Upgrading your system is fairly cheap and easy


January 03, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

My friend Ben decided to take the Great Leap Forward into modern software not long ago and got a nasty surprise.

His 386 PC, which ran WordPerfect 5.1 under DOS at the speed of light, suddenly turned into a lumbering dump truck when he turned on Microsoft Windows and tried to load the latest version of the world's most popular word processor.

Managing the long documents he once zipped through with ease suddenly became a chore. Even simple cutting and pasting took intolerably long, accompanied by an endless thrashing sound from his hard disk. Disgusted, he chucked Windows and returned to the DOS version.

Ben had run into a couple of nasty facts of life. Graphical operating environments such as Microsoft Windows literally devour microprocessors. And software publishers, which once took pains to make sure that new releases would run on older machines, are writing programs that require the computing equivalent of a 300-horsepower, turbocharged V-8 engine.

The problem is particularly painful for those who bought low-end even midrange 80386 computers a couple of years ago.

When Intel, under competitive pressure from 386-chip cloners, dropped the price of its more powerful 80486 microprocessors, it virtually wiped out the market for 386 desktop machines.

While today's latest Windows software will run on 386 computers, many of those machines are overwhelmed by the processing demands that new programs make.

Luckily, owners of many older machines have options that are far less expensive than buying a new computer. Upgrading a computer can be relatively cheap and easy.

The least-expensive upgrade is additional Random Access Memory, or RAM.

To keep prices low, many 386 machines were sold with as little as 2 megabytes of RAM, although 4 megabytes is more common. Windows theoretically can run in 2 megabytes of RAM by using something called virtual memory: When it runs out of real memory, Windows will use space on your your hard disk as a substitute. The problem is that accessing a hard disk is orders of magnitude slower than accessing internal memory.

Many programs find even 4 megabytes of RAM too confining, and running more than one program at a time can slow older machines to a crawl.

A while back, I bought a 80386DX/40 computer -- the top of the 386 line -- with 4 megabytes of memory. My kids use it now. Its Windows performance was always marginal by my standards, but the boys weren't fussy.

Then my older son needed a spreadsheet for a science project, (( and I installed Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows. It turned out to be a memory hog of the first order and ran so slowly that it was virtually unusable.

Adding memory

I mentioned the problem to a technician at work, and he suggested adding memory. I added 4 megabytes, and the results were astounding. Not only did Lotus run acceptably, but other Windows programs ran faster, too. It was almost like getting a new machine.

Although memory prices have had their ups and downs, you can buy RAM chips in most computer outlets for $40 to $50 a megabyte.

Bear in mind that many computer designs require you to add memory in powers of 2. If you have 2 megabytes, you have to upgrade to 4 or 8 megabytes -- nothing in between. Experts say you won't gain much in performance by installing more than 8 megabytes, unless you have a specific application, such as color photo retouching, that takes advantage of the extra memory.

Installing memory can be a do-it-yourself project if you're comfortable tinkering inside your computer. My upgrade took about three minutes. If you're not adventurous, the service departments at most retailers will do the job for $50 or less.

Either way, it's a cheap option that will wring extra performance out of an aging machine.

For those who want the benefits of a new computer without breaking the bank, a motherboard upgrade is the next option.

The motherboard is your computer's main circuit board. It contains the microprocessor, memory and support chips, as well as expansion slots for the circuit boards that control your disk drives, video display, printer and communication ports, and other devices. The motherboard determines how fast and powerful your computer can be.

If your manufacturer adhered to IBM's original practice of modular design, it's possible, within certain limits, to swap out any component in your system for a newer one -- including the motherboard.

If your current memory chips are fast enough (with a 80386

computer, they should be), you can pull them out of your old

motherboard and use them in a new one.

Many 80386 computers that were sold over the last few years have perfectly adequate disk drives, monitors and controller cards. In fact, manufacturers often used the same drives, cases and power supplies in low-end and high-end machines.

What made one computer faster than another was the motherboard. Replace it with a better one and you have a better computer.

Unfortunately, not all machines qualify for a motherboard

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