It isn't easy to make that old computer seem like new.
We've been looking at some of the ways you can do that, including new processors, hard drives and motherboard. This week, we'll talk about some of the less common upgrades.
Advantages: A new sound card plays cleaner, more dynamic sound from your MP3s. It may also provide positional sound effects that work great with up to five surround-sound speakers and with games.
Assuming you're going to spend the bucks on a DVD drive that lets you watch movies on your PC, you probably want a high-quality sound card that handles the multichannel Dolby Digital soundtracks that go with it. We won't get into sound cards for musicians in any detail here -- it suffices to say that if you want to record your own music, a PC-based recording studio, using various sound- card add-ons, is surprisingly cheap.
Disadvantages: You don't need a new sound card unless you're into sound in a big way. It does you no good at all for Web surfing and productivity. Installation can be troublesome in the extreme.
Discussion: Assuming you're interested in better sound quality, how do you know if you need a new sound card? For starters, if your MP3s sound significantly worse than ordinary CDs, suspect the sound card or built-in sound subsystem of your motherboard. That's because the innards of your computer produce a lot of electrical interference. The older the computer, the less likely it is to produce decent sound. It's only in the past year or so that interference-free sound has been more the rule than the exception, and cheap new PCs still sound terrible.
Fortunately, you don't have to spend a lot of money on a card -- usually less than $50 by mail order. Check out Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live Value (www.soundblaster.com) and Turtle Beach's Montego II Quadzilla.
Be sure you have return privileges -- I've run into cards that just plain won't install at all. You'll find a more complete rundown on these and other cards in the series I wrote last fall on MP 3 at www.newsday.com/plugin/c107main.htm.
Advantages: For regular two-dimensional business applications and Web surfing, a graphics upgrade may increase screen resolution, which gives you more detail and a bigger desktop and color depth, making photos seem more realistic. It may also allow you to increase the refresh rate of the monitor, which makes viewing easier on the eyes. For gaming and three-dimensional applications, an upgrade can greatly improve speed (frame rate) and resolution. The bigger the monitor, the more likely it is to benefit from a graphics-card upgrade.
Disadvantages: Your current card may have all the resolution, color and refresh capability you need. The hottest new gaming card thus won't necessarily improve 2-D performance and will require a relatively new computer system to realize its potential for gaming. As with sound cards, graphics cards tend to be a tough install.
Discussion: You hit the point of diminishing returns rather quickly with a graphics card. For 2-D work, unless you have special needs, you'll rarely need more capability than the ability to drive a 19-inch monitor at 1,152 by 864 pixels, with an 85 megahertz refresh rate and 24-bit true color (millions of colors). That was pretty expensive a few years ago, but today, you can get that kind of performance from the graphics subsystems of many new motherboards, essentially for free, or pay less than $40 for a generic card with 8 megabytes of RAM that supports the AGP (advanced graphics port) x2 standard.
All bets are off here, however, if you need 3-D performa nce, which for most people means detailed full-motion video for games. Simply put, your graphics card is then in effect a computer within your computer. The more processing power, memory and features that one of these card packs, the better the gaming experience will be. More exotic cards throw in additional features, such as support for TV and the ability to play and record compressed video that uses the MPEG standard.
The current champs among cards are those that use Nvidia's GeForce 256 chipset, touted as fourth-generation cards. Available from a variety of manufacturers, including Creative Labs and AOpen, top-of-the-line units cost as much as $400.
For all but the most hard-core of gamers, cutting-edge, factory-fresh cards are overkill. Driver software tends to be buggy, and often gaming software has to be tweaked to utilize all the latest features of these cards. To make an intelligent buying decision, plan on spending a lot of time at www.tom shardware.com, www.anandtech.com and www.maxim umpcmag.com. Often you'll find -- as I did last year -- that a card in the $100-$200 price range is a better value, and a lot more stable.
Advantages: Lets you write more than 600 megabytes of data to cheap (under a buck) removable storage, thus making it suitable for backup and large archiving jobs. Also can create music CDs.
Disadvantages: None, except that prices are falling and technology is improving so fast you'll kick yourself next year for not waiting another three months.
Rewritable (CD-RW) and recordable (CD-R) compact discs are the recording industry's worst nightmare. The drives may well be the killer computer peripheral of the millennium, making every PC a CD factory.
The market is highly competitive, and there is a direct relationship between how much you pay for a drive and how long it takes to burn a CD. The cheap stuff - less than $200 - knocks off a CD in about 15 minutes, whereas you'll get a CD in five to 10 minutes by doubling the cost. For slower, cheaper EIDE models, installation is simple, since your computer already has all the connections needed. You generally have to install a card to support the more robust SCSI models. Hybrid models will also play high-capacity DVDs.
Next week, we'll start some tales of computer upgrades.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.