Dont Buy A New PC, Energise The Old Ones Grey Cells

Atlanta | Updated: Jul 28 2004, 04:40am hrs
I never thought I would be typing the next sentence, but let me force my doubting fingers to hit the right keys: You probably dont need a new computer.

Look, Im not talking to those of you, who have a computer with a crank on the side instead of an AC connection. If your computer came with Windows 95 or 98, you need a new computer and deserve a medal for putting up with an antique so long. But if your computer was purchased in the Windows XP days, or even a few months before XP came out, you neednt start looking for a replacement.

But there is one simple thing you should do and Im going to tell you about it today to keep that computer running right. Before I do that, let me explain why its such a glory hallelujah moment for folks with a computer thats a couple of years old.

Surely you remember when the computer market was like the old arms race as soon as one side got a good missile, the other side needed a better one.

It was the same with computers. As soon as you opened the box and plugged in your old computer, it was out of date.

Heres what was happening back then. As new chips from Intel and AMD hit the market, software manufacturers would scramble to create new and more complex software that required every bit of horsepower from that new chip. Folks with anything less than the fastest computer either had to forgo buying the new software or strain their budgets to buy a new machine powerful enough to handle the software.

It was the golden age for the computer industry. Both hardware and software companies loved it, because that high-pitched cycle lit a fire under the consumer.

Those days seem to be over, at least for a while. Sure, fast computers are still hitting the market like so many acorns on a tin roof. But the computer arms race got so ridiculous and computers got so powerful that most of us ended up with a computer that could calculate the annual budget for Brazil in milliseconds.

Ive owned my 1.4-gigahertz computer for three years now, and it still suits me just fine. Its running Windows XP Professional. It is fast enough for me, even though Im running programs that demand a lot of processing power.

Things would be different if I were a heavy-duty game player. Video games are about the most demanding programs out there. I occasionally take a game home from the office, but, for the most part, I edit photographs, do some writing, cruise the Web and once a year do financial calculations that help determine whether I should pay taxes or plan a midnight change of residences from Atlanta to Madagascar.

Unless you are designing a nuclear submarine in the basement, many of you are in the same boat. You have a computer that is 2 or 3 years old and whether you realise it or not its got enough power to keep going for another two years.

Think of what that means. Instead of dropping $1,400 or so on a new PC, you can do something foolish with your money, like paying the mortgage. But, to be able to keep that machine around for a while, you need to soup it up. There are all sorts of things you can do buy a faster video card, install a larger and faster hard disk, pop for a replacement processor chip. You also can remove adware and spyware (download SpyBot for free at www.download.com).

All that works fine and is worth doing. But theres one single change you can make that offers the most bang for the buck. Adding memory is the closest thing I know to a magical fix for a slow computer.

When I bought my computer, 128 megabytes of RAM was really a lot. But nowadays if you have less than 512 megabytes of memory in a PC using Windows XP, youre wading through mud. Adding memory will put you on a fast track and do it affordably.

I need to pause and take a breath here to give you a warning. Buying memory is complicated, even for me. For one thing, youd use up a whole can of alphabet soup spelling out all the differet kinds of memory available. None of these chips has a Christian name. Instead there is SDRAM, EDO RAM, FPM RAM, DIMM you get the idea.

You need to consult your computer manual to find the type you need. If you cant find the manual, you can go to www.crucial.com or www.kingston.com. These Web sites will try to sell you some RAM. But theyll also tell you what chip you need, based on the computer you own. Theyll also tell you if your computer requires that RAM be installed in sets of two chips, or whether you can simply add a single chip.

Adding RAM is easy, and the chips come with instructions. You can also find instructions for adding RAM in your computer manual or on the manufacturers Web site. Most of you can do this yourself. But if you cant, many computer stores will add the RAM at no extra cost when you buy the memory chips. Depending on how much RAM you already have in your PC, moving to 512 MB will cost from $60-$150.

BILL HUSTED / NY TIMES