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Fred Langa
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The Explorer: What to Do With Your Old PC

Sooner or later, the day inevitably comes when you start looking at your computer as more of an obstacle than aid. Perhaps you've grown tired of waiting for programs to load and run, or for the screen to refresh. Perhaps you've run out of space for your files. Maybe you visited a friend or coworker and saw how fast and smooth their newer machine was. Or maybe something's actually breaking down on your system -- a mechanical part (keyboard, mouse, hard drive...) is showing its age.

Whatever the reason, sooner or later, we all face the question of what to do with an old PC, and here are a dozen separate steps or approaches that just may help you eke more life from that older system. No, these aren't the only 12 solutions, but they're a strong start and cover many of the most important bases. In the discussion area associated with this column, I'd love to hear your suggestions, and I'll offer more and/or more detail, on mine.

So when the proverbial bloom goes off the rose of you PC and you begin to think of your once-speedy box as "that hunk of junk," here are 12 options to consider:

Tune it. Regardless of your PC type or operating system, all computers can benefit from periodic tune-ups. (People who tell you that Macs or Linux systems -- or any systems -- don't need periodic maintenance simply don't know what they're talking about or are living in deep denial.) In fact, a thorough housecleaning and tune-up may be all you need to restore any machine to that "like new" performance and feel. The specifics vary from system to system and setup to setup; but for Windows machines of all types, you're already at the #1 place for tune-up information: See the links that accompany this text for tons of tune-up info.

Try a minor upgrade. Sometimes, even a small improvement can make a big difference in your satisfaction with your PC. For example, many systems ship with keyboards worth literally under $10 and a mouse worth (again literally) about a dollar. They're junk! Although it might not seem so at first take, even a small, inexpensive change like replacing a crummy keyboard or mouse with a top-notch one may change the whole way it feels to use your system.

Upgrade the RAM. For machines with less than 32MB of RAM, this may be the single best thing you can do to improve performance. Indeed, adding RAM may help almost any PC, although the improvements are proportionally less with machines that start off better equipped. Machines made in the last few years use RAM that's relatively inexpensive and very easy to install: It literally snaps into place in just seconds. For older machines, adding RAM may or may not be cheap and easy depending on the RAM type and location. Your best bet is to check your owner's manual or visit the vendor's web site and see what the options are for your specific machine.

Upgrade the hard drive. If a hard drive is running low on space, and if you have a modicum of mechanical skill (of the Erector-set, nut-and-bolt variety), you can buy and install a capacious new drive at astonishingly low cost. For example, I recently picked up a 16GB IBM hard drive for just $160! (It was cheap because it was remaindered from some OEM operation; the drive came with no instructions or cable. But I had a cable and didn't need a manual. For slightly more on a cost-per-GB basis, you can get a drive that comes with full installation instructions.)

Note that some very old systems that have BIOS limitations that may prevent the PC from seeing more than 2GB of disk space. However, some aftermarket vendors specialize in hard drives that work on these systems: Maxtor, for example, does well at this with their "MaxBlast" installation software that lets even ancient PCs make full use of huge, modern drives.

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