Hardware Tips: Can You Postpone That New PC Purchase?

There are lots of good reasons to buy a new PC. But there's also a way to upgrade almost any old PC to match the performance of a new machine on any one of these parameters for a fraction of the cost of a new system. This month I look at common reasons for wanting a new PC and (in the case of valid reasons) tell how a new system compares with an upgrade satisfying each need. Note: If more than four of the reasons below apply to you, maybe you really do need a new system.

I can buy a new PC for a song: This observation never justifies a PC purchase. Any new system will set you back at least several hundred dollars--far more than the cost of most upgrades. And remember, most super-low-cost new systems have limited graphics and upgradability.

I need better performance: If your PC is more than two years old and you want to play the latest games, edit hours of digital video, or perform other demanding tasks, a new, top-of-the-line PC is unquestionably your best bet. But if you use your PC primarily for Internet browsing, word processing, and occasional spreadsheet work, several component upgrades and system tweaks will satisfy your needs, for less dough.

Adding memory usually provides the most bang for your upgrade dollar; RAM is reasonably priced, and it's easy to install. If your system slows whenever you have lots of open programs, extra memory should perk it right up. Browse to "Choose the Right Kind of Memory for Your System" for tips about selecting the perfect memory for your machine.

Upgrading your CPU can improve your computer's performance, but you'll pay a lot for a modest speed boost. Both PowerLeap and Evergreen Technologies offer CPU upgrades ranging in price from $100 to over $300. Rules of thumb: Don't ever buy a CPU upgrade unless the new processor runs at least twice as fast as your current one. And if you're at all squeamish about opening your PC's case and pulling out parts, it's probably best to leave your chip alone.

If your PC uses an early Socket 423 Pentium 4 (circa 2001), the $50 PL-P4/N adapter from PowerLeap will enable you to run a later model Northwood Pentium 4 processor in the older Socket 423 aperture (see FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1: Speed up your early-model Pentium 4 CPU by adding PowerLeap's $50 PL-P4/N adapter.
). Your system's performance will benefit from a faster clock speed--up to 2.4 GHz--and from the Northwood's larger L2 cache. PowerLeap offers the adapter and a 2.6-GHz CPU for $290. Run PowerLeap's InSpecs utility at the company's Web site to determine your PC's upgrade options. (Note that the InSpecs program may not work if your browser is set to block ActiveX controls.)

I need better graphics: That's easy--just get a new graphics card, right? But some systems won't let you add a new graphics adapter. These budget machines have a graphics chip integrated on the motherboard in lieu of a card in an AGP slot. Some PCs with chip-based graphics come with dedicated graphics RAM, while others tie up system memory to handle the duties. Either way, such systems' graphics performance typically ranges from sluggish to downright glacial.

If your PC has integrated graphics and an empty AGP slot, you can probably upgrade your graphics without difficulty, though you may need to disable the system's on-board graphics chip in your PC Setup program. (Visit "Tweak Your PC's BIOS Settings the Safe Way" for more details on changing your PC Setup program.) If your machine doesn't have an empty AGP slot but does have an open PCI slot, you may be able to add a PCI-based graphics card instead. Consult your PC's manufacturer.

If your graphics rely on shared system RAM, you may be able to speed them up by assigning more RAM to graphics (and reducing the amount available for system tasks). Check your PC Setup program for graphics-related memory options.

Looking for a free graphics tweak? Upgrading to DirectX 9.0b drivers will improve any PC's graphics. Visit PC World's downloads for the latest release. If you're not sure what version of DirectX your system runs, click Start, Run, type dxdiag, and press Enter (see FIGURE 2

FIGURE 2: The DirectX diagnostic utility will tell you whether your PC is running the latest version.

I need to connect to external hard drives and video cameras: All new PCs have USB 2.0 ports for linking to high-speed peripherals, and many also have FireWire ports for this purpose. But if your old machine has a free PCI slot, you can add USB 2.0 and FireWire ports by attaching a combination adapter like Belkin's $70 Hi-Speed USB 2.0 and FireWire 6-Port PCI Card. A dedicated USB 2.0a-only or FireWire-only adapter costs $10 less. Go to Belkin's Web site for more information on its combination card.

I need a notebook with built-in wireless: If you constantly move from one wireless locale to the next, you'll benefit from a notebook with wireless capabilities built in. Sure, a wireless PC Card adapter costs much less than a new notebook, but built-in wireless is much more convenient because there's no PC Card or antenna to carry, lose, or damage. Also, a notebook whose antenna is built into the screen--for example, our Best Buy laptop, the Gateway 450XL)--gets much better reception than one using a wireless PC Card adapter. Bonus tip: If you plan to go wireless but you currently use an old version of Windows, upgrade to XP's improved wireless-network support.

I need more storage space: You can buy an 80GB hard drive for your old PC for less than $100. Hard drives should be on one IDE channel and optical drives on the other. If you have no open hard-drive IDE connectors to accommodate a new drive, you can install a $40 EIDE adapter in an empty PCI slot. Or if you have a free connector on the optical IDE channel, invest in a rewritable DVD drive (approximately $150).

I need a faster Internet connection: A new PC will accelerate your Web surfing only if your current setup uses an antediluvian 28.8-kbps modem and doesn't have an ethernet card. If you're already at 56 kbps, you'll get better network performance by adding broadband or high-speed dial-up to your existing machine.

I need Windows XP: The path to upgrading a system from Windows 9x to Windows XP can be fraught with peril, which makes wanting an upgrade to your operating system a pretty good argument for buying a new PC. Still, a clean install of Windows XP--which requires that you reinstall all of your applications as well--can extend your old computer's life span at a cost of only $199 (and several tedious hours of swapping discs). But before you proceed, you should make sure that drivers exist for each of your peripherals. Visit "Master the Windows XP Upgrade Process" for details on upgrading to XP.

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