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Upgrading your computer...

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Upgrading Your PC for non-experts
One of the big advantages of PCs over earlier types of computers is that they’re upgradable. If you get to the point where you need a faster computer, more storage space or whatever, you don’t have to buy a new PC. You can upgrade it by buying just the extra part you need. But sometimes it’s better to just take the plunge and replace it… and how do you know what part to upgrade? Here’s my guide:

Memory - Adding memory is one of the most popular upgrades. It makes a big difference to how fast your PC runs. When your PC runs out of memory for what it’s doing, it stores information on your hard drive instead. Your hard drive is nowhere near as fast as the memory. The more memory you’ve got, the less often your PC will need to store things on the hard drive as it works. So the faster it will go.

How much memory is enough does depend on what version of Windows you’re running. With Windows XP, 256MB is considered a bit on the low side, though it’ll be just about OK. 512MB is decent and 1024MB is really good. If you have Windows 95 or 98, you can get by on 64MB though it's worth going to 128MB even if you just use your PC for basic office work. More will make it really hum along.

It also depends on what you’re using your PC for — if you’re just typing up the odd letter and sending emails, then 256MB will probably do you but if you’re editing video or playing the latest 3D games, it’ll be worth getting the full 1024MB.

If you buy memory, make sure you get the right type for your computer — the best thing to do is go to a shop and get them to pick the right type and to fit it for you. You CAN fit it yourself if you know what you’re doing but be careful!

Hard Drive - Another upgrade that can be worthwhile is a bigger hard drive. If you don’t have enough space for all your files and programs then it’s obviously a good plan! I’d also recommend it if you have only just enough space. When your hard drive is nearly full your PC has to scamper around it trying to find empty space every time it wants to save something… and that takes time.

I’d recommend keeping your existing hard drive and adding a new one instead of actually replacing your existing one. No point in throwing it away if it’s still working! A typical hard drive nowadays is anywhere from 40GB to 160GB — if you’re getting a new one it might as well be big!

With a hard drive you can either fit it yourself or get a shop to fit it… or there’s a third option. You can buy an external version which plugs into your computer via a USB port. These are great for moving information from one PC to another. If it’s always on one PC, I prefer the hard drive neatly tucked away inside the case… but again, it’s up to you.

Bigger/flat monitor - If you’ve got a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitor (the type with a box sticking out the back, like a television) you might fancy one of those stylish flat ones. It’s not just a fancy gadget, they also fit better on a small desk and you can have it closer to the wall than a big cumbersome CRT.

If you decide to go for it, think about whether you want one with built in speakers. It keeps you desk nice and tidy and looks more stylish. But you can get much better sound quality with separate speakers.

You also could think about what size of screen you want. It’s measured in inches from one corner to the opposite one. 17inch is pretty standard for desktop PCs though the flat screen types tend to seem bigger than the CRT type even when they’re the same size. For normal use, I wouldn’t particularly recommend getting a big one but if you do a lot of design or gaming, it might be worth it.

Processor - I’m not a big fan of processor upgrades. People talk about the processor speed when they’re saying how fast a PC is but there’s a lot more to it. Upgrading the processor without upgrading the other parts doesn’t tend to make much difference. And if you’re going to change the other bits too, you’re probably best off just buying a new PC. It’ll probably be cheaper.

CD Writer/DVD player/DVD writer - This is a simple one. If you don’t have a CD writer and you want to be able to write CDs, get one! As usual, I’d advise you to get it fitted at the shop you buy it at. Or you could get an external one that plugs into a USB port. If you fancy it you could even get a DVD player or DVD writer, if you want to put your home movies on DVD. Again, you can either get it fitted or buy an external one.

Graphics Card - This is a bit of a specialist one. If you’re into fast 3D games, then it might be worth getting a faster graphics card. If you aren’t, it probably isn’t. A standard graphics card can handle ordinary graphics pretty well. It’s only when the PC throws fast 3D at it that it struggles. Then the PC itself has to do some of the work for it, leaving less time for the PC to work out whether you’ve been clobbered by a goblin.

Epilogue - The crucial point about upgrades is that it really does depend on what you use your PC for. If you’re happy with what your PC is doing for you, don’t let anyone talk you into feeling you have to upgrade.

Tim Wakeling is the Author of Computers One Step at a Time, a home course using plenty of pictures of the screen to show you how to use your PC. He also writes a free monthly newsletter about computers for non-experts. Find out about both at http://www.osaat.co.uk © Tim Wakeling, UK 2005.

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