Upgrading computer much like needing a new vehicle

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, March 1999

How old is your PC (or Mac)?

When I was a kid, we had a neighbour who got a new car every year. The rest of us thought that was going a bit overboard, even at the height of Detroit?s hysterical model changeovers every Fall.

But is it getting to be like that for computer owners? New models don?t come out just once a year, but every few months. People joke that as soon as your new computer comes out of the box it?s obsolete. That?s not true, of course, but like many jokes, the humour can be a little too close for comfort.

Last winter, I replaced my seven year old car with a new version of the same make and model. There were some styling differences, but not really many differences in performance or features.

Buy most new PCs and you may  not get an styling changes. But unlike with my new car, new PCs offer real performance improvements. Faster CPUs. Bigger hard drives. More RAM.

But should you care?

That depends what you?re doing with your computer. Remember, just because there are newer models, that doesn?t mean your old computer somehow no longer works. It still continues to run the same software just as well as it ever did. Of course, new versions of software are constantly being put out on the marketplace, often requiring more and more hardware resources.

But just as you?re still driving the same route to work, many of us are doing the same couple of chores on our computers. Will a newer car get us to work any faster? And will a newer computer let you word process or even surf the Net any better?

I had that last car from 1991 to the beginning of 1998. Over that time, my computers evolved from a 12 MHz 286, with 40 meg hard drive and amber monitor to a 25 MHz 386, which went from 2 megs to 8 megs of RAM. That morphed to a 66 MHz 486 that ended up with 16 megs of RAM and a seemingly huge 1 gig hard drive before it was replaced with a Pentium 166 with double the RAM and hard drive space of the 486. Four computers over seven years. Nicer monitors, but still word processing, basic bookkeeping, and a bit of graphics and page layout.

Yes, my online activities have evolved over that time?graphical Web pages are clearly more demanding than text-based CompuServe access at the beginning of the decade. But here, the limiting factor is more modem speed than the actual computer. I?m not convinced that using the P-166 rather than the 486 makes much difference when accessing the Net.

Even so, I recently retired the Pentium. As I?ve said before in this column, it?s games that drive the home market? not the Internet, not productivity applications. I review games in this paper, and I?m the parent of a 15 year old who plays games (on computer and ?systems?) a lot. And the games that were starting to appear were listing my computer as the ?minimum recommended system?. And they mean it! Several of this season?s new sports games, like Electronic Arts? Madden 99 football game would install and run on the Pentium, but not in any way that you?d want to play. A few games even refused to install.

So I went shopping. My choices:

  • a new notebook. This would have been expensive (especially with a nice, active matrix screen), and even a top of the line notebook would have been, at best, marginal as a game playing system.
  • A new Mac. But too much of what I work with involves PC hardware and software, and while a high-end Mac can emulate a PC, it loses too much in the translation?again, becoming at best, marginal as a PC-game playing system. Besides, I bought a new Mac only a year ago, and even though it isn?t a perky G3, I couldn?t justify replacing it that quickly.
  • A new PC desktop. These still over the most bang for the buck,  and though they?re cool, I really don?t need a portable system that often. And the most upgradeable, with optional sound cards, 3D accelerators, and more.

So (to cut to the chase) I bought a Pentium-II-400 from a Vancouver Computes! advertiser.  128 megs RAM, 10 gig hard drive. I splurged a little on a 17? monitor, making everything a bit bigger for my aging eyes. I expect to be happy for at least a couple of months, and fully expect to get the same two years or so of useful life out of it as with all those other machines.

I think I have more reason to upgrade than my old neighbour with his annual new car. But am I just as much a dupe of market

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