To Upgrade Or Not Upgrade?

The coming--finally--of Windows 95 may have you thinking that now is the time to deep-six your personal computer and trade up to a state-of-the-art machine. After all, prices for Pentium-based multimedia PCs are quite decent these days. And what better excuse to justify shelling out $2,000 than the latest version of Microsoft's operating system. Heck, even if you don't plan to rush out for Windows 95, you're still itching to supplant a sluggish system with a hard drive that is stressed out to the max.

But the kids need braces, and you recently took a vacation. Couldn't you give your aging clunker a new lease on life by upgrading the system piecemeal?

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. The answer is you can, though I wouldn't suggest putting the PC through the upgrade ringer very often. I've always contended (and Windows 95 hasn't changed my thinking) that spending money to improve one or two areas of your system, adding random-access memory, say, or a roomier hard drive, makes perfect sense. But when you feel the need to pile on the upgrades--extra RAM, a speedier microprocessor, superior video, multimedia--enough quickly becomes enough, especially when you consider the price of a new machine. Andrew Froning, managing editor at National Software Testing Laboratories, owned by BUSINESS WEEK's parent, The McGraw-Hill Companies, reckons that anytime your upgrade costs top 25% to 30% of the cost of a new machine, "you're only staving off the inevitable."

Indeed, I'd replace, rather than upgrade, anything older than an entry-level 486-based machine. Sure, you can spend only $100 to move from a 386-class chip to a 486. But your neo-486 probably still only has a cramped, 80-megabyte hard drive, compared with the 540-meg-to-1-gigabyte drives common now. Moreover, the machine probably employs an archaic video card, slow modem, and four megs of RAM.

I wouldn't recommend upgrading the processor on a computer of more recent vintage, either. Instead, turbocharge your system with more memory. NSTL says you'll likely get better performance out of a 486-33 Mhz with 16 megabytes of RAM than you will out of a 486-66 with 8 megs. You'll certainly put the memory to good use if you move over to Windows 95. Microsoft insists Win95 will run on a 386 with 4 megs of RAM, but if you want it to sing and dance, you'll need a faster processor and 8 megs--if not 12 to 16. Win95 will typically stake out at least 40 megs of hard-drive storage space, with Win95-ready programs eating up gobs more. You can find 1-gigabyte drives for less than $400. But hard drives come in several types, not always compatible, and can be complicated to install.

"MORE GLASS." Unless you're a person who doesn't break into hives at the thought of poking around the innards of your machine, you would do well to coax a techie friend to help out. You can always hire someone, as well. If you decide to tackle the job yourself, I recommend a primer such as Upgrading & Fixing PCs for Dummies by Andy Rathbone ($19.95, IDG Books).

Memory costs about $40 to $50 a megabyte and installation is usually hassle-free. The chips reside on SIMMs (single in-line memory modules), which fit into slots inside your computer. Consult your PC manual to find the speed and type of memory inside your machine.

Because Windows 95 lets you run several programs at the same time, you may quickly tire of a smallish, 14-inch monitor. That's when "you're going to want more glass," says Frederic S. Langa, editorial director at Windows Magazine. But sterling 17-inch monitors will run you $600 or more. Come to think of it, if you can raise the cash for that kind of upgrade, maybe an affordable new computer isn't out of the question after all.

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