Revitalising an aging desktop computer on the cheap

Don't trash your tired old desktop PC -- pump it up with a few inexpensive upgrades

Next, add more RAM. Shown here: lining up the RAM cards in preparation for sliding them into the carrier one at a time.

Next, add more RAM. Shown here: lining up the RAM cards in preparation for sliding them into the carrier one at a time.

We may be a country obsessed with fixing our homes and tricking out our cars, but we usually throw away our PCs when they start to give us trouble. These days, however, the recession and the tight credit situation are combining to make it more attractive to fix up an old computer, because a three- or four-year-old PC can be rejuvenated fairly easily.

On top of keeping about 25 pounds of aluminum, silicon and heavy metals out of the garbage dump, a revamped PC will likely be more powerful than a new budget model. As with any renovation project, though, you need to be careful -- if you buy the latest and greatest parts, you could end up paying more than you would have paid for a new PC.

With that in mind, I've taken up a challenge: To upgrade my four-year-old Dell Dimension 8300 desktop PC. When new, it cost more than $1,700 with a 17-inch monitor. Today it is slow, tired, loud and prone to overheating.

I've been given two figures for my PC resurrection budget. The first part of the upgrade should give me some extra speed and power for around $250 in parts -- less than the price of a new budget system. By carefully selecting which components to replace and what parts to use, I hope to boost my system's performance by about 30%. To accomplish that, I plan to install more RAM, a modern hard drive and more-capable graphics and audio cards.

My challenge for the second part of the upgrade is make "This Old PC" fit today's digital lifestyle for an additional $125, bringing my total budget to $375. I plan to add a TV tuner, a webcam and a wireless keyboard/mouse combo. In other words, my goal is to make it a better computer than it ever was for significantly less money than I'd pay for a new desktop system with those extras. My labor is free, so I may even have enough left for a pizza when I'm done.

(Note: Because sales taxes and shipping fees vary so widely depending on where you live and who you buy from, I haven't included them in either the prices of the components I'm adding or in my estimates of new PC prices.)

Surprisingly, the only tool I need to do these upgrades is a Phillips screwdriver, and the whole project can be done in a weekend. When I'm finished, I may not have the best system for editing video or handling complex Excel calculations, but it should be more than enough for writing, browsing the Web browsing and watching video.

Measuring performance changes

To see how my upgrades affect performance, I'm going to measure the computer's abilities along the way with PassMark's PerformanceTest 6.1 benchmark, which exercises all the major components I'll be playing with and delivers an overall score. On top of that, I'll be timing how long it takes to start up the system and measuring how much power it uses with P3 International's Kill A Watt P4400 power meter.

At the outset, my system scored a 291.1 (about the level of one of today's netbooks) on the PassMark benchmark, took more than 4 minutes to start up and used 120 watts of power, not including the monitor. It's time to get to work and see if we can make this puppy bark a little louder.

What not to upgrade

The secret to upgrading success is that what you don't upgrade is as important as what you do upgrade.

CPU: The processor is generally an expensive upgrade that yields minor improvements. My PC's 3-GHz Pentium 4 CPU could be replaced by one that runs at 3.2 GHz, but that would cost about $200, which is more than half my budget.

There's an easy way to see if a CPU transplant can help your PC. To determine if the processor is being overtaxed or if it has some room to perform more work, open the Windows Task Manager and click on the Performance tab. This brings up graphs for how the computer is using its CPU and memory resources.

While you use the machine, periodically glance at the CPU graph. If it is pegged at 100% for extended periods, it's time for a more powerful CPU -- and likely a new PC. In my case, the CPU chart peaks at 100% every once in a while, but generally jumps up and down between 55 and 80% of the processor's capacity. That means that there's probably enough headroom to take the processor off the upgrade list.

Operating system: Similarly, replacing Windows XP with Vista is an expensive dead end. At about $150, the upgrade would bust a big hole in my budget and would likely sap any extra power I'll be adding to the computer. A good compromise is to replace XP with a free version of Linux, like Ubuntu. It will not only run faster, but the OS comes with a suite of excellent programs.

LCD: Another item I'm going to pass on is the monitor. While it may not be the best display ever, the 17-in. Dell UltraSharp LCD that I got with the system is just fine, so I won't try to squeeze a new monitor into the budget.

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Brian Nadel

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