Revitalizing an aging desktop computer on the cheap

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

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.

Got a laptop that needs a tune-up? See "This old laptop: Revitalizing an aging notebook on the cheap."

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.

Before you begin

When you buy your own components, make sure to get parts that your PC's power supply can support. Some items will use more power than the ones they replace; others will use less. My Dimension 8300 has a full-size tower case with a 250-watt power supply, which should be plenty for my new components.

All the prices mentioned in this story are actual prices that I found at online retailers -- often considerably less than the suggested retail price. But be warned: Prices can fluctuate wildly, so it pays to shop around. My favorite way to find the best price is to use Google Product Search, which lists online retailers' prices for the item you're looking for.

As part of the hard drive upgrade, you'll need to install Windows on the new drive, so now's the time to find the Windows CD that came with your computer. If you don't have your original OS disc, try calling your PC's manufacturer -- some of them will mail a replacement disc to you for a nominal charge. Otherwise, it might cost $100 to buy Windows XP, which will blow your upgrade budget. In that case you might be better off buying a new PC.

It may sound silly, but it's important to find a good place to work. Shoot for a location that has a table big enough to spread out your open PC and parts, and where you won't be interrupted or stressed if the upgrades take longer than anticipated. Forget about the kitchen table -- if you're not done at dinnertime, there'll be problems.

Some people insist on wearing a grounding bracelet or antistatic gloves to protect the system against static shocks; either will cost about $5 at a variety of online stores. On the other hand, I've been doing this sort of thing for 20 years without wearing either item, and I've never had a problem. It is, however, a good idea to touch something that's grounded to remove any static charge you might have before you touch anything inside the PC case. A metal plumbing pipe or radiator works well.

Parts list

Backup battery: Energizer CR2032 ($2)

RAM: Kingston 1GB 400-MHz DIMM module (2 @ $40 each)

Hard drive: WD Caviar Black 500GB ($65)

External hard drive enclosure: Acomdata Samba ($29)

Cooling fan: AOC FC-2000 System Blower ($7)

Video card: Nvidia GeForce 6200/256MB ($40)

Audio card: Creative Technology Audigy SE ($25)

TV tuner: AverMedia AVerTVHD Volar ($40)

Webcam: Logitech QuickCam Connect E2500 ($30)

Keyboard and mouse: Microsoft Wireless Media Desktop 1000 ($40)

AA batteries for wireless keyboard and mouse (4) ($5)

Total: $363

Task 1: Open case, clean up, and replace clock battery

Time: 15 minutes

Cost: $2

The first step is to unplug the system, open the case and lay it on its side. Gross! If your PC is like mine, inside the case is over four years of accumulated dust, cobwebs, dirt and more than a few dead insects.

With a can of pressurized air, gently blow out all the garbage, paying particular attention to the processor's heat fins, which in my PC's case are clogged with debris. (The system has a habit of overheating, and that is probably why.) A word of advice: You might want to wear a dust mask for this task -- who knows what's in there?

Now that you can see what's where inside, it's a good idea to locate the major parts you'll be dealing with: system memory modules, hard drive, audio and video cards. My system also has a FireWire card, which I won't be touching, and a modem card that I've never used -- I'll toss that out.

Before moving on to the fun stuff, take a minute to replace the system's backup battery. It's a standard watch cell that lets the PC keep track of the time and date when it's off, and it generally has a life of four or five years.

Task 2: Install RAM

Time: 5 minutes

Cost: $80

Adding system memory generally offers good bang for your upgrade buck. Up to a point, the more memory you have for the operating system, applications and data, the faster the system runs, because it avoids having to use slower virtual memory that shuffles data onto and off of the hard drive.

Adding memory is a no-brainer, and the modules are available at a variety of online locations. Kingston, for instance, has a memory search page on its Web site: Plug in the name of your computer or motherboard maker, and Kingston will suggest memory modules that fit your system. Then do an online search for the correct modules; you'll often find them at prices that are much better than what you'd pay if you bought directly from the manufacturer.

My desktop PC has four slots for 400-MHz DIMM (dual in-line memory module) memory; it came with a pair of 512MB RAM sticks for a total of 1GB. To save money, I'm going to keep using those two 512MB memory modules. Then I'll fill up the system's other memory slots with two new 1GB modules that cost about $40 each, for a total of 3GB of RAM.

That's less than the 4GB that the system can hold, but it's three times more than what I started with. Going up to 4GB would mean I'd have to throw out the two 512MB memory modules and buy two more 1GB modules (my system can't take anything larger than a 1GB module) for another $80, which would blow my budget.

With the machine off and unplugged, line up the RAM cards and one at a time slide them into the carrier. Press gently but firmly until you hear a click that tells you the card is properly seated. When they're locked in place you're done.

Instead of doing all our upgrades at once, we're going turn on the computer and test it in between each task, which makes it easy to figure things out if something goes awry. Don't bother closing the case, though -- we have much more to do.

Plug in and fire up the system. Its start-up routine should automatically detect the new memory, but it doesn't hurt to double-check by selecting Start --> All Programs --> Accessories --> System Tools --> System Information and looking in the System Summary list for Total Physical Memory.

Results

My PC now has 3,072MB of memory. It's enough to raise the system's PerformanceTest 6.1 benchmark score to 325.8, a 12% increase. Not bad -- the system starts up in 1 minute, 55 seconds -- a big improvement, and there was no perceptible change in its energy consumption. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Task 3: Install new hard drive, software and external drive enclosure

Time: 2½ hours

Cost: $94

The second cheap thrill for upgraders is to get a new hard drive. I chose the Western Digital Caviar Black 500GB drive, which is available for $65 at some online electronics retailers.

It can hold four times the stuff that the original drive could hold, and it will run rings around its predecessor. On top of numerous advances in disc technology over the last four years, the new drive has 32MB of buffer memory (four times that of the original drive), so it can hold more frequently used data and won't keep the rest of the machine waiting for it.

After powering down and unplugging your system, slide the old drive out of its cage and unplug its data and power connections. Then set it aside; we have plans for it, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Your new drive may not fit in the cage perfectly, but chances are you've got an extra set of plastic drive rails conveniently stashed inside the system's case. Screw them onto the new drive, slide it into place and plug the power and data cables in.

If you don't have an extra set of rails, you can use the ones from the original drive or buy some online. They only cost a few bucks, but it can be confusing trying to choose the right ones for your drive -- there are dozens of rail designs that all look alike to me. If all else fails, use adhesive Velcro or duct tape. It's not as elegant, but it works and nobody will see it.

The drive is in and ready, but it's not formatted and has no operating system or software. Luckily, I still have the system's original CDs, so installing Windows and the basic software is relatively easy, although it takes more than an hour and a half. Just start the machine with the disc in the CD drive, and the software does the rest.

The software on your original Windows disc is almost certainly out of date (mine has Windows XP Pro with Service Pack 1a), so you'll need to get on the Internet to download the latest version. The easiest way is to simply connect your PC to your router with an Ethernet cable -- if you're close enough to your router. If you're not, a USB Wi-Fi device will do the trick, though you'll need to load its software onto the new hard drive.

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