How to put together a power PC on a shoestring budget. (Compute's Getting Started with Power Computing)
by Mark Minasi
Got an old 28 like a good buy just two years ago, but seems a mite sluggish these days? Eying an expensive new machine? Don't. Getting more power out of an existing PC has never been easier or less expensive.
The key to PC upgrading is the modular nature of most PC clones. Most clones consist of just a few pieces. The motherboard is the main circuit board, the one that contains the CPU, memory, speaker, keyboard control circuitry, and the expansion slots that provide a home for the expansion boards. The video board creates and processes the signals needed to show your computer's output on your monitor. As you know, the hard disk stores your programs and data. You may not know that in order for it to work, the hard disk must be connected to a hard disk controller, which is an add-in card for your PC that acts as an interface between the rest of the system and the hard disk. The floppy drives also need a controller, but the floppy controller and the hard disk controller functions generally are housed on the same board, a combination floppy/hard disk controller board. Finally, you probably have a board or two that provides ports for talking to printers, modems, mice, and the like--parallel ports and serial ports. You'll f us on these pieces when upgrading your system.
Replace Your Mom
First, consider a motherboard replacement. Most clones have cases designed to accommodate either an XT-size motherboard--also called a baby motherboard--or an AT-size motherboard. You can replace your 286 motherboard (and even many XT motherboards) with a 386SX motherboard for only $150, and see a five-fold boost in speed. All you need besides the motherboard is memory, and memory runs around $35 a megabyte these days. All of your existing cards will work just fine in the new 386SX motherboard, and your existing power supply needn't be upgraded, as it's probably large enough already.
Second, upgrade your memory. If you use Windows you'll be amazed at how much faster it runs when you upgrade from four megabytes of RAM to six or eight, and if you've been running Windows with two megabytes, you'll finally see what everyone's so excited about. If your current motherboard has space for more memory, the upgrade is cheap--again, about $35 a megabyte.
If you're a user of spreadsheets or graphical programs, consider buying and installing a math coprocessor. A coprocessor will allow your PC to do the floating-point calculations that are essential to financial or engineering analysis and graphical presentation in a fraction of the time required by a PC without a coprocessor. One telling example--an old drawing program, Generic CADD, is actually faster on an XT equipped with a coprocessor than it is on a 386SX without a coprocessor! Coprocessor chips range from under $100 for an 8087 or 80287 (used on XTs or 286 systems) to about $200 for a 80387, the coprocessor used with the 80386. Just pop the top on your PC, insert the coprocessor (you may need to consult your documentation for details on this), and run your system's Setup program. You'll have instant gratification.
Pedal to the Metal
It's a bit more expensive, but a larger hard disk is often a faster hard disk. The 200MB drives are down in the low $500 range (the Conner or Seagate offerings are quite good). With around 14-ms seek times, these drives are real barn-burners and, on a megabyte-per-megabyte basis, quite inexpensive. And if 200MB sounds like more than you need, take a look at the size of today's applications--you'll see where 200MB would be quite easy to fill.
Lastly, if your VGA board is more than two years old, check out the new Windows accelerator cards.
For a hundred or so dollars, you can speed up your system noticeably. For under a thousand dollars, you can change the whole shootin' match and own a real speed demon.