Step By Step 12 - Smart Upgrading

Originally published in Australian Personal Computer magazine, October 1998
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


The average PC user's in a more or less constant upgrade cycle, replacing components or whole computers regularly. But what should you change to get the best bang for your buck?

Let's assume you're starting out with a machine that was pretty speedy a couple or three years ago - a Pentium 200 with 32Mb of RAM, a 1.6Gb hard drive and a generic 2Mb video card. Second hand machines of this spec level are available all over the place. What do you have to do to this computer to get it up with the front runners for different tasks?

CPU power

For plain old business computing, a 166MHz or 200MHz Pentium (plain or MMX version) is plenty fast enough. MMX processors are 10 to 20 per cent faster in ordinary use than equivalently clocked non-MMX Pentiums. This small difference does not justify the upgrade.

A Pentium II processor will run business apps faster. But unless you're doing some pretty darn gigantic spreadsheet and database work, you won't see much difference, and certainly won't get value for money.

If you're into graphics, CPU power is much more important. 2D paint and manipulation programs like Photoshop and 3D renderers like 3D Studio can use all the power you can give them. For 2D you can make do with a slow Pentium, since the real number crunching only happens when you're applying effects and most operations are much less demanding. For 3D, though, you need processor power in direct proportion to the complexity of your jobs divided by your patience. For both final and preview rendering, no processor is too fast.

The other big application for huge grunty CPUs is games.

Computer games can be broadly divided into 3D - things like Quake and flight simulators - and 2D. 2D games generally don't put great demands on modern hardware, and the abovementioned modest machine should be quite adequate. For 3D, though, it is again impossible to have too much processor power. The fastest P-III or Athlon you can find is not excessive.

The cheap CPU of choice in the 3D gaming world for some time now has been the Celeron, Intel's cut-price Pentium II processor. All Celerons after the original 266 and 300MHz models have been as fast for all practical intents and purposes as an equivalently clocked P-II, and with models available up to 500MHz now, you can get a lot of performance from the base level processor. Motherboards that let you goose the CPU's clock speed up above its listed value ("overclock") by increasing the Front Side Bus speed let you run cheaper Celerons, like the 333 and 366MHz models, at 500MHz or maybe even more with little fuss.


You'll probably need a new motherboard if you decide to go for a CPU upgrade. In the last few years, both Socket 7 (Pentium, K6 and other low cost processors) and Slot 1 (Pentium II and older Celeron, or newer Celerons with cheap adaptors like this one) motherboards have sprouted support for SDRAM, reliable operation at 100MHz CPU bus speed, UDMA EIDE hard disk controllers for the current generation of superfast cheap drives, Advanced Graphics Port slots for cheap 3D video cards, and other mod cons like Universal Serial Bus and infrared data transfer support. Socket 370 motherboards, as used with newer Celerons, also have all of these twiddly bits, as do the special boards used by AMD's Athlon processors.

For everyday computing, none of this matters. If your current board supports a CPU fast enough for your needs, changing it for the sexiest motherboard on the shelf today will give you a speed boost of only a few per cent overall. You need only buy a new motherboard if some other upgrade requires it.


Again, if you're interested in running plain old office applications, any current video card will do. If you want to use a big monitor then investing in a card that can do high resolutions (1024x768 and higher) at a refresh rate of 72Hz or better is a good idea, but it's hard to find a video card that won't, these days. Grabbing one or more extra video cards and monitors to take advantage of Windows 98's multiple monitor support is another productivity booster. But none of this makes the computer any faster.

If you're into 3D graphics - rendering or games - you've got good reason to upgrade your video hardware. There are a plethora of choices, many very inexpensive; TNT2 Model 64 cards, for example, or full TNT2s, or various other boards (see here, here and here...).


The big upgrade item for Windows boxes was, and is, memory. At the time of putting this article on the Web site, RAM prices have spiked and are only just coming back down, but it's still pretty darn cheap per megabyte, and will on average get cheaper by the week.

If you want a faster Windows computer, adding RAM is a decent idea pretty much regardless of your current configuration. The more RAM you add, though, the less extra benefit you'll see; a 128Mb Windows machine will perform better than a 96Mb one, but not nearly as much better as a 64Mb machine compared with a 32Mb one.

Upgrading plain old SIMM RAM to SDRAM, if you've got a motherboard that supports both or change motherboards, is a poor choice - you'll get about a 5 to 10% overall speed increase. You have no option but SDRAM for all current motherboards, but there's no reason to change if you don't have to.

Hard disk

In normal operation, the speed of your hard drive has little effect on the speed of your computer. If you make your hard drive twice as fast, you can expect about a 10% overall speed boost. Adding lots and lots of RAM, allowing a really big disk cache, will do more for the performance of most disk-flogging tasks than upgrading the drive.

There are exceptions, though. Network servers that have to deliver tons of data to multiple clients all the time will perform better with faster storage. And so will video editing machines - though current consumer hard drives are now more than fast enough for semi-professional video editing.

When you need monstrous speed, you need a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) storage system. RAIDs are built on special controllers - traditionally SCSI, but a couple of EIDE RAID controllers are now available - which allow data to be shared among different drives in a variety of ways. So, for example, four identical drives can have data "striped" across them to increase performance, or data duplicated between them for greater reliability.

For most applications, though, RAID is monstrous overkill. If your hard disk storage is sufficient for your needs, don't worry about it. Upgrade if you need more space, but leave the drives alone if you're looking for more speed.


For Australians, if your Web browsing isn't fast enough, your best bet is to move to the USA. Australian Internet access, by and large, is slow. The numerous bottlenecks between an Australian Web surfer and most destination sites limit the number of bits available to you per second, no matter how fast your connection is.

Fortunately, emigration is not your ONLY option. If you've got a modem slower than 28,800 bits per second (the V.34 standard), upgrading is a good idea. 33.6 kilobit per second (V.34bis) modems connect a little faster, on average, than plain V.34, provided your Internet Service Provider (ISP) supports them. But it's not worth upgrading if you've already got V.34.

56000 bit per second modems (which commonly connect slower depending on line quality) also need to be specifically supported by your ISP. There are three kinds of 56k modem, and your ISP must use the same kind of 56k as you. The official standard is called V.90, and is now widely supported. Rockwell's earlier "K56flex" and U.S. Robotics' "X2" modems are mutually incompatible, and are incompatible with V.90, although many current 56k modems are software-upgradable from one of the earlier standards to V.90. If your ISP doesn't support V.90, they probably support K56flex.

56k modems also only offer their higher-than-33,600 speeds in one direction - from the ISP to you. The ISP has to use special modems at their end to do this. Two ordinary 56K modem users can only connect to each other at V.34bis speed.

If you're a bit better heeled, try a "cable modem" - an adaptor box that allows data to be sent down cable TV wires. At the moment, Telstra's Big Pond Internet via Foxtel cable is the only Australian option in this department; Optus promises their own version some time in 2000. Cable gives you the thick end of a megabyte per second of download bandwidth and most of that the other way. You'll need an Ethernet network card and a few hundred bucks for the cable modem, and Telstra is still charging for every megabyte of data transfer over their monthly 100Mb limit for the base level access, but most users should still get away for well under $100 a month on top of their regular cable fees.

Reported bandwidth between two cable modem equipped subscribers is about 60 kilobytes per second, versus 3.5k/S with a following wind for a V.34bis modem connection. This makes a cable connection a very attractive prospect compared with an Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) link, which will in Australia still cost you several times the price of a cable modem connection, depending on transfer volume.

What about sound?

Changing your sound card actually can make your computer faster, now that games routinely support fancy 3D positional audio. Positional audio and other high-powered effects are supported in hardware by newer cards, but otherwise have to be software emulated. Most sound upgrades have to do with quality more than speed, though, and I'll deal with them in next month's column. See you then!

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(and no-one gets hurt)