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Misconception: I don't want to upgrade in a year or two!

by Terry E. Mercer 1997-1999

For the last ten years many people have told me that they didn't want to upgrade in a year (two or three - in some cases).

This isn't a "true" or "false" - it is a matter of logic, money, and foresight.

Fact: When buying a computer system you need to think about what you want - what you will want in the future - and how things will change in the future. If you buy right, you can be one or two steps behind the latest technology with a more solid system and spend less money. Most of the people in the "business" are in a constant state of upgrade. Each year they throw a few more dollars toward intelligent upgrades.
If I were to build a high-end power system with the future in mind, this is what I would do for 99% of the people in the "real" world:
The case with the most open slots possible - four or five 5.25" slots and at least two 3.5 slots. This allows for future expansion and add-ons with the least amount of stress and hassle. Also, make sure the case can take virtually any size and type of motherboard and CPU - especially the ATX style, which allows for standing CPUs up and can hit the power supply in many smaller cases.
Power Supply, usually ships with the case. It should be auto sensing (i.e., if there is a short inside the computer it shuts off). ATX is currently the new standard, and will likely last for another 3 to 5 years. It should be at least 230 Watt - 250 or 300 preferred and offers the greatest flexibility. A 450 is over kill, except for servers.
The motherboard with a great degree of flexibility - for the CPU you are wanting to run (and yes, now different motherboards are required to run different CPUs), get one that will run at the fastest bus speed possible - one that will run. 
My main system has the same ASUS P2B motherboard through a PII 233, 266, 300, 350, and now the 500MHz CPU. One motherboard... and chip changes as the prices dropped and my needs (and available funds) raised. For my customers, I would get one of the best motherboards available. Another company, somewhere in the world licensed the chip set from Intel to put it on their motherboard design. Therefore, I have learned - and proven many times over - that ten motherboards by ten different manufacturers running the exact same Intel chip set can (and usually does) have ten different levels of performance. Get the best motherboard you can - the canned systems generally have an adequate, but low cost motherboard. This is one of the reasons a systems integrator can easily compete with performance. Cache can greatly enhance the performance of your system. ASUS currently has one of the fastest and most compatible board on the market... the Tyan, FIC, and FreeTech are also good boards - often with more features, and more challenging setup. Check out for more specific information or over clocking & performance issues.
I/O is generally built into most all motherboards now. This is acceptable. You want to have at least two 16550 UART serial (com) ports, one bi-directional ECP/EPP parallel port (printer), and at least one USB (Universal Serial Bus). I don't recommend having anything else built in, except (possibly) a SCSI-2 or 3 adapter. I prefer the SCSI adapter to be modular and not built in, for future upgrades. However, the built in adapters CAN be faster and less expensive.
CPU - I would go with a two or three steps back from the fastest, and something that has been on the market at least 6 months - so that any bugs and problems were worked out, and because it is the best deal on the price vs. performance ratio at this point. I would do this willing, and eagerly, knowing that I could jump up to the higher-end CPU later (because I intelligently bought a motherboard that would allow it) in a year or two, when the prices drop significantly. This one choice allows me to either save a great deal of money now... or to spend that same amount of money on high quality components that will continue to grow with me for at least 3 to 5 years (or more). Because of the faster and better motherboard, and video card, this system would beat virtually ANY inexpensive higher-end CPU system on performance, and would compete with most of the moderately expensive systems.
RAM - I would suggest 1 or 2 - 64 MB PCI 100 (or 133MHz if possible) chip(s). With at least 64 MB minimum. RAM is currently inexpensive. I don't think I would waste my money on more than 64 MB - unless I was doing serious graphics... then I would jump to 128 MB's - two 64MB chips is a less expensive than one 128 MB chip. Keep in mind that the RAM should a) be able to work on the motherboard, preferably the fastest possible for the motherboard; and b) be able to work on at least one or two CPU upgrades in the future (to get the most out of your investment).
The Video Card should be at least 8 MB - preferably 16 MB - and if you are into games, massive graphics, or DVD stuff then I would strongly consider a 32MB card (they are priced at a reasonable level). The better your video card, the less bottle neck you will have. The AGP cards are the fastest possible cards (as of today). There are AGP 2x & 3x cards out... but your motherboard MUST have an AGP slot on it, and be able to run that type (and speed) of card. PCI is acceptable, but being phased out - therefore, AGP has at least another 3 to 5 year life. Diamond, Matrox, and ATI all make solid screamers. Most of your "canned" systems and inexpensive systems ship with a much less expensive card - which can be 30 to 90% slower, and can slow your WHOLE computer down by 10 to 50% or more. Some even use your RAM memory to operate the video card, which will drastically slow your system down.
Floppy disk drive - Teac, Chinon, Mitsui - 1.44MB anything "standard" will work fine. The LS-120 (a drive that reads 120MB floppies, 2.88MB floppy disks, and the now standard 1.44 MB floppy disks) isn't a terrible choice... for your personal use. These drives have a chance of becoming a standard, but still aren't as popular as the 100MB Zip disks (which can NOT read "normal" floppy disks). The disks are very hard to get in many cities.
Hard Disk drive - Western Digital or Quantum are my preference in the EIDE world. Samsung seems to have a pretty darn good drive also. Some of the Seagate's are very good, and Maxtor is alright. Consider the warranty - WD (Western Digital) is 5 years, and one of the best. I would go with the 10 gig EIDE MINIMUM, but the 20 gig is currently the "biggest bang for the buck." Hard drive prices are dropping. 
Monitor - 17" minimum, digital, .26 dpi, with a max resolution of at least 1280x1024 (1600x1280 preferable)... and PNP (Plug-N-Plug). There are different qualities of monitors... the Sony Trinitron, NEC, Viewsonic are considered the best. The MAG, Micron, MGC, KFC and various others are good moderately priced monitors.
Keyboard - just about anything will work. Get something decent and comfortable. I highly recommend the Logitech Internet keyboard for heavy Internet users, or the Lite-on Coffee Break Keyboard for those that like to listen to Audio CD's a lot. These boards range between $50 and $80 US.
Mouse - I have tried all types. I suggest the Logitech, with the Microsoft a close second, if you have the money. The A4 Tech and Mitsumi are the better "inexpensive" mice. The better it is built, the more likely you will be able to clean it and make it last. I'm getting 3 to 5 years out of my Logitech's and 1 to 3 years out the Microsoft mice. Other vary from 3 months to 3 years.
Operating System - At this point, I suggest and recommend Windows 98 SE2. It is stable, and has a lot of people that understand it and can help. I would NOT even consider ANY UPGRADES - full version ONLY! The versions are different, and significantly important. Windows NT Workstation is supposedly more stable than Windows 95 or 98... it is pretty cool, and works well with Windows based programs. The only down sides with NT are that not many people know it, or can effectively help you with it... and it doesn't run DOS based applications very well. It all boils down to Windows 95 OSR2 & Windows 98 are the least hassle operating systems available today.
What is the point to all of this? If you buy right, and with logic and foresight, you can get a very high-end fast system that is completely upgradeable for about the same amount of money as a larger CPU system that has adequate parts. If you plan to buy when the parts and components are inexpensive... when they have been thoroughly tested and tried... when the bugs are worked out, and the price is decent.
I have one customer that bought his first computer nearly 10 years ago, and each year he and I plan an upgrade... based on how and what software he is using and how the performance is. His yearly expenditure is between $50 and $1000 (for the major upgrades, like new motherboard & CPU) - with the average around $200 to $500. He has experienced no major problems or difficulties, and very limited down time due to hardware (less than 4 days total) in nearly 10 years.
My email server computer was first built nearly 5 years ago, as my main system... and it will blow away most Pentium II systems (up to the PII 350). It is only a lowly Pentium 200MMX - with 128 MB of RAM, and nearly 30 Gigabytes of available hard drive space, and high-end video card. I am getting WinTachs in the 1200 range... which still blows away nearly 90% of the PII - 233/266/300's sold through the retail changes. I have a Jazz, Zip, two CD Burners, and various removable hard drives. A 17" monitor, and 100MB network card (for a Windows 95/98 based NetBEUI peer-to-peer network). My system will effectively run EVERY program I have thrown at it... and I use ALL of the major programs and many specialty programs.
The question, why blow money on parts that aren't the BEST? Spending money on the "biggest bang for the buck" is the most intelligent way to go, in my opinion. Buying the latest and greatest, as viewed through all of the media hype, is not only a waste of money... you can end up with some serious incompatibilities. Like the brand new car, it's value will decrease the minute the system leaves the store. Unlike a new car, your computer is more likely to have problems... have a learning curve... and require a great deal of time to get setup exactly the way you want. Why add stress or waste your money? Upgrading intelligently not only can save your money, but will ultimately save you time & stress.


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This page was last updated 02 April 2000
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