Doing your own PC upgrade provides personal satisfaction

(Computer Upgrading pt 2)
by Alan Zisman (c) 1991, originally published in INPUT, July 1991

In the May-June 1991 issue, I talked about upgrading your old PC compatible computer. At that time, we looked at whether you need to upgrade at all, and if so, should you buy a new machine, or upgrade your older machine. In this issue, we're going to assume that you've decided to upgrade your motherboard (and maybe some or all of your peripherals).

Even with new clone prices dropping rapidly, the cost of replacing just your motherboard is falling just as fast. I'm looking at a price list from Vancouver's Universal Technology (not a plug... lots of other stores have similar prices) today (early July, 1991). They're listing clone 286/386SX/386DX prices as $828/1028/1228 (1meg memory, 40 meg hd, mono card). If you buy just a motherboard, the prices listed are $108/298/498. (That's with 0k memory, so add $68 for a meg memory). So you can potentially turn your old XT clone into a 12 mhz 286 for under $200. What are you waiting for? (I'll get to the catch(es) soon).

Replacing a motherboard feels like doing brain surgery, but it needn't be as scary. (I'm going to assume you have a fairly standard XT-clone in a large case... if you have an odd-ball machine, or one with only a few slots because your graphics card & disk controllers are built into your motherboard, you've got more problems, and may want to just break down and buy a new machine).

Decide what you want to buy... how much you can afford. Buy more memory than you think you need. At under $70 a meg, it's very cheap, and you'll want more sooner than you think. Check whether your existing keyboard will run on an AT/386. Buy your new board and memory, and remember to get the documentation!

Set aside a couple of hours where you won't be disturbed. Park your hard drive and turn off your computer. Open the case (normally removing the 5-6 screws on the back). Ground your self and your tools by touching the power supply (the silver box at the back right corner with the warning sticker). Look around. You should see 4-8 expansion slots towards the back cards in some of them. Unplug any wires from the cards (making note of which way they go... do the stripes on the ribbon connectors to your drives face the back or the front?). Remove your expansion cards by gently rocking them back and forth. Make note of which slot each card is in... sometimes that will make a difference.

Unplug the lead connecting your motherboard to the power supply. Depending on the size of your motherboard and case, you may not need to remove the disk drives. If you do, unplug the power leads and ribbon connectors, and unscrew the screws on the side of the drives. They'll slide right out to the front.

Most motherboards are connected to the case with 1-2 screws and several plastic spacers. Take out the screws, and gently move the motherboard so that it will lift right off the plastic spacers. Your new board should have the screw holes in the same place, and MAY fit right over the plastic spacers. If not, they're easily moved. Before you slide the new board into place, take a look at it, and the documentation (you DID get documentation, didn't you?) Check where to plug any wires (reset button, turbo switch, etc.). Do you need to set jumpers for mono/colour or to tell the computer whether you've got 256 or 1 meg memory chips? Do it now while it's convenient.

Now you can put the new board into your case,  replace the screws, and carefully put everything else back the way it was. You should not have to force anything (too much !)

You're almost ready to turn it on. But let's check two other things first. Is your power supply rated at 150 watts or more? If not, it'll probably work, but you may want to replace it soon ($50-100). Will your keyboard work with an AT/386? XT and AT keyboards may look the same... and some work with both machines, and some have a little switch on the bottom, but some, especially older models won't work. Did you think to take it with you to the store and try it out? (A new AT keyboard can costs as little as $50).

Boot up with a floppy disk. AT's (and above) have setup information stored in battery-powered CMOS memory, that you'll need to set. As your computer is checking the memory, there may be a message about the setup (my AMI bios says "Press delete to alter setup"... other bios(es) will require other keys... if there's no message, read your documentation). You'll need to get to the setup screen.

Here, you set the date and time, and tell the computer about your floppy drives and hard drives. If you have bought an AT (16 bit) controller card for your hard drive, you need to find out the drive number (it may be marked on the drive) or know the number of heads and cylinders on your hard drive. If you're still using your old, 8-bit XT hard drive controller, your life is easier. Tell the setup program that you have no hard drive... an XT hard drive controller stores its own configuration.

When you've answered all the questions, your machine will reboot. Check to make sure the machine recognizes all your drives. You're in business.

But I said earlier that there was a catch. You've just spent $150-250 for a 12 mhz 286 with 1 meg, $350-450 for a 386SX, or more (a 486 motherboard is listed at $1600)... and your computer is running faster, but on some applications, you may hardly notice it. You've still got your old, slow XT harddrive and controller, and your old CGA or monochrome video. Some software makes extensive use of harddrive reads, or video redraws and here your old peripherals are dragging the rest of the system down.

Be prepared to live with this for a while, but once you've got the upgrade bug, you probably won't want to stop now. You've done the hardest part. Here are some current prices for other things you might want to upgrade soon:
 AT IO card (serial/parallel port): $28 (cheap enough to go for        right away)
 IDE hard drive--40 meg: $248+38 for controller
   80 meg: $400+38 for controller
 VGA video cards: $70-300
 VGA monochrome monitor: $150-250
 VGA colour monitor: $300-sky's the limit

Upgrading your motherboard is more of an adventure than walking into a store and plunking your cash (or plastic) on the counter for a new computer. Doing it the hard way will give you satisfaction of knowing that  you did it yourself. You'll learn more about computer hardware, and be more prepared if something goes wrong further down the line. And you'll end up with a custom machine that meets your needs and desires, and that you'll be better able to change as you (inevitably) demand more from your computer. Let me know how it works out.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan