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.

Task 2: Install RAM

Time: 5 minutes

Cost: $80

Adding system memory generally offers good bang for your upgrade buck. Up to a point, the more memory you have for the operating system, applications and data, the faster the system runs, because it avoids having to use slower virtual memory that shuffles data onto and off of the hard drive.

Adding memory is a no-brainer, and the modules are available at a variety of online locations. Kingston, for instance, has a memory search page on its Web site: Plug in the name of your computer or motherboard maker, and Kingston will suggest memory modules that fit your system. Then do an online search for the correct modules; you'll often find them at prices that are much better than what you'd pay if you bought directly from the manufacturer.

My desktop PC has four slots for 400-MHz DIMM (dual in-line memory module) memory; it came with a pair of 512MB RAM sticks for a total of 1GB. To save money, I'm going to keep using those two 512MB memory modules. Then I'll fill up the system's other memory slots with two new 1GB modules that cost about $40 each, for a total of 3GB of RAM.

That's less than the 4GB that the system can hold, but it's three times more than what I started with. Going up to 4GB would mean I'd have to throw out the two 512MB memory modules and buy two more 1GB modules (my system can't take anything larger than a 1GB module) for another $80, which would blow my budget.

With the machine off and unplugged, line up the RAM cards and one at a time slide them into the carrier. Press gently but firmly until you hear a click that tells you the card is properly seated. When they're locked in place you're done.

Instead of doing all our upgrades at once, we're going turn on the computer and test it in between each task, which makes it easy to figure things out if something goes awry. Don't bother closing the case, though -- we have much more to do.

Plug in and fire up the system. Its start-up routine should automatically detect the new memory, but it doesn't hurt to double-check by selecting Start --> All Programs --> Accessories --> System Tools --> System Information and looking in the System Summary list for Total Physical Memory.


My PC now has 3,072MB of memory. It's enough to raise the system's PerformanceTest 6.1 benchmark score to 325.8, a 12% increase. Not bad -- the system starts up in 1 minute, 55 seconds -- a big improvement, and there was no perceptible change in its energy consumption. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Task 3: Install new hard drive, software and external drive enclosure

Time: 2½ hours

Cost: $94

The second cheap thrill for upgraders is to get a new hard drive. I chose the Western Digital Caviar Black 500GB drive, which is available for $65 at some online electronics retailers.

It can hold four times the stuff that the original drive could hold, and it will run rings around its predecessor. On top of numerous advances in disc technology over the last four years, the new drive has 32MB of buffer memory (four times that of the original drive), so it can hold more frequently used data and won't keep the rest of the machine waiting for it.

After powering down and unplugging your system, slide the old drive out of its cage and unplug its data and power connections. Then set it aside; we have plans for it, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Your new drive may not fit in the cage perfectly, but chances are you've got an extra set of plastic drive rails conveniently stashed inside the system's case. Screw them onto the new drive, slide it into place and plug the power and data cables in.

If you don't have an extra set of rails, you can use the ones from the original drive or buy some online. They only cost a few bucks, but it can be confusing trying to choose the right ones for your drive -- there are dozens of rail designs that all look alike to me. If all else fails, use adhesive Velcro or duct tape. It's not as elegant, but it works and nobody will see it.

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