November 30, 2005

How To Upgrade Your Computer

by peterb

There seems to be a lot of confusion among people who should know better about how to upgrade one's computer. I am here to help. I'm pleased to present The Tea Leaves Guide to upgrading, which can help even the most ten-thumbed person improve their computing environment for the most reasonable cost, in just four easy steps.

Step 1: Open your old computer (you will probably need a Phillips' head screwdriver to do this), and remove any add-on cards, disk drives, RAM, and (if removable) CPUs that are currently in it.
Step 2: Take all that stuff and throw it away.
Step 3: Place the old computer on your back porch. Come springtime, the hollowed-out chassis will make a fine decorative planter.
Step 4: Go to Apple's or Dell's web site, depending on your tastes, and buy a new computer. Make sure, when selecting a machine, that you choose one that doesn't have "expansion slots," or any other features that you will never, ever, in a million years, use.

I want to be crystal clear that I am not joking. I've been buying computers (and upgrading old ones) for years. Upgrading, in the sense of "replacing a component to increase performance", is almost never worth it. I'll carve a very narrow exception for installing more memory — most machines people buy are woefully underprovisioned in terms of memory. Everything else is a complete waste of your time and money.

It works like this: you want to play a new game on your PC, but it requires a faster CPU than you have. So you say "Aha! I built my machine to be upgradable! I'll buy a new CPU!" But you can't just drop in a new CPU, because by the time you decide you need to upgrade, the CPU manufacturers have changed the pinout specs, so you need a new socket type. That means a new motherboard. If you buy that new motherboard, it probably has a different socket type for main memory. So you have to buy new RAM.

If you're lucky, the new motherboard you buy will have a new-different-better slot for video (ISA was supplanted by VESA, VESA was supplanted by PCI, PCI was supplanted by six varieties of AGP, none of which actually worked, and AGP is currently being supplanted by PCI Express. This process will continue until you die.) So your old video card has to go. If you're unlucky, the new motherboard will have the old type of slot, at which point you'll find out that not only is your existing videocard too slow, but you can't actually buy one powerful enough, that supports your ancient video bus, to make a difference. So then you have to buy a second new motherboard, and sell the original one on eBay. About the only component you'll be able to preserve from your original machine is the disk drive. New disk drives are effectively free. Nice going, Einstein.

In the end, you will end up spending about what it would cost you to buy a new machine from Dell to "upgrade." In addition, you'll have the aggravation of dealing with multiple vendors, none of whom ever answer their phones — God help you if one or more than one component fails — and the final product will be less stable, less polished, and louder than whatever you would get from a vendor that delivers finished product (yes, I'm aware that you can buy quiet components and soundproof boxes. Double your cost estimates if you plan on doing that, instead of just talking about it.) You'll have no warranty, there will be little Phillips-head screws laced all through your shag carpet, and when you try to run the game you wanted to play, it will either play too slow, or cause your machine to lock up.

Then, six months after you spent all that money on upgrading, you will give up and buy a new computer anyway.

I suspect I'm preaching to the converted here when I talk about upgrading in this way. But what isn't always obvious is the hidden cost, which is buying for upgradability, rather than buying to upgrade. By this I mean: you are choosing your Apple or Dell machine, and you decide to buy one over another because it is "upgradable." You hear people, especially on Slashdot, complaining about this in the Mac Mini or iMac, or some of the Shuttle PCs. "What if you want to add a CP/M card? Hahn? Hahhhn? Then you'll be sorry!" You give in to uncertainty, and instead of the nice tiny quiet little box you were thinking of, you buy the five-foot tall tower that is mostly air so that you can install a gigabit ethernet card.

Listen: four years later, you are going to throw that computer away, or give it to your nephew, or at best, if you are wankier than 99% of the people in the world, turn it into a mail server. You will never buy a CP/M card. You will never buy a gigabit ethernet card. You will never buy a video capture card. You will never install a SCSI card (or, if you do, I will laugh at you). You will never replace the hard drive (unless it fails). And in addition to the higher initial cost of the machine, you will have squandered space on a machine that is larger than it needed to be. You will have squandered sanity on a machine that is louder than it needed to be. And you will have squandered visual pleasure on a machine that is uglier than it needed to be.

Those three attributes — size, sound, and visual appeal — are worth quite a bit of money to most people. Computers tend to be viewed in utilitarian terms, but the age of the computer as a purely functional device is, thankfully, dead and gone forever.

And good riddance, too.

Posted by peterb at November 30, 2005 06:51 PM | Bookmark This

Though I have added extra hard drives and SCSI cards over the years, my plan when I buy a new computer is to get the best one I can afford that does what I need, and expect to use it hard for four or five years, then give it away.

I keep waiting for the day computers appreciate.

Posted by Kristen at November 30, 2005 11:05 PM

This reminds me of "If you give a mouse a cookie..." Anyway, I completely agree, upgradability is a the biggest non-feature that everyone thinks they need. It's driven mostly by fear and uncertainty and the general misunderstanding of how computers are improved over time. It's a major investment and you don't want it to go obsolete in 18 months. However, the truth is, there's nothing you can do about it - it will be obsolete soon enough.

My mom recently switched from a Dell to an iMac G5. My stepfather was very apprehensive about it because it wasn't upgradable and all one piece. "What if the monitor breaks? Then I can't just replace the monitor." Of course, they never did a single upgrade to the Dell tower and instead replaced it. And it turns they didn't even want to keep the monitor, keyboard & mouse and get a Mac mini because the iMac was so "clean and easy."

One thing to note is that a line needs to be drawn between upgradability and expandability. Back in the day, you needed to be able to install cards into your computer to do things like connect a disk drive or a printer. This was worse in the PC world because you had to install a video card, sound card, network card, modem card, etc., whereas Macs typically had all this stuff built in. In this day and age, FireWire and USB2 provide all the expandability you will ever need.

And if you really need CP/M, you can surely find an emulator that probably works better than hardware anyway.

Posted by mlehrian at November 30, 2005 11:08 PM

Uhm... so my sun ultra-2 with 4 scsi drives is not worth keeping around you say? what about all of the other server equipment currently doing little jobs for me? :)

Why not just buy a laptop and be done with it? Most laptops today are desktop equivalents anyway... though I say this not ever having played a PC game in my life.

Posted by Chris Morrow at December 1, 2005 12:01 PM

Actually, retiring machines into servers rather than upgrading them is a great thing to do. Servers are different. They have different requirements.

If you want to run a server, great. There are lots of good reasons to do it. Home media server. Backup. Render farm. Distributed compile farm. (Just don't run your own Internet server. Save yourself a lot of grief and go with a hosting service. You will get hacked and be unhappy.)

However, at the end of the day, upgrading servers is still just as silly as upgrading any other computer.

Posted by mlehrian at December 1, 2005 11:10 PM

uhm... I run lots of internet facing servers, none has been hacked yet. most don't even have 'firewall' things protecting them even. I have even upgraded parts of them over time...

I like the overall tone of the original post... most folks just don't know enough, or care enough, or even really NEED to 'upgrade' anymore. Everything inside a computer is a commodity at this point, so just replace it entirely and move on.

I'd like to see someone address the home-backup problem though. What's going to happen when your brand-new computer with 2 400GB disks in it has a disk failure? What will happen to your legions of home video's and digital pictures and mp3's (legally obtained of course). No one seems to have a reasonable solution for the home user WRT backup and recovery :(

(btw, why pay someone to do the hosting for you if you can do it for free?)

Posted by chris morrow at December 2, 2005 10:22 AM

Home backup? Buy a USB/Firewire disk and back up onto that. It's not perfect, but it's less absurd than tape or burning dozens of CDs or DVDs.

Posted by Nat at December 3, 2005 11:10 AM

Better yet, buy *2* external disks.

Posted by psu at December 3, 2005 04:54 PM

But... but... Fuck. Fuck. Yeah. Fuck. But...? Fuck. OK.

Posted by Eric Tilton at December 4, 2005 06:09 PM

I have upgraded my PC several times since buying it four years ago - it's had a new mobo, CPU, graphics card, couple of new hard drives, and of course external peripherals which don't really count. I've been happy to do so, as it's kept it fairly close to the cutting edge constantly, for about the same price as two separate cutting-edge PCs four years apart.

That's pretty much going to stop though, as I have had 'issues' with various different things and there's no-one to take it back to... a game doesn't work, so I upgrade drivers, that doesn't work so I contact the graphics card manufacturer, they say it's not them and it must be the sound card... and so on, ad nauseum. I also don't have time to spend on upgrading any more, it's a time-consuming process, particularly if it requires a reinstall of Windows or something...

So yeah... basically, I agree with the original post, from here on in.

Posted by Andy P at December 5, 2005 08:33 AM

I disagree with steps 1-3. They should read:

Send the computer to a recycler where they'll be able to reclaim the heavy metals laced throughout the machine.

(Except, of course, that it'll be done by starving kids in India who wear no protective gear... maybe it *is* better to have it go to the municipal dump.)

Posted by Benoit at December 8, 2005 06:30 PM

Amen!!! Listen to the man. It is true. With the price of computers so low, it really does not make sense.

Posted by JCB at December 28, 2005 09:51 PM

Amen!!! Listen to the man. It is true. With the price of computers so low, it really does not make sense to upgrade.

Posted by JCB at December 28, 2005 09:52 PM

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