Microsoft says Windows XP requires 64MB of RAM, which is plenty--if you're running simple programs such as Notepad. To run larger apps, Microsoft recommends 128MB of RAM, but your system will likely bog down without at least 256MB. For PCs less than two years old, 512MB is a reasonable total amount (the forthcoming Windows Vista Premium mandates at least this much), though 1GB will give you a much smoother ride.
Bonus tip: To save a few bucks on your memory upgrade, ask your local memory retailer for a trade-in: Some computer stores buy back old memory or give discounts on new RAM for your old modules. You won't get rich from the trade-in, but it's more than you'd make by stashing the old chips in a shoe box.
Include a media-card reader
Getting stuff off your media cards is a lot easier if you don't have to connect your camera or other device to your PC with a USB cable. Fill your PC's unused 5.25- or 3.5-inch drive bay with an internal memory-card reader, such as Comp-USA's US$25 Removable 9-in-1 Flash Media Reader/Writer. If all your bays are in use (and you don't feel like adding yet another external device to your desk), swap out your floppy drive. Personally, I couldn't bear to part with my treasured floppies, so I chose Mitsumi's FA404M seven-in-one media card reader). The device, which costs about US$25 online, positions the memory-card slots just above the floppy slot.
Other manufacturers slip a USB 2.0 or FireWire port onto their readers for easy, up-front access. The most expensive models--some priced over $100--add Serial ATA ports, speaker and microphone jacks, or even a tiny LCD screen to display your CPU's temperature.
Expand with SATA
If your new memory-card reader didn't come with an external SATA drive port, pop in a card with a few external SATA connections to accommodate the fast new generation of portable hard drives. The 2-Port eSATA PCI controller made by Addonics ($29) can be used to power any standard 3.5-inch SATA hard drive through your computer. If you're converting an internal hard drive into an external one, you'll probably want to use a drive enclosure.
Back up externally
External drives aren't cheap, but boy, they sure come in handy for backups. With an external drive attached to your PC, you can use Windows XP's Backup and Task Scheduler programs to automate the chore. An external drive also facilitates the transfer of large files between PCs, if you've configured the unit as a shared drive on your network, or leave one drive attached to your network for unattended backup of all your PCs. To restore files, simply connect the drive directly to the PC that needs the data, and you're in business.
Upgrade to a DVD burner
If your PC has only a CD burner, consider adding a DVD burner to the mix. The latest DVD burners handle the popular DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW formats, support both single- and dual-layer recordable discs, and can store up to 8GB of data on a blank dual-layer DVD. Certain models also handle the less-common DVD-RAM format that some users favour for data and backup applications. Since the devices burn CDs as well, adding a second optical drive to your system simplifies copying those discs. With DVD-burner prices falling below US$50, there's little reason to wait.
Bonus tip: If you have a lot more money to spare and need more capacity, consider upgrading to a Blu-ray high-def DVD burner (the rival format, HD DVD, won't have high-capacity burners out until next year).