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Misconception: Don't worry, THAT computer will upgrade to the latest CPU no problem.

by Terry E. Mercer 1997-1999

FALSE! - Most of the time, in retail environments

Fact: I have found that the majority of retail stores, especially the large "name brand" stores, do not have "trained technicians" on staff. Most sales personnel have NOT actually worked inside of a computer.  Much less upgraded, assembled, or trouble shot systems. Stores want sales, which requires "sales people," most technicians (computer nerds) are not great at communicating to the beginner, the novice, or the average retail customer... therefore, few techs last long in the retail sales arena. Those that are good at both the technical stuff AND communicating, generally end up starting their own business.

Before the Pentium Pro and the Pentium II CPUs were released, the statement was true about 90% of the time. A person could, in most cases and with very few problems and just a little bit of knowledge, upgrade their system by simply replacing the motherboard and CPU combination. You could, in fact, take a 286 to a Pentium with very little problem. Those times have nearly past. Today a person must consider a few other things:
The Power Supply - is it an AT or an ATX. These are the two most common and completely different types of power supplies. When the old PC's and XT computers first became popular a power supply was required. When the 80286 CPU came out an extra 5 volt lead was added to the XT style power supplies, and front power buttons became popular. The only difference between the early XT and AT power supplies was that 5 volt lead. The AT style power supply worked beautifully through the 286, 386, 486, P24T 60's, and the even the early Pentiums... then came the Pentium Pros. All the rules changed, and the next type of power supply was introduced for these new monster CPUs, the ATX was born. The power connectors that attach to the motherboard are completely different - one singular unit, verses two individual connectors. There is a sensor in all ATX power supplies (that I have seen) which automatically detect short-circuits, cards not seated correctly, and other such "safety" features that only existed in the best AT power supplies. If an ATX power supply detected any shorts, faulty connections, etc. it would shut off automatically. Another difference is the ATX power supply blows air over the processor chip rather than pulling air through the chassis. Also, the ATX power supply will NOT power up (on) without something attached to it (like a floppy disk drive), for safety reasons. The last difference is that many ATX power supplies have electronic power switches, enabling them to automatically "shut down" (cut all power) when Windows 95/98 shuts down.
The Case - the Pentium II & III processors are HUGE in comparison to any of the previous types and styles of CPUs. It also "stands-up," verses laying down like all previous CPU types. It is approximately (with fanned heat sink attached) 1-2" wide, 4" long, and 2.75" high. In a full tower case, and cases specifically made for the Pentium II's & III's this is NO PROBLEM. However, for upgrades and people wanting to change out the motherboard and CPU later these are major factors. Even more important than the power supply, which can easily be changed in most systems. I have seen very few desktop, mini tower and mid-tower cases made for the 486/Pentium that could handle the new style of CPU's.
RAM - the type and speed of memory used in the Pentium Pro and Pentium II is often different than the RAM used in 486's, and the standard Pentiums. Most sales people don't tell you that you will probably need to upgrade your RAM (memory) to go with the new motherboard and CPU.
There are a handful of companies out there that profess to have a "plug-in" upgrade available. This is a special card that contains the CPU. In a few months you can un-plug the current CPU and plug in the new one. Most of these companies either never come out with the upgrade chip, or are limited to one or two levels higher. These are generally a complete waste of time and money, and are severely limited. There are three reasons these type of upgrades either never happen or are limited:
    1. not enough people want to upgrade to justify the development costs;
    2. the mother board is limited in speed and capability, and can only be built to support what currently exists and what they hope the future will hold. Most companies don't supply the best, only a good functional model, which further limits upgradability;
    3. only Intel, AMD, TI, Cyrix, and Motorola know what they are working on for future CPUs.
    USB devices are becoming very popular (allowing up to 63 devices per port and increased speeds - up to 12MB per second transfer rates, per device);
    The AGP (Advanced Graphics Protocol) video bus has become the video card standard, with speeds and power increasing all the time. It isn't uncommon to hear about 32MB of Video RAM and 100MHz Bus path, and 128 bit process. 2x and 3x AGP slots are being released and increasingly popular (to keep from creating a bottle neck with the faster (700+ MHz) processors.;
    128 bit bus speeds are common place in your middle of the road cards (with 32 bit becoming a thing of the past).
It is important to get the upgradability IN WRITING from the sale person. Don't let them lie to you, play on your ignorance or lack of knowledge (yours or theirs). Having the sales person put the information and guarantee in writing will serve two purposes: a) protect you for the future, and b) give the sales person the chance to double check what they are telling you.
If they won't put the guarantee in writing, then you might reconsider the purchase of that brand, and/or from THAT STORE.
Over the past five years I have received some hate-email regarding the above statement. My response: 
"I'm sorry if you are one of the stores that won't put your "upgrade" promises & guarantees in writing - then, maybe you need to reconsider what you are selling & telling people. Mistakes are understandable, which new components are released in a year or two can't really be predicted, and only the actual manufacturer knows what the next generation CPU will look & feel like. At the same point in time, I know that the systems I build are 100% upgradeable - it may require a motherboard, with the latest CPU... or a change in the power supply... but every desktop style system I sell as upgradeable and put a time frame on has that guarantee in writing! And I have customers that actively play "the upgrade game"... and consistently have an extremely fast computer system for the least amount of money."
One of my customers, in particular, has had essentially the same "system" for over ten years, starting with a 286 through his current pride - a PIII 450. He adds another "bell or whistle" or upgrades something every year or two. Benefit, he saves money and has a power house system that is usually only one or two steps behind the latest and greatest possible... and he is able to take advantage or many of the high-end things he has spent money on, and get the most life out of them.


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This page was last updated 02 April 2000
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