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Buying an Upgradeable Computer

Upgrade Requirements

When you buy a desktop, one of your main goals is that you want it to be upgradeable. That means the following can easily be removed and replaced:

  • hard drive
  • CD/DVD drives
  • memory
  • CPU
  • video card
  • sound card

If any of the above cannot be upgraded, you are buying into a closed system – like a laptop. All laptops are closed systems because their video, sound, and CPU generally cannot be upgraded.

Lower Priced Desktops.

Many lower priced (less than $800) Celeron/Duron desktops made by almost all computer manufacturers should be carefully investigated before purchase.
Most of these low priced desktops have no AGP video expansion slot, no onboard dedicated video RAM, no CD-RW drive, and very few empty PCI expansion slots.
These computers will be very difficult to upgrade, and they have poorer performance than other desktops that do not have integrated audio and video chips soldered onto the motherboard. Upgradeable computers have removable video cards, and sometimes, removable sound cards.

Integrated Audio. Good or Bad?

A few years ago, integrated audio chips did a very poor job of providing good stereo sound. However, these chips have really improved, and they are probably more than adequate for the average computer user. However, if you are an audiophile, you'll probably want a sound card, so make sure the computer you want to buy has a free PCI slot for a sound card (or buy the computer with the sound card installed).

Free Expansion Slots

A free expansion slot is a long electrical connector on the motherboard that is empty. Expansion slots are needed to plug in additional devices like modems, video cards, sound cards, ect. There are three flavors of expansion slots: ISA, PCI, and AGP.

ISA slots. The original 8 bit slots from the IBM PC. They are mostly used now for modems and older sound cards. Soon they will be extinct. Most new computers no longer have ISA slots.

PCI slots. The newer 16 bit slot (twice the transfer rate of the ISA slot), should be used for your video card (unless you have an AGP slot, see below) and any additional hard drive or SCSI controllers. Basically, any device that needs to be fast should be in a PCI slot.

AGP slot - Advanced Graphics Port. These are found on all new computers except for certain low-priced Celeron and Duron computers.
If your system has an AGP slot you should have an AGP video card. AGP cards can either be double speed (2X) or quad speed (4X). Motherboards and video cards with 8X AGP have been announced and should soon be available for purchase.

Make sure any computer system you buy has at least one or more free PCI expansion slots for future upgrades. Free ISA slots would only benefit those with older add in devices.

External Expansion Connectors

USB - All new computers have USB (universal serial bus) connectors. USB connectors are good for attaching printers, scanners, flash drives, cameras etc. It is possible to add additional USB ports to a desktop or laptop by buying a USB hub.

USB 2.0 - The updated version of USB. USB 2.0 is about 40 times faster than the original USB (USB 1.0). This allows high-speed devices like hard drives, fast CD-RW drives, and DVD drives to perform about as fast as an internal PCI connection.
New computers are just starting to be sold with USB 2.0 connectors. All USB 2.0 connectors are also compatible with USB 1.0 devices.

Firewire/IEEE 1394 - Invented by Apple, this port currently has about the same speed as a USB 2.0 port. These ports are very popular with digital video camera users. While all Apple computers now have Firewire ports, most PCs do not.

Hint: USB 2.0 and Firewire PCI expansion cards can be purchased to upgrade your PC.

Free Drive Bays

Free drive bays are necessary to add additional hard drives, Removable Drives, CD-ROM, CD-RW, or DVD players.

Know What You are Buying

The low priced slimline, integrated, compact, and spacesaver type desktop systems should be reviewed very carefully for soldered on components, free slots, and free drive bays. When in doubt, stay away from compact or spacesaver systems.
Often by spending $200-$400 more for a Pentium 4 or Athlon XP based system, you can get twice the performance and more features. You will also have an upgradeable computer that will serve you well for another 3 years.
If you choose the $700 Celeron/Duron system to save a few bucks, keep in mind that in a year or two you will probably want to replace it as it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to upgrade.

Additional information and articles are available on our Computer Buying Advice page.

 

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