Techlog: In praise of older PCs

Just how aged is the PC that sits in my home office? It's not just older than my laptop and my work machine. It's also older than my car. Heck, it's older than my house. And the amazing thing is, I'm not itchy to buy a new home system with all the newest trimmings. This one still plays an essential role in my everyday computing, even as it approaches its fifth birthday.

Time was when a PC that was a couple of years old could feel downright creaky, especially when you threw the latest tasks at it. Today, many computers of my Compaq Presario's vintage are doing just fine. They may not pack the latest and greatest technology, but they can do most of the things that most of us want to do in 2006. Especially with a few well-chosen upgrades.

I thought about that as we were working on this issue's upgrading how-to story, Robert Luhn's "The Ultimate PC Power Boost." Don't scrap any machine until you read the article--it's full of hands-on, real-world advice on giving new life to old boxes.

Herewith, a few more tips, drawn from my own life with this Presario, on how to be a happy owner of a computer that's been around the block a few times:

Buy a system you can grow into.

Upgrading is a smart move; avoiding the need to upgrade is smarter still. So even in this era of extremely cheap, surprisingly powerful PCs, I recommend springing for a machine with more horsepower and features than you need right now. Way back in early 2002, I bought my Presario with a 1.7-GHz Athlon XP CPU, 1GB of RAM, and a 100GB hard drive--which made it a pretty sweet system back then. Today those specs are mundane at best, but they've extended the PC's useful life.

Upgrade as your work demands it. The best time to invest in an upgrade is when it will provide instant gratification. So I didn't buy a DVD burner until I was ready to start fooling around with video. And there are some seemingly obvious upgrades I still haven't made. (Don't tell anyone, but my Presario has its poky old original USB 1.1 ports.)

Think outside the box.

Defined liberally, an upgrade is any piece of new hardware that lets you get more out of a computer you already own. In the old days, most of them were components that lived inside the PC. But lately, I'm discovering that it's just as important to pay attention to external infrastructure.

In the time I've owned this PC, for instance, I've gone from no network to a wired one to 802.11b Wi-Fi to 802.11g with a great big networked drive. And I'm about to get a faster DSL connection. I don't think there's a single internal upgrade that would be as worthwhile as these connectivity upgrades have proved.

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Harry McCracken

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