Lost in Cyberspace
Cheap Upgrades
© 1999 by H.B. Koplowitz

You say your computer is slow as molasses? It takes forever to load Web pages, and if you try to use more than one application at a time it crashes? Time to get a new computer? Maybe, but maybe not. More memory, a faster modem and a used monitor are three things you can buy for around $100 that can give new life to your old computer and make a new one even better.

Whether your computer is just out of the box or belongs in a box, the best way to improve its overall performance is to install more random-access memory, or RAM. RAM chips look kind of like Lego blocks that snap into your computer. Basically, the more RAM your computer has, the more things it can do faster.

Here's how the memory game is played: RAM is measured in megabytes, abbreviated MB or megs. Say your computer has 32 megs of RAM, which is what most starter computers come with today. The operating system, probably Windows, takes up half your RAM, leaving 16 megs for applications. You are writing a letter with the Microsoft Word application, which uses 6 megs, when you decide to go on America Online to check your e-mail, which takes up 11 megs.

Sixteen plus 6 plus 11 adds up to 33 megs of RAM, and you only got 32. That means that unless you close Word before trying to open AOL, at best AOL will refuse to load and you will get an error message that you are out of memory. At worst, AOL half loads and then your screen freezes, forcing you to restart the computer and rewrite that letter if you didn't save it. 

To remedy the problem you could spend a thousand dollars on a new computer with more memory, which is what most people do. Or, you could just buy more memory. For roughly $100 you can get 64 megs of RAM, which is the minimum you really need to run the latest operating systems and applications. Add 64 megs to the 32 or 16 your computer already has and you'll be amazed at the difference. Suddenly you'll have plenty of memory to run multiple applications, view video and open up Word, America Online and Netscape all at the same time, moving text between documents, e-mails and Web sites without having to open and close applications.

If your computer's memory isn't "expandable" to 64 megs, it may be time to get a new one, although adding 8 megs to an 8-meg machine will still improve performance. And don't be chintzy. Go with a name brand and get at least 64 megs if possible.

Don't confuse RAM with your hard drive, which is like a big closet that stores all your files and applications. Nowadays hard drives are measured in gigabytes, which is like a mega-meg. Most new computers come with at least 4-gigabytes of hard drive storage, which is already more gigabytes than you'll ever need. But if you do somehow manage to fill up all those gigabytes, you should do what you would do with a real closet, which is toss what you don't use and stick the rest in a storage locker, otherwise known as a Zip disk.

If your hard drive is measured in megabytes, that's another sign it's time for a new computer. But the bottom line is that a computer with 64 megs of RAM and only a 1-gigabyte hard drive will run rings around a computer with a 6-gigabyte hard drive and only 32 megs of RAM.

One more thing: You may be a klutz, but if you know how to use a screwdriver and have ever changed a light bulb in a car, you are overqualified to open the computer and plug the memory chip in yourself, saving the $30 installation fee.

The second way to improve computer performance is really a no-brainer. If you ever go on the Internet with a 14.4-, 28.8- or anything less than a 56-kbps modem -- that's kilobytes per second, which is like a mini-meg -- then you should get a new modem. A 56-kbps modem, which you can get for around $100, is just a pit stop on the way to broadband technology, but until the next generation of modems comes along, upgrading to a 56k will have as dramatic an impact on your Internet surfing as more RAM has on your computer's performance.

The third way to enhance your computer system actually costs more than $100, but think of it as $100 more. While more memory and faster modems will improve performance, when you sit at your computer playing games, day trading, desktop publishing or bidding on auctions, what you are staring at is not your computer but your monitor. And when it comes to computer screens, bigger is definitely better.

You can get a new 15-inch screen for as low as $100, while 17- to 19-inch screens can cost $500 and up. If, however, you find a used 17-inch screen for $100 more than a new 15-incher, I say go for it.

copyright 1999 by H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.

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