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PC Upgrades: Get More for Less

Upgrading PCIn December of 2005, the housing boom that began a decade earlier continued its crazy uphill ride, seemingly oblivious to a variety of red flags appearing across the country. By October of 2007, that boom had revealed itself as one very big, very hurtful bubble, and home prices were sliding steeply downhill. Yet you wouldn’t know it by looking at the Dow Jones Industrial Average Index, as it obliviously surged past the 14000 mark for the first time in history.

Fast forward to today. The boom turned bubble is now a full-blown crisis, the Dow has plunged to 8000, businesses in every sector are crumbling, and the personal savings of so many individuals and families has been decimated.

Nevertheless, life must go on. And a necessary part of that life in the year 2009 is a desktop PC. But what if your computer isn’t up to snuff? What if it will simply no longer do what you need it to do? Given the state of the economy and, quite possibly, the state of your own personal bank account, should you take the plunge for a new machine now, or struggle on with that glorified boat anchor as you wait out the storm?

By the Numbers

Let’s look at some of the facts. In the fourth quarter of 2008, the PC industry suffered its worst worldwide growth rate since 2002. That trend, according to several leading economists and analysts, is not only expected to worsen throughout 2009, quite likely into 2010, and perhaps even 2011. Indeed, speculation is rampant that several of the smaller players in the industry may well go the way of the dodo as the economic slump drags on.

Not even the big fish in the pond are immune. Dell, the second-largest computer manufacturer behind only HP, continues to trim its global work force, close plants, and outsource operations. For its part, HP has just announced a series of pay cuts that will leave no one in the company untouched. Even IBM and Intel are shipping jobs overseas – or eliminating them altogether.

Eee PCClearly then, the down economy has had a rather serious impact on the PC market. But it’s not like consumers have stopped buying computers entirely. In fact, notebooks, and in particular, netbooks, are doing just fine. MIT media director Nicholas Negroponte first announced the visionary One Laptop Per Child Project in 2005, introducing the idea of a low-cost, miniaturized notebook that would allow consumers to do much of the basic stuff they already did with far pricier traditional notebooks – Internet surfing, email, document creation, photo organization and uploading. That has translated well to the retail computer world, and when ASUS introduced its EeePC in 2007, the writing was on the proverbial wall.

The problem for the PC sector isn’t netbooks themselves – some of which are now priced at sub-$300 levels – but instead their effect on traditional notebooks. Now competing not only with a lousy economy, but also the ridiculously cheap netbook alternative, notebooks have become that much more affordable. And that, in turn, has enticed potential PC buyers to consider a portable computing solution instead of a new desktop.

Upgrading PCNot a Happy Holiday for the PC Biz

When you put all of this together, it’s really no surprise that PC prices plunged more than 14 percent during the fourth quarter of 2008. Indeed, only once on the last 15 years – during the dot-com collapse of 2001 – have the retail prices of PCs declined so rapidly. Given the drop in prices before and after that abysmal final quarter of 2008, bang for the buck has perhaps never been greater than it is right now.

So, is this a good time to improve your computing environment? If you have any spare change kicking around at all, the answer is a resounding yes. The only mitigating factor? Prices will likely drop further – though not as far as they’ve dropped already – in the months ahead.

HP FirebirdBargains Abound

Let’s look at one specific high-end PC of note – the built-for-gaming HP/Voodoo Firebird 802 Desktop PC – to see how far we’ve come already.

Though not as powerful as some purpose-built gaming rigs in that it won’t do quite the same job with frame rates and ultra-high levels of detail, the Firebird nevertheless features an Intel Core 2 Quad CPU and 4GB of random access memory (RAM) and will handle the majority of stuff today’s top titles can dish out.

Yet it’s also been designed to adhere to today’s newfound emphasis on power- and space-efficiency. The unit measures just 6.2 inches wide by 17.8 inches long by 18.9 inches high – a mere baby when compared to the typical gaming monsters. The hard drives (two of them, for a total of 500GB) are straight out of notebook land. The dual video cards, arranged in SLI configuration, are designed by nVidia for the small form factor PC world. The entire system is liquid cooled with just two small fans and a purposeful design that funnels air exactly where it’s needed. Moreover, the power supply resides outside the case, where it doesn’t need extra cooling.

The price? Well, it seemed like a pretty good deal in the fall of 2008 at the original MSRP of $1,799, especially considering its stratospherically priced forerunners. But with HP’s just-announced instant rebate, it’s a bargain at just $1,299. What’s more, at the time of this writing, HP also tossed in a freebie inkjet printer.

Stand alone video cardTo Clone, or Not to Clone…

As the prices of name brand PCs drop, so do the prices of virtually all the guts that go into them. So, while now might be the best time to buy a Dell or an HP, it’s also the best time in recent memory to head down to mom and pop’s computer shop (if it’s still in business) or surf over to the Web equivalent and buy a clone.

Granted, many clones won’t give you the lengthy whole-system warranty you’d get with a name brand PC. And you probably won’t get a tech support line either. But you will have warranties on the parts inside, and you will get to choose those parts yourself. This is more important than you might think, because most name brand PCs sport at least one or two distinctly weak links to help keep the cost down.

Graphics is one such area. Rather than a standalone video card, name brand machines will often make do with a much less capable graphics chip integrated on the motherboard. Likewise, the hard drive may be a slower, older model. System memory may be less than what you need. The motherboard might be semi-obsolete already, giving you little opportunity to add stuff in the future. Moreover, when you buy a clone, you aren’t forced to pay for components you don’t want. A Blu-ray drive, for example, doesn’t do much good if you don’t have any Blu-ray discs.

Of course, there’s one other option apart from an entirely new PC, and it’s an option that applies more in the current economy than perhaps ever before. We’re talking about an upgrade here, and chances are that if your box is less than three or four years old, it might just be the perfect solution.

Disk DefragmenterCleaning Up

Before you drop any coin on new parts, ask yourself: Is your PC running more sluggishly now than it did when you purchased it? If it is, there’s a great likelihood it isn’t the machine’s fault. As time goes by, you will have installed numerous programs and applications. You also will have uninstalled many of them too. During all these installs and uninstalls, bits and bytes of those programs inevitably scatter across your hard drive. When enough programs have been shuffled about, the hard drive inevitably becomes a very messy place and your applications and operating system (OS) have a harder time efficiently accessing what they need to access. Fortunately, all versions of Windows include a “disk defragmentation” tool that will put those chunks back into their proper spot, thus streamlining much of the computing process. Check your manuals, help files, and any Internet search engine for more information on disk defragmentation.

If the disk defragmenter doesn’t do the trick, you may want to take the far more serious step of uninstalling and reinstalling your OS. As time marches on, your OS becomes clogged with all manner of stuff – remnants of old applications, processes that lodge themselves in your start-up routine and are therefore running when you don’t even need them, spyware and viruses, and various bits and bytes.

You can find software utilities that will clean up your OS and its startup routine, and certainly you can begin by doing proper uninstalls of those applications you no longer need polluting your system. Yet nothing works quite as well as a fresh reinstall of your OS. Granted, it’s a somewhat painful, and potentially dangerous procedure because it involves wiping your hard drive clean. And that means you need to ensure your personal data isn’t destroyed in the process. You will need to back it up, either to another drive inside your computer or an external drive. An Internet search will reveal lots of info on how to do it, though, if you still feel uncomfortable, talk to your local computer store or hire someone to do it for you.

Hopping Up

If the above measures don’t do it for you but before you jump right into the upgrade process, you’ll need to ask yourself hard questions about what you really want from your PC. A hardcore gamer, for example, has needs that are much different than someone who merely does a little Internet surfing and email correspondence. Let’s look at those upgrades that offer the biggest bang for the buck in the current economic climate.

Storage. It wasn’t so long ago that an 80GB hard drive running at a sluggish 5400 RPM was commonplace. But in recent months, hard drive capacities have incrementally increased, and prices have plunged. Today, with the economy the way it is, and much faster, much-more-durable solid-state-drives (SSDs) set to replace hard drives in the desktop world within the next couple of years, the time has never been better for a storage upgrade. Check online, and you’ll find big, beefy 500GB drives running at a speedy 7200 RPM for less than $75. If you’re one of those folks still stuck with an old school, low-capacity, 5400 RPM drive, this is easily one of the best things you can do for your PC environment.

Updating ramMemory: If you run Windows XP or Vista with 1GB or less of RAM, and especially if you frequently multitask or play games, do yourself a favor and add more. How much more is up to your specific budget, but 2GB of DDR2 RAM is more than enough for most users. Moreover, RAM is, in a comparative sense, cheap. Right now, you can purchase 2GB of name brand RAM for less than $30. You can double that to 4GB for less than $50. At those prices, this is a superb bang for the buck upgrade.

Graphic capabilities: Many name brand and generic computers are as inexpensive as they are because their graphic capabilities, for want of a better expression, suck. They often include middling graphic chips integrated on the motherboard rather than full-blown, much more powerful video cards. Of course, if you’re not a gamer or someone who consistently deals with the world of 3D graphics, you probably won’t benefit enough from the capabilities of a video card 3D card to warrant the cost or the increased power draw. But if games or 3D animation are important to you, you may want to shell out the $200 a decent card will cost you. Look for cards that support Microsoft’s DirectX 10 application programming interface (so you can play all the latest games), sport at least 512MB of built-in memory, and can be configured in SLI format (in case you want to add a second video card at a later date).

Intel Core 2 DuoCPU: Intel recently dropped the prices on several of its CPUs and, rumor has it, is ready to do so again – likely before spring turns to summer. But does that mean it’s a good time for you to invest in a CPU upgrade? Only if you’ve performed some of the software adjustments we’ve suggested earlier, and perhaps upgraded an old component or two yet still find your machine is crawling along. And even then, don’t forget that by the time you’ve shelled out for a better, faster hard drive, increased memory, a new video card, and a CPU, you may be better off with a package deal on an entirely new system. Still, if you’re scraping by with a single-core CPU, an upgrade to a multi-core processor such as an Intel Core 2 Quad or AMD Phenom II will make a heck of a difference in most every facet of your computing life. Just ensure in advance that your motherboard supports the processor you want, or you’ll end up dropping even more bucks on a new motherboard too.

Window XPOperating System: Do you need Windows Vista? One word: No. If you’re still using XP, stick with it. Vista wasn’t quite the disaster many have made it out to be, but it certainly didn’t set the world on fire. More importantly, rumors abound that we may see the next Microsoft operating system, Windows 7, by the end of the year, and perhaps within a month or two. And, from early reports, it’s apparently far more stable than Vista was at this point in its development. Even still, there’ll be no rush to jump into Windows 7 either. Windows XP remains a very popular OS to this day (many consumers still opt for XP in lieu of Vista, even on new PCs), and should remain so for many months ahead.

And don’t forget: Windows isn’t the be all and end all of operating systems. Linux, for example, is getting a lot of play these days by becoming the OS of choice for many low-cost netbooks, and is only becoming more capable and more stable as time goes on. The best thing about Linux? It’s free. As are other open source software applications such as Open Office (the open source answer to Microsoft’s Office) and Firefox (judged by many to be superior to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer).

Where to Buy

There are those who feel quite comfy tinkering around inside their PC, and there are those who don’t. If you’re one of the latter, and if you truly feel it’s time to recycle that old monstrosity and start anew, try to stick with brands you know will survive the economic slowdown. You can buy any Dell or HP PC, for example, online at their respective websites, though you may want to check the prices at retailing giants such as Best Buy or Staples before you do. And don’t forget to investigate not only their brick and mortar locations but their websites too.

Online outlets become even more appealing if you’re shopping for computer parts for an upgrade of your current system. Look to sites such as Newegg, TigerDirect, PC Connection, J&R, and of course

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Christopher Nickson
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Chris Nickson is a journalist who's written extensively about music and related fields. He's the author of more than 30…
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