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Time to Get Up to RAM-ing Speed?

PCs: Before you permanently download that Stone Age excuse for a computer, think upgrade.


Planned obsolescence may be one of the most clever inventions of the Industrial Age. Manufacture a product, sell it, improve it, then sell the same product to the same people. Repeat until money stops.

The computer industry--with its steady tributaries of faster processors, more complex software, bigger hard disks and the like--has the method down cold. There's no need to fall prey to cynicism, though. Reputable computer hardware manufacturers adhere to industry compatibility standards, making it easy to upgrade a computer, part by part, without resorting to a new purchase.

There are several simple and fairly inexpensive steps you can take to speed up or otherwise improve your computer in ways that will provide gratifyingly noticeable performance jumps.

For most computers, the first, best and cheapest improvement is in RAM, or random access memory. This is a propitious moment for PC owners: The mysteries of world economics have sharply depressed the price of these memory chips to an unusual low. This could be the best time ever to add RAM capacity to your machine. Memory-hungry programs, such as Microsoft Windows, will run faster on PCs with more RAM.

"If you're sitting with 8 megabytes of RAM or less, you'll get a great boost if you go up to 16 megabytes," said Tim Tierney, owner of VidComm Computers Inc., a Chatsworth PC systems seller.

As a general rule, the more RAM the better, but the most substantial performance gains show up at 16 megabytes. Jumps up to 24 or 32 megabytes of RAM will also improve a PC's speed, but the gains won't be nearly as dramatic. This is also true for laptop and notebook computers.

Mass-market computer stores, such as Computer City or CompUSA, will sell 8 megabytes of RAM for $130 to $140, and they'll charge $30 to $50 to install it. Prices vary. Jet Research Laboratories, a Pasadena PC shop, sells 8 megabytes of RAM for about $80 and charges little or nothing to install it. Popping the new RAM chips into most computers is about as difficult as playing dominoes, however, so barring serious techno-phobia, try it yourself. There's one caveat: Sometimes the RAM chips have to be added in equal pairs, so consult a pro to see what chip configuration you need.

Upgrading a video card, the device that sends images to the monitor, will also provide a noticeable improvement, especially for graphics-heavy applications with complex images such as computer games.

There are two ways to improve video card capability: replacement or the addition of memory to an existing card. If you didn't specify a video card when you bought your machine, chances are it's nothing special.

Video cards have their own supply of special RAM memory, but there are three types of RAM. The slowest type is DRAM (dynamic random access memory); much better and somewhat more expensive is VRAM (video RAM); the best is WRAM (Windows RAM). Again, more RAM is better. The cheaper cards have 1 megabyte or less of RAM. Spring for a 2-megabyte card and you'll see the difference on your monitor in terms of color, resolution and overall speed as the images change.

Prices for 1- and 2-megabyte Super Video Graphics Array cards range from about $100 to $300. A good 2-megabyte VRAM card may run in the neighborhood of $240. You may be able to add RAM to the card you already own; expect to spend $50 or more per megabyte, depending on the type of memory. (Cards with 4 or 8 megabytes of RAM are also available, but they cost hundreds more and are probably more than you need.)

If you spend a lot of time surfing the Internet and the Web or downloading files from an online services provider, such as CompuServe or America Online, you should be using a 28,800-baud modem at the very minimum. Otherwise, all your expensive computer equipment is being fettered by an unnecessarily slow modem pipeline. A high-quality U.S. Robotics 28,800-bps (bits per second) modem costs about $180.

Running out of space on the old hard disk? A 1.2- or even 1.6-gigabyte hard disk with a 10-millisecond seek time, one made by a highly regarded company such as Western Digital or Connor, will probably run $220 to $250, depending on where you buy. Most shops will install them for $50 or $60. You can keep your old hard disk in the PC for more storage.

Even the processor, the brain and heart of the computer, can be popped out and replaced.

PCs with older 25-megahertz 486 chips can be upgraded to processors with 50-MHz and 75-MHz clock speeds, doubling or tripling the computer's data-crunching speed. Replacement 486 chips can cost $200. Some 486 motherboards have a socket for a chip called the Pentium Overdrive.

As with the 486 machines, it's possible to replace slower 75-MHz Pentium processors with chips that run at faster clock speeds, but there is usually an upper limit to the speed an older motherboard can handle. Also, Pentiums cost much more than a 486 chip: A new Pentium 133 wholesales for about $289.

Freelance writer Paul Karon can be reached via e-mail at

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