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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC FOCUS / LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Hard Drives, They Are A-Changin'

March 17, 1997|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

For the last three years, I've been using a 90-megahertz Pentium PC with a 1-gigabyte hard drive. The machine has served me well, but the hard drive was getting cramped and the machine seemed a bit sluggish by today's standards.

So I gave it a new lease on life by upgrading it with a larger hard drive, more memory and a new 150-MH Intel OverDrive Pentium CPU with MMX Technology. Now it holds more programs and data, runs faster and will be able to run the new MMX multimedia programs expected out later this year.

My machine didn't always seem slow. But as programs grow in size and complexity, they start to run more slowly than their leaner, simpler counterparts.

The machine initially came with 16 megabytes of RAM, which is enough to run Windows 95 and most applications programs. But upgrading to 32 megs allows Windows to run faster, especially noticeable when you load several programs at a time.

Adding memory is relatively cheap these days (16 megs cost about $80) and pretty easy. Memory comes on modules that snap into place, but you have to buy the right type of memory module for your machine. Call your PC maker's technical support department or buy from a dealer who will be able to sell you a module matched to your system.

If you need more disk space, you can replace your hard disk drive with a larger one or buy a second. Most PC hard drives connect to an IDE interface located in one of your expansion slots or built into your system's motherboard. Most machines can handle two hard drives.

Connecting the drive can be a bit tricky. You need to mount it inside the machine and connect both the power and data cables. You may also have to flip switches or move jumper cable on one or both of your drives to determine which is the "master" and which is the "slave."

You'll also have to format the drive with the proper software, which can be a daunting experience for the uninitiated. Experienced technicians, however, can do the upgrade in a matter of minutes, and they typically charge about $40 to $50.

If you decide to take it on yourself, make sure you have the manuals for both your new and old drives. If you don't have the manual for the old drive, call your PC or drive maker to find out what needs to be done. Hard disk drive prices vary by size and speed, but you can get a pretty good two-gigabyte drive for about $240.

As far as performance is concerned, the biggest upgrade to my machine came when I took out the 90-MHz Pentium CPU and replaced it with an OverDrive 150-MHz Pentium MMX CPU. The new chip not on only runs about 50% faster but also contains 32k of "cache" memory that speeds up performance by 10% to 20% more.

The MMX circuitry in the chip will have a big performance effect on multimedia software designed to take advantage of MMX, though there are only a few such programs currently available.

The whole process took less than 10 minutes. My machine, like most built in the last few years, has a zero insertion force, or ZIF, socket, which allows you to remove the CPU by flipping a lever and slipping out the old chip.

If you don't have a ZIF socket, you have to use a small flat-head screwdriver to pry out the old chip, or you will need to use a chip puller to exert force from above. Inserting the new chip will require a fair amount of force, making it very easy to bend a pin if they're not all lined up correctly.

Before buying an OverDrive chip, check with your PC maker or Intel's MMX Web site (http://www.mmx.com) to see if your machine is compatible with the chip. Not all are. In some cases, you might also need to upgrade your BIOS (another chip on the motherboard) or run a special piece of software that comes with the MMX.

Intel offers a $399 OverDrive chip that upgrades 75-MHz systems to 125 MHz and 90-MHz machines to 150 MHz. A $499 chip upgrades a 100-MHz system to 166 MHz.

The big question you must ask before undertaking an upgrade is whether it's cost-effective. If you have an older 486 or 386 machine, it probably isn't worth spending too much money for an upgrade.

If your hard drive is cramped for space--regardless of which machine you have--it's pretty easy to justify the cost of a new drive. Even if you wind up replacing the machine, you can later move that drive to whatever you buy.

Links to Web sites of companies that make or sell memory upgrades and hard drives are available at http://www.larrysworld.com/upgrade.htm

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Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at magid@latimes.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com

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