Are you starting to feel the effects of old age? Memory not as good as it once was? Working a little slower that you remember? Not able to handle the latest generation? These are issues common to two-year-olds, two-year-old computers that is. With the constantly increasing speed of today’s PCs and ever increasing demands of the latest software, computers as new as one or two years old may start acting like they are ready for the scrap pile. Upgrading is always an option, but it’s a daunting task, better left to those with an affection for pocket protectors.

Right? No, not necessarily. Upgrading can be done by the average computer owner, and the Princeton PC Users Group provides detailed instruction on “Upgrading Your PC” on Monday, September 11, at 7 p.m. at a free meeting at the Mercer County Library in Lawrence. Visit www.ppcug-nj.org for more information.

Leading the presentation is John W. Goodwin Jr. who has been building computers for 25 years — longer than most people have been using them. Born and mostly raised in the Philadelphia area, Goodwin moved to Virginia for a couple of years before being drafted into the Marine Corps, where he showed a proclivity for electronics and was sent to the Navy Electronics School in San Francisco.

Upon his release from the military, Goodwin used the GI bill to obtain an associate’s degree from the National Radio Institute in Washington, D.C. After graduation he caught the eye of Lewis C. Eggebrecht, an electronics engineer who helped design the first IBM PC. Eggebrecht gave him the chance to do some design work on what was supposed to be a 12-month project, but it was successful enough to employ Goodwin for the next 17 years.

In the late 1970s Goodwin started opening computer service centers for Tandy, the computer manufacturer that had just introduced its TRS 80 model. But by 1983 he was back in research and development, spending a little more than a year with Franklin Computers, which at the time had an Apple compatible product. He then worked in the telecom sector for 20 years.

Goodwin now owns J.A.M. Computers in Hamilton (609-586-4468), where he provides custom-built computers and upgrades to both business and individuals. His wife, Ann Marie, teaches third grade in the East Windsor school system.

With all of this experience it would be logical to expect that Goodwin’s talk would be full of historical facts. No so, he says, “I’m not a lecturer, I’m a hardware engineer.” He says that the first order of business at the Princeton PCUG meeting will be figuring out how to get the demonstration computers open so he can point out the locations of all of the internal parts. Everyone will walk away from the seminar with a “familiarity of the parts inside the machine and an understanding of what it takes to upgrade.”

Before starting the upgrade process, users have to consider the value of their investment. There is not much point in spending $400 to get a computer running just like a brand new machine that can be purchased for $350.

“You can expect to buy a new machine every four years,” Says Goodwin, “assuming you bought a machine with a lot of horsepower to begin with.” The purchase of an inexpensive system will almost guarantee a shorter life if you plan on keeping up with the latest software.

Goodwin says that very little has changed in the basics of how a computer works in the last 40 years. “They have just gotten faster and smaller.” The real changes are on the software side, and on the demands that software places on computers. A five-year-old system running five-year-old software will function as well today as it did in 2001. But load in the latest video game, and the machine might as well be referred to as sculpture.

The latest software requires a lot of memory and processing power, and with Vista, the new Microsoft Windows operating system, set to deploy around the holidays, the basic requirement bar is being raised once again. Here is how to equip every part of a PC to keep up:

CPU. The CPU, or central processing unit, is the computer’s brain. It sits on the motherboard, which functions as the nervous system. The motherboard collects signals from around the computer, carries them to the CPU for processing, and then returns the CPU’s response to the appropriate section of the machine. The CPU and motherboard can be upgraded, but doing so is closer to building a computer than upgrading one. The average user may be better off by providing the existing processor with a memory boost.

Memory. Increasing memory is the number one upgrade and is the best and least expensive way to increase performance. “There are lots of different types of memory,” says Goodwin. “There is SDRAM (synchronous dynamic random access memory), DDR memory (double data rate memory), DDR2, and RDRAM (random access memory made by Rambus), among others.”

While the choices make the project seem complicated, it really isn’t. Only the correct type of memory will fit into a particular computer, and the memory sticks are “keyed” so that they can not be inserted incorrectly. To make sure the correct memory is purchased, the old card can be removed and brought to the store.

Online shoppers will find that companies like Crucial Technology (www.crucial.com) offer memory selectors that allow customers to enter their computer information and receive a list of compatible memory. Even better, Crucial can scan the machine being upgraded over the Internet and can tell what upgrades are available.

Hard drive. With the growing popularity of digital photography, music, movies and the like, a lot of machines are running out of storage space. All of this data is stored on the PC’s hard drive, and many hard drives are groaning under the load.

If deleting old MP3s isn’t an option, it may be time for a new hard drive. The common unit of measurement for computer files is bytes and modern hard drives are sold by the gigabyte, or billion. A few years ago 20 to 30 GB was more than enough. Today, downloading a single episode of the television show “Lost” will consume at least one-half a GB of space.

Luckily a new drive in the 250GB range can be had for under $100 from online retailers such as Tiger Direct (www.tigerdirect.com) or New Egg (www.newegg.com), but it is possible to spend more. The faster a drive moves, the better it will perform, and the more expensive it will be.

Goodwin says that an old hard drive need not be replaced when a new one is added. Often a new drive can be installed in addition to the existing drive. This means that storage can be added without disrupting existing software.

CD and DVD burners. When a new hard drive still won’t provide enough space, it is time to consider moving some files out of the computer and onto CDs or DVDs. Older computers may not have a CD or DVD burner, but a new DVD burner can be found for under $50. The price for a CD burner is about $30.

DVD burners are able to write much more data than a CD burner can, up to 8.5GB on a single disk. The catch is that a DVD cannot be read on a CD drive, so some thought has to be put into who will be reading the disks later. If the goal is additional storage and backup capacity, go for the DVD. But if a disk is full of pictures to be sent to grandma, make sure that she has a compatible drive. As a rule newer generation drives are able to read all of the older media, but an older drive may have problems with a disc made on a new burner.

Video and sound cards. Anyone who wants to play sophisticated video games, make movies, or design complex graphics will need frequent video and sound card upgrades. “You’ve got mail!” will largely sound the same regardless of the quality of a sound card, but the sound effects from the newest games and movies will be lost on a cheap card.

At over $200 for a top-of-the-line sound or video card, this is an upgrade that needs to be seriously evaluated, with a decision based on usage. Programs like home video editors and high end photo software will benefit from the increased power.

Video cards contain their own memory, and this is an important factor to look at when deciding which one to buy. Just like with the motherboard, the more memory, the better the performance. Newer software, and even the new Windows Vista operating system, have minimum video requirements. Software to be used should be the determining factor with this upgrade, with a little extra added as finances permit to allow for the next generation of programs.

Modem and network card. Upgrades in connection options are almost a requirement in today’s wired world. While a 56K data/fax/voice modem is still standard in most machines, it is used largely as a backup for high speed cable and DSL Internet connections. In homes with more than one computer network, network cards, which allow every family member to be online at once, will cut down on fights for Internet time.

Wireless cards are available for most computer configurations and easily allow for new equipment to be added or existing equipment relocated. The WiFi wireless standard is common enough that even devices like the popular TiVo (www.tivo.com) television recording device have WiFi capabilities and can easily be included in a home network.

The recurring theme in any type of upgrade plan is need. Money should not be wasted on parts that will never be called upon to improve the computer experience, but installing items that will substantially improve the current task and allow for future expansion will be well worth what they cost, especially if they can be installed without professional help.

But even those who quake at the thought of messing with their PC’s innards may still be able to wring another year or two out of their computers. Computer service companies like Geek Squad (www.geeksquad.com) will install upgrades for around $89, plus the cost of the hardware.

But before making the investment, consider spending a couple of hours with Goodwin, who promises to instill the confidence needed to successfully upgrade a PC and save cost of a new one, all without the use of a pocket protector.

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