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Upgrading computers has always been a real problem 

Upgrading computers has always been a real problem despite the fact that each time you buy a new computer, everyone tells you that there is plenty of space and capacity for upgrading. Why is this such a problem and why does it seem that each time you want to upgrade your computer, you end up going out and buying a new one. Well for starters, the real problem lies in how fast the computer industry is moving. While the Intel Pentium III is today’s current computer processor available with most new computers, it has only been around for over a year now and when most of the computers were manufactured, they had no idea what was in store for upgrading.  But lets start at the beginning. When you buy a new computer, one of the most common questions is can I upgrade the computer later. The easy answer is yes. But what the sales person is saying yes to and what you are asking about are two different questions. Let me explain. When you talk to a sales person and ask them about upgrades, they think in terms of adding more memory, more disk space, better CD ROM drives, DVD, Scanners, Digital Cameras, and the like. In fact, there are a ton of things you can add to your computer and we haven’t even touched the surface of software, entertainment, and the internet. The problem is that this is not the question you wanted answered. You want to know that if I buy this computer, can I turn it into the mega monster of the future and the answer is probably not.

Well, why not? The answer is in the computer industry. As each new generation of computer processor comes out, we have found that they require a darn near complete overhaul in components and what is needed to run the processor from the main boards to memory to even the power supplies. Lets start with the newest offerings from Intel. The Pentium III processor from Intel was introduced on February 17, 1999 and the newest Pentium III processors use a different way of plugging into the mainboard than did the Pentium II (introduced November 1997) which used a different way of plugging into the mainboard than did the Pentium. While the jump from the Pentium II to the III was not that major in components affected, there were still enough changes to make you think about the cost of upgrading. First was the mainboard. If you purchased your computer in say May 1998 (two years ago), there was no such thing as the Pentium III and in fact, the fastest your computer could go 350 megahertz so the newer 500 megahertz computers would require a new mainboard. You will also need new memory as the bus speed (the speed at which the computer talks to everyone else in the box) was only 66 megahertz versus the newest computer’s 133 megahertz, again, something that cannot be upgraded and in fact, you would need to replace. And so the real problem is that as technology moves so fast, the computer you purchased five years ago has actually been surpassed several times in computer technology since then.

 The other issue regarding upgrades in horsepower and speed is that when you do upgrade, you want to be able to see an appreciable difference in performance. It is not worth the expense and time to upgrade a computer from a 233 to a 266 megahertz processor as you will only really see a 14% increase in performance at the most. That kind of an upgrade will not make your computer sit up and be noticed and you will quickly decide that you just wasted your money. So if you are at the point where you still want to get more out of your old computer, what can you do? Well for starters, look at the memory and disk drive. Windows95 could only really take advantage of 32 Megabytes of memory in your computer while Windows98 will use what ever you have and can get your hands on. For Windows98 computers, my recommendation is to have at a minimum 64MB of RAM. Windows takes up a lot of resources in your computer and memory is the first thing it uses and if you are like most people using your computer, you will have a ton of little icons sitting on your Task Bar (the bar with the Start Button) that while they look like they aren’t doing much, are in fact, active and using memory. For people doing a lot of different things on their computer at the same time, I would recommend installing 128MB of RAM. For those of you with Pentium II or Pentium III computers, the memory can easily be added to your computer. If you are using an older Pentium I class computer, it will be more difficult as it uses a different kind of memory chip than the newer computers. Be sure to check the manual that came with your computer before doing any shopping and in fact, you might want to have the technicians at a computer store check it out for you. The other problem with older Pentium computers is that if you have already done a memory upgrade on your computer, you may find you have run out of room to install memory and in fact, will have to remove some memory to install the newer. Let me explain. Older Pentium computers use memory chips two at a time and these computers have only 4 memory slots. That means that when you purchased your computer, more than likely, the manufacturer installed two memory chips. That is how you got 8MB or 16MB or 32MB of RAM. If you added memory later to get you up to say 24MB or 48MB or 64MB, they probably added two more memory modules to your computer, thus filling up all your available memory slots. So check before adding any more memory as you might find it is not worth the expense.

The second Item you can do is to add disk space. I have always used the rule of thumb to triple the current amount of disk drive you have on your computer when adding. Again, there can be some complications. Older Windows95 computers have a limitation in that they can only see 2 Gigabytes of space on a drive. So if you had purchased a 4 GB drive with your computer, what they had to do was to “Partition” the drive in to two segments. You then ended up with a 2GB “C” drive and a 2GB “D” drive and your CD ROM drive ended up being drive “E”. Imagine what would happen if you had a 10GB drive. You would have a “C”, “D”, “E”, “F”, and a “G” drive, all 2GB in size each. What happens here is that when you install software on your computer, it always wants to install it on your “C” drive and so your “C” drive starts to fill up. You might still have an empty “D” drive but when your “C” drive fills up, all sorts of unpleasant things begin to happen. Your internet sessions bog down, your programs become incredibly slow, and your computer starts to crash with program errors. And in fact it gets worse because if you take your computer into be upgraded and they give you a bigger drive, you quickly discover that your “C” drive size has not changed! Another complication to upgrading hard drives is that some computers have a physical limitation to the size of a drive that they can see. Many older computers cannot see drives larger than 8GB with out having to install special driver software and I strongly recommend against doing that. That software can easily be corrupted by many different situations and once that drive gets corrupted, you can easily loose everything on your hard drive.  So what to do?

First would be to consider upgrading your software to Windows98. Windows98 has a couple of features that make disk management easier, more flexible, and gives you the ability to better utilize all the space on your hard drive.  The first is what is called FAT32. FAT32 is nothing more than a better way of keeping track of files on your hard drive than it did with the older DOS/Windows and Windows95. FAT32 allows your computer to see all of your hard drive as a single drive so that if your “C” drive is getting full, you actually can increase the size of your “C” drive. Another benefit of FAT32 is that it is much more efficient in keeping track of files to the point of actually recovering a lot of wasted space on the disk drive. Also, Windows98 removes that 2GB limitation on the size of the partitions for your computer. Now it won’t do away with the physical limitation on the size of a disk drive that your computer can see as I mentioned above but you can actually use what you do have.

Getting from Windows95 to Windows98 requires only installing the Windows98 Upgrade which costs from $90 to $110. You do need to be sure you have enough space on your “C” drive to install the upgrade. Once that is done, you can go over to a program called FAT32 Converter to free up more space on your “C” drive. Now the problem of all those other partitions on your computer, the “D”, “E”, and “F” drives will need some additional help and that can come from a program called Partition Magic from PowerQuest Corp. This really useful program will take those unwanted extra partitions and allow you to combine them with your “C” drive to give you a much bigger “C” drive. It is a wonderful but very powerful piece of software and I strongly recommend that if you decide to use this package, you make sure you have backed up all your files and documents on your computer before you get started. Any time you use a computer program that alters the configuration of your hard drive can cause serious problems if things go wrong.

If you have already upgraded to Windows98 and still need more disk space, you have a couple of options. You can always add another disk drive to your computer as a drive “D” or you could replace the current drive with a larger one. For people that tell me they know nothing about computers, I always recommend the latter approach. What the store can do for you is to install a new larger drive and transfer all your data to the new drive and so when you turn on your computer again, you now have a much larger “C” drive than what you had before and none of your programs or files have been affected. By far, the cleanest and neatest approach.

As you can see, there are a lot of issues to think about when upgrading your computer and why it may seem that the best alternative might be a new one. Again, always look at what it will cost you and compare that to the cost of a new system. My rule of thumb is that if the upgrades cost more than the half the cost of a new computer, think twice about it. 

Robert Sanborn
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Robert Sanborn is an Independent Personal Computer Consultant, General Manager for That Computer Store in Indianapolis, IN, and the Program Chairman for the Indianapolis Computer Society. Reach him through the net at sansoft@in.net  

Last Update:06/26/2007

 

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