--Alan Zisman

New methods can extend the life of a notebook
for a fraction of the cost of a new computer

In earlier columns, I've written about times when, instead of rushing out to buy the latest and greatest new PC, it makes more sense to upgrade your current model.

If you've got a standard-sized desktop model, this can be a relatively easy proposition (at least as easy as anything ever is when you're dealing with a computer). For your typical clone, parts are pretty standard. You can get a larger hard drive, for example, pretty much anywhere.

But if you've got a notebook, you'll find it isn't quite so easy. Your notebook costs more than a comparable desktop and you'll discover that parts are typically hard to find and expensive. In most cases, you can't simply take your notebook into any of the hundreds of local computer stores and expect to walk out with more RAM, a faster processor or a larger drive. And if you want to replace that old monochrome screen with a new attractive colour one, well, forget it. You can probably buy a new notebook for the cost of that upgrade.

You needn't give up, however. In many cases, it is possible to extend the usefulness of that older notebook -- if you go to a specialist.

Vancouver's Platinum Upgrades (257-0507; is one such specialist. They've assembled the expertise needed to work with more than 700 notebook models, offering a range of upgrades including CPUs, hard drives and memory. They've been doing a lot of business upgrading older 486-based models, replacing the processor with an AMD 586 model, running at 133 to 150 MHz, resulting in a CPU that tests out at least three times as fast as the original, or about the same speed as a slower Pentium.

Notebook CPUs are typically soldered into place, making the replacement something you simply can't do on your own, though Platinum offers a line of replacement kits for the simpler RAM and hard drive upgrades. Platinum is one of an international group of companies using a Swedish-developed hot-air desoldering process for safely removing and replacing the original CPU.

Along with the slow processor, these older notebooks often came with four to eight megs of RAM, and a 100 - 200-meg hard drive. In many cases, it's possible to upgrade the memory to 16 megs or more. And the smallest hard driveavailable now is two gigs -- 10 to 20 times as large as the original equipment. The result is an upgraded notebook that is certainly capable of running today's operating systems and business software.

As with other computer up-
grades, exact details will vary from model to model. Older 386SX models, for example, can't be upgraded all the way to the 586 CPUs, but in many cases, they can be beefed up (for about $200) to a 486-generation processor, along with RAM and hard disk upgrades. For a typical 486 model such as IBM's popular 350 notebook series, they offer to upgrade the original 486/50 CPU to a 586/133 for $499, add 16 megs of memory to the original four megs for $129 and replace the stock 250-meg hard drive with a 2.1-gig model for $599. There are discounts for upgrading the CPU and drive at the same time and a $999 special for CPU, memory and drive upgrades, if you tell them you're a Business in Vancouver reader.

Platinum backs up and restores your software and data, transferring it from the old drive to the new, while checking for viruses along the way. They promise 24 - 48-hour turnaround time and a 30-day money-back and switch-back warranty, which will restore your notebook to its original condition.

Like other computers, notebooks are more affordable than ever. But upgrading an older model is, in many cases, an even more affordable way to extend the usefulness of the model you already own (and may have some tax benefits compared to buying new). And you may find yourself preferring an upgraded, older model if you need to take a computer places where it's at risk of damage or theft.

Still, as with desktops, take a few minutes weighing the options. Prices on low-end new notebooks have dropped. You can pick up a colour Pentium notebook for $2,000 or less. Even though you may have paid as much as $5,000 for your old notebook just a few years ago, is it worth spending from $500 to $1,000 to upgrade it if that gives you a faster, more powerful model with an older, hard-to-read monochrome screen and an awkward pointing device?*

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