Updating an outdated computer
is a cheap way to stay current  -   Sept 23 1997

"Progress, our most important product," was the slogan behind General Electric's advertising campaigns when I was young. That phrase could just as easily be the slogan of today's high tech industries.

Since the mid-1970s, personal computer users have been benefiting from what has become known as Moore's Law, named after a founder of giant chipmaker Intel. He stated (more or less) that computing power (for the same price) doubles every two years or so. The entry-level computer I bought in 1988 featured a 12-MHz Intel central processor. Nine years later, the comparable model, at a similar price, runs at 200 MHz.

Many users, however, find that at least as much a curse as a blessing. There's a widespread feeling that in the time it takes to get a new computer from the store to home or office, out of the box, and up and running, it's already obsolete.

Of course, that's an exaggeration, even though there does always seem to be a faster, more powerful system ready to be released. Some businesses deal with the continual upgrade treadmill by depreciating their hardware over a fast, three-year schedule, assuming that by the end of that time, it will need to be replaced. Another popular alternative is leasing, again resulting in getting a new generation of hardware every three years or so.

Many of us, however, are interested in squeezing as much life as possible out of our computers and other high tech purchases. Small businesses and home offices in particular may not be able to justify replacing expensive equipment every three years or so.

In many cases, the simplest solution is to do nothing. New generations of hardware appear every six months or so, and new software versions typically appear every 18 to 24 months, but there's no law saying you have to upgrade. And many of us are only using a modest subset of the features these products offer. If your systems are working for you, wait a couple of generations until there are clear productivity benefits to upgrading.

Home office users are often in an awkward position, however, in that the home computer functions as a business machine part-time, and is also used by the rest of the family in the off-hours. And the games your children want to play probably demand more computer power than your business software.

I had a 486 in the basement. Its 66-MHz processor was fast in 1993, and over the years, it had been beefed up with 16 megs of RAM and a gigabyte hard drive (about $1,000 when I bought it; now I could get twice the capacity for one-quarter the cost). It's one of about 70 million 486-generation computers still in use worldwide.

While this machine is clearly last-generation technology, it runs new business software, like Microsoft Office 97, and runs it fast enough for me. But it's not fast enough for my 13-year-old. His baseball simulation game, for instance, wants at least a 90-MHz Pentium. On the older machine, the pitcher's fastball slowly drifts towards home plate. Clearly, it's time for a hardware update.

We could simply get a new computer. Prices for desktop machines have been dropping, especially for earlier classic Pentium models lacking the new MMX multimedia enhancements, and also for machines featuring processors from Intel-competitors AMD and Cyrix. But a new machine is more than I want to invest in right now.

I used to be able to upgrade by opening the computer case and replacing the motherboard while keeping most of the computer intact. A Pentium motherboard and processor can cost less than $200 (or more depending on model and processor speed).

But beware the hidden costs -- you'll also need to get a new video card ($100 - 200) and different RAM (about $100 for 16 megs) to work with the new motherboard, if you're even able to keep your old drives and other parts.

Instead, when I upgraded the 486, I purchased an Overdrive processor -- a chip that replaces the 486 in your motherboard with a Pentium-generation model. Versions from Intel, Evergreen, and others cost under $200 and, with about 10 minutes of work, give you an instant, more powerful machine.

Not all motherboards can accept such a processor. Make sure you're able to return it if you can't use it! And in the end, you still have your old RAM, hard drive, and video. If these are inadequate now, they'll still be inadequate after the upgrade. My 486's double-speed CD-ROM was too slow. For $80 I replaced it with an eight-speed model.

The result: for a couple of hundred dollars, I've squeezed an extra couple of years of life out of a machine left behind by progress.*

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