It's the computer industry's dirty little secret. Despite what those jitterbugging bunny-suit-clad folks in the Intel commercials would like you to believe, you don't need to purchase a $2,000 PC every few years to tap into the latest and greatest things a computer can do. For several hundred dollars, you can buy accessories that will make your aging PC look, sound, and act like a jazzy new model. "These days, computers--even old ones--are pretty darn fast," says Dean McCarron, a principal at Scottsdale (Ariz.)-based Mercury Research, which tests components for PC makers. "You just need to tweak the parts that need help."
Of course, if your machine runs on a 386 or 486 microprocessor, there's little you can do to bring it up to 21st century standards. But if you're using a two- to three-year-old computer with a Pentium chip, it pays to modify it. Want to play the latest 3-D games? Try a graphics accelerator board. Tired of tinny sound? Add new speakers and a better sound card. Interested in a faster connection to the Internet? Buy a 56k modem or ask your cable-TV company if it offers superspeedy Internet access.
IT'S A SNAP. Before you do any of that, make sure your computer has at least 32 megabytes of memory. You can check the amount by watching the messages that speed by every time you turn on your computer. Installing new memory is a snap--literally. You slide little cards diagonally into slots inside the back of the computer, then snap them to the vertical position. Generally, you have to add memory cards in identical pairs. If your computer came with 8 MB, for example, you get an extra 32 MB by installing two 16 MB cards, costing $40 or less each. Better yet, buy four--and pitch those that came with your computer.
Once you've added memory, you can turn to upgrading audio and video. The easiest improvement is connecting new speakers. Those that came with your PC are akin in quality to the tiny, tinny ones built into TV sets. Far richer sound can be had by plugging better speakers into the same jacks on the back of your PC. Try the top-rated Cambridge SoundWorks, which come with a separate subwoofer (around $220) or a Bose MediaMate pair ($200). Tighter budgets can go for Labtech's $45 LCS-1022 system.
If you're an avid player of computer games, you'll probably want to enhance your system's sound further with a 3-D audio card. This inexpensive add-on allows you to appreciate fully the incredible sound effects on the newest games, which can give the impression of an aircraft roaring overhead and bombs bursting behind you. An audio card makes sound seem to come from different places, much the way strategically positioned speakers would in a home theater. Creative Labs' $180 Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold is one of the best.
Video that gives you the feeling of moving in three-dimensional space is also a must for running the latest game titles and educational software. Dozens of add-on 3-D graphics cards are available, ranging in price from less than $100 to slightly more than $200. Hard-core gamers can tell you their latest favorite, which changes almost monthly as faster makes are introduced. But the good bets include Diamond's Monster 3-D, for around $200, and Matrox Graphics' $100 m3D.
Even if you aren't a serious gamer, there are valid reasons to upgrade your PC's graphics. If you've recently added a 17- or 19-in. monitor, chances are your system isn't taking full advantage of it. For that, you should use a 2-D/3-D combo card, such as ATI's $230 All-in-Wonder Pro. It will give you adequate 3-D performance for the occasional game, but it can dramatically boost the resolution and refresh rate of your monitor. That means you can see more of a spreadsheet, for example, with less eye fatigue and fewer headaches.
Sound and video upgrades offer a hidden bonus. Because they have their own dedicated processor chips, they automatically free up the main computer for other jobs, thus giving you a speedier machine. And that's really what you wanted all along.