Thinking of upgrading? Study the $1,800 barrier


January 30, 1995|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

Judging by the calls I've been getting, a lot of people driving computers they bought three or four years ago are discovering the limitations of their hardware.

The 80- and 120-megabyte hard drives that seemed so copious at the time are now overflowing. With games eating up hard disk space at 10 to 20 megabytes a clip, installing a new piece of software often means deleting something else -- if you can get the new programs to run at all in the two or four megabytes of memory that came with the computer.

The Intel 80386 microprocessors that turned WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS into a speed demon a few years ago suddenly choke on WordPerfect 6.0. Sound cards and CD-ROM drives -- once bleeding-edge toys for techies -- are now requirements for most entertainment software. Even educational programs, once designed to run on low-end computers, now beg for state-of-the-art hardware to teach 3-year-olds how to count.

As a result, hardly a day goes by without someone asking, "Can I upgrade my computer, or do I have to buy a new one?"

The answer depends on how you use your computer, your particular hardware configuration and the $1,800 barrier. The $1,800 figure is important because it's the going price (give or take $100) for a decent multimedia computer with an 80486DX2/66 processor, eight megabytes of memory, a 420-megabyte hard drive, a 14,400-baud modem and a ton of bundled software.

If you have to spend anything within hailing distance of that amount to upgrade your computer, you're better off buying something new.

To understand the cost and benefits of upgrading, think of your computer as a set of components. It's a lot like a stereo system, with an amplifier, a tuner, a tape deck, speakers and CD player. You an easily add a new component or replace an existing component without replacing the others.

Most of your computer's components are inside the box, but the same principle applies. The most critical is the motherboard -- the main circuit board with the microprocessor that determines the limits of the machine's performance.

Other components plug into slots in the motherboard. They include circuit boards that control your disk drives, video and communications with external devices such as printers and modems. A sound board is a component, as are hard drives, floppy disk drives and CD-ROMs.

While it's not hard to replace any of these, upgrading one without upgrading the others won't necessarily produce magic. To use the stereo analogy, buying a great amplifier or receiver won't do you much good if you hang onto those cheap, 20-year-old speakers.

First things first. If you have an old computer with an Intel 80286 or 8088 processor (they were known as AT's and XT's), forget about any upgrade more expensive than a larger hard drive. To get anything approaching the performance required by today's software, you'll virtually have to rebuild the computer from scratch.

For owners of 80386 and low-end 80486 computers, some upgrades are cheap and easy. If you're satisfied with your performance but your disk drive is full, buy a new drive or add a second unit if there's room inside your machine. Good 540-megabyte hard drives sell for less than $300. You can install a new drive yourself, but it's a pain in the neck. Most shops charge $50 to $60 -- a bargain.

Likewise, a memory upgrade can work wonders. Many older machines have four megabytes of memory or less. Upgrading to eight megabytes can double the speed of programs operating under Microsoft Windows. Memory sells for about $50 per megabyte, and many dealers will install four-megabyte upgrades at no cost.

If you want to join the multimedia world, kits that include a 16-bit sound card, double-speed CD-ROM drive and a fistful of CD titles are available for $250 to $350. Installing one of these yourself is not much fun. Dealers generally charge $50. Take my advice and pay the man.

Even a multimedia kit won't do much good if your computer doesn't have enough basic horsepower to run multimedia software.

Several companies sell adapter kits that will turn an old 386 computer into an 486 machine of sorts for $200 to $400. You'll get a performance boost, but nothing close to the speed of a new 486 computer. You'll still have a motherboard designed for a 386 and the same disk controller and video board that came with your machines. New components are much faster.

For a real increase in performance, your best bet is replacing the motherboard. A motherboard with a 486DX2/66 processor costs $400 to $600 installed. Essentially, this turns your old computer into a new one, and it's a good choice -- with a caveat.

Since a computer's performance depends as much on hard disk and video speed as on raw microprocessing horsepower, putting an older video board and disk controller in a new motherboard is akin to buying a Ferrari and installing a governor.

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