Upgrade diary: HP Pavilion a305w

Wow, what a slug. Want me to tell you how I really feel?

Typical Black Friday special from years past. Cheap, but what a limiting future. Here are your handful of options. As far as I can tell, there are about eight of them.

The hard drive. It’s slow. Replace it with something. Anything. But it’s IDE. SATA was a casualty of meeting the price point. If you can’t replace it, then edit the registry and set HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\FileSystem\NtfsDisableLastAccessUpdate (it’s a REG DWORD if it isn’t there already) to 1, and set HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\FileSystem\NtfsDisable8dot3NameCreation to 1 if you aren’t running Norton/Symantec Antivirus or an old version of Microsoft Access. You probably aren’t doing the latter; and if you’re doing the former, you should be running Microsoft Security Essentials anyway. Two years’ worth of virus definition updates cost more than the computer is worth.

Also, running MyDefrag will help maximize the capability of the drive. The intelligent sorting MyDefrag does makes a difference.

Memory. You can go to 1 GB. That’s it. That’s barely adequate now, but there will be a day where 2 GB will be the minimum you want. An a305w upgraded to 1 GB is a nettop, basically. Except moden nettops can go to 2 or 4 GB. If you have 512 MB DDR DIMMs laying around, I can see putting those in. I have a hard time justifying spending 50 bucks on a pair of them to put in though. Not when 4 GB of DDR3 costs $60.

CPU. It’ll take a Northwood Pentium 4, but unless you have one laying around unused, you’re better off swapping the board due to its other limitations. The FSB is limited to 400 MHz, so that limits which specific P4s will work.

PCI video. You could do it, but without the ability to disable the onboard video and recover the 8 MB of RAM it’s using, I don’t really see the point. The onboard Intel Extreme video isn’t very good, but it’s not what’s limiting the capabilities of the machine either. For what the machine is actually capable of doing, the onboard video is surprisingly adequate.

A freebie. Wipe the drive and reinstall Windows from scratch. That helps a lot. HP spared nothing when it came to loading this box down with bloatware. The machine is so bad, it has severe difficulty writing its recovery discs. I used a Windows XP disc that originally came with a Dell to reinstall it. Enter the XP key on the sticker on the side of the machine, and it works. You end up with a weird Dell support center entry in the Start menu, but that’s better than the HP bloatware. I don’t know if all manufacturers’ Windows XP reinstall discs behave like this, but the Dell discs don’t check to make sure you’re actually installing on Dell hardware. As long as you have a valid key, they’ll play.

Another freebie. If you have broadband, remove that winmodem in slot 2 to save a little memory and a few precious CPU cycles.

The motherboard. Fortunately, it’s standard microATX. The case is spacious enough that it’s adequate. Value PCs often come in big cases to make them appear to uneducated buyers to be a better value. Go figure. So you can drop another board in the machine and basically start over. Drop in an Atom board to get better power consumption and expandability on the cheap. Drop in a current Athlon 64 or Core 2 board to go mainstream. Anything will be an improvement over what’s in there, from a 2010-2011 viewpoint. You’ll spend a minimum of $100 if you go this route, and probably closer to $200, but you’ll be relatively happy with the result.

Gigabyte’s Atom D525 board is a cost-effective upgrade. It’s $100, it takes cheap, current DDR3 memory, has an IDE port so you can re-use the existing CD recorder if you want, and has more than enough SATA ports to accommodate the free space in the case, even if you go to the extreme and jettison the floppy drive, which the board won’t support anyway, then put two-drive 2.5-3.5 adapters in the 3.5″ bays and populate them with four 2.5″ laptop-style hard drives. Drop in that, plus 4 GB of DDR3 for another $60, a $35 SATA hard drive and a $35 power supply, and you’d have a reasonable machine. Something capable of running 64-bit Windows 7, in fact.

But if you had a little more budget to work with, I’d be more inclined to go with a microATX board with a replaceable CPU and the ability to take at least 8 GB of RAM. For now, a 1.8 GHz hyperthreaded Atom with 4 GB of RAM is adequate, but with the capabilities immediately maxed out, I don’t know what position you’d be in come 2013 or 2015. Since we’re actually capable of building PCs with a five-year view these days, I think you might as well. For example, right now the chain Microcenter is running a special. Buy a $95 AMD 640 CPU (which is a 4-core Athlon 64 running at around 3 GHz), and they’ll give you a free Biostar motherboard or $40 off any other compatible motherboard.

And of course, used and closeout boards are an option. With a little creativity and luck, you may be able to score something significantly better than what’s already in there for very little.

The power supply. Depending on the motherboard you drop in, you may want to replace the power supply. The factory power supply is 250W. A standard-size ATX box drops in, so you can spend $20 or you can spend $200. Shoot for $35; then you’re less likely to end up with something worse than what’s already in there.

The wattage may be adequate for a lot of contemporary boards, since the wattage of mainstream CPUs has held steady or even gone down in recent years, but it lacks SATA power connectors and only has the 20-pin ATX power connector, not the modern 24-pin version. It does have the 4-pin auxiliary P4 connector of course.

The long view. Replace the power supply, the motherboard, and the hard drive, and upgrade to Windows 7, and you’ve got a new machine. Literally. All you’ve recycled is the case, keyboard, mouse, and possibly the monitor. Those aren’t especially expensive components. It might be tempting to just replace the whole machine with a $299 or $399 econobox. That’s an option. Just keep in mind that at that price point, it’s easy to end up right back at an upgrade dead-end relatively soon. With a little care in selecting components, you can build on what’s left and end up with a machine that will be not just usable, but downright nice for a long time.

And of course if you have a bank of spare unused parts from other upgrades, it helps. The main thing the a305w has going for it is that the case and power supply are standard sizes, so you can install almost anything I can imagine you would have laying around in it.

5 thoughts on “Upgrade diary: HP Pavilion a305w

  • December 12, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    You might want to take a look at the registry hacks you mentioned — I don’t see any difference between the two suggestions. What’s that supposed to accomplish, anyway? When I want to kill and rediscover hardware, I usually use the ENUM key.

    PCI Video — you can’t kill the onboard? Oy vey! Gotta be a hack somewhere for that. If there isn’t, use the OLDEST Intel drivers you can find. Each iteration adds another layer of dreck. Do you really need hkcmd.exe and igfxtray.exe? I didn’t think so. Disable them from services.msc.

    Dell disks work fine. How to install a lite version of Windows is a topic for another discussion. Needless to say, one can tweak Dell disks to circumvent their bloatware in addition to Microsoft’s.

    • December 13, 2010 at 8:07 pm

      Jim, the registry hacks are to reduce disk access. If you’re gonna live with a slow drive, might as well make life as easy on it as possible, right?

  • December 13, 2010 at 8:34 am

    The main advantage of a garage sale or hand me down machine like this, as I see it, is that you get a free/cheap micro atx sized case of good (no sharp edges) quality, that otherwise you’d have to pay extra to get. M-atx cases are more expensive than their larger cousins, and sharp edges are ubiquitous in the cheaper cases in the low end of the price range. THen part it out, recycle the valueless stuff and sell what has any value on ebay, and build a new system in the case.

    Also I second the idea of buying used parts one or two generations back – unless you’re a gamer with a huge monitor who likes to play the latest games, something one or two generations back (eg, a core 2 duo instead of an i3 or i7) is going to be perfectly adequate for all your needs, and is significantly cheaper than buying new.

    You forgot to mention that when shopping for a new power supply, get an 80 plus certified one (which helps a bit in weeding out the crap), and if possible, get one that has had positive reviews on sites like Toms hardware, anandtech, or silentpcreview. If you go for the lowest available wattage model of one that’s been praised by one of those sites, you won’t pay too much of a premium, you’ll get something that’s more than adequate unless you’re going to load the machine down with drives and gamer video cards, and you won’t be buying a crap power supply.

    • December 13, 2010 at 8:10 pm

      Agreed. Especially on the 80-plus. Thanks for pointing that out.

      And if you’re looking around for a cheap PC to salvage a case and perhaps an optical drive from, independent thrift stores can be a good source. Most Goodwill and Salvation Army stores won’t take PCs, but the small indie shop near me does. Then they sell them cheap.

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