Bring that 486 box up to date for less than $300

This month I'm going to revisit a popular topic: how and when to upgrade an older computer. In particular, a reasonably modern 486 that's just too slow to use, but too good to discard.

Understand from the start that I'm not talking about upgrading business computers. That's a much more practical decision, based on what you have to start with, what you expect, what you pay, who does it, and what the end result is.

This is about what you can do when you have an older machine, a few spare dollars, a spirit of adventure and lots of spare time. It might be your original home PC, it might be one you bought from work for $200, or it might be something you rescued from the footpath during the last council cleanup. Even the word "upgrade" is misleading, because what we're really doing is building a new computer, using some old bits.

For argument's sake, this is the sort of machine we'll be upgrading. Make mental adjustments to suit your situation:

486DX-33 processor

4MB or 8MB RAM in 1MB SIMMs

SVGA monitor

200MB to 500MB hard disk

3.5in diskette drive

16-bit sound card

512K VGA card

Multi-function card with one parallel port, two serial ports, and controllers for two diskette and two hard drives 4x CD driveWin 3.1 or Win95Mini-tower caseThe cards will either be EISA or VESA bus.

Our test machine was basically what you see in the list above. It had been a good Win 3.11 machine, but even though I'd loaded Win 95 on it to use as a student's home machine, it really wasn't up to scratch. By that I mean that it took so long to boot and so long to switch between applications, that it was rarely turned on and everyone lined up to use the newer home machine instead.

The last time we looked at upgrading a machine like this it was practical to pay around $300 for a plug-in Intel OverDrive processor that gave perhaps a two- or three-times speed increase. But this time, I decided to install a new motherboard and processorI went telephone shopping. I rang a number of PC World advertisers and was amazed to find how cheap things had become. I started off by asking what the difference was between the vast array of motherboards. I soon discovered that while you can spend hundreds of dollars to get a fancy Pentium motherboard, you can get a good one for as little as $100.

There are three advantages in buying technology that's a little less than the absolute latest: it costs a whole lot less; it's had the bugs worked out (those you'd find in the first ones off the production line); and there's bound to be more support (such as on the Internet) because you aren't the first person to use it.

I ended up buying something called an ExpertColor Multimedia Mainboard model TX531; it cost $110 and they threw in a set of cables. It's a standard AT-size motherboard, so it fits existing 486 cases. The specs on the box looked good, and the dealer gave it a good wrap, so I bought it. I'd decided to buy an MMX chip and this motherboard calls itself "MMX CPU optimised", so who was I to argue? As you'll see later, I couldn't have been happier with my purchase.

Features of the ExpertColor Multimedia Mainboard:

512K cache

Sockets for four SIMMs or two DIMMs for up to 256MB RAMTwo Fast Ultra DMA 33 IDE controllersDual diskette controllerTwo fast serial portsOne parallel port (ECP/EPP)PS/2 mouse portSerial Infrared port and 2x USB port support Few DIP switches to set (I didn't have to change any)Auto voltage detection and switching for different CPU voltagesPCI and ISA slots.

I chose a CPU at the same time as the motherboard, mainly because I wanted an assurance that they'd work together. I could have bought an genuine Intel 200MHz MMX Pentium for $210, but in the end I bought a chip that was labelled IBM PR200 MX, and I understand it's a Cyrix chip. It cost me $115.

Is an AMD or Cyrix or IBM 686 chip the same as an Intel chip? No! Is it better or worse? I don't know. Is it better value for the cheapskate upgrader? It certainly is!

The only other thing I simply had to buy was a fan and heatsink combination for $5.

How it went together

OK, so how did I proceed once I had the new "brain" back home? I pulled the old machine to bits, taking the opportunity to clean everything I'd be re-using. I didn't remove the power supply, but all the other removable bits came out -- the disk drives, all the cards, the old motherboard and the CD drive.

When you do this, do one thing I didn't do: make a note of what the connectors on the front of the motherboard do. That is, the connectors that go to the things on the front panel like the disk drive light, the reset button and so on. With the best will in the world I couldn't see which lead went where, so it took a lot of trial and error to work out what was what. You should also make a note of the orientation of the two connectors from the power supply to the motherboard.

Installing the new motherboard went quite smoothly. I bought a little bag of screws and accessories for $3, which gave me a new set of the plastic stand-offs that mount the board to the chassis. There wasn't a complete match-up between holes in the motherboard and chassis, but the end result seemed much more stable than the original, especially as I'd installed a couple of threaded brass spacers into the chassis, letting me screw the motherboard down tight.

As you'd expect, the keyboard connector and all the card slots were in just the right positions. As I hinted at before, it took me quite a while to work out just what front-panel connectors went where. The motherboard was well labelled but the connector leads weren't!

The cable set (that the dealer threw in with the motherboard) came with two back-plane plates containing the necessary parallel and serial connectors. I put these in two spare "slots" in the case. This was the first example of the new motherboard replacing stand-alone cards -- where I had a multifunction card in the machine before, now I had all these features built-in to the motherboard.

In fact, you can go a lot further and buy a motherboard that also has onboard sound and video controllers. If you're anticipating the purchase of both these cards for your renovation, this is probably a good way to go, especially as you're unlikely to want to make a further round of upgrades later. And even if you are, you can disable these functions by software or hardware jumper settings.

The CPU went in now, followed by the clip-on heatsink and fan. This connects to a standard diskette power socket. This whole procedure must have taken just 40 seconds. Throughout this procedure my only concession to static electricity was to leave the power supply plugged in to the wall, but switched off at the wall. This earthed the chassis, and earthed me too as I worked on things.

Next I plugged the two power connectors onto the motherboard, ran a new diskette control cable to the diskette, and a new cable to the hard disk. Luckily my old CD-ROM drive was IDE-compatible, so I connected it to the same cable as the hard disk. That still left me with the ability to add two more IDE devices, such as a second hard disk and second CD. If you like filling up your front panel, you could add a second diskette drive too.

I couldn't use my old RAM, as the SIMMs were the old 30-pin types. However, RAM is cheap nowadays, so you'll probably want to buy 32MB of new RAM, probably trading your old RAM in for a few dollars. (You can buy adaptors to take the old RAM, but that's a stupid move as you don't save much and reliability is very poor). I used 16MB.

I then installed the old VGA and sound cards because I was keen to fire things up. Imagine my pleasure -- and relief -- when the machine started. It went into a short auto-setup routine first, but I didn't have to change any settings or make any menu choices. Then it booted into Windows 95 (which was already installed on the hard disk) which proceeded to auto-detect the changed hardware and install the necessary drivers and so on. Heaven knows how much harder it would have been with Win 3.11.

The result was a blindingly fast machine with miserably poor graphics. I'd forgotten how basic 16 colours could look, and I'd long since become used to 24-bit colour running at 800 x 600 pixels. So, it was off to the dealer to buy a new graphics card. As this was meant to be a budget rebuild, I splashed out on a generic-looking S3 Virge card with 2MB of RAM for $60. This was also my first PCI card in the new system, so it would be fun to see how Windows 95 handled it -- once again the system detected and installed the card perfectly.

I love plug-n-pray when it works like this.

How did it run? Let me tell you, the finished machine felt brand new. It's as fast a machine as I've ever used. On benchmark tests it runs around 10 per cent faster than the 200MHz Pentium MMX I use at work. Possible improvements would be adding more RAM (up to 32MB or 48MB) and a slightly faster CD (you can get a 24x for around $100 now), though I'd leave the old one in place for running an encyclopedia.

At a total cost of $293, this is the sort of upgrade that makes sense. Don't you agree?

A lot of people have contacted us to ask: "Where can we buy these products?" There are vendors aplenty who sell motherboard-CPU combinations, but Paul suggests that NPC Computers in Sydney (02 9743 8844) has very competitive pricing and handles mail orders. Check the ads in PC World each month for a feel for pricing.

It's low-fat, it's crunchy, it's . . . Celeron!

If the thought of anything less than the latest processor in your upgraded PC dismays you, then there may be a solution for you. Intel's latest processor for power home users is the Celeron, and compatible motherboards are just hitting the shops. Note that you'll probably need to buy a new ATX case (around $100 and up) to fit the new motherboard.

(For anyone interested in installing a new motherboard, there's some excellent information and pictures at the Tyan motherboard Web page)At the time of writing, you can buy a 266MHz Celeron chip for around $270. It uses Intel's new single-edge connector, like the Pentium II, so that alone should make it look faster. It has MMX technology, a 32K cache, 0.25 micron technology (packing 7.5 million transistors in a small space) and Intel says it is optimised for home productivity and entertainment use.

Motherboard manufacturers are using Intel's 440EX AGP chipset to produce Celeron-optimised motherboards. As Intel says, it "optimises the overall system performance of Intel Celeron processor-based systems at Basic PC price points, furnishing the end-user with the enhancements of an AGPset while addressing the price concerns of the Basic PC market segment".

Intel's own MU440EX motherboard uses this chipset. It has a 66MHz bus, four IDE device controller, two USB ports, video port, audio in and out (Yamaha chipset), midi/game connector, two DIMM sockets for up to 128MB of memory, two PCI and one ISA slot.

You'll have to ask around to see what your local dealer has -- one board we found is PC Partner's EXA802D, for around $200.

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Paul Zucker

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