Give your PC a Holiday upgrade

Give your PC a Holiday upgrade

Summary: Planning on putting in some time on the PC over the Holidays? Maybe you're going to be spending some time fragging zombies, or creating cards from friends and family, or maybe you're going to be rendering a family DVD to give out as a gift. Chances are that unless your PC is quite new it could do with a little bit of a performance boost to help you get more done in less time. Here are some ways that you can boost the performance of your system for the Holidays.

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TOPICS: Hardware, Processors
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Planning on putting in some time on the PC over the Holidays?  Maybe you're going to be spending some time fragging zombies, or creating cards from friends and family, or maybe you're going to be rendering a family DVD to give out as a gift.  Chances are that unless your PC is quite new it could do with a little bit of a performance boost to help you get more done in less time.  Here are some ways that you can boost the performance of your system for the Holidays.

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Add more RAM

Give your PC a Holiday upgradeI'm always amazed at the lengths that some people will go to in order to try to make too little RAM go further.  I've seen people waste good money on "RAM doublers" and other utilities that make dubious claims about being able to improve performance when they could have spent that money on some RAM and got instant and measurable results.

Unless you're running 2GB on 32-bit Windows or 4GB on the 64-bit flavors, there's always a performance gain to be felt from fitting more RAM. 

Adding RAM is probably the easiest hardware upgrade, and anyone that can handle a screwdriver can do it.  I know that readers here at ZDNet are probably very comfortable with such upgrades but for first-timers, cracking open a PC and tinkering with it can be a daunting experience.  I find that if you hand-hold someone through an upgrade like adding more RAM, their confidence level will be boosted tremendously - that alone could be a great Christmas gift for someone!

Another RAM upgrade that you can do that might be beneficial to your system is to upgrade the speed of your RAM.  For example, if your motherboard supports PC2-6400 RAM but you've got slower rated RAM fitted, adding faster RAM is worthwhile (especially for gamers).

If you're going to push your RAM to the limits or go further and overclock it then you need to go for good quality RAM, and my money goes to Corsair or OCZ.

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Windows ReadyBoost

For people who don't want to crack open their PC and add more RAM, if they're running Vista they can take advantage of a feature called ReadyBoost - this takes a flash memory device (such as a USB flash drive, Compact flash or SD card) and uses this as a cache. 

Not all devices are suited to ReadyBoost - the device must be capable of 2.5MB/s read speeds for 4KB random reads spread uniformly across the entire device and 1.75MB/s write speeds for 512KB random writes spread uniformly across the device and must have at least 256MB of free space.  Look for flash devices that are rated as ReadyBoost compatible.

Using ReadyBoost is simple - attach the drive to the PC and confirm that you want it used as a cache and away you go.  And it does boost system performance.  OK, not as much as adding more RAM would, but it's useful nonetheless, especially for temporarily boosting the performance of notebooks.

Upgrade the graphics card

Give your PC a Holiday upgradeUpgrading your graphics card not only will make your existing games run smoother but it will also open up the possibility of playing newer games.  If you've had your graphics card for more than about six months then chances are that there's a faster, better and, quite possibly, cheaper one available. 

When it comes to performance at a sensible price, I'd say that the GPUs to look for now are the HD 3850s from ATI and 8800GTs from nVIDIA.

Also, depending on your motherboard and what card you have at present, you might be able to keep your existing card and fit the new one and link the two together to make use of SLI (nVIDIA) or Crossfire (ATI).

Faster hard drive

Give your PC a Holiday upgradeAnother way to boost performance is to install a faster hard drive. 

If your system runs PATA (parallel ATA drive) then these are going to be a performance roadblock and you're better upgrading to SATA (serial ATA).  If you're motherboard supports SATA then you're ready to go already, if not then you'll need a PCI expansion card to do the job. 

If you've got a lot of dough burning holes in your pockets you could opt for a solid-state drive (SSD) but even if you choose to stick with platters, there are some fast drives available.  The fastest is the Western Digital Raptor drive (or the RaptorX is you want a topless drive).  If you want more capacity as well as a performance increase then it might be worth looking at the Samsung SpinPoint T133 (133GB) or the T166 (166GB). 

Processor/motherboard upgrades

Give your PC a Holiday upgradeFinally, if nothing else will help, you can replace the brain and central nervous system of your PC (the processor and motherboard).  This is a significant upgrade and if you're happy doing this then you'll know how to go about it and if you don't then you're likely to be the kind of person that will buy a new PC to replace the old one.

When it comes to choosing a new processor it's hard to recommend anything that doesn't have the Intel logo on it.  As for motherboards, I like ASUS and Gigabyte and really like the Intel X38 chipset.

Thoughts?

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Topics: Hardware, Processors

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11 comments
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  • The only two categories you missed were...

    ...sound cards and the monitor.

    Sound cards reduce processing load, improving frame rates in games etc. A decent card like a higher end X-Fi adds a whole new level of enjoyment to all your audio and video interactions with your PC.

    The monitor? It's your main feedback. If you're still on a CRT (as I was until September this year) then moving to a widescreen LCD will knock your socks off. 20"+ is getting more and more affordable now as well.
    Ben_E
  • If someone you love has a laptop

    the best way to get them to love you back is to replace their 4200 RPM hard drive with a 7200 RPM drive. Of course make sure you have the tools to transfer the data, as most laptops can only handle one drive at a time.
    Michael Kelly
    • Also make sure the laptop can support...

      getting rid of the extra heat generated by a 7200rpm drive, or you could find the laptop dead from overheating.
      mrOSX
      • And battery and size

        7200 rpm drives chew up the battery faster not to mention size is a constraint. So unless you plan to have the laptop always plugged in, stay with 4200/5400 rpm varieties and go for the 160 GB instead. A much more valued upgrade than speed in my opinion.
        Cornhead
  • My holiday upgrade

    I found a nice Blu Ray/HD DVD combo drive on the Best Buy site for $300, which I think is a nice entry level price to get the best of the best without having to choose the winning technology. It only reads the high def discs, but it writes double density DVDs and lesser discs, which is good enough for me. It's an internal drive, so I'm also getting a ~$25 enclosure so I can move it between my media PC (which will be connected to my other new toy, a cheap 42" 1080p LCD) and my laptop.

    It was kind of an impulse buy, so hopefully it works as advertised.
    Michael Kelly
  • How about old hard drives?

    How about an article on what to do with old hard disks other than trash them or try to hand them down to "less fortunate" relatives? I don't do games or massive amounts of digital photos. Currently I have a 200GB disk with only one 100 GB partition, a "backup" machine that is rarely used with two 80 GB disks (each set as a Windows bootable disk), and a 40 GB disk with Linux just to try it. One 80 GB and the 40 are in removable trays. I also have a perfectly working 8GB lying around.

    40 and 80 GB disks still have plenty of capacity and useful life, but what to do with them? Especially if your machine has a 150+GB disk, it doesn't really need a second disk just to have one and most of us don't need things like RAID or disk mirroring for home machines.
    Rick_R
    • Using old hard disks

      Is there a way to dedicate an old disk to virtual memory? Would a drive only used as virtual memory work faster for that? Perhaps the 8GB or even 40GB as 8/40GB of virtual memory. I assume that because it is a physically separate disk the machine could write to both the "main" disk and the VM disk simultaneously.
      Rick_R
      • You certainly can do this

        [i]Is there a way to dedicate an old disk to virtual memory?[/i]

        Absolutely you could do this. Windows lets you move your page file to any drive you want.
        1. Open system properties (Win-Pause key works or you can go through control panel)
        2. Click on the Advanced tab.
        3. Click on the Settings button in the Performance section.
        4. Click on the Advanced tab.
        5. Click on the Change button in the Virtual memory section.
        6. Add a page file to any drive you want (and remove the page file from the C: drive).
        This was done on my Vista box but I don't think the labels are any different on XP so the same instructions should work.

        Linux allows you to host your /swap partition on any drive you want as well.
        NonZealot
      • That's pretty easy

        in any OS. In Windows XP (I think Vista is similar, but I don't have it in front of me) go the the System icon in the control panel, Advanced tab, Performance Settings button, Advanced tab (another one), Virtual Memory change button to configure. Set unlimited virtual memory the new drive and take it off of the other drives, you'll probably need to reboot.

        In Linux, let's assume it's your second hard drive and it's an old PATA, use any partition editor (GUI, line command, ncurses, doesn't matter) to make a swap partition on the new drive, then in a command prompt type (without quotes) "mkswap /dev/hdb1" to format the partition and "swapon /dev/hdb1" to turn it on for this session. To make it permanent, add this line to /etc/fstab: "/dev/hdb1 none swap sw 0 0", and while you're in there you can delete any old instance of swap partitions on the old hard drive. After you reboot or manually swapoff that old swap partition you can reclaim the space.
        Michael Kelly
    • Server

      What about setting up that backup machine as a server. Use it to store backups of files, photos, music and even movies. A 40GB drive will store lots of music. I ripped most of my music collection to a file server (especially the music I rarely listen to) and then copy it to my mp3 player when I want to listen to it on my stereo, car, etc. That way I could pack up and store the CDs.
      jshaw4343
  • PATA vs SATA

    [i]If your system runs PATA (parallel ATA drive) then these are going to be a performance roadblock and you???re better upgrading to SATA (serial ATA).[/i]

    I've always read that PATA isn't the bottleneck with 7200rpm drives. Have you seen otherwise?
    NonZealot