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ISSUE 567: The high-tech office- Sept 5 2000


Older computers have longer life span than industry lets on

Despite the widespread feeling that any computer you purchase is obsolete as soon as you get it out of the box, most of us want to get as much useful life as we can out of what remains one of our more expensive purchases.

And that instant obsolescence idea is a myth. In fact, with few moving parts, if your computer works when you take it out of the box, in most cases, little mechanical will go wrong with it for years. It will continue to run your software as well as ever.

What does become obsolete are our expectations. We expect our computer purchase to be able to run the latest operating system and applications, year after year, as fast as when it was new.

And that's where our hardware falls down. That computer you bought in 1995 should continue to do a fine job running the software that was current in 1995. But the newest programs want more than that five-year-old computer delivers. You may not even have enough space on your hard drive to install the latest applications.

That doesn't mean that you need to run out to buy a new computer right now, much as that's what the industry wants you to do. You can save a bundle with one of a couple of strategies. You might simply leave well enough alone. While Windows 95 was a dramatic improvement over the earlier Windows 3.1, to my mind, there are few compelling reasons for many business users to upgrade to Windows 98, Windows 2000, or the new on the retailer's shelf Windows ME.

You may be able to run any of these on your older computer, but you'll be trading slower performance for few noticeable differences.

And much as Microsoft's business model is predicated on the idea of you upgrading your copy of Microsoft Office every couple of years, an older version like Office 95 may actually do everything you need.

You won't have the animated paper clip of newer versions (which many will consider no loss), but you still get the much more useful real time spell checking. Since much of the world will insist on sending you documents in Word 97/2000 file format, if you're using an older version be sure to get the free Word 97/2000 Converter. (You can find it at Click on the link for Word, then the link for Downloads. Mac users of Word 5.1or 6.0 can find their version of the converter at Click on the Office 98 tab.)

If your older computer is feeling sluggish, a cost-effective way to give it a boost is to increase its memory (RAM). Luckily, RAM is relatively inexpensive, and is easy to install (though it does require cracking open the computer's case). For typical business users, I would recommend at least 32 MB if you're running Windows 95, 64 MB if you're using Windows 98 or NT 4.0, and a whopping 128 MB for Windows 2000 users.

Mac users too may want to bulk up on memory. With nothing else running, my relatively trim installation of Mac OS 9 is using 29 MB, which would leave little RAM for anything else with the 32 MB base models that Apple was shipping up until recently.

Getting enough RAM can often provide better performance than getting a faster processor. My main PC these days is a several-year-old notebook with a 300 MHz Pentium processor, not a fancy Pentium II or III model. Running Windows 98, the 64 MB that it was shipped with was quite adequate. When I installed Windows 2000 it started to feel sluggish, but adding an additional 64 MB for about $120 brought it back to life at far less cost than buying a new notebook.

Adding a new hard drive can also extend the life of your older PC. Drive capacities have grown remarkably over the past few years, while prices have dropped. Adding a second drive, rather than replacing your existing one, is again easy to do by someone comfortable in opening the case.

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