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The Explorer /
Fred Langa

Pssst! Want to Make $500 an Hour?
Don't roll your eyes at the idea of a do-it-yourself upgrade. It's easier than you think.

No, that's not a misprint or a scam. That's the effective rate of savings that you can achieve if you're willing to roll up your sleeves and spend just a little time wielding a screwdriver to perform some simple, do-it-yourself hardware upgrades.

Wait! If you're already rolling your eyes at the thought of diving inside your computer, your information on upgrades may be way out of date. Yes, in the Bad Old Days, opening up a PC was a major undertaking: There once was a time when changing parts in a PC was the equivalent of silicon brain surgery-you needed special tools, infinite care and patience, and a nontrivial amount of prior "what goes where" know-how about the dozens-to-hundreds of separate pieces that made up the early systems.

Those days are long gone. Today's systems are highly modular, better engineered and infinitely simpler to work on. If you know which end of the screwdriver to hold, you already know most of what you need to start saving yourself some major cash. Let me give you three quick examples of upgrades I've recently done on my own systems.

The first one saved me about $1,000. One of my home systems was absolutely at the end of its useful life. It was a 486/33 fossil that had started as my personal system six years ago, and had been handed down through the family food chain. Along the way it had been variously upgraded with a CD-ROM drive and sound card, a new monitor and video card, extra RAM and so on. But it still was a 33MHz system. Just waiting for the thing to boot was a two-minute torture, and the system was simply too underpowered to be productive with the best of today's software.

Then I saw an ad for a CPU upgrade: I could bring the lowly 33MHz system to 133MHz for about $100. There was a money-back guarantee, so I had nothing to lose. I placed the order.

The part arrived in a couple of days: a new CPU chip, mounted on its own tiny circuit board and topped by a small fan. The instructions were clear and simple-if you already know your way around a PC, you probably won't even need to read them. The upgrade went like this: I backed up the old system's drives, shut everything down, popped the case, grounded myself and removed the old CPU. I then put the new CPU in the now-empty CPU socket, plugged the small cooling fan to one of the system's available power leads and popped the cover back on. I didn't know what would happen when I turned the power back on, but I needn't have worried-everything woke up and ran perfectly. Total elapsed time: maybe 30 minutes.

The system now feels about as fast as an early Pentium system and is running current software-even a beta of Windows 98! So, for the cost of about $100 out-of-pocket and half an hour of my time, I've added at least another year of useful life to that aging system and avoided the cost of buying a new one. I probably saved a grand, and maybe more.

The second upgrade saved me not in cash, but in time and headaches:

I test a lot of hardware and software, and tend to be hard on my systems. Long-time readers of this column know I'm a fanatic about backups so when-inevitably-this beta or that prototype brings my system down, I don't lose data. But it's still a pain in the posterior to have to restore everything from scratch.

The recent drop in hard drive prices got me to thinking about live, online backups-backups you can access in seconds, rather than minutes or hours, when something goes awry. So, I sprung for a new 4GB drive (less than $300), and installed it as a "slave" in my primary home system. Total elapsed time to install, including formatting: about 45 minutes. Now, in addition to my offline, archival backups, I have my entire hard drive cloned on a second drive. If, or rather when, some beta bug hoses my main system, I can even FDISK and reformat the main drive, but have all my files available live and online the whole while. With a product like LapLink to keep the multiple copies in sync, and something like PowerQuest's DriveCopy utility to restore the files from the second drive to the first, setups that used to take hours now take far less time.

The third example isn't exactly an upgrade, but it falls into the same general category. I'd been intrigued by the $800 to $1,000 assemble-it-yourself systems I'd seen and wondered how hard it would be to put one together. I called TigerDirect (http://www.tigerdirect.com) and asked for one of its 200MHz machines based on the AMD-K6 chip. The system includes 16MB of RAM, a 4.3GB hard drive, a floppy drive, an S3 ViRGE 3D video card, a 20X CD-ROM drive, a multifunction IBM Mwave card (a DSP-based unit that provides 33.6 fax modem, answering-machine and sound-card capabilities), a keyboard, mouse, speakers and microphone.

The system took about 90 minutes to assemble, or rather about 60 minutes of actual work and another 30 minutes of head scratching. Some of the printed instructions did not accurately reflect the system I actually received; in other places, the instructions glossed over a few slightly quirky assembly steps too lightly. (See http://www.winmag.com/flanga/k6.htm for more details and some step-by-step snapshots.) But once everything was together, the system worked fine-informal Wintune benchmarks clock this K6 unit as faster than some factory-made Pentium 200MHz systems. I'd have no qualms recommending a system like this as a low-end home or second system.

Despite the high performance, the system only costs around $1,100. Fully assembled K6 systems run anywhere from $200 to $900 more.

I'm the first to admit that building an entire system isn't for everyone, but as you can see from these three examples, you can gain a significant payoff with just a little elbow grease. Other easy do-it-yourself upgrades include adding memory, upgrading CD drives and so on. If you're still thinking of hardware upgrades as something strictly for the pocket-protector crowd, you may be selling yourself short.

Give it a try. It's easier, and cheaper, than you think!

Fred Langa is vice president and editorial director of Windows Magazine. Contact Fred via his home page at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm or at the addresses on page 20.

Windows Magazine, October 1997, page 39.

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