Computer Upgrading pt 1

by Alan Zisman (c) 1991
originally published in INPUT, May 1991

Rumour has it that there are 70 million or so computers world wide running DOS, and more each day. And more packages of Microsoft Windows being sold each month than Macs. But of those 70 million, are you one of the tens of millions feeling left behind by Windows and the other 'power packages'? Do you shudder when you see the words "minimum hardware requirements" on the back of software boxes? Then maybe this article has the answer you've been waiting for... how (or whether !) to upgrade your DOS box for less money if you're not afraid to open the case, and can find a Phillips screwdriver.

I'm assuming you've got a 'classic' PC... maybe a Turbo-XT clone, maybe an older AT or clone. And you've been feeling like the PC world has been ignoring you for the past year or so... hyping software that you can't run on the machine that you proudly invested so much in a few short years ago. Maybe you went to your dealer to see what kind of trade in your machine was worth... and it wasn't.

Well, before I join the crowd urging you to give your computer away to a charity (a good idea, actually, and write me c/o INPUT. I'll give you the address of the school where I work), take a minute and ask yourself why do you want a change. If you use your computer mostly for word processing, and you're comfortable with the look and feel of the DOS text mode and DOS commands, maybe you should stick with what you've got, and with what you know. Maybe upgrade your software. Try Microsoft Word version 5.5 and Quattro Pro for the feel of menu bars and mouse control without the bother and expense of changing your hardware. Check out GeoWorks Ensemble for a graphical user interface and slew of applications that promises to run, even on your computer. (Don't think of how much faster it'll run, and how much nicer it will look on someone else's computer).

But maybe I haven't convinced you. You've seen the splashy, high resolution colour demos running down in the store, you've read the ads in the computer press, you've heard the buzzwords... "multitasking"... "superVGA"... "386"... you're convinced that you've got to get ready for the future. Now ! What should you do?

Well, basically, you've got two choices. You can buy a new computer, or update the one you've got. Your choice may depend on what you think you want, how much you think you can afford, and how handy you think you are.

Buying up is getting cheaper by the minute, it seems. I saw an ad today in a Vancouver paper, for a new 12 mhz 286 clone system with 40 meg hard drive, 1 meg memory, a monochrome VGA card and monitor for about $750 (yes, in Canada). To do it yourself, I've also seen 286 motherboards being sold for under $200. If you were happy with your graphics card and hard drive, with memory running at $50-75 a meg, you could get away for a fraction of the cost.

Either way, though, you really wouldn't be getting ready for the next generation of software. Your 12 mhz machine would run faster than your Turbo-XT, and it would run Windows. But it wouldn't really run any of those splashy new Windows applications very well. And it certainly wouldn't let you multitask them... have more than one application running at the same time. And a lot of tasks using Windows would seem to take FOREVER... longer than before you upgraded your hardware and software.

(Because Windows paints your whole screen, in graphics mode, Windows-based software is always going to run more slowly than the equivalent text-based program. I love working within the Windows environment, but there's no getting around the speed issue--- like in "Alice", you have to run twice as fast just to stay in the same spot).

Maybe instead of that $175 286 motherboard, you should have bought the $450 386SX one. It'd be faster, and would have the 386 name, right? Actually, if you can afford it, it probably is a better investment in your "computer for the future". New software like Windows, takes advantage of the 386's superior memory management (the 286 chip was wheeled out in 1982, after all).

Whether you upgrade to a 286 or a 386, if you want to run Windows software, get at least 2 meg of memory. If there's room on your motherboard, get 4 meg or even more. Windows will thank you, and with memory at record low prices (that some claim will be rising soon) it's a cheap fix. Your best bet is to add memory right on the motherboard. If you have a memory card, configure it as Extended memory. This will let you give your applications some room to breathe, speed everything up, and let you run more than one Windows app.

Around now, you should think of your hard drive. (You do have a hard drive, don't you?) Many XT-type computers have 20 meg hard drives with access speeds of about 70-80 msecs. You can use them in your updated computer, but beware ! Windows itself takes about 5-6 meg of room, and that's before you add any new applications. Excel will take up 2.5-5 megs, Word for Windows or Ami another 2-3 meg, CorelDraw almost 7 meg... oops, we've used up 20 meg or so already ! And Windows and friends make a lot of disk reads, especially if you're tight on memory. Running your fast computer with that old hard drive will feel like driving with the emergency brake on. You can do it, but...

So, while you're thinking about replacing your hard drive, well, how about your floppies? All that new software comes on high density disks. Customer support usually can pull a low density version out of its hat. but they make you feel like a second-class citizen. And make sure your power supply is hefty enough to safely run everything. Maybe 150-200 watts. (40 meg hard drive... about $400, high density floppy and new power supply, each about $100).

How to decide? Check your local prices. Vancouver is a competitive market... prices may be higher where you shop. Replacing drives, cards, even the motherboard isn't that difficult-- I'll be writing about it in the next issue. You can do it one piece at a time. And you get the satisfaction of knowing that you built and customized your own computer, and that when technology takes its next swing, you can do it again. On the other hand, as prices continue to tumble, if you need to replace all those items, it may be as cheap to buy a complete package, and have someone to complain to if (when?) something goes wrong. And if you do that, drop me a line about your old system.

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