Revitalising an aging desktop computer on the cheap

Don't trash your tired old desktop PC -- pump it up with a few inexpensive upgrades

Next, add more RAM. Shown here: lining up the RAM cards in preparation for sliding them into the carrier one at a time.

Next, add more RAM. Shown here: lining up the RAM cards in preparation for sliding them into the carrier one at a time.

The drive is in and ready, but it's not formatted and has no operating system or software. Luckily, I still have the system's original CDs, so installing Windows and the basic software is relatively easy, although it takes more than an hour and a half. Just start the machine with the disc in the CD drive, and the software does the rest.

The software on your original Windows disc is almost certainly out of date (mine has Windows XP Pro with Service Pack 1a), so you'll need to get on the Internet to download the latest version. The easiest way is to simply connect your PC to your router with an Ethernet cable -- if you're close enough to your router. If you're not, a USB Wi-Fi device will do the trick, though you'll need to load its software onto the new hard drive.

Then you can head to Microsoft's download site to get the latest software and set up the system's automatic updates. It's also a good idea to stop by your PC manufacturer's support site and get the latest firmware and drivers. Finally, install your other crucial software; for now, I opt for the AVG antivirus tool and PassMark's PerformanceTest 6.1 benchmarking test.

What about all the data that's still on the old hard drive? You could transfer all your files to the new drive, but I have a better suggestion: Turn the old drive into a USB-connected external hard drive. The AcomData Samba kit that I bought costs $29 -- a bit of a splurge, but it's easy to set up and use.

Just take out the screws at the back of the unit and slide out the drive carrier. Plug in the hard drive's power and data connections, screw the drive into the carrier, slide the carrier back into the enclosure and replace the screws in the back.

Next, attach the included USB cable, plug in the unit's AC adapter and flip on the On switch. The system will detect the unit and set it up as an additional hard drive -- in my case, the F: drive. You'll have all your old data and plenty of room on the new drive for all sorts of new stuff.

Results

Now I'm ready to see how I did. Putting in the new drive gave the old computer a kick in the pants, raising its performance potential to 360.5 on the benchmark test. That's an 11% improvement over its score after the RAM upgrade. And there are additional payoffs: The system now starts up in 45 seconds, the new drive is much quieter, and the machine now uses only 116 watts -- 4 watts less than it did with the old drive.

Task 4: Install new video and audio cards

Time: 25 minutes

Cost: $65

It's time to rework the system's audio and video infrastructure with new cards.

Video first, in my case with a PNY GeForce 6200 card that has Nvidia's GeForce 6200 graphics chip and 256MB of dedicated memory. Available at various online retailers for around $40, it's a big step up from the card that came with the system -- a generation newer, with twice the video memory and outputs for DVI, VGA and S-Video (instead of just VGA on the old video card).

With the machine turned off and unplugged, locate the Advanced Graphics Port (AGP), swing open the arm that locks all the cards in place and take out the old card. If it puts up a little struggle, rock the card back and forth a few times to work it loose. Be careful, because you can easily damage the motherboard with too much pressure.

Then slide the new card in. No need to replace the arm that locks the cards into place just yet -- we'll be adding more cards here later on in the upgrade. Plug in and restart the system; the computer detects the new hardware. Place the software CD in the optical drive, and all the needed software is installed, including Nvidia's control software, the card's drivers and Microsoft's DirectX 9.0 software.

When it's all done, make sure everything is there and working by opening the Control Panel and choosing Display to open the Display Properties dialog box. Click the Settings tab, and then click the Advanced button in the lower right. Click on the Adapter tab, and you'll see the new chip's specs and the extra video memory. The Nvidia control panel has a bunch of adjustments for color, but I'll leave exploring that for another day.

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Brian Nadel

Computerworld
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