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 6: Install wireless keyboard, mouse, TV tuner and webcam

Time: 30 minutes

Cost: $110

The rest of my upgrade items are extras that many of you might regard as needless luxuries, but a lot has happened in computer technology in the past four years. With a wireless keyboard and mouse, a webcam and a TV tuner, my old PC will be as up to date as I can make it on a limited budget. Without these extravagances, the upgrade can be done for a miserly $250.

Because it costs only $40 at numerous online retailers and includes both a full-size keyboard and an optical mouse, Microsoft's Wireless Media Desktop 1000 set fits perfectly into my upgrade and budget. One snag that I didn't anticipate, however, is that it requires four AA batteries, two for the mouse and two for the keyboard; that adds an unexpected $5 to my budget.

To get the mouse and keyboard going, run the software installation CD, then plug the transmitter box into an unused USB slot in the back of the PC. The transmitter connects with the keyboard and mouse -- and you're off. Not only are there no wires, but the new keyboard has controls for volume (with a handy mute button), playing CDs and a slew of application start-up keys.

When I bought my PC, there wasn't an option for including a TV tuner. Today, there are many USB tuners that can turn a PC into a digital TV set. I'm upgrading to AverMedia's AVerTVHD Volar tuner because it is small, comes with an antenna and, at $40, fits into my upgrade budget.

Plug the small card into a USB slot and load the needed software. It takes a few minutes and tells you when it's done; the Volar tuner doesn't require a restart. Finally, plug in the antenna and set up the tuner by letting it scan for stations in the area. My tuner was able to find a dozen local digital stations, although some were interrupted by dropouts while others came in crystal clear.

On top of letting me watch the ball game as I work, AverMedia's software lets me use that huge new hard drive as a digital video recorder to tape any show I want. My PC is now a couch potato's dream come true.

The final part of the upgrade is to add a $30 Logitech QuickCam Connect Webcam. About the size of a golf ball, the Webcam clips onto the top of the monitor. It can capture video at up to 640-by-480-pixel resolution, has a built-in microphone and shows when it's on with an activity light.

To get it going, clip the cam to the top of the monitor, load the needed software from the included CD, plug it into a USB slot and let the hardware install itself. It's the ticket for Skype video calls and personal YouTube reflections.

Task 7: Sit back, enjoy your "new" PC and order pizza

Time: 30 minutes for delivery

Cost: $12

That's it. You're done. It's time to sit back and enjoy the rebuilt PC.

All told, it took me about four hours (not counting overnight testing) and $363 worth of parts to turn a piece of junk that was ready for the scrap heap into a reliable midrange PC that can give my family many hours of use over the next several years. Its overall performance went up by 33%, and it boots up faster, runs quieter and uses 20% less power, which will save me a few dollars over the year.

On the downside, the system's USB slots in the back are now all in use. Luckily, there are two up front, but when I get a few minutes and a few bucks, I'll get a USB hub so I can connect a few additional new devices in the future.

It's time to order my celebratory pizza, but with $12 left in my budget there's only enough money for a small, plain pie. I guess I'll have to wait for the next upgrade to afford a large pepperoni.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

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