Out With The Old, And In With The New

Before you buy a new PC, a CPU might do

Technological obsolescence has become an increasing concern as computer makers turn out faster machines at ever-decreasing intervals. Just a few years ago you could expect a new computer to remain cutting edge for at least two years, with its functional life span extending to nearly five years. Today, that just isn’t the case.

MMX, an Intel standard developed to boost the microprocessor’s handling of multimedia graphics and sound, wasn’t on the screen for most people outside of the computer field in 1995. Now you almost can’t buy a computer without this enhanced instruction set. Even with prices well below the $1,000 mark, buying a new PC every couple of years is out of the question for most budgets. So what’s a tech-savvy consumer to do? It’s simple–upgrade.

Installing a new CPU (also called a microprocessor) is a fast, economical way to boost the performance of an aging PC. Most machines, including 486-based PCs, can be upgraded to a Pentium CPU (or comparable chip from Cyrix or AMD) for under $300. Trinity Works Power-Stacker 5×86 for 486 retails for $99 and 180Mhz MMX Upgrade CPUs are available from Zerus Hardware and Evergreen technologies for under $200. Another issue to consider is whether to add more RAM (random access memory) in addition to a new processor. If you have only 8 megs of RAM, increasing your memory to 16 megs will boost performance more than adding a CPU alone–and 32 megs is even better. You can get 16 megs of RAM for under $75.

With older PCs (Pentium 75 or lower), it may be wise to install a new motherboard as well. The motherboard is the main printed circuit board in a PC that contains the bus, CPU and controller chips for other devices such as the video display and CDROM drive. A new motherboard will allow you to take advantage of the latest Pentium or MMX chip. Installing a new motherboard can also free up expansion slots that will let you expand your PC to your heart’s content. For about $100-$200 more than a simple processor upgrade, you can get a new board that will make the most of your new CPU. A basic motherboard sells for $100-$200 without the processor.

The best thing about all these upgrades is that you can do them yourself. Installing RAM and a processor is a snap–literally. Putting a new motherboard in your PC is more difficult because of the wires, add-in cards and memory that must be disconnected and replaced. However, all are fairly simple procedures that most people can do if they consult their computer manual and get the advice of the original manufacturer (via technical support) or a reputable computer dealer regarding compatibility issues.

To prove how easy it is, I commandeered an old Dell P-75 that was in need of an overhaul to serve as the test unit. Although I’ve installed plenty of software and added peripherals such as scanners, printers and other external devices, my experience under the hood of a PC is limited.

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