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Upgrading A PC

Here's the secret: If you can open a bag of Cheetos, then you can upgrade and repair your PC. You don't need to be a technoweenie with a vacant stare.

In fact, upgrading a PC is almost always easier than trying to use one. I know a guy who can turn a box of spare parts into a whole PC in less time than it takes to print a three-column page in WordPerfect.

Still not convinced? Then let this chapter serve as a little confidence booster. Remember, you don't have to be a computer wizard to upgrade or repair your PC.

You Probably Won't Kill Your PC by Accident

Are you afraid that you'll mess something up if you take off your computer's case? Actually, there's very little that can go wrong. As long as you don't leave a dropped screw rolling around in your computer's innards, you don't have much to worry about. (And I tell you how to retrieve the dropped screw in Chapter 2.)

Do safety concerns keep you from prodding around inside your PC? Not only is the computer safe from your fingers, but your fingers are safe from your computer. After you unplug the beasts, computers are safer than an unplugged blender. You're not going to get a frizzy new hairstyle by accidentally touching the wrong part. Besides, you can fix a lot of your computer's problems without even taking off the case.

Are you afraid that you may accidentally put the wrong wire in the wrong place? Don't worry about it. Most of the wires in your PC are color coded. You can easily tell which wire goes where. The computer designers even catered to groggy engineers: Most of the cables only fit into their plugs one way -- the right way.

If you can change a coffee filter (even one of those expensive, gold-plated coffee filters), then you can change the parts of your PC.

The PC was designed to be modular -- all the parts slip in and out of their own special areas. You can't accidentally install your hard drive where the power supply is supposed to go. Your hard drive simply won't fit. (Just to be sure, I tried it just now and it didn't work.)

Although computers suck 110 volts from a wall outlet -- the same as any household appliance -- they don't actually use that much electricity. A computer's power supply turns 120 volts into 5 or 12 volts, which is less than the amount that some freebie Radio Shack flashlights use. This way, computers are a little less dangerous.

Your PC won't explode if you install a part incorrectly; it just won't work. Although a computer that doesn't work can lead to serious head scratching, it won't lead to any head bandaging. Simply remove the misinstalled part and try installing it again from scratch. Then be careful to follow this book's step-by-step instructions. (And keep an eye out for the troubleshooting tips found in nearby paragraphs.)

When IBM built its first PC microcomputer about 15 years ago, the engineers designed it to be thrown together quickly with common parts. It's still like that today. You can install most computer upgrades with just a screwdriver, and other parts just snap in place just like expensive Lego blocks.

Just as wicked witches don't like water, computer chips are deathly afraid of static electricity. A little static zap may scare you into dropping your pencil, but that zap can be instant death for a computer chip. Be sure to touch something metal -- the edge of a metal desk, a file cabinet, or even your PC's chassis -- before touching anything inside your computer. Live in a particularly static-prone environment? Some stores sell static-grounding straps: little wrist bracelets that screw onto your PC's chassis to keep you grounded at all times.

Upgrading a PC Beats Working on a Car

Forget about the mechanic's overalls; computers are much easier to work on than cars for several reasons. Ninety percent of the time, you can upgrade a PC by using a screwdriver from your kitchen's junk drawer. No need for expensive tools, protective gloves, or noisy wrenches. You don't even have to grunt, spit, or wipe your hands on your pants, unless you already do that stuff anyway.

Also, computer parts are easier to find than car parts. Every year, cars use a different kind of bumper or a new air filter. But, with a PC, all the parts are pretty much the same. You can take a mouse off a friend's computer and plug it into your computer without any problem (unless your friend sees you doing it).

With PC repair, you never encounter any heavy lifting. And you never have to roll under your computer either, unless you're laptopping at the beach.

If you have an old car, you're probably stuck buying parts from a hard-to-find garage in New Jersey. But, if you have an old computer, just grab the floppy drive sitting on the computer store shelf. With a few rare exceptions, you won't have to search old IBM heaps for an '87 floppy drive for a TurboChunk 286.

There aren't any pipes to drop bolts into, like I did when I foolishly tried to replace the carburetor on my '65 VW van. After watching the tow truck haul my car away, I decided to stick with PCs: Computers don't have any open pipes, they don't use bolts, and they smell a lot better than carburetor cleaner. Plus, PCs don't have as many moving parts to catch your sleeve and drag you perilously close to whirling gears.

Here's one more difference: Car mechanics repair stuff. If something inside the engine breaks, the mechanic laboriously takes apart the engine, replaces the bad part with a good one, and laboriously puts the engine back together. But, with PCs, you replace stuff. If your PC's video card dies, throw it away and screw in a new one. Much less fuss. And it's cheaper, too.

Finally, you can sometimes fix your PC without even opening the case. Some software can automatically probe inside your computer, find any culprits, and fix them.

Can You Really Save Bundles of Money?

Many people think that they can build their own PCs from scratch and save a bundle. But it just doesn't work that way. Nobody can save money on a Corvette by picking up all the parts at the Chevy dealer's parts window and bolting them together. The same holds true for a PC.

Today's computer dealers buy zillions of parts at a bulk rate discount, slap 'em all together in the back room, and stick the finished product in the store window 20 minutes later. Without all those bulk discounts on the parts though, a self-made computer costs about as much as a brand-new one -- maybe even a little more.

If your computer is so old that you want to replace everything, go for it. But replace everything by buying a brand new computer. You not only save money and time, but you probably get some free software -- and a new warranty -- tossed in as well.

It's almost always cheaper to replace a part than to repair it. Most repair shops charge upwards of $75 an hour; a long repair job can cost more than a new part. And many shops don't even bother trying to repair the really scary stuff, like monitors or power supplies. It's cheaper (and easier) for the shops to just sell you new ones.

So why bother upgrading your computer yourself? Because you can save cash on repair bills. Plus your computer will be up and running more quickly: It won't be stuck in a backlogged repair shop while you're stuck with no computer. Horrors!

PCs Aren't as Scary After You've Fixed One

When I was a kid, my mom took the car into the shop because it made a strange rattling sound while she turned corners. My mom didn't have any idea what could be causing the problem. The car's rattles and pops all sounded scary and mysterious to her.

The mechanic couldn't find anything wrong, though, so my mom took him on a test drive. Sure enough, when the car rounded a sharp corner, the rattling noise appeared. The mechanic cocked his ear for a few seconds and then opened the metal ashtray on the dashboard. He removed a round pebble and the sound at the same time.

My mom was embarrassed, of course. And, luckily, the auto shop didn't charge for the fix. But this anecdote proves a point: If my mom had known a little bit more about her car, the rattling sound wouldn't have been scary, and she could have saved herself a trip to the shop.

"So what's your point?" you ask. Well . . .

After you open your PC's case and see what's inside, your PC isn't as mysterious or scary to you. You see that it's just a collection of parts, like anything else.

After you fiddle with a PC, you feel more confident about working with your computer and its software. Fiddling with PCs doesn't have to become a hobby, heaven forbid. But you won't be afraid that if you press the wrong key, the monitor will explode like it did on Star Trek last week. (And come to think of it, the week before that, too.)

If you're going to bring small rocks back from the desert, put them in the glove compartment. They don't rattle as loudly in there.

When Should You Upgrade?

Your computer will tell you when you need to upgrade. You may have already seen some of the following warning signs:

When Windows demands it ...

Everybody's using Windows, or at least that's what the folks who sell Windows say. And finicky Windows works best on one of those big, new, sporty computers with a fast Central Processing Unit (CPU), a big hard drive, and large smokestacks. If you want to upgrade to Windows 95 or Windows NT, then upgrade your computer as well.

When you keep waiting for your PC to catch up ...

You press a button and wait. And wait. Or, if you're using Windows, you click on a button and watch the little hourglass sit on the screen. When you're working faster than your PC, it's time to give the little fellow a boost with some extra memory, a larger hard drive, or a faster CPU.

When you can't afford a new computer ...

When you're strapped for cash and can't afford a new computer, buy the parts one at a time. For example, add that new hard drive now and add other parts a few months later when your credit card's not as anemic.

When your old equipment becomes tired ...

Is your mouse hopping across the screen? Are the keys on your keyboard stickingggg? Do your disk drives burp on your floppy disks? Is your old hard drive sending you weird messages? If so, chances are that the parts are saying, "Replace me quick, before I pack my bags and take all your reports, spreadsheets, and high-game scores with me."

When you want a new part in a hurry ...

Computer repair shops aren't nearly as slow as stereo repair shops. Still, do you really want to wait four days for them to install that hot new video card? Especially when you have a nagging suspicion that you could do it yourself in less than 15 minutes?

Also, if you're buying your parts through the mail to save some bucks, count on sticking them inside the computer yourself.

When there's no room for new software ...

When five people head to the restaurant in a single car, three friends cram into the back seat and ride with their knees in the air.

Computer software won't be nearly as neighborly. Each program stakes out its own portion of your computer's hard drive, and it doesn't share.

When you run out of hard disk space for new programs, you have two options: Delete software you no longer use or buy a hard disk big enough to hold all your programs comfortably.

When Shouldn't You Upgrade?

Sometimes, you shouldn't work on your computer yourself. Take caution under the following circumstances:

When a computer part breaks while your computer is under warranty ...

If your computer is under warranty, let them fix the part. In fact, fixing a part yourself may void the warranty on the rest of your computer.

When the dealer says, "I'll install the part for free, within 15 minutes!" ...

Fifteen minutes? By all means, take the dealer up on the offer before he or she wises up and starts charging, like all the other dealers. (Make sure you compare prices with other dealers, however; a higher-priced part may make up for the free installation.)

On a Friday ...

Never try to install a new computer part on a Friday afternoon. When you discover that the widget needs a left bracket too, most repair shops will be closed, leaving you with a desktop full of detached parts until Monday morning.

When your computer is ancient ...

Not all computers can be upgraded. If you're using an old XT or AT computer (which I describe in Chapter 3), it's probably cheaper to buy a new computer than to replace all the old parts individually. In fact, if you're thinking about upgrading a computer that's more than two years old, try this: Total the amount of new equipment you need (bigger hard drive, better video card and monitor, faster modem, and other goodies) and compare it to the cost of a new computer. Chances are, the two figures won't be far off.

When you need your computer up and running within 90 minutes ...

Just like kitchen remodeling, computer upgrading and repairing takes at least twice as long as you originally thought. Don't try to work on your computer under deadline pressure, or you'll wind up steam-cleaning your ears when your head explodes.

When you haven't optimized your computer's software ...

Hey, your computer may not need expensive new hardware in order to run better. You may be able to run some "test and fix" software that ferrets out any software problems and fixes them for you. (Chapter 19 describes some of these.)

Beware of the Chain Reaction

One upgrade often leads to another. Like quarreling office workers, some computer parts refuse to work together -- even though they're designed for IBM compatible computers.

For example, you buy a new hard drive, install it, and wonder why it doesn't work. Then you discover that your computer has a controller card, and it's not compatible with the hard drive you've just installed.

Luckily, controller cards are relatively cheap. However, compatibility is still something to be aware of. When you see the Chain Reaction icon in this book, be aware that you may have to buy yet another part before the upgrade will work.

Chain reactions can pop up with just about any part, unfortunately. For example, sometimes you have to replace all of your memory chips instead of just plugging in a few new ones, as you had hoped. Or sometimes buying a new video card means that you have to buy a new monitor, too: Your old monitor may still work, but it probably won't take advantage of all your new card's whiz-bang features.

None of this stuff is your fault, though. The same chain reaction can happen even if you let the folks at the repair shop upgrade your computer. The only difference is that you hear the sorry news over the phone, just like when the mechanic calls the office saying that you need a new radiator when you only took the car in for a new set of shocks. Yep, those are some shocks all right.

If a part doesn't work in your computer, there's still hope. You can almost always return computer parts for a refund just as if the parts were sweaters that didn't fit. If you don't feel like replacing all the incompatible parts, just take back your new part for a refund. As long as you return it within a reasonable amount of time and in good working order, you shouldn't have a problem. (As a precaution, however, always check the return policy before buying a part.)