Three ways to breathe new life into older computers

If budget constraints are stopping you from buying new computers any time soon, dont despair. Here are the top three upgrades you can perform to boost the performance of your older computers.

Chances are good that IT budget constraints in your organization are keeping you from purchasing any new computers in the next year or so. Of course, your business requires that you update your software in order to stay competitive. As such, you may be faced with a situation where you have to make older computers run new software for at least another year.

Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to breathe new life into older computers. In this article, I'll take a look at the top three upgrades that you should perform to get more out of your older systems.

Regular maintenance helps too!
As you read this article, keep in mind that there are plenty of other system maintenance operations that you can use to keep older computers running in tip-top shape. For example, defragmenting the hard disk, removing deadwood from the hard disk, tweaking the page file, or optimizing the registry all help in maintaining older systems.

Adding more memory
The first upgrade that you can perform to get more out of your older computers is to add more memory. This upgrade is probably the least expensive way to increase the performance of an older computer, due to the fact that the cost of memory has decreased considerably over the last few years. Furthermore, adding more memory to an older computer definitely provides the most dramatic overall system improvement.

Where do you begin? Well, the trickiest part is identifying what type of RAM chips your computers use. Are they 36 or 72 pins or more? Fast page mode (FPM) or extended data output (EDO)? Parity or non-parity?

Of course, if you're the hands-on type, you can open up the computer and take a look. If you decide to go that route, be sure and read the Support Republic article, "Quickly identify RAM chips with these tips."

If you're using brand name computers in your organization, you can track down the exact RAM chips for your specific system using the tools provided by memory venders. For example, you can go to the Kingston Technology site and use the Memory Search tool. Just select the brand name of your computer, specify the model number, and the Memory Search tool will provide you with a detailed report for your computer that includes such information as the chip type, default memory configuration, the maximum amount of memory, the number of expansion sockets, as well as a memory bank diagram. You can find a similar tool, called the Memory Selector, on the Crucial Technology site.

A buy-back program
Crucial goes one step further in that they have a buy-back program. If, in the process of upgrading a computer's memory, you'll be replacing existing RAM chips with new ones, Crucial will buy the memory you're replacing. Well, sort of. What they actually do is give you credit towards your purchases, so it's actually a trade-in. Regardless, this means that the old memory can actually help offset the cost of purchasing the new memory. For more information, see the Buy Back Program Details page.

Of course, since both these companies are in the business of selling RAM chips, the last stop in the search procedure prompts you to order the memory. In many cases, that might be the best route to go. However, you might not really want to purchase brand new RAM chips for an older computer. If so, you can investigate the possibility of purchasing used or refurbished RAM chips.

You can find used or refurbished RAM chips on sites like eBay or Half.com. You can also find refurbished RAM chips by contacting your computer manufacturer.

Adding a new hard disk
Another way that you can boost the performance of older computers is by adding a new, larger hard disk. Not only will the additional space give you more room for a newer operating system, new applications, as well as more room for data storage, chances are that a new hard disk will be much faster than the existing hard disk.

For example, let's suppose that your computers are circa 2001. If so, chances are that they're in the 10 GB to 20 GB range, use the ATA/100 interface, and top out at 5400 rpm. Upgrading to a new hard disk in the 40 GB to 80 GB range that uses the ATA/133 interface and runs at 7200 rpm will be both cost effective and a real performance booster for an older system.

The combination
You can get more bang for your buck if you increase memory and get a new hard disk. Additional RAM will allow the computer to hold more data in memory and ultimately deliver that data to the CPU faster. A new hard disk can deliver data to RAM faster.

Overclocking the CPU
If you really want to max out the performance of older computers and you have nothing to lose, you might want to consider overclocking the CPU. While this may sound like a dangerous proposition, it has become more widely recognized as a viable performance-enhancing option.

Of course, even suggesting overclocking the CPU as a performance booster for business systems is sure to cause heated discussions. And rightly so. Overclocking is not for everyone nor is it appropriate for all situations. And, it's not as mainstream as adding more memory or upgrading the hard disk.

However, as long as you understand the risks, are fairly knowledgeable when it comes to computer hardware, set realistic goals, and follow a detailed set of instructions, you should be able to successfully boost the performance of older computers by overclocking the CPU. You can find all kinds of information on the benefits of overclocking as well as step-by-step, how-to articles on the Internet. A good place to start is right here on TechRepublic with James McPherson's articles "Overclocking guide for Intel Celeron and P4 processors" and "Overclocking 101: Speeding up specific processors"

You can also find some good information on overclocking CPUs on SysOpt.com'sOverclocking Database and on Tom's Hardware Guide.

About Greg Shultz

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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