Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Plugged In: Speeding up PCs doesn’t have to empty out wallets

This week, I’d like to discuss the last few cost-effective computer upgrades. Some of these upgrades, such as CPU and system board replacements, are more likely to require the services of an experienced local technician to actually implement them.

CD/DVD drives. Modern CD and DVD drives are inexpensive and faster than earlier drives. I’ve bought good-quality Sony CD/DVD drives for as little as $20 to $40. This is an easy and worthwhile upgrade. Remove both side panels and unplug the power and ribbon cables, noting the correct orientation for later reassembly. Unscrew the four screws attaching the drive to the case, slide out the old drive through the front panel and slide in the new drive from the front panel. Reattach screws, power plug and data cable.

Upgrading CPU processors and system boards. I usually don’t recommend that an inexperienced home user upgrade either the CPU processor or the system board even though they can be a worthwhile upgrade. Unless you have prior experience replacing a CPU, there is a very good chance that you will permanently damage this expensive but fragile component. A professional technician can usually do the upgrade in a fairly short time.

The most cost-effective CPU upgrade would be one in which you substitute a significantly faster version of the same processor type. Usually, the most economical and beneficial approach involves replacing an entry-level CPU with a later, faster version of the same product line, installing additional cooling as needed. I believe the best cost-performance ratio is usually found in CPUs that are one speed grade lower than the current top-end model. Because system board and memory hardware may differ among product lines, you probably should consult an experienced local technician to evaluate whether it’s worth upgrading your system, determining the most appropriate replacement CPU, and have that technician do the upgrade.

Upgrading system boards is even more difficult. You’ll need to make many different sorts of connections and set numerous options during system board installation. Unless you already have significant experience installing new system boards, this is definitely a job for an experienced technician.

My current preference for cost-effective CPUs is the 2.8 Ghz AMD quad-core Phenom II line. Although most operating systems do not efficiently use all four CPUs on any processing chip, this new processor line does have significant overall performance improvements compared to earlier models. You’ll most likely need to upgrade the system board and memory. The Phenom II requires DDR2 1066 memory and a system board with an AM2+ socket. I like the Gigabyte boards built around the AMD 790 series chipsets.

Power supplies. The fast new hardware that we’ve discussed over the past several weeks does require a lot of power and cooling, and you may need to upgrade your power supply. At this time, I am using 600-watt power supplies to ensure that there’s ample power, especially if you have installed more than one hard disk. The brand is not important but be sure it has enough of the right kinds of power plugs — at least two, preferably four, SATA hard disk power plugs, at least one six-pin PCI-E video card plug, plus the usual 20-pin and four-pin system board main power plugs. You’ll want a floppy disk power connector and some spare, traditional four-pin Molex power plugs for your CD/DVD, fans and front panel power lights. The power supply should have one or two large, quiet fans. I prefer 120-millimeter fans to move a lot of air quietly.

Replacing the power supply is not difficult if you take care to avoid disturbing other cables, connections and settings inside your computer. Open up both side panels of the computer case. Disconnect the main AC power card from the wall outlet. Then disconnect all internal connections to system boards, disk drives of all sorts, fans and video cards. Remove the four rear screws that attach the power supply to the case, carefully sliding it out to avoid hitting and damaging other components. Slide in the new power supply, attach the screws and reconnect the various power plugs.

Ideally, rather than leaving a tangled mess of power wires inside the computer case where they can get caught in fans or tug on other connections, take some heavy wire ties, loop the extra connectors and overly long cables into one or more neat bundles and wire tie them together.

Video card upgrades. Upgrading to a really fast video card is worthwhile only if you are a serious gamer, a designer using AutoCAD or using the latest version of Adobe PhotoShop CS4 and other higher-end Abode products. Most business users will not see any obvious benefit.

Having said that, upgrading a video card can be easy if your intended upgrade card contains the same brand video chipsets as the video card you’re replacing. Although there are many video card brands, almost all include basic video chipsets made by either ATI or nVidia.

Both of these vendors use what’s often termed “unified drivers,” which means the recent ATI or nVidia device driver software will work with nearly all brands of recent video cards using a wide range of low-end to high-end ATI or nVidia chipsets. That’s a positive development because mismatched video driver software will usually result in a complete system crash at boot-up.

For this reason, a home upgrader is well-advised to purchase an upgrade card that incorporates the basic video chips from the same vendor as their existing display hardware and to first ensure they have already installed the latest stable device driver software from either ATI or nVidia, as appropriate. Under the best circumstances, physically swapping the video cards will be all that’s required.

To determine whether your computer currently uses either ATI or nVidia video chipsets, check the printed materials that came with your computer. If that is not clear, go to “Start,” “Settings,” “Control Panel,” “System,” “Hardware” tab, “Device Manager” button, “Display Adapters” and then click on the “Display Adapters” + box. Windows will list the video chipset manufacturer and series. Double click on the chipset listing and you will bring up the “Properties” box. Click on the “Driver” table and Windows will list complete information about which video card device driver software is currently installed. If it’s within a year or so, there should be no problem.

You can manually check for a standard update by clicking on “Start,” “Windows Update” and select the “custom” button. After Windows Update checks your computer for currently installed software, click on the “Hardware, optional” button to see whether newer video software is available and certified by Microsoft. If so, choose and install it.

If you decide to upgrade with a video card using a different vendor’s chipsets, then you simply need to temporarily set your display to VGA 640 x 480 or 800 x 600 before starting your upgrade. To do this, right click on a blank area of your Windows desktop, choose “Properties,” then the “Settings” tab and adjust the “screen resolution” slider to these lower resolutions.

Because I use several high-end Adobe products in my legal practice, I looked carefully for an advanced video chipset that supported all of the various Adobe Master Suite CS4 products, not just PhotoShop. Weirdly, some of the Adobe products packaged together as Abode Master Collection CS4 are certified with some video chipsets and other Adobe products are certified with an entirely different group of video chipsets.

The only economical video chipset that I found to be broadly compatible was the ATI Radeon 3870 set of products. Because I have been using lower-end Radeon video cards for some time, installing a 3870-based video card was easy, at least for Windows XP systems. I found the single ATI 3870 GPU cards made by Sapphire were fast, well made and affordable, costing between $85 and $100.

Summary Upgrade Specifications. Here’s a modern computer system that I would consider a very good balance of performance and cost-effectiveness:
1. Mid-tower case with 600-watt power supply, brand unimportant.
2. AMD Phenom II 2.8 gigahertz CPU processor.
3. Gigabyte Socket AM2+ system board, model depending upon your particular peripheral device needs. I prefer the newer AMD 790 series of chipsets.
4. Four gigabytes DDR2 1066 DRAM memory.
5. Video card based upon ATI single-processor 3870 GPU chipset. Sapphire brand has been reliable and inexpensive.
6. Sony or comparable 16x DVD and CD burner.
7. Standard 3.5-inch, 1.44 MB floppy disk for operating system installation.
8. Western Digital Black Caviar 640GB WD6401AALS hard disk. If you are interested in maximum performance, then use a 10,000-rpm Western Digital. 300GB VeliceRaptor hard disk as your C: boot drive and program storage drive and the 640 GB WD6401AALS drive as your D: drive where your data would be stored.
9. Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse. Surprisingly, the less expensive models seem more reliable.
10. Digital monitor to taste. At the moment, the 23- and 24-inch 1080p flat screen monitors from Acer, ASUS, HP and Samsung seem like the best deals.

Video Card Setup: WARNING: If any technical setup information below seems at all confusing to you, then I would urge you to stop at this time and either abandon any video upgrade or get the job done by a competent local technician.

A few days before you update your video device driver software, and again when you later upgrade your video hardware go to Windows “Start,” “Settings,” “Control Panel,” “System,” “System Restore” and be absolutely sure that “System Restore” has been operating and tracking all drives. Use your system regularly for a few days to ensure that you have at least one good system restore point..

When you are ready to install the new video card, shut down your computer, ground yourself to avoid static discharge, and unplug the power cord. Open the side panel that allows access to the system board. Find the first PCI-E card slot. If your computer is too old to include a PCI-E slot, then it is too old to be worth upgrading even if you could still find the older hardware.

The physical side of the upgrade process can be straightforward unless other computer components physically get in the way. Many modern computers, particularly less expensive systems, often include a lower-end video display on the system board rather than as a separate video card. In that case, you will not have a separate display card to first remove but instead you’ll just plug the new video card directly into the first PCI-E slot, secure it to the case with the appropriate screw, and, if required, plug in a 6-pin auxiliary power cable.

However, when you next reboot, you will first need to go into the BIOS setup and configure your hardware to set the new video card as the default boot-up display. If you don’t have a free 6-pin power plug, then you will need to get a simple adapter from older 4-pin Molex power plugs to a 6-pin PCI-E video card power plug.

Again, don’t try this at home if you are at all uncertain about what to do. Instead, have a local technician do the work for you. Making a mistake in the BIOS setup can make your system unusable until a technician restores the BIOS to factory defaults.

Physically installing a powerful new video card can be sublimely easy or really tricky, depending upon whether your system has a modern power supply with a free 6-pin power plug for the PCI-E video card and depending upon whether your existing computer has system board components, hard disks, cables or other hardware that physically get in the way.

Even if your system does not have a free six-pin PCI-E power connector, a computer technician often can provide a simple adapter that converts traditional four pin Molex power connectors to 6-pin PCI-E, so this is not a serious problem. Likewise, if you have cables or hard disks that physically interfere, these can be moved if you know what you’re doing. However, both of these factors should be taken into account before you decide whether to install a faster video card. Upgrading simply may not be worth the trouble.

I upgraded three Windows XP and Windows XP x64 computers with these Sapphire video cards and found that the upgrades to Windows XP systems were easy and worthwhile. Upgrading the Windows XP x64 system was troublesome because ATI’s newest 2009 x64 drivers were not stable, forcing me rebuild the system and revert to ATI’s older but stable July 2008 x64 software. I would expect the same stability problems with the 64-bit version of Windows Vista, which is based upon the XP x64 software.

If you experience any crashing after upgrading device driver hardware, then boot up in Windows Safe Mode by passing the F8 key several times during your next boot-up. Windows Safe Mode will start and then ask you whether you wish to boot normally. Answer No and then choose a system restore point that you know will work reliably. Your system will revert to the earlier software and settings, thus giving you a stable system and another chance to cause yourself grief.

After you have physically installed any new video card, then run the installation disk that comes with your new hardware and again go to “properties”, “settings” to configure your new display to your taste.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, www.kashilaw.com.

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