Cheap PC upgrades
Quick: What do you do when a friend or relative has a five-year-old PC that’s just barely inadequate and you want to bring them up to something fairly current without spending much money?

Options vary, depending on the PC. And I get this question really often, but the best option tends to change pretty frequently.

Many five-year-old brand-name PCs use an ATX or MicroATX form factor. You can identify ATX and MicroATX by looking at the back; if the keyboard, mouse, serial and parallel ports are all on the same backplane next to the expansion slots, it’s ATX.

If those ports are all mounted on metal slot covers, it’s probably AT.

AT boards are a tough find these days; I’ve seen Asus boards at www.softwareandstuff.com that max out at a 700 MHz VIA C3 processor in the $60-$70 range. That’s enough speed for word processing and e-mail and Web browsing (read: what 90% of people are interested in) and the price is pretty good. If you’re trying to escape a 64 MB memory limit and/or a 233 MHz processor ceiling, one of these boards plus a 128-meg DIMM can be a very nice upgrade for $100. One of these boards plus a 7200-rpm hard drive will be enough of an upgrade to make the person’s head spin, and remember, if a system is that old, its hard drive is probably near the end of its life anyway. That’ll increase the cost of the upgrade to closer to $170.

If the system is ATX already, or if you’re willing to buy a new case, your options increase dramatically. It’s easy to find an AMD-based board from the likes of Chaintech, Shuttle, and MSI at Newegg.com for $50-$60. AMD Duron processors start at around $30; Athlon XPs start at around $60. You can also find some closeout ATX mobo/CPU combos at places like softwareandstuff.com and compgeeks.com.

Be careful if you buy too much motherboard and CPU; you may have to get an AMD-approved power supply.

The upside to buying a new case and motherboard is current flexibility and future upgradability. You should still be able to buy something to fit in an ATX case for years to come–remember, the basic AT form factor was the standard for IBM-compatible PCs from 1981 to 1997 or so (though in the early years it wasn’t called that) and the ATX form factor, unlike its predecessor, was designed with longevity in mind.

Another inexpensive option can be to buy a newer, but still used, system. It’s fairly easy to find Pentium II and low-end Pentium III-class machines for $100-$150 or so from places like compgeeks.com and pcsurplusonline.com and usually you’re getting former office machines that were pretty well maintained and replaced during an upgrade cycle. If a system is so old as to have few, if any components beyond a keyboard and mouse worth salvaging and you’re not terribly comfortable ripping out and replacing parts anyway, that can be a good option on a shoestring. The ideal system in this situation would be a recognizable name brand and true ATX form factor (Dell uses a weird pinout on its power supplies), but at this price point, you can’t be picky if you want something now because the selection’s always thin and quantities limited. There’ll always be more next week, but next week’s selection will always differ from this week’s.

And of course there’s always the Wal-Mart $199 special. You can pick up a legal copy of Windows cheaply at www.softwareandstuff.com if you don’t want to mess with Lindows or Lycoris Linux. For your money you get a very basic 700 MHz computer built by Microtel. A big-brand used machine will usually have slightly better-quality components, but for some people the extra speed and longer warranty will be worth it.

The downside with buying a complete budget system, new or used, is that the hard drive is often a low-end model. On low-end systems, the hard drive is usually either the biggest or second biggest bottleneck, so a motherboard swap combined with a hard drive upgrade can be the best performance option, even if it ends up being more expensive than replacing the big box outright.