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UpGrading a PC

by Bob Wright

Upgrading a PC
updated 9-03-99

by Bob Wright


Before you decide to upgrade your computer, you need to decide how you intend to use the system for the next few years.   Is this a home PC for office and finacial applications, maybe surfing the Internet?   If so, our recommendations will fit your use.   If your intent is to build a system to play the latest computer games, you may want to consider much greater and faster options.

The first consideration is the operating system you intend to use.  If it is Windows95, 16mgs should be considered as a minimum and 32mgs is recommended.

If you intend to move up to Windows98, our recommendations double.  Consider 32mgs as minimum and 64mgs as recommended, (this also applies to WinNT).

Usually, adding more memory is the least expensive way to increase the performance of a system.

Hardware and software components change consistently and quickly.  Figuring out what you need or want may take time, reading and asking the right questions on PCBUILD mailing list.


The easiest place to start is with your current motherboard’s manual.  If you do not have a copy of the manual, you still need to determine the manufacturer and model of motherboard.

  • What kind of memory does it accept? For example:
    • How many pins does your memory have? SIMMs or DIMMs?
    • What speed memory does it accept?
    • Does it use non-parity or parity?
    • Does it accept EDO?
    • Does it use ECC?
    • Does it use SDRAM?
  • Check your motherboard manual for the maximum processor speed.
  • What type of processor does the board accept? (486, socket 7, socket 8, slot 1, slot 2, slot A)
  • What processor voltages can the board support?
  • What brands of processors can it support?
  • What kind of video card does it use?
  • What type of floppy drive do you have?
  • What type of hard drive do you have?
  • What style case do you have? Is it proprietary?

Compare the components with today’s standards.

  • Can you still buy the memory that your system uses?
  • Is the memory still used in new systems?
  • Can a new board fit in your old case?
  • What software are you planning on using? What are the standard requirements to run your software?

Upgrading with memory

Frequently, adding more memory is the least expensive way to increase the performance of a system. The cost of memory has decreased considerably over the last few years. Watch the market for prices and quality.  Currently, the price of 30 pin and 72 pin memory has taken a jump in the marketplace, while 168pin Dimm chips have only experienced a small increase.   Shopping around in the market may still net you some bargins for memory.

There are multiple grades of memory available. Grade A memory is designed to work as board and original memory manufacturers’ intend. Lower grades (B, C, and D) fail to pass one or more standards that Grade A memory meets. These lower grades are found in the generic or major-on-third market. You may find a lower grade that will work with your board.

    Note: If you have a Packard Bell machine, take your computer to a local reseller. It will save you time and money to have someone with multiple resources find the proper product for you.

    Newer Pentium and Pentium II motherboards use either 72-pin SIMMs or 168-pin DIMMs. 30-pin SIMMs are no longer common on the market. If you need 30-pin SIMMs, you should be able to find some at a local retail store or through a company such as Crucial Technology, a division of Micron.

Changing processors & motherboards

Another relatively inexpensive way to upgrade is changing your processor. Confirm with your motherboard manual what speed and voltage processor it will accept. 

Pentium sytle or socket7 motherboards are limited by the bus speed and clock multiplier settings on the board.   If your motherboard supports 66mhz and has a mulitplier setting of 3.5X you can use 233mhz CPUs.  Check your manual or the manufacturer's web page for support for AMD or Cyrix fast CPUs.  These use different settings on motherboards than Intel chips.

Intel designed Overdrive processors for socket 5 and socket 7 Pentium motherboards. These were popular for a time, but are no longer available.   You may find one or two in old stock with your local vendor.   They are not a recommended solution.

Often if you have a 386, 486 or early Pentium system, (such as a P60-P100), it maybe advisable to consider upgrading both the CPU and the motherboard.   As of January 8, 1999 simple socket7 or Pentium motherboards are very economical to purchase, often less than $70.  Then adding a 200mhz or better CPU can be under $100. 

If you can afford to spend a little more, investing in the new Super Socket7 motherboards and a 350mhz AMD or Intel Celeron CPU maybe the best option.  Price versus expected life usage, or amount of time till an upgrade is needed is excellent right now, (January 8, 1999).  Many of these motherboards will still support 72pin memory, this will save you the cost of investing in new 168pin Dimm memory for your upgrade.

Although the cost of moving on up to today's highest standard motherboard, the BX chipset, can be expensive, (as much as $180 for the motherboard), the BX chipset boards are positioned to accept CPUs from PentiumII 233 on up to PentiumIII 800.   The BX chipset will allow you the longest use without upgrading the motherboard again.    We highly recommend spending the extra money for this option at this time.


Modifying the basics

If you decided that it’s a better investment to change multiple components, then you get to do a bit more reading.

Consider how you are planning on using the system, and how long you’re going to keep it. If you are going to keep your system for a few years, you may want to purchase the most power you can afford for the time. Parts become obsolete quickly, and if you purchase below the current standards, you may not be able to upgrade in a few months.

Many web sites post technical information. These may help you find a category of processor and board that are close to your interests. Another good source is talking with people who have the same expectations of their system as you. PCBUILD mailing list is the best source of information about upgrading today and any questions you might have can be answered quickly.

Where do I go for help?

One of the best places to find information is on the manufacturers’ web sites. They list their product requirements, compatibility with other components, and some places to buy.


If I'm going from a Pentium to a Pentium II system,
what changes do I need to consider?

Pentium motherboards are manufactured in AT and ATX form factor. AT style motherboards use AT style cases. ATX style motherboards use ATX style cases. That sounds rather obvious, but it is a question we hear a great deal.  The difference comes mostly in the connector to the motherboard.  Many of the Pentium socket7 or Super socket7 motherboards today allow for use of either the AT or ATX power connector to the motherboard.   This allows ease of upgrade using the existing case.   However, we highly recommend spending the extra money for a new ATX case.

Manufacturers are designing new boards in ATX form factor. The ATX form factor  has built on parallel and serial connectors; PS/2 mouse and PS/2 keyboard connectors are on the I/O template; and they have Molex connectors for ATX power supply. Most Pentium II motherboards are ATX.  Further, the ATX power allows for control by plug-n-play control of the motherboard.  When you turn off your operating system, Win95/98/NT, the computer will turn off.  The ATX system when experiencing a power failure will not be in the ON condition when the power returns, unlike the AT form factor.   This provides additional protection from power surges to the computer.

Memory using in PentiumII and PentiumIII systems will be 168pin Dimms or SDRAM.  This memory is currently offered in 66mhz or 100mhz, (commonly referred to as PC100 memory).  The current cost of PC100 memory is only slightly more than 66mhz ram.  It is recommend to purchased the PC100 ram, as it will run fine set to 66mhz for slower bus PentiumII CPUs and then will not require replacement of the ram when moving up to the faster 100mhz bus speed CPUs, (CPUs of 350mhz or faster). 

Do I need to replace my existing video/sound/modem cards?

The short answer is NO.   That is very simplistic.  PentiumII or Slot One motherboards have only two ISA slots and usually five or more PCI slots.  You will need to determine the I/O type of cards your existing system is using.   Typically, if you have an ISA modem and sound card you can move them easily to the PentiumII motherboard.  Also, if you have a PCI video card, it will also move easily.    That is the best case scenerio.

If your system uses a VLB video card, then it must be replaced; as well, if you have an ISA video card as the PentiumII motherboard will not have enough ISA slots for a modem, sound card and video card.   If you have decided to upgrade your modem or sound card at this time, remember that PCI versions of both cards are available.  

With the lower price of 4mg PCI video cards on today's market, we recommend upgrading if your current system has a lesser card.   The 4mg PCI video card can be purchased for under $30.

Sound cards as a rule are a simple task to move to a PentiumII motherboard, as well as the modem.  Upgrading sounds cards usually will not accomplish much except to make them more compliant with plug-n-play standards of Win95/98/NT.   Modem upgrades for the purpose of increased speed maybe important and a consideration for many.

AGP video support

PentiumII motherboards have AGP video slots, should you invest in an AGP video card?  The easy answer is at this time there exists no evidence that AGP cards are any faster than PCI versions based on test results.  The expected advantage of using the AGP slot for a video card is expected to be realized with the faster PentiumIII CPUs due out on the market in 1999.   If you are using your computer for home use, office applications or surfing the web, the AGP cards will not return any advantage.   The main interest for these cards are for computer game players or high-end graphic applications.   Since our focal group is the home user, typically we recommend against any added expense for this upgrade...   at this time.



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