Saturday, December 18, 2010

Upgrading your computer. Easier than you thought.

So, you want to upgrade your computer, but you don't want to spend a lot of money? It's easier than most people think. You already have a lot of parts that can be salvaged for a new computer. When most non-technical people think about computers, they think of the entire tower as the "brain" and the monitor as the "screen". Truth is, if your screen still works, you don't need a new flat-panel one -- they just look nicer. (Actually, in practice, a CRT monitor is capable of higher resolutions than an LCD monitor.) And your "tower" (or case, or chassis) is good as well, along with the optical drive (your CD/DVD reader/burner) and hard drive. Your power supply may or may not be.

The first thing to do is to open your case. This can be scary at first, but you're not going to break anything that wasn't right about to break on its own. Before you open the case, disconnect everything but the power cord. Leave the power cord plugged in. If there is a power switch on the back of the power supply, turn it off. Typically there are four or more screws on the back, along the sides and top. Note that there are a few screws around the power cord. Do not unscrew these as these hold the power supply in place. (You don't want that falling and busting up the inside of your computer.) With the case screws out, you should be able to remove the "top". If your tower stands up, it's technically on its side. The bottom of any case is the "side" the motherboard is on. That's going to be the right side of your standing tower, so what you think of as the left side is actually the "top". The "top" may slide off or lift off. In some cases, a shell will slide off the top, bottom, and side. In any case, removing the cover should not be a problem.

Now let's take a look inside the case. Rotate the case so that where you plug everything in, is facing you. This puts the front of the computer (where you put the CDs/DVDs in) away from you. That big circuit board in the middle is called the motherboard (or the "mobo" in geek culture). You don't need to replace it, but if you want to upgrade your computer, you're going to have to. You really don't want to take it out unless you have to, it's a real pain in the ass to put one in (geeks reading this are nodding), but never mind that for now. To the left, but sometimes to the right, is a block where the power cord goes in. This is the power supply, and it's your best friend right now. Because it's still plugged in, it's electrically grounded. Work on a computer on a high counter, standing, and keep your feet in one place. If you have to move, to get something, touch the power supply for a second to "ground" yourself. This will prevent you from "frying your mobo" (discharging static electricity onto a circuit board, short-circuiting it). On the far side of the chassis are your drives. That big 5" wide one is your CD/DVD reader/writer (they all look the same -- even Blu-ray drives, they all look the same). Hard drives are 3" wide. Depending on their connection type, they'll either have a 1.5" ribbon cable (IDE) or a 3/4" plug (SATA) plugged into them, and a four-wire plug. The former is data (either way), the latter is power.

Now let's look at the motherboard specifically. Basically they are all the same. On the right is the PCI cards. If you were to add something like a modem or a TV tuner, or a USB hub, to your computer, you'd plug it in here. It would slide in like a Nintendo cartridge to one of those slots, and its ports would face out the back of your computer. The leftmost one is either AGP or PCI Express and would support a video card, for playing games equivalent to what an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 can play. To the left of that is the processor, which you won't see under the fan and heatsink. This is the actual brain of the computer, a giant calculator, and it needs direct cooling. Beyond the processor and a little to the left is the RAM. One to four sticks that also plug in like Nintendo cartridges. This is your computer's memory. If someone says they have "four gigs of RAM" they mean they either have a 4GB stick, two 2GB sticks, or four 1GB sticks. Your crappy computer you're upgrading may only have two slots. That's a sign of a "value" mobo. It probably sucks in other ways. The rest is stuff you don't need to worry about... and where the power, drives, and front ports plug in.

Special note here: A monkey can probably upgrade your computer. Anyone can swap out the stuff, it's not exactly rocket science. Nothing can be plugged in wrong, it all goes in only one way. There is an exception though: USB and IEEE1394 (Firewire) plugs look exactly the same. You have to know which is which. If your case's front panel doesn't have Firewire, never mind. But you'll still need to not plug your USB line into your new mobo's Firewire port. That would be really bad and could fry your mobo.

Buying the parts: This part is easy. And you would do this before opening the computer, but you should know to read a guide before following its steps, so...

Start with the processor. The processor should account for about 60-75% of the speed increase in your computer. Make it count. Unless you have cash out the wazoo, don't even think about Intel. Intel spends a lot of money making pretty ads, and their customers pay for those ads for the priviledge of displaying the "Intel Inside" sticker on their case. I'm talking hundreds of dollars more. So go to, and under the logo, under the left, point at Computer Hardware and click on CPUs (or is it Processors?). Narrow your search to AMD processors. You can get a quad-core AMD Athlon II for about $120, a triple-core AMD Athlon II for about $80, or a dual-core AMD Phenom II for about $100. (Why is the dual more than the triple? It's a Phenom, they're better.) All three are good choices. Get the quad if you can afford it. If you really want to upgrade your computer, its processor probably only has one core. A dual core processor is two processors in one... basically. A triple is three and a quad is four. Yes, newbies, your computer can have four brains. They don't all work at once, but say you're booting up... One core is handling the basic Windows stuff... your antivirus comes on... another core takes that. Then you open up Firefox, because you're not a complete newb and you know how to block ads... a third core can take Firefox. Sort of. One last note: DO NOT BUY AN OEM PROCESSOR. It won't come with the heatsink or the fan. You need these. And no, your old one will not work. Retail isn't gonna be much more than $10 more, if that. And it comes with all you need.

Next pick the motherboard. I'm pretty sure all the processors I mentioned use AMD Socket AM3, but once you've picked the CPU, double-check in the specs. Open a new tab, back to, and motherboards under Computer Hardware. You want an AMD motherboard with an AMD chipset (not NVIDIA). The latest AMD motherboards all seem to come with HDMI (High-Def Multimedia Interface) as well as your typical VGA (old monitors) and DVI (newer monitors) ports. This is good for most users. There are a lot of choices here. I like Gigabyte; ASUS is a popular one as well. MSI isn't bad either. Can't say about the rest. Price-wise, you get what you pay for. You can get a really nice Gigabyte board for around $140. That isn't bad for really good stuff. ATX, if you see it (and you will) is just the motherboard standard. They're all ATX unless they're mini-ATX, which is smaller (and you may need that, check the measurements of your current mobo). There was a BTX but it failed. Anyway, you want to make sure the motherboard has onboard video (unless you're a gamer, in which case you won't want that... but this guide isn't for gamers anyway) and onboard audio.

Now pay attention to the kind of RAM the motherboard you want, takes. Search for that in a new tab. There will probably be 2-3 kinds (speeds) of RAM it takes; they should all be taking DDR3 RAM at this point. (If not, you're looking at an old and/or crappy motherboard.) You're pretty much shooting for quantity here. 2GB is fine if you're sticking with Windows XP, but that's not a wise idea at all as Microsoft has stopped supporting it. Windows 7 is great and it's good for pretty much everybody. For Windows 7 you should get 4GB. 2GB is okay... but you want 4GB. 8GB if you can afford it. Also, the more sticks the merrier, but it'll limit your upgrade potential. The bigger a stick is, the slower it is, generally, so four 2GB sticks would be faster than two 4GB sticks, even though both configurations result in 8GB of RAM. The only advantage the latter has is you can add two more 4GB sticks for a whopping 16GB of RAM (which would be epic). Anyway, the absolute best brands for RAM are Corsair, OCZ, and Patriot, pretty much in that order. Kingston is okay as well.

A note on brands: I've given my opinion based on my experiences... I haven't been paid a dime by any of these companies to drop their names here. If you want to save a couple bucks and go with something else, just pay attention to the reviews. If it's good (or bad), the reviews should tell you.

Building it... okay, now I'm assuming you've read this guide and you have (at least) a motherboard, a processor, and some RAM... and your old case.

First... I don't wanna say "rip everything out" but that's basically what you're doing to your old motherboard. Everything but the RAM and CPU. Leave those on the board (no reason to remove them). Start with power cables. These come from the power supply. There's a 20- (10x2) or 24-pin (12x2) (or possibly a 20-pin and a 4-pin together) cable going to the motherboard. There may be a 4-pin (2x2) going by the processor as well. The power supply also connects directly to fans and drives, but leave these alone. Next disconnect drives. Follow the data cables back, they should plug in somewhere on the motherboard. Now disconnect your front-panel stuff. Lastly, your expansion cards. These are typically screwed into the case on the metal part. Unscrew it, and pull the card out. Remember, hand on the power supply. And they come out like Nintendo cartridges, but pull back a little, as the little "bar" thing can get stuck between the motherboard and the case.

Now unscrew the old motherboard. Keep the screws in a safe place, you'll need them for the new one. Once you have all of them out, you can lift the motherboard up and out. Mount it on your wall or something. I think they make great decorations.

Under the motherboard will be a bunch of pegs. These are called "standoff screws". Screw hole in top, screw in bottom. They can be taken out by hand, or with needle-nosed pliers. Hopefully you will not have to remove any.

Take your new motherboard (again, hand on the power supply) and hold it over the standoffs. Keep in mind where they all are. Make sure you can see all of them through the screw holes in the new motherboard. Also keep in mind that you will probably not use all the screw holes. That's fine. You primarily want the four corners, under the processor (stability for the fan), under the RAM, and under the video card if you're installing one. This guide doesn't call for one though. You do not want a standoff to come up where there isn't a screw hole; that can fry your board. Remove/move any standoffs you do not need.

Once the motherboard is in place, most of the hard work is done.

"Seating" the processor is the easiest step you will take BY FAR. I'm dead serious. Next to the processor socket there is a lever. Lift it up. Look at the socket, the processor can only sit on it one way. (Look at the corners -- it'll be different in one corner by one hole.) Look at the bottom of the processor -- same thing. One extra or less hole. Line it up. Set the processor down. Push the lever down. It's stupidly easy.

Installing the heatsink is among the hardest, though. You will either get a dallop of thermal paste, or more likely the heatsink will just have it on the bottom, and you'll have to pull off a paper (like on a bow, when wrapping presents). Do not touch the grey stuff, it smears easily. You'll notice the heatsink has links, and there should be hooks on two sides of the socket. Or vice versa. The trick is to set the heatsink square on the processor and get the hooks in the links. This is real tricky. But it's not rocket science.

Now for the RAM. Look at the bottom (where the RAM will go into the motherboard. There's a "gap" in the chip dividing it about 60/40. Look for the same on the slot. That'll tell you what way the RAM goes in. Pull the hooks out either end and insert it as straight as you can. And give it a good hard push. When you have it right, the hooks will snap in and grab the gaps on the ends of the stick. Do this for each stick you have. If you have two sticks, you have to leave a gap between them. For example, if you imagine the RAM slots are 1, 2, 3, 4... insert the RAM sticks in 1 and 3... or 2 and 4. Your choice. If you have four, fill 'em all. You can't do 3. It won't boot.

Then you just have to connect your drives, power cables, and front panel connectors. The plugs may have moved a little, but they should all be there. You'll have to refer to the paperwork that came with the motherboard, it should tell you where everything plugs in.

If you have done everything right, connect all your peripherals and turn it on. Windows will go batshit crazy with all the new stuff, but it *should* be fine. You may have to restart a couple times. Once everything is good to go, you can put the cover back on.

Did you want a Blu-ray reader/writer, or even a DVD writer? DVD burners are all around $20 on Newegg, and Blu-ray burners start at $100. They're piss easy to install. Simply unscrew the old optical drive and pull its cables, then mount the new drive, and put the old drive's cables into the drive... unless you had an IDE drive (fat ribbon) and upgraded to a SATA drive, in which case you will need a SATA cable and a SATA power cable (or adapter). Bigger hard drive? Pretty much ditto, unless it's your C (Windows system) drive you want to replace. In which case, bad idea partner, just put it in as a secondary (or tertiary) drive. Mount it, find a free data and power cable, and plug it up.

Do you need a new power supply? They run about $100 for good ones. It's too big to fit in your little case? The power supply can actually sit outside the case (the case is actually optional -- wrap your noodle around that), just cover the hole so mice don't get in.

It should be noted that this guide does not guarantee your success at upgrading your computer. A bunch of stuff can go wrong -- this is why 99% of people pay Dell to build them a piece of junk from value parts what I pay to build a premium computer. No amount of reading will compensate for experience, and you can't read enough. This guide is only intended to show how easy it is. And it is easy if you know what you're doing. But the best favor you can do yourself is watch the newsstands for Maximum PC. Great magazine, and unofficially and without meaning to, perhaps, at least once a year they publish a guide to building your own computer. It'll just be an article, and it'll be mentioned on the cover. For the love of all that is holy, buy the damn mag, yes, at $10 or whatever (toss the disc -- all the software on it is 3 months out of date and free to download) and read the article a dozen times over. It was such an article back in 2004 that inspired me to build my first rig. And it worked perfectly on first boot and for six years thereafter.

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