DIY Computers

Upgrading Your Computer

A computer upgrade can refer to many different things and really upgrading your current machine can refer to anything from adding additional memory (RAM) to sweeping the whole tower into the bin and building a new one keeping only your existing keyboard, mouse, monitor and speakers. Upgrading an existing computer can have its pitfalls and having a firm objective and reasonable expectations as to the results of the upgrade are a necessity.

One phenomenon you will encounter a lot is often called Upgrade Cascade, where replacing a single component to achieve a specific result requires the replacement of other components for compatibility reasons. As an example I was recently approached by a customer and asked what would be required for their ancient Windows 98 office machine to run windows XP so that they may use a new version of a program that required it. Further questioning revealed that the machine in question had a Pentium II 300mhz Processor, 64Mb of RAM and a 4GB hard disk. Now this machine does actually just scrape into the minimum system requirements for windows XP however in my opinion the machine would be borderline unusable as a result, most likely it would be slow and very very painfull to use. So to change operating system a faster processor and more memory would be necessary.

So lets consider this example further. The PII 300 utilizes a slot 1 processor package whereas current Intel processors (at the time of writing) require a Socket 775 mainboard. So a new mainboard is required. Because we require a new mainboard that the 2X32MB sticks of PC100 SDRAM will not fit into and because 64MB of RAM was part of the reason the original machine would choke we are forced to buy new memory, a 512 MB stick of DDR2 will be sufficient. Having replaced the mainboard, processor and memory we must next consider the 4GB hard disk drive which of course reads and writes at a fraction of the speed our new components can cope with. Our machine will once again choke if it is not replaced so a new hard disk drive should be purchased. Now if we were to install all these new components how well would the 250 watt power supply cope? And reading CD's on that old 8 speed cd-rom would still require patience and reading DVD's would still be impossible. This is an example where the sweep into the bin upgrade approach is most advisable. Better still remove any sensitive data from the machine and donate it to a charity, who may in turn possibly elect to sell it to a recycling centre.

Assessing your needs

When considering an upgrade first turn the machine off, take off the sidecovers and examine what you currently have. If your new to PC hardware consider making notes so you dont forget what you are looking at. What sort of memory does it use? What CPU socket? Are the drives IDE or SATA? Plug the PC in and start it up, on most mainboards a summary is displayed when it first starts showing CPU speed, how much memory the machine has and what hard drives are installed. There will also be the motherboards manufacturer and model numbers. Google these if you want to know more about them or look at the manufacturers website for its specifications. Pressing the PAUSE key on your keyboard will stop the machine as it boots giving you time to read the information displayed. Pressing the spacebar will allow it to resume.

Now that you have a clearer picture of what your computer contains what aspect of the machine prompts you to upgrade it? Is disk space at a premium? Do you want to use it more for games? This will determine which component or components need upgrading. A quick and easy way to make your machine run better is to increase the amount of RAM the machine has. If your games are pixellated or frame rates low a new video card may make all the difference. Are you running out of room to save your photo's or downloaded files? A second hard drive may be all you need, consider getting an external hard drive if thats the case, you then have the bonus of portability.

When you have created a list of the things that you would like to upgrade the next step of course is to find out prices and availability. Computers older than a couple of years become difficult to obtain parts for, particularly items like mainboards. The cost of these components increases as they become scarcer. This is really the point where the viability of the upgrade is assessed. If your upgrade is going to cost $600 and you can replace the whole tower with up to date hardware for $500 the choice is obvious. Beware of upgrade cascade!

Performing the Upgrade

There is no magic to upgrading a component, it really is as simple as removing the old part and putting the new one in once you have determined it is compatible. If you are replacing your hard disk for example there is the option of adding a second drive and installing programs and installing files on it as opposed to removing your old one and replacing it with a new one. If you are increasing the amount of RAM that the PC and you have three RAM slots with only one occupied you have room for two more sticks of RAM, there generally is no need to remove the old RAM, although some combinations give some very odd sounding amounts.

The component that requires the most consideration when upgrading is your hard disk drive. If you do decide to replace it there is one very important factor to consider. The hard disk drives role is to provide non-volatile storage, that is, a place to put all of your programs, files, data and most importantly your operating system (windows, linux or whatever it may be). If you replace your hard disk with a new one all of this will still remain on your old disk. When you buy a new hard drive it is blank! There are a number of options available to you, you may decide that a fresh disk is a fresh start and using your operating system installation disks you can install a new copy of windows (or whatever you use) and fresh copies of your programs on your new hard disk. Using this method you can even install the old disk as a secondary disk and copy your data over from there to the new one. Another option is to use a disk imaging program such as Acronis True Image to accurately copy the contents of your old drive over to the new. It will then boot up off the new drive unaware that much has changed. The other option as previously mentioned is to install your new drive as a secondary drive and start storing things directly on it. Be aware that all drives need to be formatted. When you buy a new drive it is truly blank and does not contain a filesystem that you can store anything on.

If you replace your mainboard, processor and RAM but retain your original hard disk some operating systems will balk at the change and may be unable to boot correctly. This is usually rectified by doing a repair install of the operating system off its install disks. If all else fails you may find yourself reinstalling your operating system.

Most other components will not affect your operating system in this fashion and if you have doubts on how a component is fitted please consider reading our Basic Hardware and Computer Assembly guides.