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July 14, 2005, 1:13 am
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July 12th, 2005
Reinvent Your PC: Performance Boosters
by PC World contributor Jim Aspinwall
You can improve performance significantly by enhancing two basic
components--the CPU and memory. Whether you built your computer or
bought it, it can probably use more RAM. And some motherboards respond
to a new CPU like a NASCAR engine does to a shot of nitro fuel. But
adding high-performance components will generate extra heat, and more
heat can shorten your PC's life expectancy; by adding a case fan or
two, you can help prevent crashes and extend the system's life.
Ratchet Up the RAM
As upgrades go, adding RAM almost always gives you the most bang for
your buck. Even today, some new PCs ship with only 256MB of memory,
the minimum recommended amount for Windows XP. With memory still quite
affordable (a typical 512MB memory module for a desktop PC will set
you back only $60 to $90), no Windows XP system should run with less
Too little memory forces Windows to swap programs and data between RAM
and the hard drive, slowing down performance. Adding as much RAM as
you can afford will cut down Windows' demands on the hard drive,
making everything run faster and more smoothly.
Most experts recommend at least 512MB of RAM for XP; some people
upgrade to 1GB, 1.5GB, or even 2GB of RAM to put issues of
insufficient memory and sluggish file swapping to rest. If you use the
PC mainly for office applications, the Web, and e-mail, then consider
upgrading to 512MB of RAM. If you run a lot of applications at the
same time, frequently use large databases or spreadsheets, or edit
large audio or video files, then a gigabyte of memory will make your
computing life much easier.
Some RAM modules, designed for high-speed computing, have additional
features that may be useful for serious performance seekers. Crucial's
Ballistix Tracer RAM modules (about $125 for 512MB) use rows of LEDs
on each unit to indicate how much of it is in use at any one time. For
current pricing and availability, go to the PC World Product Finder:
Corsair's XMS Xpert memory modules (prices start at about $185 for
1GB) feature a bright LED display on top of the module that gives you
an instant readout of system temperature and diagnostics. For pricing
and more info, go to our Product Finder:
When shopping for RAM, check your system manual to determine the type
and speed of memory that your PC uses. You can add single DDR modules
to a DDR system, but DDR2 memory must be added in matched pairs. And
while you can safely use RAM that runs faster, it won't speed up your
PC--though you sometimes can save money buying slightly faster RAM
than your system is rated to use.
The free version of SiSoft's diagnostic utility Sandra 2005 can tell
you what kind of memory you have installed (use the Mainboard
Information module, and look for the information category labeled
Memory Modules). You can download a copy from us:
Taking your system manual or one of your RAM modules to the store can
help the tech or salesperson select the right type and amount of RAM
for your PC. For detailed steps on how to upgrade your RAM, read the
October 2000 "Upgrade Guide"; although the article is old, its
instructions are still correct:
One other rule applies generally to upgrades but particularly to RAM:
Stick to the reputable manufacturers and avoid the bargain-basement
generics. Poor-quality memory can cause your PC to crash and freeze.
Those substandard modules are usually cheaper and sold with a very
brief warranty period--perhaps just days--for good reason: You're
likely to bring them back to the store after a few weeks. Reputable
memory companies include Corsair, Crucial, Micron, and WinTec.
Test Center Tip
Always ground yourself to a metal part of the PC (it doesn't have to
be plugged in) before touching any component inside the case.
Memory Upgrades: Newer, Faster RAM Can Be Cheaper, Too
When you shop for memory, you might be able to save some money by
buying RAM that's slightly faster than, but backward-compatible with,
the RAM your system now uses.
When you shop for RAM upgrades, you usually need to figure out what
memory your computer already has and buy the same kind. But RAM is
almost always backward-compatible (though you need to get the right
type, typically referred to as DDR or DDR2), and sometimes slightly
faster RAM is cheaper than slower, older versions of RAM.
As the factories that make memory switch to making faster models and
older RAM becomes more scarce, prices for older modules tend to rise.
We compared the average price (on June 1) for two 256MB DDR2 memory
modules (DDR2 modules must be upgraded in matched pairs) rated for a
range of motherboard bus speeds. Our results at right show that, if
you needed PC2-3200 RAM, you would have gotten a better price for the
faster, more plentiful PC2-4200 RAM, which works just as well.
Go to our Product Finder to compare RAM pricing:
This week's newsletter was taken from "Reinvent Your PC" in PC World's
August issue. For even more tips, read the original article:
Browse PC World's Upgrade Center for more how-tos, plus product
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