How to Upgrade Old Computer Clunkers

CALL it arrogance. Or maybe PC2 (Politically Correct Personal Computing). When you ask about upgrading an old computer, the PC community answers with a sneer.

Turn it into a planter, these self-appointed gurus say, or maybe a door stop.

The message is clear. Get a real computer. What could you possibly do with a machine as old as that?

The answer, of course, is that you're doing quite a lot. Plugging away at an old Apple or 286-class or, good heavens, an IBM XT may not put you in with the "computerati." But it does the job.

Peter, a colleague, always needles me about my computer-using ways. Why, he asks, should he buy a more powerful machine to write stories? Obviously, he shouldn't. If that's all he plans on doing with it, his old computer should last for years. Don't buy computer power you'll never use.

Now, suppose you've been pecking away at Old Faithful for a few years and there's something you want to improve. The monitor's not as sharp as it used to be. Or you need more disk space. Perhaps you have moved to the graphical user interface known as Windows, and your system has slowed to a crawl.

Then it's time to consider upgrading. Upgrading computers is like laying out a strategy. Think carefully and relate each move to a long-term plan. Sometimes the computerati are right. It does make more sense to buy a new computer than upgrade the existing one. "Most people throw far too much money into a `junk' system," writes Scott Mueller in his book "Upgrading and Repairing PCs."

When people think of upgrading a computer, they usually focus on the obvious piece of hardware: the microprocessor. They want to turbo charge, say, an Intel 286-class chip into a 486-class screamer. Several companies sell up-gradable computers they say will accept the next-generation chip. Other companies sell processor upgrade boards to turn clunkers into speedsters.

These products can be quite useful to a large corporation that wants to speed up its brand-name computers but hasn't finished depreciating them. For the individual user, though, such moves are more iffy. Processor upgrades rarely, if ever, take full advantage of the next generation chip. And if you're working with an old machine, such as an IBM XT, don't even think about trying to upgrade its processor. If you want a screamer, buy a screamer.

Computer performance depends on many factors, points out Ron Seide, marketing director at Kingston Technology Corporation, so don't overlook the less obvious upgrades. Hard disks are one example. In 1987, the average hard disk had an average access time of 35 milliseconds (ms). Today, it's more like 15 ms.

Kingston is best known for its processor upgrade boards for high-end IBM and Compaq machines, but it also sells computer memory. Adding more random access memory or RAM is an excellent way to speed up your system. This can make your memory-intensive programs, such as databases, work faster. In 1990, I bought a 386 machine with two megabytes of RAM, then moved to four and, finally, eight. The difference in performance is noticeable.

If you use a lot of graphics, consider a video accelerator. "As people upgrade to Windows, they're going to want an accelerator board," says Michael Harris, sales and marketing director of Avance Logic Inc. Accelerators have special chips that do the video processing, removing the load from the microprocessor. Avance sells a lower-end board for less than $200. I bought a high-end ATI accelerator when I moved from a monochrome to a large-screen color monitor.

Make these upgrades count. When I got the color monitor, I made sure it was a high-quality unit that I will want to look at long after my 386 desktop stops working.

That won't be for awhile, though. With some wise investments, Old Faithful should keep computing for a long time to come.

* Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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