Chapter 27 - Upgrading

Today you might have the newest and fastest PC on the market. A year or two down the line, you might find yourself wishing you had more.

The good news is you don't always have to throw out the old to buy the new.

This chapter will explain how various upgrades can enhance your existing system and make your investment pay off a little longer.

Be the imitator, not the originator

Buying the latest technology the moment it's released might win you bragging rights, but you're likely paying too much and investing in something that might not become standard.

A cautious approach will work much better here. A little time - maybe just a few months - will let prices drop down to more reasonable levels while the early adapters work out the inevitable bugs.

Let's take a look at some of the ways we can jazz up our computers.

Adding more RAM

This is an easy, inexpensive way to improve the overall speed of your computer. It does require opening up the console, but it's a relatively quick "plug and play" job for you, a friend or a local computer tech.

To see if a memory upgrade will help you, first check to see how much RAM you currently have. In Windows, right click on My Computer and click on Properties. On a Mac, click on the Apple and choose "About this Computer."

If you have 128 MB RAM and aren't using many high-powered programs, adding another 128 is unlikely to help much. But, if you have 64, 32 or less - and you're running programs simultaneously or using heavy-duty graphics or game software - you might see a dramatic improvement.

There are several different types of RAM chips, so check your manual to make sure the ones you buy are compatible with your system.

Adding or replacing your hard drive

You might want to consider adding a second hard drive or replacing your original one if you're running out of storage space and can't install any new programs. Although most programs are released on CD-ROM, the software still needs to install files on your computer's hard drive. Many of these installations can eat up a lot of space.

Replacing or adding a new hard drive can give you some more room. It won't, however, do much to help the overall speed of your computer. Remember that the hard drive is like a file cabinet, so we're essentially just adding some new file drawers to store stuff.

Those with newer Macs can easily add an external hard drive using the super fast FireWire ports on the back. Installing an internal hard drive on a PC requires opening up the box, screwing it into the housing and connecting cables. Check with your local computer store about installation. Many stores will put it in and move your files for about $50.

If your hard drive is filling up mostly because you've been loading it up with a lot of data (pictures, MP3s, video files, etc.), you could use a CD recorder or ZIP drive to move some of those files off of your hard drive. That could help clear space for installing new programs.

Adding a CD- or DVD-recorder drive

Replacing your CD-ROM drive with a CD or DVD recording device is a great investment, mostly because of its versatility. Not only can you use it to copy audio and data discs and create your own music mixes, but you can also use it as your main backup device.

Most of the ones you'll now find in stores are multifunctional. CD-R (recordable) drives allow you to copy CDs and burn your own, but the blanks can only be used once. CD-RW (rewritable) drives perform the same tasks, but also let you write to special rewritable disks, which can be used over and over.

DVD-R drives allow you do all the things CD recording devices do, as well as watch and record DVD movies.

Replacing your CD drive requires opening the box, but it's not as complex as installing a hard drive because you don't have to worry about moving files. It's often as simple as removing the cables and plugging them into the new drive. You then run the setup programs that came with the drive.

Adding a Zip drive

If you're working with large data files and don't want them clogging up your hard drive, you might want to consider adding a ZIP drive.

Zip disks look like oversized floppy disks and hold 100 or 250 MB. Although you can add these devices internally, it's easiest to connect an external Zip drive to computer using a free USB or FireWire port.

Adding a scanner

Flatbed scanners, which generally range in price from $75 to $200, are a great addition to your system. They allow you to turn printed pages or photographs into computer files.

Most scanners in stores today connect to your USB port, making it quite simple to install. Some older Mac scanners might connect to your SCSI port, while many older PC models will connect to your printer port.

If you're looking to buy a new one, you'll be getting a USB scanner.

Adding a digital camera

If you dabble in photography, you might want to try your hand at digital imaging. Digital cameras for the home market range in price from $50 to $1,000, depending on the features and resolution capabilities.

Taking pictures is as easy as with a regular camera - just point and shoot.

To get the images from your camera to your computer, you'll need to link the two. Cameras often ship with either a USB or serial cable for this purpose. You can also purchase a USB card reader, which grabs the data from the camera's memory card for faster transfers.

Digital cameras are discussed in greater detail in "Chapter 14: Picture perfect."

Adding a new printer

If you're outputting a large number of black-and-white documents, you might want to consider purchasing a laser printer. If you're printing your own digital photos but are unhappy with the quality, you might want to replace your older ink-jet printer with one of higher resolution.

Getting a new printer printing involves first making the physical connection, then running the setup software.

If you're buying new and have USB capabilities, it's the best way to avoid conflicts. If you're installing a second parallel printer on a PC, you might have to buy an A-B switch to change between the two.

Printers are discussed in greater detail in "Chapter 9: Printing."

Adding a joystick

If you play a lot of games - especially action games - you might want to consider adding a joystick. It's a better alternative to blowing away aliens by repeatedly pounding your return key.

There are practically as many types of joysticks as there are game genres. They range from standard arcade joysticks and handheld gamepads to specialized flight sticks for simulators and steering wheels for racing games. They range in cost from ten to hundreds of dollars. Your investment depends on how much you're into gaming.

Setup is simple. Just plug into a free USB port and run the provided installation software.

Replacing your monitor

Remember when a 19" TV was considered gigantic? Now it's hard to find one smaller.

Computer monitors have also grown in size over the years. Most systems now ship with 17" monitors, but if you're using an older system, you might be looking at a 14" or 15" screen.

Replacing a monitor is one of the easiest upgrade tasks, and with prices always dropping, a 17", 19" or even 21" monitor is well within the reach of the many home users.

When shopping for a monitor, you should look at its size, brand and another stat called dot pitch. A monitor creates a picture with numerous red, green and blue dots, and the dot pitch is the diagonal distance between ones of the same color. The lower the number, the sharper the picture. A .28 dot pitch is a good. One rated at .26 is even better.

Replacing your video card

If you plan to play the latest games, you might want to consider replacing your current video card with a newer 3-D card. These specialized components have extensive memory dedicated to processing three-dimensional shapes and animation to make your games run faster and more reliably.

If you want to watch TV on your PC, you could also buy a video card with an integrated TV tuner.

Upgrading your processor

This was once an option that many considered, but the constant and drastic changes in computer technology have made this less of a regular occurrence. Unless you're upgrading your processor within the same generation, you're likely to incur some extra costs.

Suppose you're running a Pentium III and you decide, "I want to buy a Pentium Core2 Duo processor." That purchase is not going to be that simple. Since you're moving from a Pentium III to a Pentium Core2 Duo, you'll also need a motherboard and most likely new RAM chips. Suddenly, a new computer system from the local electronics store sounds like a better option.