Is my old computer worth upgrading?

I'm asked this question very often by friends who have an older computer system, and are wondering if it's worth upgrading so that their kids can at least play games on it or do school homework.

If you're like most people you've nursed your older Pentium III or Pentium II along for several years now, and you might not be ready to shell out a thousand or more for a new machine. The good news is that you can get very noticeable performance improvements, just by upgrading some key components on your existing system, and for only about a couple hundred dollars.

I'll cover the following upgrades in a 3-part series that each will give you noticeable improvements, are simply enough to only take a few minutes to upgrade, and each range in cost from only $50 to $100 dollars (at the time of this writing, Tiger Direct is offering a Ultra 1 GB PC3200 DDR 400M memory chip for only $79.99!)

  • Memory (RAM) - Most systems are happiest with between 512MB to 1GB.
  • Hard drive - Faster spinning drives mean faster loading programs.
  • Video card - Switching between programs will feel faster, and running games or graphical programs will feel more responsive.

Memory - Part 1 of 3

Increasing your memory to 1 GB (1024 MB) will give you the most noticeable performance improvement aside from upgrading your processor (which is an advanced topic not covered in this article). Even upgrading to 512 MB will give you 20-30% improvement or more.

Upgrading your computer's memory only takes a few minutes. Make sure your computer is turned off and unplugged. Remove the case around your computer, which is usually a matter of removing a couple screws on the back and pulling off the side panel.

You'll usually see either 2 or 4 slots containing your existing memory (most older systems only have 2 slots). Here's what the memory chips will look like:

Each chip is kept in place by a fastener pin on either side of the chip. Push the two fastener pins outward and pull the memory chip straight out. It usually doesn't require much force to remove them, but use a steady and careful hand.

You can run over to your local computer store with your old memory chips, and they'll be able to look up the maximum amount of memory that your system can take as well as the right kind of memory.

You can also refer to your owner's manual for the right type of memory and easily purchase at an online store such as Tiger Direct.

Once you have the new chips, installation is exactly the opposite. With your system still off, push the new chips back into the same slots until the fasteners snap back into place. You'll notice a notch in the bottom of each memory chip, and this notch must line up with the notch in your memory slot.

Put the case cover back on and start up your computer. It will pick up the new memory automatically and you'll quickly notice the increase in speed.

Check back soon for Part 2 of this performance upgrade series, and learn how easy it is to upgrade your hard drive for less than $100 dollars.

Want to learn more about memory?

Many older systems use PC100 or PC133 memory chips, which are not nearly as fast as newer memory chips - but are still significantly faster than hard drive memory. When you run a software program like Microsoft Word or Outlook, the program is loaded from your hard drive and placed in operating memory called RAM, which is much faster than hard drive memory.

A few years ago 128 MB of RAM was considered 'plenty of memory', but today's software programs often take more than that just to load, let alone to run. When the program takes more memory to run than what's available in RAM, the system saves some of the program back to the slower hard drive, and performance suffers greatly. You notice this when you watch the hour glass turn, and turn, and turn.

Upgrading your computer's memory is usually the best investment you can make.

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