Upgrade your old PCs? Don't even think about it

If the truth be told, more than a few of you reading this column have, or know of, a
closet full of old PCs in your office. As a fellow pack rat, I am familiar with the
temptation to dedicate scarce office space to these piles of inert electronics. My classic
rejoinder is, "Someday it may come in handy." True, but if my experience is any
indication, the PCs probably won't come in handy during your working life.


Yet in these days of shrinking resources, it's hard to give up something that still
might have some life to it. Office equipment can last longer than three or four years, but
personal computers are obsolete the moment you open the packing.


It's just not fair that a PC bought three years ago for $3,000 is now a boat anchor. So
what can we do to reclaim this vintage hardware?


I decided to conduct my own personal investigation of this situation.


I recently upgraded my venerable 486 into something that could open an application in
less than 60 seconds. I bought an upgrade kit consisting of a new motherboard with a
133-MHz Pentium processor and a new color video card for about $350. I figured I could
still use the old floppy and hard drives, monitor, CD-ROM drive, tape drive and sound
card.


Lesson one is about plug and play. My vintage peripherals predated the plug-and-play
era, so all the interrupt request (IRQ) settings had to be redone manually. If two devices
have the same IRQ setting, they will be like households simultaneously trying to use a
single party line to make a telephone call. The messages get garbled and the devices stop
functioning correctly.


Plug and play avoids this by dynamically assigning IRQ settings at boot time. You
simply plug in the device and turn on the PC. You may have to hit the Add Hardware icon
for Windows, but this is child's play compared to IRQ roulette.


Some old-timers complain that plug and play takes the fun out of upgrading PCs, but for
me it wasn't fun spending hours studying the settings. After fruitless hours trying to get
the floppy drive to read a diskette and have the mouse function for longer than 10
seconds, I picked up the PC and drove to the shop where I bought the upgrade kit.


I had two strong and contradictory emotions as I watched the technician struggle with
these problems. I felt satisfaction that he was having a hard time finding the problem; if
he had whipped it into shape in a couple of minutes, I would have felt like a chump. On
the other hand, avoiding a protracted encounter would have let me avoid a bill that put me
over my generous credit card limit.


The total bill for the new CD-ROM/sound card combo and labor was $250.


So for about $600 and a couple days of my time, I had a refurbished machine and a box
full of old parts. But just imagine going through headaches like this on a bureau wire or
agencywide basis.


If you're tight on funds and long on time or interest, upgrading a PC has its
attractions. But the cost of an upgrade can quickly approach the price of a new PC with
components that are designed to work together.


Upgrades can soak up scarce technical talent. Agencies with the money for hardware will
therefore find it more economical to cast off their old PCs. Cash-strapped schools and
charities, however, typically have volunteers willing to piece together old carcasses and
parts into working computers.


So clean out those closets and give the old stuff away. You've got a good excuse.
Executive Order 12999, signed by the president more than a year ago, calls for the
transfer of excess federal computer equipment to schools and nonprofit organizations.


The General Services Administration has a brochure explaining 12999 and explains
step-by-step how agencies can participate. GSA has distributed these brochures to agencies
and has helped agencies make these donations. And GSA itself has donated some 1,000
computers to schools in Seattle, Washington, New York and Chicago. Contact GSA's Tania
Shand at 202-501-0025 for details.


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser/.


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