Pump up your PC

Looking to put some muscle on your old machine? Before you go out and buy the latest and greatest kit, have a look at our guide as to how to get the best out of your box

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By  Peter Branton Published  August 31, 2004

Introduction|~|upgrading-com-copy.jpg|~|Put some muscle on your machine|~|Buying a new PC is akin to buying a new car: its value starts to fall as soon as you pull away from the forecourt or leave the shop. However powerful a machine you buy there is always a newer, faster model coming out, one which will probably cost no more than the box you’ve just invested in. Happily, for computer buffs at least, upgrading your PC is fairly easy and allows you to extend the useful life, and value, of your system. While box makers may disagree, you really don’t want to buy a whole new system every time a new game comes out, or you need to run another application in the office. Nor do you have to: its possible to keep updating your PC, component by component, to give the performance you want. Upgrading can in fact be an almost never-ending process, and many hard-core computer enthusiasts will devote a large part of their time to doing just that: tinkering with and swapping bits of their machines in a seemingly endless cycle. Assuming that you’re not a hard-core techie, and that you just want to get a bit more performance out of your system, then let’s take a look at just why you should upgrade your system. ||**||Reasons for upgrading|~||~||~|Firstly, unless you want to get caught in an endless cycle of catch-up is probably isn’t a good idea to upgrade your system just because there’s a hot new piece of kit out there you fancy installing: much like your original PC purchase that piece of kit is going to be superceded by something else pretty quickly. Ask yourself instead does the new component allow you to do something with your machine that you couldn’t before, or do it better, and is that something important to you? There’s plenty of occasions when the answer is almost certainly going to be yes: a gamer for instance, will find that he isn’t enjoying his new game very much and will want to get a more up-to-date graphics card; a photography enthusiast who wants to store and edit photos on his PC will want a bigger hard disk for extra storage space and more memory for editing purposes. Or you may just have bought a new application you need for work, and without upgrading your system you won’t be able to run it all. “For most people, being able to run some of the latest and greatest software is the main reason for upgrading their PCs,” says Lester Lau, motherboard firm Abit’s marketing manager for the Middle East. “As software becomes more advanced, the minimum system requirements ramp up as well.” The desire to get better performance out of games is often cited as one of the main causes of upgrading, as games manufacturers push the envelope with each new release. “Some of the newest games boast graphics and sound that rival a full-blown Hollywood production, but on a slow PC they can turn into a choppy, frustrating experience,” says Lau. “Upgrading your PC can allow the user to experience the game the way the creators intended.” Not that upgrading is always about latest and greatest: a lot of users will upgrade parts of their system to get a better working experience or make their lives a bit easier. “Most of the upgrades that we provide our customers with effectively solve issues faced with common hardware,” says AbdulAzeez Al Duwaikh, manager for Power Optionz. “Our mission is to serve our customers in providing the very best in quality and computer solutions to enable a better, more reliable and efficient computing experience.” Products that Power Optionz provide include the Vantec ION 400 power box, which gives the user a more reliable power supply. Which brings us to another point: namely that you shouldn’t assume that you can always just get away with upgrading one component in your system. For instance, upgrading your processor should in theory give you a more powerful system, but in practice you’ll only notice the difference if you upgraded the hard disk, memory and graphics card as well. And sometime new components won’t be compatible with older ones, meaning you’ll have to shell out again. Sometimes of course, you’re forced to go down the upgrade road, whether you like it or not. “Since new technical configurations constantly and rapidly appear, most computer peripherals and software always have some breakthrough every three months or so,” warns Lawrence Chang, vice president of marketing and sales for Kingmax. “Mainly, PC upgrading trends always depend on the development of the processor and chipsets and then all the computer component suppliers will follow their game rules. These are the main reasons why nowadays PCs need upgrading frequently.” Indeed, some technology remains out of reach to the casual upgrader. If you want to enjoy the benefits of PCI Express for instance, you’re pretty much going to have to buy a new system: there are systems coming on the market now that are PCI Express-ready, meaning you’ll be able to upgrade to the technology when it becomes more mature (and prices fall) but most existing boxers just won’t be able to fit it in. ||**||Software|~||~||~|So what can you do in the way of upgrading your system? Well, to start with software, if you’re going to upgrade the operating system then probably the best option right now is Windows XP. With Longhorn still a good two years away from delivery, XP is guaranteed to stay current for at least that period of time, meaning you won’t have to worry about upgrading it again for a while (we’ll leave the issue of installing Service Pack 2, discussed elsewhere in this issue, aside for a while, its not considered a full upgrade). XP does offer considerable benefits over older versions of Windows, and Microsoft has worked hard to make it easier to upgrade to, as compared to, say, the upgrade from Windows 95 to 98, which proved extremely problematic. There is always Linux of course, and we did provide a guide to switching to the open source operating system in our May issue, but we’d still contend that a move to Linux is strictly for the advanced or power user. For most of us, its easier to move from one version of Windows to another, especially as Microsoft has a lot of info on its web site about how to upgrade. This isn’t simple generosity on the company’s part, it’s been pushing hard to get people to upgrade to XP, even threatening to cancel support for Windows 98 last year, before backing down (see Windows, February 2004). With estimates suggesting anywhere up to a third of users are still running an older version of Windows, then clearly an OS upgrade isn’t essential, but XP does offer a lot of benefits, particularly in simplifying tasks such as networking or setting up internet access. By upgrading to XP though, bear in mind that you may well have to end up tracking down new drivers for peripherals such as your printer. Still, with most products these days designed to run XP, it’s a good move to make. ||**||Hardware|~||~||~|Getting on to hardware, we mentioned earlier that upgrading your processor will usually mean that you have to upgrade the other components around it. As we discuss in our PC grouptest the competition between AMD and Intel over price and performance has really intensified in the past year or so, meaning there are some great processors around at very good prices. If you don’t want to get a new system, you can upgrade the processor indivually and fit other components around it. You just need to make sure that you’ve got the right motherboard for the processor that you want to fit, and that it can be put in to your system. In terms of improving performance, slamming in more memory can often do the trick very effectively, sticking in a chunk of extra memory will speed up your machine, and really give it a new lease of life. You should have a minimum of 256MB on your system, and for gaming or using multimedia applications then double that would be a good idea. Vendors such as Twinmos and Hynix offer memory modules, and the price per MB nowadays has come down a lot. For storage, if you’re going to want to put your complete photo collection in one place or keep loads of video clips, then you’ll want to add storage space – and fast. The rule of thumb on storage is to think of the amount you’ll need, then double it: you’ll get through it quicker than you expect. While there are plenty of options on the market, we suggest the simplest is to just buy an external hard drive, which can be connected to your PC via a USB or FireWire port. It saves the hassle of opening up the box and physically installing a new drive. Or look at adding an optical drive, if your PC doesn’t already come equipped with one. Bottom line is there are plenty of options to consider for your PC before consigning it to the scrap heap. Even older machines can be given a new lease of life with a few new components. The one caveat we would offer is make sure you know what you’re getting into before doing any major tinkering with your system. ||**||Dazzling displays|~||~||~|Memory, hard disk, the OS and so on, are all well and good, but for most of us when we upgrade our system we want something a bit more, well exciting. If its razzle-dazzle you’re after you can’t beat a good graphics card. For the hard-core gaming fan, the chance to see the latest 3D visual effects the way the game designers wanted them to be seen makes shelling out on the latest graphics card worthwhile. For sheer performance, cards based on nVidia’s GeForce 6800 Ultra GPU take some beating, with the XFX model we tested recently (Windows Middle East, September 2004) turning in higher test scores than anything we’ve seen previously. While most graphics cards fit in to the AGP slot on your motherboard, watch out for the newer PCI Express connection: cards based on this will be incredibly fast, but with few PCs having this yet make sure they’ll fit your existing machine. Sound cards are also popular upgrade options which can enhance your movie-watching pleasure, but most PCs these days come with pretty decent sound cards built-in with stereo sound, so it may be worth only looking at this option for surround sound, in which case you’ll want to get new speakers as well. ||**||

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