Super Upgrade: The ultimate PC makeover guide

RAM is cheap and easy enough to install that boosting your memory to a comfortable level - 64MB, if you want to run Windows 98 or Office 2000 at a reasonable clip - isn't a major decision. At press time, typical RAM prices ranged between $5 and $8 per megabyte, depending on the memory type, size and vendor. The memory market has recently seen enormous price increases, so it is wise to confirm pricing before purchasing.

Processor upgrades are a trickier matter. If the system you really want costs more than $2000 and that's more than you're willing to spend, a new CPU (supplemented with more RAM, if needed) can be an effective stopgap. The cost? Anywhere from $400 to over $1000. But upgrading the processor makes little fiscal sense if you'd be just as content with a new sub-$2000 PC. And the upgrade won't boost your PC's speed to rival that of systems based on the fastest Pentium III and Athlon processors; for that, you'll have to replace your motherboard.

Thanks for the memory

Upgrading your RAM won't deliver the dramatic performance improvement you can get with a processor upgrade, but you'll notice a difference, especially if you work with more than one application at a time. The upgrade itself - popping one or more memory modules into sockets on your motherboard - is easy; the challenge is making sure you get the right modules for your PC. Consult your system manual or the PC maker's Web site for help, or buy your RAM from a memory vendor whose Web site lets you look up the proper upgrade for a particular system, such as Kingston (www.kingston.com). Bear in mind that you may need to add memory modules in pairs.

We upgraded a Hewlett-Packard PC - a circa-1996 machine powered by a Pentium-166 (non-MMX) CPU - from 16MB of RAM to 64MB. The job cost around $400, took just 10 minutes and boosted the system's PC WorldBench score from 78 to 90 - a 15 per cent increase. Although that's not a huge improvement it's worth the modest cost and hassle - especially if you regularly toggle between applications, wrangle large spreadsheets or graphics files, or do other memory-intensive tasks.

If 64MB of RAM is good, then 128MB is even better, right? Not necessarily. With our HP Vectra system, we actually saw a performance decrease when we upgraded to 128MB - and if you're running a PC with Intel's old 430FX, 430HX, 430VX, or 430TX chip set, so will you. These chip sets have a memory-caching limitation that can degrade performance if memory is increased beyond 64MB. Newer system chip sets and motherboards that use non-Intel chip sets don't have this problem. But even then, the performance gain over 64MB is usually small.

If you're mulling over an upgrade to Windows 2000, though, you might want 128MB of RAM. We haven't done performance testing on the new operating system yet, but its memory management is superior to that of Windows 95 and 98 and may take better advantage of amounts over 64MB (assuming the PC doesn't use one of the chip sets mentioned earlier). However, a RAM upgrade alone is unlikely to bring your old system up to Win 2000 specs - you'll probably want at least a Pentium II-class PC and the older your current system, the greater the chances that its motherboard, video card, or other components won't be fully compatible with the new OS.

The bottom line: if you plan to adopt Windows 2000 in the near future and your computer would need massive upgrading to run it, your smartest move might be to simply buy a new PC with Windows 2000 preinstalled.

A new brain

Processor upgrades are no longer the high-profile items they were back in the days when Intel's OverDrive products made headlines. Still, two vendors - Evergreen Technologies and Kingston Technology - offer CPU upgrades based on a variety of processors. (You can't plug a new Pentium III or even a Pentium II into your current Pentium motherboard - those newer chips are packaged on plug-in cards that are not compatible with the sockets used by older CPUs.)Though more intimidating, most CPU upgrades aren't much trickier than RAM upgrades. They do come with more caveats, however. As a case in point, one size definitely does not fit all. Before buying a CPU upgrade, check the vendor's site to see if it's compatible with your PC, and even if it is be prepared for problems.

For instance, neither Kingston's $340 TurboChip 233 nor its $499 TurboChip 366 upgrade worked with our HP Vectra Pentium-166 test PC. Kingston's Web site listed our system as being incompatible with the TurboChip 366, but the company couldn't explain why the TurboChip 233 didn't work.

If your system won't operate with a particular CPU upgrade, you may be able to make it compatible by changing its BIOS via a flash upgrade (visit your motherboard vendor's Web site for BIOS information). Be aware, though, that in those rare instances when the BIOS flash goes awry - for example, if the power goes out while the flash utility is performing the upgrade - the motherboard will no longer work. Nothing short of replacing the BIOS chips with new ones will bring it back to life and the cost of doing so may not be covered by your computer's warranty.

Product: Kingston Technology TurboChip

Price: $340 - $499

Distributor: Simms International

Phone: 1800 800 703

URL: www.kingston.com

Evergreen's card trick

Evergreen's AcceleraPCI is a new kind of CPU upgrade. Because it's a PCI card, it can use an Intel Celeron chip (Celerons can't otherwise be retrofitted into older computers). The card also holds its own SDRAM; drop it into any free PCI slot in your system and its CPU and memory take over for those on your PC's motherboard (which, although disabled, must remain in the computer).

If you're considering the AcceleraPCI, download and run the handy prequalifying software utility from Evergreen's Web site (www.evertech.com); it'll tell you in minutes whether the card will work in your PC. As long as your system has the PCI bus, there's a chance that it will, but Evergreen doesn't recommend using the card with 486 or Pentium II machines.

We tested the $US399 AcceleraPCI 433/64, which comes with a 433MHz Celeron and 64MB of RAM (other configurations are available). This upgrade-on-a-card is a bit easier to install than traditional CPU upgrades, since you don't have to swap chips in and out of your PC's CPU socket. We had our upgraded system up and running within 15 minutes and the improvement was dramatic: our HP machine achieved a WorldBench 98 score of 158, just over double its original score with 16MB of RAM and 76 per cent faster than its performance with 64MB of RAM but no CPU upgrade.

Still, the upgraded PC was 19 per cent slower than an average Celeron-433 PC. That's because those new systems benefit from other speed-enhancing technologies that our old system lacked, such as newer memory types, faster hard disks and beefier graphics subsystems.

We did run into one odd glitch with the AcceleraPCI, possibly related to the graphics chip set or driver: the upgraded system refused to shut down completely via the Windows Start button.

Any time we tried to shut it down, it rebooted. At press time the AcceleraPCI was only available directly from Evergreen, although a selection of the company's other CPU products are available from local distributor, Hypertec (www.hypertec.com.au).

Product: Evergreen Technologies AcceleraPCI 433/64Price: $US399URL: www.evertech.comHypertec URL: www.hypertec.com.auPhone: (02) 6247 0111Motherboard on a cardAn intriguing new processor upgrade product is around the corner from Evergreen. The company is readying replacement CPUs meant for early Pentium II systems such as the original 233MHz models that debuted two and a half years ago. The first, the Performa 400, will use a Celeron-400 and list for $US199. A $US300 Celeron-500 version, the Performa 500, is also in the works.

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