance, in "Upgrade or Buy A New PC?" Stan Miastkowski, whose name still isn't easy to pronounce, talks conceptually about "How Old Is Too Old?" and "When to Buy New." Unlike Stan, the topic has aged well.

On the notebook end of things, Jim Martin helps you decide on a notebook in "Upgrading vs. Buying New." Again, the article is old, but the buying advice is still sound. For example, Jim explains that if your notebook "doubles as your desktop machine and you absolutely need the fastest mobile processor available, upgrading probably isn't for you." There are plenty of other worthwhile tips in the piece.

When to Buy

If you're leaning towards buying a new system now, consider this: Tom Mainelli says you should wait. He thinks Intel's PCI Express will make your computing life faster, slicker, and cooler. Probably, Tom, but not everyone's got your patience. But I think you need to see what Tom has to say in "Don't Buy Your Next PC Just Yet. Honest." His argument, if you can cool your heels, is compelling.

My sense--and attitude--is to upgrade when you're ready. Don't wait for the promise of a hot new, well, anything. Live your computing life in the here and now, existentially speaking, despite what you're going to read in the next few paragraphs. And you can quote me on that.

Dig This: You know those "Dummies" books? One of them seems to have run into a little trouble.

How to Buy

If you haven't bought a new PC in a while, take a refresher course and read "How to Buy a Desktop PC." The four-part article includes an overview and a handy chart that reveals the specs you need to pay attention to when buying.

Bargain hunters and cheapskates will do well to read "PCs For Sale. Cheap!" Laurie McLaughlin helps you avoid being taken for a ride by unscrupulous dealers.

Next week: Upgrading tips and how I maintained domestic tranquility in the Bass household.

In addition to writing PC World's Home Office column, Steve Bass is the author of "PC Annoyances." Sign up to have Steve Bass's Home Office Newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.
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