Three Paths To A Faster PC

Central processing units (CPUs) don’t get any slower as they get older, but it sure seems as if they do. The rapid pace of processor acceleration leaves power-hungry desktop stations with three options. Buying new replacment PCs every year is rarely practical for a small business. Suffering the ignominy of a behind-the-curve, slowpoke system, while peers boast about their blazing new machines, is no fun.

The third choice is to put a new engine under the old hood — to upgrade your system’s CPU. This option won’t give you all the performance of a brand-new PC, but it’ll definitely give you a boost, and at a much lower cost than a buying an entire new system. But CPU upgrades aren’t for everyone — and that doesn’t just mean that they’re possible only for desktop, not notebook, PCs.

“These [upgrades] are particularly for people who are interested in performance and are not afraid of getting their hands inside their computers,” says Nate Dahl, a product designer at PowerLeap Products, which makes CPU upgrade kits. Many of these customers, explains Dahl, find their processors are hampering their processing time, even after installing a faster graphics card. Others are interested in upgrading to Windows XP, which requires more processing power than some older CPUs have. While Microsoft’s official suggestion is 300MHz of processing power, most users agree that this speed is about half right.

Are You a Candidate?
Before choosing between the three ways to upgrade your processor, you must ask yourself if a CPU swap is really your best route to improved performance. First of all, are you satisfied with the other components in your PC, including not only the graphics card but hard disk, memory, and disk drives? Part of the value of getting a whole new system is the chance to get all the latest interfaces and devices, such as USB 2.0 and FireWire ports or a recordable DVD drive, built in.

If your hard disk is almost full, you’ll want to add the cost of a new hard disk to that of a CPU upgrade — which, with today’s low PC prices, might tilt you toward the whole-new-PC option. The same goes for the amount of memory installed: Historically, adding more random access member (RAM) has always been the fastest and cheapest way to improve performance, and if your desktop doesn’t have at least 256MB, you’re better off boosting memory to that level — or, for Windows XP, likely 384MB or 512MB — before adding more megahertz.

Finally, you need to have a realistic expectation of what a CPU upgrade can do. If you already have one of the fastest-of-its-type Pentium III chips or a 423-pin Pentium 4 systems, you may already be at or near your system’s ceiling. And, frankly, if you already have a 2GHz or faster chip, it’s neither cost-effective nor commonsensical to chase after the last few ounces of power. Better to spend the cash on topnotch components.

Today’s sweet spot for CPU upgrades seems to be getting older systems to the magic 1GHz-plus level, where they can comfortably run Windows XP, all business programs, and all but the most demanding multimedia applications. For example, one of my desktops is a three-year-old, 700MHz Pentium III with 384MB of RAM and a 30GB hard drive. I’ve upgraded it over the years with a flat-panel display and FireWire adapter and there’s plenty of room left on the hard disk, but it could use a boost. I could invest in a new system, but I could pay just $160 to double the old clunker’s clock rate, which is very appealing. If your small business has PCs of a similar ilk, then it’s time to figure out which way to upgrade your CPUs.

The Macho Swap
Another thing to do before considering any upgrade is to get down to the nitty-gritty of your system. You need to know the make and model of both your CPU and motherboard, how the former connects or plugs into the latter, and the system bus speed (such as 66MHz or 100MHz for early Celeron desktops).

Most current AMD (Athlon, Athlon XP, and Duron) processors use the same Socket A interface. Intel CPUs come in more varieties, including Slot 1 (older Pentium IIIs and Celerons), Socket 370 (later P-IIIs and Celerons), and Socket 423 (early Pentium 4 chip; newer Socket 478 Pentium 4s aren’t ready for the upgrade list yet).

The simplest upgrade in theory, requiring the highest level of tech savvy in practice, is a straight chip-for-chip swap — replacing the existing CPU with another that fits into the same slot or socket. Odds are, there are only a handful of faster processors that will work with your motherboard; to learn which match the existing setup’s voltage and pin settings, check with your PC or motherboard vendor for a list of compatible CPUs. You may also be able to find someone who’s performed a similar upgrade by cruising CPU Planet’s and other online message boards.

In addition to chip packaging in terms of slot or socket pinout, you need to pay attention to packaging in terms of the box the chip comes in. Shop around online (our sister site Sharky Extreme features a weekly list of CPU prices from vendors featured on shopping sites such as Price Watch), and you’ll find three types of chips for sale: retail boxed, white boxed, and original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

As you’d expect, retail boxed CPUs are professionally packaged and usually come with all the cables, connectors, and manuals you need. Unfortunately, this full packaging usually costs more. White-box chips come in generic instead of flashy packages, but usually provide cables and manuals, while OEM processors are just bare chips with no accessories, less suited for less experienced installers.

Installing a fresh processor won’t require a soldering iron or special tools, although older chips tend to be more fragile than newer ones. Pentium-class CPUs often have low-insertion-force (LIF) sockets with no handles, but newer processor mounts feature a zero-insertion-force (ZIF) lever to eject and load the chip: Just align the processor with the socket — making sure to orient the corners properly — and gently pull the lever. If it doesn’t fit, it isn’t aligned correctly. The most important thing to remember when installing any CPU is not to bend the pins. Bent pins male for a $300 silicon keychain.

A straight chip-to-chip swap will also require you to attach a heat sink and/or cooling fan to the CPU. AMD Athlons require you to glue the heat sink directly onto the processor with adhesive tape or thermal paste such as Arctic Silver. Pentium 4 systems come with a carriage for properly aligning the sink.

The Simple Swap
To jump processor generations or install a Socket X processor in a Socket Y motherboard, you’ll need a CPU upgrade kit, such as those offered by PowerLeap or Evergreen Technologies. These drop-in kits come with slot or socket adapters, voltage regulators, and cooling components, making them a lot easier to install.

The market for these kits is limited (to users who are timid enough to seek a prepackaged solution yet techie enough to crack open their PCs’ cases and tinker with chips), but PowerLeap claims to hold 80 percent of it. The company offers a variety of CPU upgrades for 486, Pentium, Pentium II, Celeron, and Pentium III desktops; among its most popular is the $160 PL-iP3/T that upgrades P-II and P-III Slot 1 systems to 1.4GHz of Pentium III power.

The firm’s latest product is the PL-P4/N ($50 with no CPU), an upgrade solution for early Socket 423 Pentium 4 systems that lets users step up to Intel’s 1.8GHz Celeron or to 400MHz-bus Pentium 4 CPUs as fast as 2.6GHz. As the supply of 423-pin Pentium 4s dwindles, PowerLeap hopes to cash in with manufacturers and distributors with inventories of old Socket 423 motherboards.

Evergreen offers a similar product, a Pentium 4/2.4 CPU with Socket 423-to-478 adapter. The $350 ($300 after rebate) upgrade lets users reap the benefits of the Northwood core’s greater speed and full 512K Level 2 cache.

How difficult is it to install these kits? According to PowerLeap’s Dahl, in about 75 percent of cases, no BIOS or voltage-setting changes or other adjustments are required. In some systems, a different BIOS version is needed in order for the new processor to run correctly — sometimes a newer, but in a few instances, an older version. The reason for this is that some system makers occasionally put “blockages” into the BIOS at certain levels to discourage upgrades: “We deplore this, mostly because it interferes with our business, but also because it causes many systems to enter the waste stream prematurely,” says Dahl. “A CPU upgrade might have kept them on the desktop longer.”

The Surgical Swap
The third and final way to upgrade a desktop’s processor is to swap out the entire motherboard. The advantage here is that you’ll get not only a new CPU but a new chipset and other components well-matched with the processor; it’s like putting a new PC in your old case.

The downside is that it’s like putting a new PC in your old case; you must remove the old motherboard, disconnecting the power supply, drive cables, and other connectors, and then install the new one. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. It’s also the most expensive kind of CPU upgrade, since motherboards can cost $75 to $100 plus the cost of the CPU (probably $100 to $300) and memory (if, as is likely, you’re replacing old SDRAM with faster DDR). You may be able to recycle your hard, floppy, and optical drives and graphics card, but that’s about it.

This is when most users will open up Sunday’s paper and see that a faster, brand-new system is available for less from their local superstore. Upgrade kits are a great way to extend the life of a desktop needing only extra CPU oomph to master today’s software, but straight chip swaps are daunting for nontechnical users and motherboard replacement projects can quickly pass the cost-effective point. Still, if you’re savvy enough to know that today’s tempting $399 retail or Web-order PCs are usually entry-level designs with integrated graphics, while more expandable, capable systems start closer to $700, you’re probably savvy enough to consider a CPU upgrade.

Adapted from CPU Planet.

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