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Upgrading my mother in law’s Compaq Presario S5140WM

About the time my wife and I started dating, my mother-in-law bought a new computer. With an Athlon XP 2600+, that Compaq ought to be faster than anything I own. Even though it’s almost three years old now, it ought to still be pretty good.

It wasn’t. I fixed that.It has the Compaq name on the front but anymore that doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s a clone made in the Far East, with bog standard parts inside. When I visited earlier this month, she complained about its speed. I couldn’t find anything obviously wrong, but I checked the memory usage. It was over 250K with nothing loaded. Not good.

I happen to know the F-Secure-based security suite her ISP issued her can use nearly 256 megs all by itself sometimes. Not good.

So I paid a visit and ordered her 512 megs of memory. For 35 bucks, shipping included, why not? It’s overkill, but memory requirements are going to go up before they go down, and there was little point in buying half as much memory for 10 bucks less.

I bought Viking. I prefer Crucial or Kingston, but in my days doing desktop support, the people who insisted on Viking did OK, and it was cheaper the week I ordered it, so I got it. Don’t buy the cheap and nasty no-name stuff; the failure rate on no-name commodity memory has always been very high–somewhere near 30 percent, in my experience, and computers are more sensitive to memory today than they were in 1995 when I got my first job doing desktop support.

When I got the computer open, I saw it has an AGP slot. I really should get an AGP video card to put in the computer. Built-in video steals some system memory, which isn’t a big deal when you have 768 megs, but it also steals memory bandwidth. It’s like that bridge I cross over every day to go to work–it’s normally three lanes, but they have it closed down to two or even one lane some days. So it takes a longer time to get over that bridge. If I put a video card–even my old Nvidia-based card I bought back in 1997, if I could find it–with its own memory in her computer and disabled the onboard video, it would be like reopening that lane, and her CPU would have a full three lanes to work with when accessing memory.

I just checked Ebay, and found an Nvidia TNT2-based card for 99 cents Buy-it-now, with $9 shipping. The shipping is a ripoff, but the seller is probably paying a couple of dollars for the card and making $4 on shipping. At $10, the card is more than anyone needs for word processing and Internet use, and it’s probably better than the built-in video would be for light gaming. It’s a cheap way to soup up a computer like this.

If you can’t afford to buy any memory for this or any other computer with built-in video, but you’re running short on memory, here’s a free upgrade: Go into the BIOS, and set the amount of memory dedicated to the video card as low as you can. In this case, I can go to 8 megs. You won’t be able to run high colors at high resolution after doing this, but if you’re happy with 1024×768, it’ll give your system some memory back and make it a little more peppy.

I sure wish Intel or AMD would steal the old Amiga concept of chip memory, which was a bank of memory that could be used by either the video chip or the main CPU, at the expense of speed of course. But slow memory is still way faster than the swap file. The system just gave priority to the main memory (called fast memory) when it was available. It’s amazing how many good ideas were out there 20 years ago, some of which we’re enjoying today but some of which are sadly lost to history.

And, as always, a newer, faster hard drive is a good way to hot-rod an aging PC if it feels a bit sluggish.

But, $35 worth of RAM and a $10 video card goes a long, long way.

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2 thoughts on “Upgrading my mother in law’s Compaq Presario S5140WM”

  1. Good thing you found an AGP slot in there. A lot of those Compaq and HP systems had a spot on the motherboard but no socket installed. How much video RAM does that old TNT2 have? I’d guess a minimum of 16 meg, at least.

    1. 16 megs sounds about right. I don’t know if they made 8-meg cards with that chipset or not. But for my mother-in-law’s purposes, even my 1997 vintage 8-meg STB Velocity 128 (which had an early Nvidia chipset on it) would be a big step up. If only I knew where that was…

      It’s very easy to find cheap parts these days, as long as you know what to look for and you watch shipping costs so you don’t get gouged too much.

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