When is it time to replace old faithful?

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Computer Player, May 1998

If you?re a computer owner, it probably seems like every issue of the Computer Player, your one-time proud purchase has fallen yet another generation behind the current state of the art. We?ve spoken before in this column about how with computers, more than with many other consumer areas, the urge to buy can keep some of us in a continual state of upgrade terror.

How can you determine when it?s time to upgrade?

And when you do decide it?s time to buy, when is it worthwhile buying a whole new system and when can you get away with replacing some of the components in your current system?

The advertisers who make it possible for us to provide this free publication probably would like me to answer the first question with ?Right now!?. No matter how old your system is, there are better systems out there, and you?ve never been able to get so much power at any given price point. And while that has almost always been the case, things have changed recently. It used to be that there was a computer for $2000, a model for $2500, and a model for $3000. But now there range of choices has expanded downward: there are now acceptable choices at $1500 and even $1000 price points?including monitor.

But the other side of the drop in computer prices is that many users have decided that they can safely buy a system that?s further from the top of the line? those $1500 and $1000 systems are pretty similar to the systems for sale at a higher price last year, or even before that. Many users are finding that they don?t need this year?s design for running this year?s software.

Of course, different users have different needs. If you?re being paid to work with Adobe PhotoPaint editing large graphics, it may pay to invest in the fastest computer you can get, with lots of RAM and a huge hard drive? every time you have to wait for the Gaussian Blur effect to finish is time you could be using to complete another project with a more powerful computer.

But most of us are doing some word processing, browsing the Web, and playing some games. And that means we can get by with less. Let?s try out some scenarios?

? I?ve got a 166 MHz Pentium machine, with 32 megs of RAM, and a 2 gig hard drive? a pretty standard machine when I bought it, late in 1996. Would my life be dramatically improved moving to (say) a 333 MHz P-II? Not necessarily. On the other hand, at about 100 megs a pop, my son?s games are close to filling up the hard drive. $300 (more or less) can buy a 4 gig second hard drive, and may be a worthwhile addition. Later on this year, it may be worthwhile upgrading the RAM to 64 megs. (If I had 16 megs, I?d recommend upgrading to 32 right away?RAM is at historic low prices, and upgrading from 16 megs is worthwhile for most users).
? A computer generation before that, I had a 486-66. 500 meg hard drive. 8 megs of old-style 30-pin SIMM memory. Accelerated VLB-local bus video card. It?s a bit slow running Windows 95, especially trying to run an office suite component or two. Some newer games will run, but most either need more hard drive space, more RAM, or a faster processor. We tried out a demo of last year?s version of Electronic Arts? Triple Play baseball game, and watched the ball slowly leave the pitcher?s hand and float over to home plate. What should I do?

I could try to upgrade the system a piece at a time. But where to start? For example, I could replace the 486 CPU with an Evergreen P5-133, which, for about $150 would double the processor power. But I?d still want to upgrade the RAM. I could buy 4 meg 30-pin SIMMs, but they?re more expensive than more common, newer styles of RAM? about $20 per SIMM. $80 for 16 megs, but better to budget $160 for 32 megs (I?m up to $310)

And I need a bigger hard drive, so I?d better budget $200-$300 for that. (Up to $610). I could keep on using my 2 meg accelerated VLB video card, and might as well, since VLB video cards are getting hard to find.

Of course, that 2x speed CD-ROM is another bottleneck. Better budget $150 for a 20-24x model. So I?m up to $760? assuming I want to keep using my old and dirty keyboard, mouse and monitor. If I want to keep on using those, I?d probably be better of shopping around, and trying to make a deal on a new, low-end system, from any of the many fine businesses advertising in this issue. (No, they didn?t pay me to say that!)

If your system is somewhere in between these two, you have a range of options. Upgrading your RAM and hard drive can be a cost effective way to keep a Pentium 90-133 in the running for a while longer, for example? perhaps springing for a faster video card (particularly offering 3D acceleration for those new games), as well as a faster CD-ROM. But add much more, and again you?re in the ballpark of getting a new, low-end system.

If you do get a new system, don?t try to give the old one to the kids? they don?t want it?their games won?t play on it. Instead, think of donating it to a charity, or to the Science Council of BC?s Computers for Schools project.

Search WWW Search www.zisman.ca

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