Does it make sense to upgrade a PC anymore? With new computers costing less than $1,000 - sometimes much less - why should you sink money into a PC that's already on its way to obsolescence?
Many computer users feel compelled to periodically add more memory, larger hard disks, faster processors, new motherboards, more powerful graphics cards and other components to their PCs.
More than bragging rights is involved. New operating systems and application programs have stiffer hardware requirements, forcing you to upgrade to keep up.
But upgrading has its pitfalls. Even those used to getting silicon under their fingernails frequently run into compatibility problems. The added RAM does not work with the existing RAM, the new hard disk prevents Windows from loading, the new graphics card conflicts with the old printer, the motherboard doesn't fit right inside the case, etc.
If you have someone do the work for you, you still have to pay for the new components, along with the labor.
With this seemingly never-ending cycle of new software requiring new hardware requiring upgrading hassle and expense, it's as if the software and hardware industries are in cahoots, conspiring against you and your budget. Though this has led to impressive growth for the PC sector, the benefits to users have sometimes been less evident.
The situation is changing. For most people, the speed bottleneck is no longer the PC itself but the Internet. Surfing the Web can be painfully slow with a 56K modem, no matter how fast your other hardware.
Fortunately, relief is on the way with fast cable and DSL modems, though cable and telecommunications companies haven't been quick in making these services widely available.
Another argument against new hardware components is that most software upgrades aren't as compelling as they once were. The PC revolution is now two decades old, and most programs have already gone through many upgrades. "Mature" software has less room for further improvement. Many computer journalists, professionals and users are realizing that upgrading software shouldn't be a knee-jerk process.
If you're running Windows 95 without problems and don't need the Universal Serial Bus (USB) support of Windows 98, save your money. Unless you oversee other Microsoft-only users and can benefit from Microsoft Office 2000's collaboration and Web-integration features, stick to Office 97.
Perhaps the most persuasive reason for not upgrading hardware piecemeal is the dramatic price decrease of new computers. The latest trend is the bundling of "free" PCs with paid Internet access.
Sure, some companies offering such services, such as DirectWeb of Mount Laurel, NJ, are experiencing start-up problems. These firms also lock you into using their Internet service for given periods of time. But this is the least expensive way to obtain a PC so far, and it looks to be a hit. Established retailers such as Best Buy and Circuit City are starting to jump onto this bandwagon.
Other companies, such as eMachines and Microworkz, have made names for themselves with their ultra-low-cost computers. All this has decreased the price of all PCs, with name-brand (and often more reliable) vendors such as Gateway 2000, Dell, Compaq and Hewlett Packard being forced to offer lines of PCs at their lowest prices.
With powerful-enough new PCs so inexpensive, it can simply be more cost- and time-efficient to buy cheap and keep for two years rather than buy expensive and incrementally upgrade components over four years.
Yet there are times when it does make sense to add components to a system. RAM is dirt cheap these days, and if your computer has only 16 or 32 megabytes of memory and you run more than two programs at once under Windows 95 or Windows 98, you'll gain a big performance boost by going to 32 or 64 megabytes.
If you're running out of storage, adding a second hard drive or a removable hard drive can also make sense.
Adding a new processor or motherboard usually doesn't make sense today. One exception is if you've already replaced the RAM, hard drive and graphics card and don't want to lose this investment.
Still, buying a new PC is often the best upgrade. Along with a system in which all the components are compatible, you'll get a new warranty, which can be a money-saver if something goes wrong in the future.
But if your current system does everything you need, stick with it. Appropriate technology is the rationale here, with the watchword being, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or http://members.home.net/ reidgold.