The Ins and Outs of Upgrading

The ins and outs of upgrading

Whether to improve your current PCs or buy new is no longer an easy decision

By Richard W. Walker

GCN Staff

To upgrade, or not to upgrade? That is the question.

Whether to upgrade your office PC systems or buy new machines used to be a reasonably easy decision. Your 25-MHz PC with 4M of RAM quickly became obsolete. You knew what to do.

But as PCs continue to get cheaper, memory size balloons and chips get faster, the decision becomes tougher. True, you can buy a new PC for less than $1,000. But considering the performance of many current PCs, is that necessary? Maybe ramping up the memory is all you need.

'Upgrading memory is the cheapest way to upgrade or get better performance out of your system,' said Scott Schoenherr, general manager for crucial technologies at Micron Technologies Inc. of Boise, Idaho.

Schoenherr said that in an enterprise environment, much of the cost of upgrading to new computers isn't related to the hardware.

'Someone's got to install it, keep all the programs and put them on the new computers, put all the software on the new computers, and then the user is going to spend a week getting everything sorted back out,' he said. 'One of the nice things about upgrading the computer rather than just getting a new system is that you don't have any of that. So, from an information technology perspective and a user perspective, it's a lot cheaper to upgrade your system.'

It gets tricky

Beyond memory upgrades, decision-making is trickier. 'I think that as PC prices decline, you're going to see more people do the easy [memory] upgrade, but then buy a new computer before they get into more difficult upgrades'the hard drives, the processors and things like that,' Schoenherr said.

Scott Margevicius, a senior research analyst for hardware and operating systems at GartnerGroup Inc. of Stamford, Conn., agreed.

'For any system that requires an upgrade in any way, the only acceptable upgrade to the desktop space is for memory,' he said. 'The cost involved with the other components that need the upgrade'hard drive, video or in some cases the processor in some of the old systems'really doesn't justify the expense. A typical upgrade costs 70 to 80 percent of the cost of the system. The return on investment just doesn't shake out in upgrading anything other than memory.'

Moreover, he said, an elaborate overhaul may extend the life of the system only another six to eight months. And by that time the manufacturer's on-site warranty is likely to have elapsed, he said.

'When you pop open a box, it's like opening a Pandora's box,' said Jonathan Folz, Office Automation Branch chief for the Federal Supply Service. 'You don't know what you're going to find in there. If you're going to pop it open, it's to increase memory and that's about it. Anything else, you really want to be looking at a new machine.'

So, by most accounts, the best plan is to upgrade memory only.

The good news is that the useful life of computer systems is lengthening, Margevicius said.

'The rapid introduction of new processors at higher speeds offers enough horsepower today to last most users, on average, four years,' he said. 'Our prior position was that the average life of a desktop was three years'anything beyond that you were lucky. We changed our position because PCs have continued to push the envelope' but applications have not kept pace.

He noted that a 350-MHz or 450-MHz Pentium III machine with 128M of RAM is 'a lot of horsepower for most computer users. We don't really see the advent of things like Microsoft Windows 2000 or Office 2000 or Lotus Notes 6 or any other real high-end applications coming down the pike that will really push the envelope as far as hardware is concerned.'

Folz wasn't quite so sure. 'We don't know what the future holds,' he said. 'The future might hold a 64-bit operating system that we're all going to have to upgrade to and that the processing and the bus won't take care of on these machines.'

If you buy new

Buying new systems involves a new set of decisions.

Schoenherr advised buying from a major manufacturer to avoid complex upgrades down the road.

'Some people who are selling machines on the Web for $299 are putting whatever motherboard is cheapest in it,' he said. 'They may even have the memory soldered or it may not have expansion slots.'

Margevicius advised buyers to look for the best return on investment when buying new systems. 'We used to recommend buying as high up on the technology curve as you possibly could afford,' he said. 'We feel today that it's better to buy more relative to the sweet spot of the market'not necessarily the high end of the market'to get the greatest return for your IT investment.'

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