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It's a common problem for anyone dealing with computers. By the time you get it home and working, there's a newer, faster model available. Or you discover that old faithful just won't handle that new gee-whiz software you just have to have. Maybe you just want it to do what it does a lot quicker. How do you proceed?
The first step is to determine the problem or problems. Think of your computer in terms of its parts. There are core components, storage, connection, human interface, and extras. The core components are the motherboard, processor, RAM and video. It may also include a case and power supply, if you haven't upgraded in a while. Storage generally consists of one or more hard drives and possibly a CD or DVD drive. Your connection may be either a modem or network card or both. The human interface, in almost all cases, consists of the monitor, keyboard and mouse. Extras are everything else you can attach to your PC: floppy drives, light pens, printers, scanners, CD writers, microphones, sound, speakers, graphics pads, etc.
Where your particular bottleneck is will determine what you need to fix it. For the purpose of this document, I'm assuming it's the very core of your computer that's old, overworked and underpowered. This seems to un-nerve some people who wouldn't think twice about popping another hard drive in for more storage or adding more RAM. He or she may have disassembled and reassembled the computer a dozen times in the process of extending its capabilities. Then become an unabashed coward at the prospect of changing the motherboard. If you are comfortable taking the case apart and adding or swapping parts, you give yourself another upgrade option. Instead of buying a complete, new or used computer, you can upgrade the one you have.
Take the following hypothetical situation. You have an old 486 (or 386) you've used and expanded for years. It has a decent monitor, keyboard and mouse that you like. You've added a hard drive recently enough that it has all the storage you need, for now. The CDROM drive is fast enough to suit you. Your modem connects as fast as your phone lines allow already. But you are tired of seeing things in slow motion and want to try out some 3d games. You could donate the old machine to someone or some organization in need of it. Or you can build yourself a Pentium-class computer. This is the perfect candidate for this type of upgrade.
Make a list, in columns, of your computer's components. Mark the ones that no longer suit you. Seek out replacements and their prices on the internet. Keep in mind that retail-boxed parts are generally higher than OEM parts and include manuals, instructions and extra software. (The standard shopper's warning of let the buyer beware applies). When you total the cost, you may be surprised to see that there are pre-built computers available for less. Be sure that you are comparing equal-quality. That cheap machine may have a no-name motherboard, cruddy case, junky video card, or other parts you'll be itching to replace as soon as you get it. Make certain that you are comparing end result to end result!
Why buy a new monitor, keyboard, mouse, modem, hard drive, CDROM drive when what you have is suitable? A new case, motherboard, processor, RAM and video card make more sense than a whole new machine. Many people seem to get frustrated with conflicting advice and the myriad choices, and simply buy a whole new computer. Others, with budget in mind, end up spending as much on a complete used computer of lesser capability that they would spend turning their old machine into something more modern. If you get the facts first, you can make a more satisfying decision.
At the time of this writing, about $350 will get the following, with manuals, assembled with warranty: a new power supply in an ATX case that doesn't require tools to open, a decent branded motherboard with an AMD K6-2 350MHz processor, 32 MB of PC100 RAM, and an 8 MB AGP video card. That would be a gigantic step for someone accustomed to the performance of a 386 or 486. (Does that used P166 for $200 still sound like a good deal?)
Be realistic. If you get advice telling you to just go buy a new <insert brand here>, consider why you've kept that old 386 or 486 chugging for this long. If you were anxious enough for speed, and comfortable forking over a couple thousand dollars for it, you would have done so long ago. It's your computer. Lower the fever and take the upgrade path that's most comfortable for you, whether it's getting a completely new machine, upgrading the bottleneck components in what you have, or gambling on a used one at auction or from a friend.
There are scores of internet sites offering motherboards, processors, etc. Some are so cheap as to be suspicious, in my opinion, others are so expensive I wonder who their customers are. Here are a couple with which I've had good personal experience. Standard disclaimers apply: I'm not endorsing, not accepting blame nor responsibility if you have a bad experience, and will not even guarantee the links still work another second. If the links help you, great. If they don't, sorry, you're still on your own.
Transcend PC, Inc.
Axion Technologies, Inc.
Treasure Chest Computers
Suggested before online purchasing: