You can never be too rich or too thin, or have too much memory in your computer. Last year a 40-megabyte hard drive and two megabytes on the motherboard may have been plenty, but, as with money, it now seems paltry. How do you get more?
You can take the computer back to the store, but computers are heavy and fragile and besides, computer shops will charge $50 or more for the job. At the going mail-order price, that could buy you 10 more megabytes of disk space.
With chips for the motherboard, the proportion of the cost represented by labor can be even larger.
And for many people, sending the computer back to meet its maker is not an option, because the machine came from a mail order house.
Face it: by the time your machine is ready for smarter hardware, you may be ready to play brain surgeon.
"The genius of what IBM did, whether they meant to or not, was to make computers modular," said Ephraim Schwartz, editor of a supplement to the magazine Computer Buyer's Guide called PC Upgrade. Modularity means it is easy to add or swap parts without a thorough understanding of how they work, he said.
If you own a computer long enough, you are likely to need a bigger hard disk or an additional hard disk. That may push you into replacing the power supply; so will adding a fax-modem board or a sound board.
Or the power supply may simply wear out. Another frequent target for replacement is the video card, because a computer monitor is also among the first parts to wear out, and when it goes, the owner will generally buy a new monitor and a new card, to take advantage of new technology. Be careful opening up a monitor or touching the power supply; both store a lot of electricity.
Hardware installation is a "wetware" job. (Wetware is neither hardware nor software; it is the part between the ears.)
The tool list is short: manufacturers say you will need screwdrivers, both flat-bladed and Philips-head, documentation on the equipment already installed in the PC and a well-lighted work space.
They don't tell you, but you will also need tweezers, for retrieving dropped screws, but no magnetic screwdrivers, please; cotton swabs, for cleaning the dust out of areas you may not see again for years, and a flashlight. You also need patience. It may take a day or two to make it work.
Here is what you will not need, and should quit if you find yourself using: an electronics manual, a soldering iron, or a hammer.
Installing a modem or graphics board is not much harder than changing a light bulb. Memory chips are simple, but can be ruined if installed upside down or with the pins bent. Hard drives are tougher.
Unless you are an advanced hacker, make sure the new drive is compatible with your existing hard drive controller. A computer shop or mail order house can tell you before you buy.
New and bigger drives tend to be smaller in size, so you may need a kit designed to make them fit into the computer's frame.
The drive takes a line from the power supply. Don't worry; the plug is polarized so it cannot be installed backward. If you don't have a plug available, computer stores sell a Y connector that will split the output of a plug that is already in use.
The drive connects to the drive controller and other hard drives, if any, through a flat gray ribbon cable. It is not polarized, and the system will not work if you connect it backward, but you probably will not do any harm, either.
Hard drives have "jumpers," tiny connectors that link electrical contacts and tell the drive whether it is the master or the slave. If you add a second hard drive, you may need a jumper for the first. This 2-cent piece of hardware may set you back a day.
At PC Connection, a mail-order concern in Marlow, N.H., Peter Haas, the director of customer affairs, says he tells customers that "if they can tie their shoes, they can do the installation of a hard drive or a board."
But the company offers more help than you get with shoes: a how-to videocasette and help over the phone. If someone runs into trouble, he said, "usually we've seen what can go wrong and we can talk people down."
Can every computer user install a hard drive? Peter Aurelio, a field engineer for Entre Computer Center of Stamford, Conn., a concern that specializes in networks, said that the spectrum of users varies from electrical engineers to people who, when instructed to press any key, look for a key labeled "any." But most can, he said.
Aurelio and others, however, advise staying away from the laptops. "Some are very small, and all the equipment is sitting on top of itself," he said. "You have to take the unit apart, remove all the cables, and you'll have 20 screws lying around on the table. You really have to remember where it all goes."