Upgrading Your Hardware

The Hardware Guide

Upgrading Your Hardware


For most of us, cost is a major consideration when deciding upon upgrading versus buying a new system. As you look at the cost of the new parts that you want to upgrade in your system, keep a running tab and compare that to the cost of buying a whole new system.

The cost of buying every part in your system and assembling it yourself (upgrading the whole thing) is much higher than the cost of a new system. PC manufacturers buy in bulk and pass their savings along. In addition, a new system will usually come with a complete warranty and software. If you upgrade your parts, the warranty will depend on the warranty for each part.

In general, if the cost of your upgrade starts to approach $1,000, you'll want to look carefully at the option of getting a new PC. There's always a fast new system that can be bought in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. If you decide a new PC is the way to go, be sure to read the later section "What to Look for in a New PC."


Are You Uncomfortable Opening Your Computer Case?

If you aren't comfortable opening the case of your PC and adding or replacing things inside it, you won't want to consider upgrades to items such as hard drives, video cards, or RAM on your own. However, for a small service charge, most computer stores will perform these upgrades for you. So, if you choose to upgrade and have the service done for you, factor in that cost of the service to the total of the upgrade.

TIP: Professional service should come with a warranty and a guarantee. If you perform your own video card upgrade and you break it or the motherboard, you'll have to pay for the replacement. Hiring a pro with a guarantee should mean that anything that goes wrong is fixed at their cost.

If you don't want to open the case and you aren't going to pay someone else to upgrade it, there still are a few items you can upgrade or add on to increase the life of your PC and what you can do with it:

Monitors. Replacing a monitor is as easy as unplugging the old and plugging in the new.
Printers. A printer is another item you can add or replace by just plugging it in to the back

Modems. An external modem can be added or replaced by hooking it up to an external serial port if you have a serial port that is not being used.
Keyboards, mice, and joysticks. Keyboards can be replaced just by plugging them in to the back of the PC. If you buy a new mouse or joystick with the same connection time as the one on your PC, these can be replaced without opening the PC case.
Tape drives. Many tape drive models can be connected to your parallel port, and most even have a cable to have your printer and tape drive connected to the port at the same time.

Zip drives. If you need more disk storage space, Zip drives come in a version that can be connected to your existing parallel port. This is an easy way to add storage space without opening the PC.

Speakers. If you already have a sound card, adding and replacing speakers is an easy upgrade.


Upgrading Parts Inside Your PC

If you want to upgrade anything inside your PC, it is highly recommended that you read the book Upgrading PCs Illustrated by Que. This book has many drawings and photographs to show you step-by-step procedures for adding and replacing parts in your PC. Although most of the parts inside a PC are very easy to replace, they can also be very easy to damage if you don't follow the right steps. This book can save you a lot of time and frustration with those processes.

What type of upgrades can you make inside your PC?

Memory. This is one of the easiest internal upgrades to make. It usually just involves snapping a new RAM or SIMM(s) into place. Your motherboard and BIOS should recognize the new memory when you restart the PC.

Processor. This is another relatively easy but more delicate process. Usually you need to unplug the old processor and plug in the new one. Most PCs have a small lever that helps lift out the old processor and secure the new one in place. You may have to change settings on your motherboard by moving small connectors called jumpers, or making changes in the system BIOS.

Hard drive. Adding a new hard drive can be more complicated. In addition to physically mounting the drive in place, you need to connect cables to the drive and configure it to work with an existing drive. Replacing your C drive is even more complicated because you need to have a way to get all of your old files onto the new drive. Once the new drive is installed, you have to set up the BIOS to recognize and format it before storing any data on it.

Video card. Upgrading the video card means removing the old one from its slot and plugging in the new one. You also have to select the correct video card drivers in Windows.

Sound card. Sounds cards simply plug into any empty expansion slot.

Other expansion cards. Internal modems, an interface card for a SCSI drive or scanner, a video capture card, and any other type of interface card are added by installing them into an open expansion slot and installing any software that came with them.

BIOS. Most computers built in the last few years have BIOSes that can be upgraded by installing a new software called a flash upgrade. However, if you ever have to replace the BIOS chip itself, be sure the replacement comes with good directions and that all of your data on your hard drives is backed up first.

System battery. There's a small battery on your motherboard that runs the clock and helps your BIOS remember settings for your hard drives. These batteries usually last three years or more. There is usually a small clip that holds the battery in place. When replacing these, be sure you have a printed record of your BIOS settings (there's usually a BIOS utility to help with this). Also, make sure to get the right voltage battery and to get it in the correct direction.


IDE and SCSI Drives

Hard drives and CD-ROM drives come in two different varieties. If you want to add a second hard drive, a new CD-ROM drive, or replace a hard drive, you'll need to be sure to get one of the same type that is already in your system.

IDE drives are most common. Unless you specifically asked for SCSI drives when you bought your PC, you probably got it with IDE drives. Most PCs are capable of supporting four IDE drives at one time. So you could have any combination of four IDE hard drives and CD-ROM drives.

There was a time when IDE drives were slower than most SCSI drives. But IDE drives have evolved quickly, and for most uses are now just as fast as SCSI.

NOTE: Some older IDE drives have compatibility issues working with other older IDE drives. If you have an IDE hard drive that is 250M or less and more than two years old, you'll want to consider replacing it with a newer drive rather than adding a second drive. If you do decide to add a second drive, your best bet to avoid incompatibilities is to buy a drive of the same brand as the first.

If your PC does have a SCSI drive connector (either built-in or as an adapter card), be sure to buy SCSI drives. These generally cost more than IDE drives of the same brand and size.


Matching Memory

When it's time to upgrade your computer's RAM, there are several memory type issues you need to be aware of. It's important to buy the right type of memory for your PC, or you will have all sorts of odd problems. Or, the PC may just refuse to boot.

A PC motherboard has slots for memory. (These are different than the expansion slots for cards.) The most common of these slots are called SIMM (Single Inline Memory Module) slots. SIMMs come in several different sizes; the most common are 72-pin. These are most common on any PC with a Pentium or faster processors. Some older PCs have 36- or 32-pin SIMMs.

Most PCs have somewhere between four and eight SIMM slots. To decide what memory to buy to upgrade your PC, you should open the case and see how many memory slots are free. If you have no free slots, you will have to replace memory to upgrade. Unfortunately, this situation is common, because many PCs with four slots were sold with all of the slots full.

The most important question in dealing with memory is: "How many megabytes?" Regardless of the number of pins your memory needs to have, the SIMMs can be found in many megabyte sizes. These typically range from 4 to 32M for new RAM. Older RAM that you are replacing may be as low as 1M.

Buying RAM gets tricky at this stage. Even though a SIMM slot may have the right number of pins to accept a PIN, all motherboards have a limit to the number of megabytes that can be on any single SIMM. So, if your motherboard is limited to using 16M SIMMs, don't buy 32M even if they look like they'll fit.

Some motherboards require the SIMMs to be added in pairs called banks. If your motherboard has this limitation (check your computer's specifications or contact the vendor to determine), be sure to buy two matching SIMMs to add the RAM you want. For example, to add 16M, buy two 8M SIMMs.

The next complicating factor in buying RAM is choosing parity or non-parity RAM. Most new machines work with non-parity RAM. Parity RAM is used to check the RAM for internal errors. Again, check your computer specifications to determine which type of RAM your machine requires--then make sure you buy the right type.

Another RAM term you'll encounter is EDO (Extended Data Output). This is a faster type of SIMM that has become very standard in PCs. If your motherboard supports it, buy it. It usually sells for the same price as standard (non-EDO) RAM.

If all of this isn't confusing enough, there are several new RAM types and terms you may encounter. Many new PCs are now shipping with slots for DIMM memory (Dual Inline Memory Module). DIMMs pack more pins (168 instead of 72) and more RAM into just a slightly larger package. If you want to buy DIMMs, be sure to consult an expert first, usually a qualified technician where you bought your PC. DIMMs have a dizzying array of voltages and other specifications in addition to memory amounts, and buying the wrong type will cause problems.

CAUTION: Don't purchase "cheaper" slower additional RAM. Additional RAM must be at least the same speed or faster than the machine's original RAM. Mismatched speeds can cause system problems.

Another new type of RAM is called SDRAM. Like EDO, this is a faster kind of RAM. Unlike EDO, SDRAM is currently much more expensive than standard RAM; unless you are a hard-core computer speed addict, it isn't worth the extra money.


ISA, PCI, and Other Expansion Slots

If you are going to install a new card into your PC, you need to know what kind of slot it will go in.

There are two slots that you will find in most current PCs. The first is an ISA slot. This is an older standard and is slower than the other type. But, for many uses, it is still more than fast enough. Cards that you'll probably want to buy ISA versions of include:

Internal modems

Sound cards

NOTE: If you have an older PC, you may find that you have two different types of ISA slots. One is a short 16-bit slot and the other is a longer 16-bit slot. If you have a system that has 8-bit slots, you can only use 8-bit cards in these. Eight-bit cards will work in either 8- or 16-bit slots, but you'll want to save your 16-bit slots for 16-bit cards.

The other kind of slot is a PCI slot. Most PCs now have three of these. These slots are much faster at transferring information from the card to the processor than ISA. They also have the advantage of working better with Plug and Play. Cards that can take advantage of PCI slots include:

Video cards

Hard drive interfaces (SCSI or IDE), although most motherboards have IDE built in

Network adapters

Before buying any card, be sure to check the PC to see that there is a free slot of the right type. If the card is a replacement, remember that you will be able to use the slot currently filled by the old card.

NOTE: Before there was PCI, there were two other types of fast slots. One was MCA and the other was Vesa Local Bus (VLB). You won't find these on any new PCs, and if you need to upgrade a card in one of these, you may have trouble finding them. If you are considering upgrading a machine with either of these, replacement is probably a better option.


Understanding Plug and Play Technology

Adding and replacing expansion cards and peripherals in your PC is not easy. Most cards have small connectors called jumpers that determine what system resources the card will use to communicate with the PC. But no card can use all system resources. These resources are limited, and configuring more than two cards to work together can drive even experienced PC upgraders crazy.

So, Microsoft and several hardware vendors established a new system called Plug and Play (available with the release of Windows 95). The theory is that you plug the new card into a slot or plug in the new peripheral, and when you restart the computer, Windows and the motherboard BIOS find the new card and configures it for you.

In order for this to work, your PC has to support Plug and Play and you have to buy hardware add-ons that are labeled as Plug and Play (PnP) compatible. The bad news is that if your system is more than a couple of years old, it definitely won't support this. And while there are a lot of PnP devices available, there are also a lot of devices that aren't PnP. If you have several older non-PnP cards in your PC, these may cause Windows trouble when trying to configure PnP devices.

If you are shopping for new cards, there are a couple of things you'll want to be sure to look for PnP varieties of. First is sound cards. Sound cards can be the most difficult addition to a PC, and Plug and Play can be a huge help with them.

You should also look for PnP varieties of internal modems. If your PC has built-in serial ports and supports PnP, a PnP modem is much easier to install. There are also so many modem varieties that it can be hard to find the exact correct model in the Windows modem setup if you don't have a PnP modem that Windows can identify for you.

Some devices such as hard drives, keyboards, and mice don't need to be PnP. Printers, monitors, video cards, hard drive interface cards, CD-ROM drives, network cards, and scanners all come in PnP varieties.


What to Look for in a New PC

Unless you enjoy the work of upgrading your PC and adding on to it, be sure you get everything that you want in your new PC when you buy it. Here are some guidelines for what to look for.

All of the items in this first list are essential must-have items for your new PC:

Processor. Get the fastest processor you can afford. Although Intel makes the processors sold in the majority of PCs, don't shy away from PCs with AMD or Cyrix processors. I'm writing this on a PC with a nice, new AMD processor, and it's every bit as good as PCs I've had with Intel brains.

Memory. Consider 16M to be the minimum for a new machine. If you can afford the upgrade to 32M, get it now. If not, you'll probably end up buying more later anyway.

Hard drive. You won't find many new PCs with drives smaller than 1G. It is common now to have 2-4G drives. Although it may seem that you would never use all of this space, it will fill up fast, especially if you plan to load a lot of software, games, or files from the Internet.

Most machines will come with IDE drives. Unless you plan to use the machine for copying or mastering CD-ROMs (with a CD-ROM recorder), an IDE drive will suit you fine. If you do plan to make your own CDs, go ahead and upgrade to a SCSI hard drive now.

Monitor. Don't buy anything less than a 15-inch monitor unless you can't afford it. In fact, you're better off skimping elsewhere to be able to afford a better monitor. For example, the cost difference between a 14-inch and 15-inch monitor is probably about $75-100. That's usually the same difference between 16M of RAM and 32M. If that difference is what is breaking your budget, get the better monitor. You can always upgrade the RAM later if you have more money and that will still only cost you around $75-100. But to upgrade the monitor, you'll have to replace it, which will cost around $300. Your eyes will thank you.
CD-ROM drive. Every new system should come with a CD-ROM drive. Almost all new software that you want to install will come on CDs. And any multimedia game or educational software will require a CD. If you want to make your own CDs, see if you can find a PC that comes with a CD recorder.

Keyboard. If you will be using your PC a lot, invest in a good ergonomic keyboard and avoid any chance that you will develop a medical problem like carpal tunnel syndrome.
Mouse. The new Microsoft IntelliMouse with the roller for scrolling Web pages is a nice addition, but I wouldn't pay extra for it. Look for a mouse that fits your hand comfortably.
Floppy drive. You still need one of these. It should be a 3 1/2-inch model.

Case. Your computer needs a case. Most makers make systems with desktop (flat) and tower (upright) cases. The choice is really a matter of personal preference and the layout of the space where you use the PC.

Windows 95. Your new system should come with Windows 95 preinstalled and ready to run. It should also include the installation CD and documentation. Some vendors save a few dollars by not including a printed manual.

In addition, here's what to look for in other optional equipment:

Tape drive or other removable drive. You probably won't buy a tape drive until after the first time you have a bad system crash and lose data, but you should. Many new systems include these. The Zip and Jaz drives are also good alternatives for backing up data or moving large files. Zip drives cost about $200, but I've seen new PCs with these as an option for about $100. You'll get similar savings by buying the PC with a tape drive instead of adding one later.
Sound card and speakers. Although not essential for your PC to operate, almost every new PC comes with a sound card. Be sure it is Sound Blaster-compatible. If you want booming bass, upgrade to speakers with a subwoofer.
Modem. Don't buy anything less than a 33.6K modem. If you want to use the Internet a lot, consider an upgrade to a 56K modem. If buying a 56K modem, be sure that you can get 56K service and that your brand modem will work with the provider.
Printer. These are easy enough to add on your own, but you can usually get a good deal on one if you buy it with the PC. If you just need to print black and white business documents, an inexpensive laser printer is your best bet. For color printing, ink jets and bubble jet color printers have great output quality and low prices. But be prepared to spend money on refills for the ink.

Joysticks, steering wheels, and other game input hardware. Buying these amounts to matters of personal taste and what games you like to play. If you want to be a master of Quake or Duke Nukem, don't expect to do it with a bargain-basement $10 joystick. Likewise, there's a reason real racecars have steering wheels and gas pedals. If you live to play Indy Car Racing or Sega Rally Championship on your PC, buy a PC steering wheel with pedals if your games support it.

Optional software. If you use Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access) at work, look for a PC that has these preinstalled if you want to use your PC to work on these types of files. Many vendors offer lots of preinstalled software on PCs. If the software is something you'll use, it's a great deal. If not, you'll just end up uninstalling it at some later date.


Where to Buy New PCs and Upgrades

There are two main options to look at when buying PCs or parts. You can buy them from any local store that sells them, or you can buy them from a mail-order (direct) outlet.

The advantages of buying from a local store usually involve convenience. If you want the security of seeing the PC or part before you buy it, or knowing that you can return it or have it serviced by simply driving to the local store at the mall, buying locally is for you.

TIP: When shopping for a new monitor, I almost always recommend buying it locally rather than mail-order. You'll want to see what the picture looks like on-screen as monitors with all of the same technical specifications can have dramatically different picture quality. You can't see that in a magazine ad or over the phone.

Buying locally usually gives you a chance to test-drive the system in the store and ask a helpful sales representative questions about the hardware. A little common sense goes a long way here. A lot of stores sell PCs now. Chances are the salesperson at the local PC store will be able to answer more of your PC questions than the salesperson at an electronics store who also sells refrigerators and TVs, or the salesperson at a department store selling everything from underwear to computers. The bottom line is, shop where you feel most comfortable.

The big advantage of buying from a mail-order or direct outlet is usually price. You will be hard pressed to find a local retail store that can sell you a new system with all of the same features as a mail-order outlet for the same price.

Buying direct also has the advantage of having a much larger selection. If you like to have a lot of choices, call several mail-order outlets and compare their offerings. You'll always find a better selection than at the local stores.

A final advantage that most major mail-order retailers have is a better trained sales staff. For example, when you call Gateway or Dell's order lines, the person that answers the phone does nothing but sell computers. Before they ask you technical questions about what type of processor you need or how much RAM you want, they do a good job of finding out how you plan to use the system so that they understand your needs. Gateway and Dell aren't the only ones; any of the major PC vendors who sell direct can help you a lot when buying a new system.

When buying parts through a direct channel, I recommend picking up a copy of Computer Shopper magazine before buying. Any computer store carries this massive magazine, and you can find dozens of reputable dealers listed there. For about $5, this is a great investment in the most up-to-date information about who's selling what for how much.


Special Tips for Buying a Notebook Computer

There are several things about buying a new notebook that are different than buying a PC. Here's a quick list of additional or different features you'll want to look at in a notebook.

Processor. The processor should be a special mobile processor. These are made to run cooler and use less power so your battery will last longer. Some notebook makers put desktop processors in their notebook to save money. I recommend avoiding notebooks that use desktop processors.

When buying a notebook, buy one with the processor you intend to use for the life of the notebook. You'll never upgrade the processor.

Video card and display. These are built into the system in the notebook and can't be upgraded. Be sure to get ones you'll be happy with as long as you own the notebook.
PC Card slots. This is a different type of expansion slot for notebooks. Be sure to get one with two PC Card slots. The newest technology for these is Cardbus and Zoomed Video. Get one that supports these standards if you can.

Battery. Battery life is critical if you travel with your notebook. Lithium Ion (LiO) batteries are the best for life. Nickel-Metal Hydride (NmH) are also good. Nickel-Cadmium is an old battery type that you should avoid. Look for a notebook that uses standard battery types so replacements will be inexpensive and easy to find. If possible, get one with hot swappable batteries so you can buy a second battery and switch without rebooting.

Power management. Only buy a notebook that supports power management to save battery life.

CD-ROM drive. Most notebooks now have internal CD-ROM drives standard or at least as an option. Many times, these are removable and can be swapped with the floppy drive and second battery. You won't be able to install new CD-based software without a CD-ROM drive, so your notebook really should have one.

RAM. Expect to pay a little more for RAM in a notebook than in a desktop system. Most notebooks use proprietary RAM modules, but a few use standard desktop SIMMs. In some notebooks, upgrading RAM will be more difficult than in a desktop system, so you may want to buy it with all the RAM you think you'll ever need.

Keyboard. The closer to full size and regular key spacing, the easier it will be to use.

Pointing device. Most of the time, you won't use a mouse with the notebook. Most notebooks now come with a small, built-in track pad that you drag your finger across for mouse options. I prefer the pointing stick that you find on IBM ThinkPads and a few off-brands, but these are hard to find outside of IBM. Trackballs are very rare now.

Hard drives. Expect to pay a little more for your notebook hard drive, too. Capacities are a little smaller than desktop drives and they can be harder to replace. Most notebooks can't take a second drive.

Sound card and speakers. Most notebooks include a basic Sound Blaster-compatible card and speakers as a standard feature.

Weight. If you travel with a notebook, buy the lightest-weight model you can with all of the features you need. Consider the weight of a carry case, extra battery, charger, and anything else you plan to carry.

External ports. There should be ports for connecting a mouse, keyboard, printer, and external monitor. Optional ports may include speakers and serial plugs (for an external modem).

Port replicator. If you plan to use the notebook as a replacement for a desktop system, you'll want to see if a port replicator is available. The port replicator has all of the same external ports as the notebook. You plug the monitor, keyboard, and mouse into the replicator and the notebook snaps into the replicator. Leave the external devices plugged in to the replicator, and you can plug and unplug the notebook without having to attach the monitor, keyboard, and mouse individually.

Docking station. This is the big brother to the port replicator. A docking station has all of the same features as the replicator with additional features such as bays for added drives and slots for expansion cards.