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.

  • Next, add more RAM. Shown here: lining up the RAM cards in preparation for sliding them into the carrier one at a time.
  • In addition to getting performance upgrades, a four-year-old PC has been brought up to date with a wireless keyboard and mouse, a TV tuner and a webcam.
  • Next, add new video and audio cards. Shown here: sliding the video card into place.
  • The last step in the basic upgrade is to add a cooling fan.
  • A new hard drive is next. Shown here: sliding the new drive into the cage after the old one has been removed.
  • The first step to any PC upgrade is to open up the case and clear out the accumulated dust and detritus with a can of pressurised air.

Sound may not seem all that important compared to video, memory and hard drive upgrades, but good audio quality makes a big difference for VoIP or streaming video. As is often the case, the motherboard-mounted audio chip that came with my system was a disappointment from the start, with tinny, distorted sound, so I'm upgrading to Creative Technology's Sound Blaster Audigy SE.

The Audigy SE (about $25 at online retailers) is packaged on a PCI card and it snaps in right next to the video card. Make sure the computer is turned off and unplugged. We've left the locking arm out, so just slide the audio card in place.

Plug in the computer, fire it up, put the software CD in the optical drive, and all the software will be loaded.

Even using the original speakers that came with it, my system now sounds great, with richer and more vibrant tones. When I have a few extra bucks, I'm going to splurge on a five- or six-speaker set with surround sound, but for now, the new sound card is a big improvement.

One last thing to do: Tape over the old audio chip's output ports so you don't try to use them. It won't do any damage if you do, but it can be confusing when no sound comes out of your speakers.

Results

My system now uses 101 watts of power and starts up in 1 minute and 12 seconds. Yes, that's slower than the 44-second start-up time that I got after I installed the new hard drive, but the audio card and particularly the video card slow down start-up because they have to load software. Still, it's less than one-third the time it took with the old components and four years of software buildup.

The best part is that the system now rates a 386.1 on the PassMark PerformanceTest benchmark, about one-third faster than when I started. And games now run a lot more smoothly, with more detail.

Task 5: Install cooling fan and test PC overnight

Time: 5 minutes

Cost: $7

We're nearly done with the insides of this old PC. The last task is to install an extra cooling fan to prevent the system from overheating. The good news is that the AOC FC-2000-TH System Blower is inexpensive (about $7), sits in a PCI slot and plugs right into one of the system's extra power connectors.

With the system powered down and unplugged, slide the fan into place into an open PCI slot and plug it in. Then replace the swinging arm that locks the cards into place; we're done adding PCI cards.

Now close up the case and boot up the PC. The fan starts up automatically when you turn the system on, pulling hot air out of the system's case.

Before starting on the next round of upgrades, let the system run overnight to make sure that everything is operating properly. I'm going to test it overnight by running Microsoft's Train Simulator, a virtual railroad simulation that is a resource hog and gives the machine a workout.

Results

The next morning, it's still running fine without any derailments or late trains. The PC now uses only 97 watts of power, starts up in 1 minute and 17 seconds, and rates a 386.1 on the PassMark PerformanceTest benchmark.

Performance improvements with upgrades

  Benchmark score Start-up time Power use
4-year-old system 291.1 4 minutes, 30 seconds 120 watts
After adding 2GB RAM 325.8 1 minute, 55 seconds 120 watts
After installing a new hard drive 360.5 45 seconds 116 watts
After installing new audio and video cards 386.1 1 minute, 12 seconds 101 watts
After installing a cooling fan 386.1 1 minute, 17 seconds   97 watts
Benchmarking done with PassMark PerformanceTest 6.1 (higher score is better);
power use measured with P3 International Kill A Watt P4400 power meter

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Brian Nadel

Computerworld
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