"Your Aging System"

by Thomas W. Shinder


Has a friend been bragging to you about her new Pentium II 266Mhz computer with all the bells and whistles? Maybe you've heard you "have to get" the latest power machine if you want to get onto the Internet or run any of the latest and greatest computer programs and games.

Alas, your computer is a three-year-old 486DX2-66MHz which, according to your techie friends, can't do much of anything -- and if it does, will do it so slowly that you can watch the seasons change in the time it takes to run that spiffy new program you've been told will make your job and your life so much better.

So, resigned to your fate, you stick to the programs you bought two years ago, and don't dare open your checkbook to get the great scanner or printer which could move you up to the next level in your job or home business. Surely it won't work with your obsolete system.

I have great news for the many of you stuck out in the "dinosaur world" of the lost and forgotten. You can use most of the miraculous modern software and hardware peripherals, and in many cases you'll be speeding down the info highway almost as quickly as those with state-of-the-art Pentium-class systems. All you have to do is "tweak" your system, then add some reasonably priced peripherals to make your computer run like a cheetah instead of a tired old housecat.

People like to talk about how fast their processors are and how much faster they can "process" compared to the older chips. The processor is the "heart" of your system and its speed does matter -- up to a point. Pentiums are the most recent of a family of processors known as the "80x86" series. (The 80x86 series is used in IBM personal computers (PC) and clones, the dominant desktop computer. Other desktop computers (e.g., Amiga, Apple) use other chips. While this column focuses on the PC, the principles of upgrading apply to all desktop computers.)

In the 1980s, the Intel Corporation designed the "8086" processor. By today's standards the 8086 would be considered monstrously slow, but at that time it was a tremendous advance in computing, allowing someone with a home computer to do tasks which formerly required access to a gigantic, prohibitively expensive mainframe computer.

After the 8086-based computers came the "286" processors. This new generation represented another tremendous leap in computer technology, because it was able to address large amounts of RAM (random access memory or "fast memory"). By placing programs into this "fast memory", it made them run much, much faster. The "386" processor allowed even larger amounts of RAM to be used, and utilized what is known as a "math coprocessor." The math coprocessor allowed certain math-intensive tasks to be done more quickly than ever before.

While the 286 and 386 processors were powerful enough to forge the path for the development of the popular Windows operating systems, it wasn't until the advent of the "486" processor that real "power computing" and true multitasking came to the PC world.

486 processors were able to execute instructions from the computer's programs faster than had ever been thought possible with a compact, low-cost PC. Most computers between two and five years of age belong to this group. If you have a 286- or 386-based computer, don't despair; we'll talk about ways these "elderly" machines can still be put to use. Unfortunately, though, you won't be able to do some of the cool things that you can do with the venerable 486, so I'll talk about the latter first.

486 computers come in several flavors (speeds): 486SX-20, 486SX-25, 486DX-33, 486DX2-66, 486DX4-75, and 486DX4-100. The first three numbers refer to the type of processor. The SX means that there is no math coprocessor, while DX means that there is a math coprocessor. The number immediately after the X denotes whether the "clock speed" on the processor has been multiplied and by how much. The number after the dash refers to the speed in millions of cycles per second (Hz) for execution of instructions. A 486DX-33 is just about the minimum you need to run the neat stuff made for the Pentium series.

To use those programs that say on the box "Pentium computer recommended," you'll have to make some changes to your 486 computer:

(a) More importantly than anything else, get more RAM. Many older computers have only four or eight megabytes of RAM. A 486 with 32 or 64 megabytes of RAM can outrun many Pentiums that have only 8 or 16. When it comes to true power in computing, RAM is Queen. A 16-megabyte SIMM (RAM chip) only costs about $60-$80 these days, and often you can trade in your old RAM chips for credit. Buy at least one of the 16 megabyte chips (most 486 motherboards allow you to add single SIMMS, while Pentium boards require that they be added in pairs). Ideally, get four 16-megabyte SIMMS for a total of 64. Be sure to consult your manual and find out whether to get parity, nonparity, or EDO RAM (an even faster RAM).

(b) Almost as important as RAM is "L2 (Level 2) cache memory". Cache (pronounced like "cash") takes some of the burden off both your processor and your main RAM. Most 486 machines over two years old came with no cache installed. You'll have to open the manual to find out how much your main board can handle. Typically, if you have 32 megabytes of RAM, get at least 256 kilobytes of cache, and if you have more RAM, get 512 kilobytes of cache. You will be astounded by the difference this can make in pepping up your "aged computer." Upgrading your cache costs $48-$90.

(c) The "video adapter" or "video card" inside your machine determines how the computer will display the information it receives from your programs. Some of the older 486 machines have only 512 kilobytes of "video memory", which will cause your screen to be very pokey and lag behind the rest of your (now) faster system. When searching for a video adapter, make sure it has at least one megabyte of video RAM, preferably two. Of course, more is better, and brand-name card makers like Diamond and Matrox are now selling cards with four or eight megabytes of memory for a fraction of what they sold for only a year ago. When you make this change, you will see snappy screen draws, and programs will seem to pop up almost instantaneously. If you shop wisely, you can find two-megabyte video adapters for $80-$100, with four-megabyte cards under $200.

(d) While you might think of it in terms of improving space rather than speed, you'll be impressed by the difference a new hard drive can make. If you still have the drive that came with your 486 computer, replacing it with a newer, faster drive will keep you in sync with the other changes you've made to rejuvenate your computer. When looking around for a new hard drive, make sure that the box says that the "average seek time" is less than 12ms (milliseconds). You can replace that old hard drive with a new 1.2 Gigabyte (1200 Megabytes) hard drive for around $140. Today's Pentium-class programs tend to be big ones, though. You may want to spend a little more ($300-400) for one of the huge 4 to 6 gigabyte drives on the market today.

So, for much less than the price of a new system, you've turned your old, but otherwise very healthy, machine into something which can outrun lots of Pentium computers, using the Windows95 or even the Windows NT operating system. Now you can run Office97, CorelDraw 7.0, and any of the other "monster" programs that are heavy consumers of system resources. You can open Microsoft Word, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Quicken, Eudora (or any other email program), and even download from the Internet and print documents, all simultaneously!

Also, by making these changes, you'll enable your computer to have a modem, a Zip or Jaz Drive (high capacity removable storage), a color or black-and-white scanner, a printer, a sound system, and a "screen capture" system (which allows you to play a video tape on your computer and save files from that video). You can even throw in a camera that sits on your monitor and allows you to video conference with friends and family.

Okay, you've given your 486 a shot in the arm. Now what do you do with that 286 or 386 computer that's lying around the house gathering dust? Well, you can't turn it into a powerhouse like we've built above, but it is far from useless. You can still install Windows 3.1 or (or even Windows95 on the 386, although performance will be sluggish) on these computers.

With Windows on your old 286 or 386 computer, you can use it for an excellent word processor (or just load DOS and WordPerfect 5.1 if you're comfortable with a command-line interface; this is what many professional writers still use).

Another task you can assign to your "ancient" computer is e-mail duty, so that you can download and keep all your electronic mail on a dedicated machine. One particularly helpful task for the old computer is that of fax machine. With any of a large number of free or inexpensive fax programs, all you need is a separate phone line to plug into the otherwise outdated box (you will need a modem, but the old 2400data/9600fax modems work fine for this purpose -- and if you've recently replaced your 14.4 with a new high-speed modem for web browsing, you can fax in style with the supposedly outdated peripheral).

By using these tips and tricks, you can breathe new life and vitality into that mature computer you thought was "over the hill." In fact, when the "youngsters" give your computer a try now, they might turn several shades of pale -- after spending close to $2000 for the latest "screamer" which the salesperson told them they just "had to have." Be gentle and be confident--you're just a little smarter.

Copyright(c) 1997 Thomas W. Shinder, M.D.

Tom Shinder is a physician-turned-computer-pro who is happily running a dual boot Win95/NT 4.0 system with all the latest software on his "oldie but goodie" 486DX4-100.

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