Is Upgrading To a PIII Worth It?

I suppose I could have subtitled this column, "What? My computer's obsolete again?" A lot of Help Channel visitors have written me at stumpjeff@zdnet.com asking about the new chip from Intel, the Pentium III.

It's fast. It's controversial. But is it for you? Many folks want to know: When the Pentium III chip comes out, what can I do with my old PC? Can I upgrade it? If so, how? Here's a typical letter.

I've got a PII 400 Gateway. Will I be able to upgrade to the PIII at year's end when they get up around 1 GHZ, or will I need a new motherboard? Norm

Ever the optimist, I went looking for answers. I videotaped and studied the Intel television commercials. I surfed on out to Intel's site and drilled into the PIII marketing links. Then I talked at length to three or four of my hardware-ultrageek friends to find out what they thought. (These are guys who have personally upgraded hundreds of motherboards, and who always buy the newest, fastest everything, because they're gamers. I like games as much as anybody, but these are guys who take vacation days to play Quake.)

Then I called several local companies, saying, "I have a machine with an old Pentium chip in it. Can you upgrade that to the PIII for me?" Every one of those vendors told me, "We don't even know what motherboard it's going to fit in yet." That confirmed what the gamers told me.

At the time of this writing, of course, the PIII is waiting to ship. By the time it does, many companies will be building new systems around this new chip. But I believe that very few companies will be wooing you to upgrade an existing system. Instead, they'll try to convince you to buy new.

My recommendation for those who want the PIII speed? Buy a new case (the box and the PIII-compatible motherboard), and try to use your old monitor and keyboard and other devices, if possible. What do you do with the old system? Sell it outright, and spend the money on your new system. Or, donate it to a non-profit organisation and take a $500 deduction on your taxes. (Even if you don't take the deduction, you'll feel good if you donate a decent machine to a worthy cause.)

Here's why I recommend against trying to upgrade your old system to the PIII:

1. Upgrading is hard to do. If you thought it was hard installing your internal modem, you don't even want to think about upgrading your motherboard yourself. But if you feel you're up to the challenge, start by reading Neil Randall's article entitled Motherboard Replacement Surgery from PC Magazine. This story is long and detailed because it has to be. Neil gives you the gory details about how you figure out what you can upgrade and what you can't.

2. Upgrading is expensive. If your machine's configuration can be upgraded, the chip itself is going to be expensive. You're talking about a new motherboard, probably some additional memory, maybe replacing some old device cards. If you want the real skinny on price, follow this link to read Jesse Berst's take on the PIII.

3. Want speed? Memory's cheaper. The most common reason for wanting a new system is what? Speed. You feel the need, don't you? If you can't or won't shell out the bucks for a new system, add some memory to your current system. You want to know how? Learn how to add RAM with this step-by-step tutorial from FamilyPC.

4. Upgrade or buy new, eventually. As a consultant, I hate to recommend spending money on new hardware. But customer needs are changing. V-mail (video mail) is coming around the block, and everybody's going to want it. And guess what, folks? If you want to send and receive long-winded v-mail messages, you're going to need a super-fast machine.

If you want fast surfing, fast disk access, and fast everything else, don't fret because you've got an older processor and I've poo-pooed your notion of upgrading it. Just set aside some money in your budget. Eventually, someone may come up with an upgrade kit that's affordable and will fit on your system. If no "easy upgrade" is in site for your old machine, wait for prices to come down. Then, buy new.

Have more questions about the Intel PIII? Don't miss ZDNet's PIII: Total Coverage.

Take me to the Pentium III Special.