The Explorer: What to Do With Your Old PC - InformationWeek
Hardware & Infrastructure
03:15 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

The Explorer: What to Do With Your Old PC

Upgrade the video. Today's state-of-the-art video boards are amazing and leave older boards in the dust. For example, my current best video card has 32MB of its own RAM, and comes with a coprocessor that's so fast and powerful it needs its own cooling fan! The board provides crisp, rock-steady performance at very high resolutions, color depths and refresh rates: My workday business apps far less tiring on my eyes than they would be otherwise. (Shhhhh! Don't tell anyone, but after hours, the card also provides lots of entertainment value with high frame rates on 3D games for smoother, more realistic game play.)

Upgrade the CPU. For well under $100, you can buy a drop-in replacement for many older CPUs; they may double your CPU performance. And for a bit more, you can upgrade an older CPU to a fully current model. For example, I just tested Evergreen Technologies' Spectra 400 upgrade that uses a 400MHz AMD K6 and cost under $200. Installing it was easy and took maybe 10 minutes: I opened the case on an old Pentium 133, lifted the CPU socket lever, pulled out the original CPU, and disconnected its fan. I then dropped in the Spectra 400, flipped the socket lever down, connected the fan, and rebooted. That was all it took! With no other changes whatsoever in the system, my WinTune scores soared: Integer and floating-point performance went up by about three times; video performance improved by 1.5x; and cached drive performance almost doubled. And, while the old CPU didn't support MMX at all, the new one now does. (Evergreen offers other drop-in replacement chips, speeds and prices, too.)

Evergreen also offers a completely different kind of CPU upgrade: an "Accelera PCI" that's almost an entire PC-on-a-card. You plug the Accelera card into a PCI slot, and reboot: Your system boots using the original CPU and RAM, but then the Accelera card (with its own RAM) takes over and runs your system. Using the same P133 test system mentioned above, I tried a $399 Accelera card that came with a Celeron 433MHz CPU and 64MB of its own RAM. The results were impressive: Wintune integer speeds increased by a factor of four. Floating point speeds went up almost six-fold, and cached disk performance tripled.

But all was not rosy: The Accelera card takes over a PC through "bus mastering," where it "owns" the system's PCI bus. My test system also had a bus-mastering video card, and the two cards fought for control. As a result, the video performance actually dropped slightly below what the original, unmodified system offered.

I also ran into many problems involving the older peripherals (CD drive, sound card, etc) in the test system: The Accelera card was so fast, it would boot faster than the old peripherals could respond. Unlike the Spectra upgrade, which ran flawlessly from the start, the Accelera took many hours of testing, tweaking and tuning to get working reliably. And in the end, I could only solve some problems by swapping out hardware -- replacing the CD drive with a later, faster-starting model, for example.

The Accelera card is beautifully engineered and shows a lot of promise. Evergreen also is working on it very aggressively. During the short time I had the card, they already altered the card's operation so it no longer needs an IRQ, and they say they have a fix for the bus-mastering conflicts in the works. The Accelera bears watching because it could be the easiest way yet to bring an older machine to fully current speeds. But for now, while the Accelera is still somewhat of a work in progress, I think the Spectra line may be a better option -- the Spectra upgrades are a snap to install, work reliably, and are much less expensive.

Find an alternate use, option #1. If you can't or don't want to upgrade an older PC, then maybe it's time for a new one. If that's the case, consider finding a new role for the older PC rather than dumping it. For example, I have two very old PCs I use to share my cable modem connection among the 7 desktop PCs here at Langa Consulting. The main internet-connection server started life as a 24MB Pentium 90, but I upgraded it some years ago with a 200MHz drop-in CPU replacement from Evergreen. (See #6) The backup system (which I use when I'm testing new proxy or NAT software on the main system) is even older: It started life as a 16MB 486-25. It still only has 16MB of RAM, but I upgraded the CPU (Evergreen, again) years ago a 486/100. Both systems run fine: All that's on them is a minimal installation of Windows, and Sygate. Although both systems are way too anemic to run today's mainstream business apps, they're perfectly fine for Internet connection sharing, which is not a RAM- or compute-intensive process.

Find an alternate use, option #2. You have a spare tire in the trunk of your car, right? If you wear glasses, you have a spare pair, right? Well, having a spare, minimal PC can be a godsend if (or when) your main PC goes down and you absolutely have to get to your e-mail, do some word processing, or whatever.

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