How To Upgrade Your Computer

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.