Breaking the Computer Buying Cycle
By David DoohenThat New Computer
If you are like most people when they go out and buy a new Personal Computer you
probably get excited when you take it out of the box, turn it on and marvel at how fast it runs. When a computer is
new it always seems to run faster and boot up quicker than your old computer. The applications and games seem to
run without any slow down and when you get on the internet the pages load instantly on the screen, and you can
quickly surf from one website to another. Overtime though, your computer can slow down and not run as quickly as it
did when it was new.
This slow down can occur for a variety of reasons and when it happens it can be
frustrating and spoil your computing experience. Often times when this happens it can be corrected by either
cleaning up your hard drive, or running some diagnostics. Perhaps the computer has a virus and once you remove the
virus, performance can be restored. What do you do though if you have done all those things and your computer is
still running slow?
If your computer is running slow even after you have removed any viruses and attempted to
improve system performance, it could mean that the demands you are now placing on your computer have exceeded the
As we use our computers we tend to install new software applications and attempt to run
more applications simultaneously. The new software we install can require greater computer resources such as more
computer memory and a faster CPU, or central processing unit to run the software applications or games
If you are like me you like to have multiple software applications running or multiple
internet browser windows open at the same time and that can utilize greater amounts of computer resources as well.
The more resources you use, the slower the computer will run.
This is a constant problem in computing because computer technology doubles roughly every
18 months. In a demand for more feature rich software applications, software developers create more resource
consuming software programs. To meet the increased demands of the software, computer manufacturers continue to
build faster, more expensive computers. This, in my opinion, is a vicious cycle where in order to maintain a fast
and enjoyable computing experience, the computer user is forced to go out and buy a new computer every few
Fortunately for me I have never had to worry about that problem. I am a certified computer
professional and have been building and repairing computers for over 15 years. When I want a faster computer I do
not go out and buy a new expensive computer. I have learned how to break the new computer buying cycle by upgrading
my computer. By upgrading my computer rather than buying new, I can simply make myself a faster computer at a
fraction of the cost.
You can break the computer buying cycle too and you do not have to be a computer
professional like me to do it. You only need to know a few things about computers, be handy with a screw driver and
be able to follow a few simple instructions; but before you begin to think about upgrading your computer, it might
be important to get a brief overview on how a computer works.
Computers are made up of a combination of hardware and software working together. When you
aren't familiar with how a computer functions then they can seem very complex. You can reduce that complexity, once
you understand how a computer works at a basic level.
At its most basic level a computer receives input and produces output. A computer receives
input through input devices such as the keyboard and mouse (hardware). Every time we click the mouse on a link or
move the mouse across the screen we are giving the computer input or an instruction to do something.
The computer receives the input as an electronic signal created by the mouse click or
keystroke on the keyboard. This signal is transmitted through the computer and is converted into digital data where
it can be interpreted as an instruction by the operating system, software application or game.(software)
The computer processes digital instruction data and produces output as either an image or
words on the computer screen or perhaps as a printout on a printer.
What makes a computer fast is its ability to receive input, and produce output quickly.
There are several components a computer needs in order to function but there are three primary components that
directly affect how fast a computer can operate.
The three primary computer components which handle the processing of input and make a
computer fast are the:
- Motherboard or Main System board
- CPU or Central Processing Unit
- RAM or Random Access Memory
Without getting too technical, the Motherboard is the computer component that connects all
the hardware together on the computer. You could think of the Motherboard as a data freeway that links together all
the components of the computer and allows them to transmit data between each other and and communicate.
Every computer component on the computer connects to the Motherboard either by being
connected directly to the Motherboard or connecting via a data cable. The devices or components that connect to the
Motherboard are the CPU, RAM Memory, Hard Drive, CD ROM/DVD drive, Video Card, Sound Card, Network Card, Modem, Key
Board, Mouse and Monitor.
There are additional peripheral devices which can connect to the Motherboard as well
through a variety of data ports which are connected to the Motherboard such as a printer, digital camera,
microphone, and even a HDTV. These devices can connect to the Motherboard using one of several ports such as a USB,
Parallel, Fire-Wire, SATA (Serial-ATA), or HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) port.
In short the Motherboard provided the data communication infrastructure which allows
communication between all the devices. What makes one Motherboard faster than another is the volume of data it can
support being transmitted across what is called it's data BUS and the speed at which it can transmit the data. One
way to think of it is in terms of a street. Think of the data bus as a street and the data are like cars driving
down the street. Older Motherboards communication was the equivalent of a two way two lane street with a speed
limit of 25 MPH. Today the new Motherboards are like 8 lane highways with 200MPH speed limits.
New Motherboards are faster because they can allow more data traffic at higher
The CPU or Processor is the brain of the computer. The CPU carries out all the
instructions that you in conjunction with the Operating System, like Windows XP or Windows 7, asks it to do. CPUs
can only carry out one instruction at a time but they do it so fast it seems like they are doing multiple tasks at
one time or "Multitasking".
Newer CPUs are faster because their "clock speed" or "clock cycle" is faster. The clock
speed is the speed at which a CPU can carry out instructions. You can think of clock speed like the timing of a
metronome, the device that helps musicians keep the right musical time. A metronome has a hand on the front of it
which swings back and forth at a timing interval you set. As it swings back and forth it ticks like a clock. Like
the metronome the CPU also ticks at a set interval but a CPU ticks at an incredibly fast rate which is measured in
Mega or Gigahertz. The CPU carries out an instruction on every tick of its clock cycle.
New CPUs can not only carry out instructions at very high clock speeds but they can also
be made up of multiple CPU Cores. Each Core can carry out its own instructions. When you have a Dual Core CPU it
can carry out two instructions at the same time and a Quad Core CPU can carry out four. There are even six Core
CPUs out now and like the newer Motherboards these CPUs also have a larger Data BUS to send and receive data faster
through the Motherboard enhancing the computers overall performance.
RAM or Random Access Memory is what stores all the instructions you have asked the
computer to carry out. Every time we interact with our computer we are creating instruction data for the CPU to
process and even the simplest interaction, like moving the mouse across the screen, requires many single
instructions the CPU must carry out. You can imagine that playing a computer game or running an application like
Adobe Photo shop can create a tremendous amount of instructions for the CPU. The CPU is fast and can execute a lot
of instructions quickly but it can't do them all at once which is why we need a place to store the instructions
until they can be processed. This is why RAM was created.
RAM is basically the storage place for all the instructions that are waiting to be
executed by the CPU. You can sometimes tell when you don't have enough RAM when you have clicked on the mouse or
hit the enter key to initiate a program and the hour glass just sits there spinning on the screen. It can appear
that our computer has locked up or froze but what is actually happening is the computer is completing the series of
instructions it has been given before it can perform any further instructions. When this happens we usually see it
as the computer briefly locking up. It is also very frustrating.
The best way to resolve this problem is by simply adding more RAM to your computer. Adding
more RAM is possibly the easiest way to increase the performance of your computer. Increasing the amount of RAM in
your computer can help your computer run faster because it allows your computer store more instructions. This lets
the computer carry out a lot of instructions while you continue to do your work and it reduces the computer freeze
The speed of the RAM you use can also help the computer. If you use RAM that has a faster
Data Bus speed it can send the instructions it is storing to the CPU at a faster rate. The faster the CPU gets the
instructions the faster it can carry them out and the faster your computer will run.
The amount and type you can use is dictated by the type of CPU and Motherboard you use.
The Bus speed of the CPU and Motherboard as well as the capacity of RAM the Motherboard can recognize will
determine what type of RAM and how much you can use.
Some Motherboards will allow you to install as much as 32GBs of RAM and most Motherboards
will recognize multiple Bus speeds so you can use several different types of RAM. Generally speaking the faster the
BUS speed and the larger storage capacity of the RAM, the faster your computer will perform. The important thing to
remember though is that with larger capacity and speed comes higher price.
What's nice about upgrading RAM is most Motherboards can accommodate several different
speeds and capacities of RAM so you can start out with a slower speed and smaller capacity, which will be less
expensive reducing your initial upgrade cost and then later down the road you can upgrade your RAM to a larger
capacity and high speed.
Replacing the Motherboard, CPU and RAM is actually a lot easier than you may think. The
CPU and RAM are directly connected to the motherboard so you can replace all three components at the same time by
simply swapping out the motherboard.
To do this you must first determine what kind of form factor of motherboard your current
The Motherboard Form Factor
Many computer manufacturers such as HP, Compaq, Dell, Gateway, eMachine, and Acer build
their computers based on 4 primary motherboard form factors or design specifications and they are:
- ATX = Full Size Motherboard generally found in full size Desktop computers and
- Micro-ATX = Mid Size motherboard found in Mid Tower and Smaller Desktops
- Mini-ATX = Small Motherboard found in Mid Towers, Smaller Desktops
- Mini-ITX = Newest motherboards very small size found in new smaller towers and
These form factors refer to the size of the Motherboard itself. The computer case is
designed to accommodate a specific size of Motherboard. Once you have determined which form factor your computer
model is, then all you need to do is purchase the correct form factor Motherboard that fits your computer models
It would work like this. Let's say you have an HP Pavilion 750n desktop computer. This is
an older computer with a single core processor. Nice computer when it first came out but very slow by today's
standards. You decide that you want to make it faster by upgrading it to a Quad Core CPU but you need to determine
if you can upgrade it.
You can determine whether or not you can upgrade that particular computer by going to the
HP support website. On the site you would type in your computer model and look at the hardware specifications for
that computer. HP will list the form factor information in the specifications guide. Having done this many times, I
already know the 750n uses a Micro-ATX form factor.
Each computer manufacturer I named has a support site on their webpage where you can go to
determine your models form factor. You can also do a search on Yahoo, Google, or Bing and ask what form factor your
computer model is. If that doesn't work simply email me or leave a comment on this article and I can help you
Once you know the type of form factor your computer model supports you are now ready to
decide what performance level you would like to upgrade your computer to.The performance level of the computer is
generally dictated by the CPU it uses. You may recall I indicated the CPU is often referred to as the brain of the
computer because it processes all the instructions and it sets the computers overall speed based on it's clock
speed.Since the computers overall speed is set by the CPU, you typically start your upgrade by determining the CPU
performance level you want.
How you decide which performance level you would like to upgrade to can be based on how
you use your computer and how much you want to spend to upgrade it. Generally speaking if you only use your
computer to send and receive email, browse the web, and save and share digital images from a digital camera, then
you may only need to upgrade to a Dual Core CPU to significantly improve you computing experience.
If you play lots of games, burns DVDs, edit movies or sound files, and work with high
resolution images or graphics, then you may want to select a Quad Core CPU to increase performance and improve your
From a cost perspective you can expect to pay more for a faster CPU than you would for a
slower CPU and Quad Core CPUs are generally more expensive than Dual Cores. As a rule I believe you should purchase
as much as you can for as little as possible that way you get the most for your money and you won't have to upgrade
again for quite a while.
When you are ready to select your CPU you will have choices based on manufacturer and type
and there are also some differences between the various types of CPUs from each manufacturer which you should be
There are three primary CPU manufacturers Intel, AMD and Motorola, but for the purpose of
this article we are only going to focus on Intel and AMD. Motorola is primarily responsible for making CPUs for
Apple Computers. Apple computers, are a proprietary computer model and it can be more difficult and more costly to
upgrade an Apple computer.
This article is focused on helping the budget conscious, who own what is generally
referred to as an IBM compatible computer, upgrade their computer easily and inexpensively. IBM compatible
computers are identified as those computers which primarily run a Microsoft Windows based operating system such as
Windows XP or Windows 7. Intel and AMD manufacture CPUs that support IBM compatible computers so those are the two
manufacturers we will focus on.
For the purpose of this article I am not going to go into great detail about the
differences between Intel and AMD CPUs. There is already a significant amount of detailed information available on
the internet which describes each manufacturers CPU chip architecture, as well as gives side by side
I would invite you to do a little research on how each manufacturers chips are designed
and then review a website that benchmarks each CPUs performance. There are many links on CPU design, comparisions
and reveiws on the weband this can help you make your CPU choice.
The prevailing sentiment regarding AMD vs. Intel is that both CPUs, in either Dual or Quad
Core configuration, perform similarly with Intel being slightly faster. Intel CPUs have always been associated with
executing business applications quickly while AMD CPUs run multimedia applications quickly. As you research their
benchmark scores you will see Intel on a graph seems to dramatically out perform AMD but when you look at the
duration of time between the two it is minimal.
Where you will see a significant difference between the two manufacturers is in cost. AMD
CPUs are almost always less expensive than Intel CPUs. The question I always ask my clients is, "Is a 4 second
faster speed difference worth an extra $200 or $300 dollars more by buying an Intel CPU?" To me it is
I am looking for an overall performance increase compared to what I am currently using.
Once you upgrade your computer you are not going to be comparing it to another computer of equal performance, you
will be comparing it to the speed of your last computer. If after your upgrade, you find your computer runs
significantly faster than your last computer and it didn't cost much for you to achieve that performance increase,
you will be happy with your upgrade and that is what is important.
Earlier I indicated that RAM stores all the instruction data being transmitted to the CPU
and throughout the computer. The CPU Cache is another form of high speed memory only it is specifically devoted to
the CPU. It has been shown that a CPU can process data faster if more of the data it must process can be stored on
memory located closer to the CPU itself.
All CPUs come with a cache but some newer CPUs will come with an additional cache that is
faster and can hold more data closer to the CPU. Typically CPUs operating at a higher clock speed and having an
additional, faster cache will offer higher performance.
A good example of this is the difference between the AMD Athlon and Phenom Series of CPUs.
Both the Athlon and Phenom series come in Dual and Quad Core configurations but the Phenoim Series has an
additional L3 cache making the CPU faster. It also makes a Phenom series CPU more expensive than the Athlon
Another interesting tidbit is there is now a version II for both the Athlon and Phenom
Series. The version II offers a more faster cache hence both CPUs are supposed to be faster than their predecessors
however the benchmark numbers show a relatively small increase in performance.
Be sure to do a little research on the differences between the AMD and Intel CPUs and
select the one you feel will be appropriate for your computing needs while meeting your budget goals. Once you have
chosen the CPU you want you will then be ready to select the Motherboard that supports not only your CPU but your
computer form factor as well.
One last thing regarding CPUs are both AMD and Intel have different CPU form factors so
when you are selecting a Motherboard for the form factor that meets your computers specifications you also need to
select the one that fits your CPU choice. This may seem complicated but it is not that difficult once you start
looking at the Motherboard and CPU combinations.
The resellers I have showed you have filtering options on their web pages which allow you
to select Motherboards that can support either AMD or Intel. You can also filter by both CPU and computer form
factor as well which can help you narrow down your decision making.
Once you have made a decision on the CPU, you want to select the Motherboard that will
support the CPU you have chosen. As far as Motherboards go there are several major manufactures of Motherboards and
they all produce the 4 main types of Motherboard form factors. The major manufactures are:
This may seem like a lot to choose from but as you begin to filter on the CPU type you can
narrow down your focus and make selecting the right Motherboard easier.
Each motherboard will come with common features that are necessary for standard computer
operations and some can come with additional features that may or may not be beneficial to you. The primary thing
to remember about the Motherboard is that all of the components connect too it and you can choose to customize your
computer upgrade as much or as little you want depending on the Motherboard you purchase.
For example, you can purchase a Motherboard which has the video and sound card integrated
into the board. This saves you both time and money because it eliminates the need for you to choose a video or
sound card, but if you want a specific video or sound card, you can select a Motherboard that does not come with
those integrated components and then pick the video and sound card you would like to install as add in cards onto
Here is a list of common Motherboards features:
- Keyboard and Mouse input often referred to as a PS2 connector
- USB - Universal Serial Bus ports for connecting computer peripherals such as
(Keyboard, Mouse, Printer, Digital Camera, external Hard Drive etc...)
- Parallel Printer Port (not as much in newer motherboards as printers use
- Local Area Network or LAN connection for a network or internet connection
- Dial-up Modem (not as common in newer boards due to high speed internet
Optional Motherboard Features:
- 1394 or Fire-wire connection (higher speed data connection)
- External SATA or Serial-ATA connection (higher speed data connection designed to
connect external SATA devices such as a Hard Drive)
- HDMI - High-Definition Multimedia Interface to connect an HD Monitor or TV, or to an
external High Definition Audio component
We touched on RAM earlier and we know that the RAM you choose must be supported by the CPU
and Motherboard you choose. To make it simple it breaks down like this when upgrading. The CPU determines the type
of Motherboard you have to choose and your computer model determines the type of Motherboard form factor you
The Motherboard will dictate what type of RAM you will be able to use so that will make
your selection easier. The only thing you will have to decide when it comes to RAM, is the size of RAM meaning the
amount of Gigabytes, Gigs or GBs of RAM you choose and the RAM speed you select.
One other thing you must be aware of is the newer Operating Systems such as Windows Vista
and Windows 7 require a minimum of 2GBs of RAM to run properly so you will want to select at least 2GBs of RAM when
you upgrade. Knowing this can make your decision regarding the amount of RAM pretty straight forward. As far as the
speed of RAM you select that again will depend on the speeds the Motherboard will support, the amount of
performance you want and how much you are willing to spend.
As far as determining the speed of RAM your Motherboard will support that is not difficult
to determine. As you begin to look at Motherboards you will see they clearly specify the type and speed of RAM they
I have covered a lot of information up to this point and I hope you have a better
understanding of what is required for you to be able to identify the Motherboard, CPU and RAM components you would
need to upgrade your current computer. Buying these components and upgrading them your self is far less expensive
then going out and buying a new computer and I am confident with this information as a starting point you too can
save money buy upgrading the computer yourself.
There are however, two important additional pieces of information you should know before
you attempt to upgrade your computer.
1. Before you upgrade your current computer you should back up all of your important data
on to an external storage device such as an external hard drive, USB jump drive or burn it onto a CD or
The reason this is important is when you upgrade those components you will be forced to
reinstall the operating system and that will erase all the current data on your hard drive. In additional if you
don't have an installation disk for your current operating system, you will need to purchase a new copy of Windows
XP, Vista or Windows 7 to install once you have upgraded the components. This may not actually be a major concern
for you if you were already considering upgrading to a newer version of Windows. Also I can help you find an
inexpensive copy of the Windows operating system if you it.
2. The new components you will install in you current PC will be more advanced from a
power consumption standpoint and upgrading them will most likely require you to also upgrade your power
The upgrade is not expensive and is a very easy to accomplish. The type of power supply
you will want to select will be roughly 400 watts at least and will need to be a 20x4 pin or 24 pin power supply.
This is the type of power supply supported by the newer Motherboards. Again the Motherboard specifications will
indicate the power supply requirements.
To make your computer faster all you need to do is upgrade the Motherboard, CPU and RAM.
You start by identifying the type of Motherboard form factor your current computer will support, and the
performance level you want to upgrade to. Then you buy the CPU that fits your performance needs along with the
Motherboard and RAM that fits both your computer model and CPU specifications.
The one thing I didn't cover is the actual installation of these components once you have
purchased them and are ready to install. At a high level the process is nothing more then:
- Unplugging the computer and disconnecting all peripheral components such as the
keyboard, mouse and monitor from the case
- Before you open the computer, discharge yourself electrically or purchase a static
strap to ground yourself to the chassis, this will help you avoid static discharge which can fry a computer
- Removing the side cover off the computer case
- Disconnecting all the power cables and Data cables from the old
- Unscrewing and removing the old Motherboard from the case
- Unscrewing and removing the old power supply
- Install the new power supply
- Install the new Motherboard into the case
- Reconnecting all the power and data cables
- Powering the computer back up and listening for proper post sound
- Now you are ready to install the operating system
I know once you decide to start this process you will have many questions which is why
there is one last thing I would recommend you do before you begin to upgrade you computer.
There are many do it yourself computer repair and upgrade manuals available online and
they can provide you all the help you need to do your computer upgrade. Many of the books will provide you step by
step explanation on how to replace just about every component on your computer and provide you with detailed
diagrams so you can see how to actually perform the removal or install. I would suggest you make a small investment
and purchase one of these books.
If I could recommend any do it yourself computer manual it would be "Self Computer Repair
Unleashed".This book covers all aspects of computer upgrade and repair in a clear concise format and provides full
color diagrams and step by step instructions to help you through any computer upgrade or repair. I can't recommend
this book enough. I have provided a link to this book on the links page of my website below in my
I thank you for reading my article and I hope it has inspired you to go out and tackle
what you may have originally thought was an impossible task. You can upgrade your computer yourself and save
yourself a lot of money too.