This old PC

Upgrade: Relatively inexpensive and easy-to-install hardware might make your old PC worth saving.

February 14, 2002|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Sooner or later, everyone who has an old but comfortable car has to make a decision: do you put some money into fixing it up, or send it to the scrap heap and buy a new one?

It's the same with computers. Eventually, you'll have to decide whether it's time to throw out or give away a PC that was once the hottest thing in town. Although it may be slow and underpowered today, you hate to see it go, because it can be a hassle to get a new computer working just the way you want it.

Although it takes a little bit of know-how, you can rescue that old PC from a trip to the digital graveyard and keep all your e-mail, Word documents, favorite software and games right where you know how to find them.

Granted, these are not upgrades for technophobes - people who never want to open that ominous computer case. But they're not strictly for geeks and experts, either. In most cases, all you have to do is follow the directions.

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to upgrade a machine is with a new microprocessor, also known as the CPU. Replacement kits are available from several companies, most notably Evergreen Technologies (www.evertech.com) and Powerleap (www.powerleap.com), who specialize in making old PCs run faster and better.

For $100 to $160 (or less on the eBay auction site if you don't mind electronic bargain hunting), you can buy what's known as a slocket from either company. A slocket is a faster, more powerful processor - usually an Intel Celeron running at 866 to 1 GHz - that has been mounted on a converter that will snap into place on your computer's motherboard. It replaces your old processor, which you'll have to remove before installing the slocket. The process is covered well in the instruction manual.

Installing a slocket is easier than you'd think - it takes less than 15 minutes - and the results are impressive. For instance, I tried Powerleap's PL-iP3/T slocket on an old Sony Vaio computer whose original 233-MHz, Pentium II processor is too slow for a lot of today's programs. When I replaced the old chip with a Powerleap Celeron 800-MHz slocket, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there's no software to install. I just started up the computer, and it recognized the new processor.

The magic is that the slocket works even though the original motherboard was never designed to handle a chip this powerful. A voltage regulator built into the converter board prevents the chip from overheating, enabling you to run a much faster chip without the worry of a meltdown.

Evergreen's Performa 1-GHz slocket was just as easy to install, although I had to change some settings in the computer's BIOS to get the board to power up. These appear in a setup screen displayed when you hold down the proper key combination as the computer starts up.

When I was finished, I noticed quite a difference in the computer's speed and stability. Programs such as Microsoft's PowerPoint XP, Quicken 2002, and even graphics-intensive games like The Sims and Alien vs. Predator 2, usually ran considerably faster faster than they did before.

On the downside, it can be a chore to determine whether your computer is compatible with either company's slocket upgrade. First, you have to identify the type of motherboard in your PC. If you're lucky this will merely involve starting your machine taking note of what the boot-up screen identifies as the main board.

Another, more foolproof option is a nice free utility called Belarc Advisor, which you can downloadat www.belarc.com. It will tell you a lot of things you never knew about your computer's hardware - probably more than you ever wanted to know - including the type of motherboard installed.

Once armed with this information, you can go hunting through the Powerleap and Evergreen Web sites to find out if your motherboard is supported and what type of slocket it takes. Both companies offer utility programs that you can download to check check your PC for you and tell you if your system is compatible or not.

Also, keep in mind that upgrades aren't magic acts: adding a slocket is never going to give you a computer as fast as a bona fide Pentium III or Pentium 4 model. There's no getting around that your old motherboard's "bus speed" - essentially a measure of how fast the board can route and deliver data to the processor - is likely to be slower than the bus speed of a new PC with an advanced motherboard.

Most slockets run on motherboards with bus speeds of 66 or 100 MHz - nowhere near those of Pentium 4 computers with speeds of 266 or 400 MHz.

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