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PC Troubleshooting Book

If It Jams Home

Copyright 2011 by Morris Rosenthal

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How to Upgrade Computer Hardware- New parts for your Dell, HP, Compaq, Sony or Emachines PC

Before we talk about how to upgrade a PC, we have to address whether or not it's cost effective to do so. I measure cost effectiveness two ways. One, can you simply buy a new or better used PC for the amount of money it will cost you to upgrade your current box. You can buy new PCs with XP starting at $100 and Windows 7 starting at $200. Two, will the upgrade really have a significant impact on the user experience (ie, will you be happy that you spent the money). I've written about this in more detail on my other site, but I'm going to sum up here in a quick table, with links to illustrated upgrade procedures below. The obvious one I don't talk about is power supply, because that's not really an upgrade item, it's a repair item, since nobody upgrades their power supply unless they need to:-)

Component Cost Range Time Outcome
Motherboard $50 - $250 1 hour to 3 hours (depends on Windows) If you're talking about a PC that's several years old, upgrading the motherboard with a new motherboard, an inexpensive new CPU in an advanced technology family, and some DDR-2 or DDR-3 memory, is equivalent to building a new PC with a slowish video card (if the bus technology is compatible). You'll really see the difference, you'll be in a great position to upgrade the rest, but why not just build a new one from scratch? In any case, the bug in the soup is getting Windows happy with a new motherboard underneath - goes pretty smoothly sometimes if it similar technology or the same manufacturer, but usually it's a pain in the behind for a newbie.
CPU $30 - $300 5 minutes to 1/2 hour (depends on heatsink) The only time it makes sense to upgrade a CPU is if you have a low speed CPU in the same family. If you replace a 1.4 GHz CPU with a 1.6 GHz CPU, you'll need benchmarking software to see the difference. On the other hand, if you replace a 700 MHz CPU with a 1.4 GHz CPU, it will scream. That's cheap, the expensive proposition is replacing a 2.4 GHz CPU with a 3.2 GHz CPU. I'd only consider it if you're a gamer or a serious data cruncher. The CPU has to be a physical match for the socket (which changes every couple years) and explicitly supported by the motherboard, so don't try it without motherboard documentation, unless it's in the cheap end of the range.
RAM $20 - $100 5 minutes to 15 minutes If your system supports more RAM and you can figure out what kind it is, go ahead and buy all you can stuff in there, at least up to 1.0 GB for Windows XP, 2.0 or 3.0 GB for Vista, and more 4.0 GB for 32 bit Windows 7, 8.0 GB or more for 64 bit. The performance gain will really depend on what software you are running, but it's cheap, it's easy, and it does make a difference.
Hard Drive $50 - $ 200 15 minutes to add as second drive, several hours to move operating system and all data and make primary drive Your PC was probably built with a hard drive that could take advantage of the interface speed, so it's unlikely you can jam a new hard drive with a faster interface into your PC, your motherboard won't be up to it. You can buy a hard drive with a bigger cache or a faster spindle speed, but you won't notice the difference most the time. You can buy a second identical drive and do RAID 0, which will speed up reads appreciable. However, the only reason I'd upgrade a hard drive is if I needed more space, and I'd probably add it as a second drive. Otherwise, you need to Ghost the original boot drive over, or reinstall everything from scratch.
CDR or DVDR $30 - $100 15 minutes to 1 hour (depends on case geometry, software installation and update) If you don't have a recorder, it's well worth it, but make sure you don't buy a "bare" drive, which means no software. Hint: They don't record without recording software. I would never upgrade to get a higher speed drive, it just doesn't make a difference. Nobody runs software off discs, you install it to the hard drive. Unless you're in the production business, record speed is irrelevant.
Video Card $50 - $500 15 minutes to 30 minutes (depends on software install) Only if you're an artist or a gamer. Otherwise, a video card is a video card is a video card. If you're a gamer, you may even buy two high end PCI express cards to run in tandem, though that can cost you closer to a grand. With video cards for gaming, you pretty much get what you pay for, but make sure your power supply can handle the extra load because these things eat major wattage.
Modem $10 - $100 15 minutes to 1 hour (DSL and cable modem can take a while to configure) A 56 Kb/s modem is a 56 Kb/s modem, but sometimes they fail slowly with age, so a new one might buy you a slightly faster connection rate due to a lower error rate. If your ISP makes a change and your dial-up goes to pot, try a new one, they're cheap. Changing to broadband (DSL or cable) is the difference between night and day. However, the DSL or cable modem may be free, it's the monthly fees that get expensive.
Sound Card $10 - $50 15 minutes to 30 minutes (disabling motherboard integrated sound and installing software can take time) Unless you're a musician or an avid gamer, there's very little to be gained from from upgrading your sound card, sound quality is really a function of the amplified speakers. If you're a gamer, graduating to 5.1, 6.1 or even 7.1 means more surround sound and low end, which can have a big impact on games (or watching DVDs).

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