Give your system a mid-life kicker

Give your system a mid-life kicker

Summary: If the economy has made you put off buying a faster system, you aren't alone. The good news: you can make your current system much snappier with faster storage - DRAM and disk.


If the economy has made you put off buying a faster system, you aren't alone. The good news: you can make your current system much snappier with faster storage - DRAM and disk. Here's how - and why.

Your CPU speed is fixed. So is your network and memory bandwidth. Only new storage can give your system a performance boost.

Even better news: storage prices are at all-time lows. There's never been a better time to upgrade.

The basic strategy Start with #1, then look at #2. The 3rd option isn't cost-effective for most people today and you have to be careful to avoid some really awful 1st and 2nd generation products - buyer beware!

  1. Add main memory - also known as DRAM, RAM, DIMM or SO-DIMM.
  2. Install a faster and/or higher capacity disk drive.
  3. Install a flash-based Solid State Drive - which doesn't make sense for most people.

RAM or disk There are 2 kinds of storage or memory in your system: DRAM or RAM - Dynamic Random Access Memory - fast electronic storage; and disk or hard drive storage. If there isn't enough DRAM for the work you want to do, the operating system uses the disk memory as a substitute.

That works OK for light use, but disk drives take a million times longer to access data than DRAM, so as you get busier your system gets slower. For maximum performance you want to minimize disk I/O.

First To minimize disk I/O increase your DRAM. More memory reduces disk I/O in 2 ways:

  • Entire programs and data can be loaded into DRAM and run without having to swap parts in and out. For example, Photoshop maintains several copies of any image you are working on. For a 50 MB image Photoshop will run best with ~250 MB free DRAM. Your OS and other programs need DRAM too, so the demand quickly adds up.
  • When DRAM runs short, Windows or Mac OS start using the disk drive as "virtual memory." Since disk drives are so slow compared to DRAM, this slows your system down. Too many outstanding I/O requests will overflow the on-chip memory, further slowing your system.

Typical desktop systems support up to 8 GB of DRAM - check the specs - and more is better. Doubling the amount of DRAM you have now - assuming you aren't at full capacity already - is a good rule of thumb for maximum bang for your buck.

How much better? I went from 5 to 8 GB DRAM on my quad-core Xeon Mac Pro and was amazed at how much snappier and stable the system became. The added DRAM almost eliminates disk swapping.

I typically have a couple of dozen programs open - often including I/O intensive video, image and audio editors - so if all you do is surf the web, read email and type a few letters you won't need 8 GB - 2-4 GB will be fine. One caveat: a 32-bit OS, which includes most versions of Windows, won't support more than 4 GB of RAM, even if the hardware will.

Later this year I plan to upgrade to 16 GB of DRAM. When I do I'll let you know how it goes.

Disk drive upgrade I recently upgraded my system disk from a 7200 RPM disk to a 10,000 RPM Western Digital VelociRaptor. It made a HUGE difference in machine performance.

1/3rd faster boot times. 3 GB swap files that I didn't notice. Snappy app loads. It's like a new system.

You'll see similar results upgrading a 5400 RPM notebook disk to a 7200 RPM disk. Either upgrade offers a 30-40% improvement - one you will certainly notice.

If you edit much video, a 2nd drive can help. Keep the project on the 2nd drive and render to the system disk for greater speed.

Even if you don't upgrade to a faster drive, a much more dense drive - for example, moving from 80 GB to 500 GB - will give performance gains. The higher bit density means large reads and writes are faster and average seeks shorter. Not as dramatic as a 10k drive, but noticeable.

Performing the upgrade Most memory upgrades are user installable. Check your vendor's web site for instructions. For the best prices I check out dealram.

Many notebook drives are upgradeable as well. If you have a plastic MacBook check out my 1 minute guide. Otherwise consult the vendor web site.

Tower systems vary in their expansion ease. The Mac Pro is really easy. Most Dell's and other towers are ok, but expect to spend some time. Or find a friend who's done it before and learn with them.

The Storage Bits take I/O bottlenecks slow systems down. Faster and more abundant storage speed them up. With RAM and disks so cheap, upgrading storage is a great mid-life kicker.

Comments welcome, of course. If your hard drives more than 3 years old, replacing them is a good idea. They are mechanical devices and simply start to wear out.

Yes, I ignored overclocking. If you want to overclock, do it right!

Topics: Processors, Hardware, Storage

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  • DRAM/RAM/Memory

    It appears that the article doesn't point out that the amount of memory you can "address"/use depends on your Operating System, not just your motherboard. Windows 2000/XP/Vista 32-bit only support upto 4Gb of RAM. If you are going to go above that, then you will need to run the 64-bit version of Windows or a 64-bit version of Linux.
    • Good catch!

      I added the caveat. When I started in the business the VAX 780's 2 GB
      31-bit user address space seemed impossibly large. And now I'm
      contemplating 16 GB of physical RAM?


      Robin Harris
    • or even worst: max. 3GB

      It also depends on the bios support.
      In many systems I/O mapped memory of system devices are mapped into the upper 1 GB space of the 4 GB memory map. Leaving only 3GB addressable, even if you installed 4GB mem. See Intel doc on this.
  • RE: Give your system a mid-life kicker

    This has always been my advise to friends and clients who doesn't want to replace their computers.
  • Finding memory?

    But with the pace of memory changes, it's hard-to-impossible to find affordable memory for machines which are over only 1-2 years old. The deals are always for the new memory, which goes in the new machines. Older memory (such as PC 2100, 2700, etc now) goes for an arm and a leg - you might as well buy a new PC for what you're going to spend.

    Is there some guide somewhere that shows what newer memory can be used in what older (relatively) machines?
    • Finding Memory II

      I agree with the previous readers comments about older system memory being difficult to locate and expensive to boot. I recently purchased 2GB of PC6400 RAM for my newere machine for $10 a stick after rebates. On theotehr end of teh spectrum I have a Dell Inspiron 8100 that I would like to bump up to 512MB from 256MB, however tha twill cost me over $70. Do I really want to put that kind of money into a 8 year old machine? I can probably shop around and make a decent deal on a new machine. Just my thoughts.
      • mid-life... not end-of-life

        Everyone's needs are different, so their perception of a mid-life computer varies... but I expect few people consider an 8 year old computer mid-life anymore. At that point, no, memory is probably not going to be very cost effective.
      • $70 for 256MB?

        You must be talking about PC-133 or PC-100. If you're talking about rambus memory, forget it. That machine is way past its useful life. If so, you can thank Intel for leading you down their blind alley.

        <strong>Don't buy new PC-133 or PC-100 RAM!</strong>

        I [i]gave[/i] my friend 768MB (3x256MB) of PC-133 so he could max out a Mac G3 Cube.

        Most of that came from a non-profit facility in our city that recycles computer parts. Most of that 256 MB PC-133 RAM was purchased from them for $5/DIMM.

        One caveat--you have to [i]know[/i] what you're looking at. There's no packaging to tell you what is what. I usually take my magnifying glass with me to read silk-screened print on chips. Then I do the math. Take a calculator too if you can't do arithmetic in your head.

    • let's be fair here...

      1-2 year old machines are not running DDR-- which is what you're talking about when you quote PC-2100 & 2700. DDR2 has been mainstream for around 4 years (which I would consider a mid-life pc) and record breaking deals can be had on DDR2 right now.

      I think Robin is completely correct in how he has presented the concept.
  • RE: Give your system a mid-life kicker

    Actually most systems ship with MBs that support faster processors than are originally in them. A friend gave me an old server a while back, with dual 233 MHz processors. I upgraded both processors to 666Mhz for a whopping $18 including shipping by buying used processors on EBay. Made it, at the time, a pretty decent system.

    • You're reading storage bits...

      we don't upgrade processors around here! ;)
  • What exactly does the CPU do?

    At boot up the OS copies from the hard drive to the RAM and the OS then runs in the RAM.When you start a program the application icon is clicked and the program copies to the RAM then runs.Somebody has the BIOS all locked up.Only they can access it.I would like to see if that FSB multiplier is set to its minimum.My computer has a liquid cooled CPU and I've never heard it start up even once!
    • Huh? (nt)

    • It sounds like

      you drowned the gerbils on the squirrelcage.
  • Is USB geek sticks a solution , or too slow

    What about adding USB thumb drives? Is 2.0 too slow?
    • Way-y-y too slow, and

      you can use a USB thumb drive to expand capacity for rarely used files,
      but I wouldn't recommend it. Buy a cheap USB disk drive instead and
      you'll have more capacity and faster small file writes.

      USB thumb drives are expensive on a per-GB basis. Once you get to $50,
      disks are cheaper, faster and offer a lot more capacity.

      Robin Harris
      • USB external drives

        The problem with USB external drives is that everyone's going to fanless drives. They run hot and heat is the enemy of electronics. I have 3 external usb drives. My Seagate fanless died after 3 months. Sure it had a warranty but I lost the stored data. Same thing with a Samsung - 6 months for that. The only operating drive I have is a 3 yr old 250 Gb Seagate WITH cooling fan. I'm really ticked because there's no other convenient and reliable solution to backup large amounts of data. And no, burning thousands of music and video files to dvd is not a logical solution.
        • Your problem is cheap drives

          My HP Laptop has 2 internal drives,
          with no airflow past them (I know, because I had to rip the thing down to the point of removing the heat-sink assembly, to replace the fan...(only to find that it the fan blades were collecting giant dustbunnies)). GOOD drives are rather heat tolerant; as long as there is a decent route for heat to dissapate by conduction, they'll do OK. Currently Hitachi's DeskStar and other *Star lines are actually IBM lines (IBM built both the factories, and the drives, until the sold the product line to Hitachi.) IBM can't program their way out of a paper bag, but their hardware is top notch.
  • RE: Give your system a mid-life kicker

    For my own PC, I use SCSI RAID level 0 and a pair of 15000RPM U320 drives. Overkill ? it is fun though. Nobody would ever pay to have one built, but as self-indulgence, it makes for satisfaction. Nice to see somebody address how much drive speeds and access times affect system performance. Most boards do not support RAM in excess of 3gig. Hardware that does is out of my reach at present. Higher density drives are becoming affordable as replacements for most older parts.
    • RAID

      Sorry to tell you this, but RAID 0 is not RAID.
      Lose 1 of those disks and you have lost your data.
      Try RAID 1 at least.