Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Sun May 16 06:32:31 EDT 2010

Carrie-Ann Skinner explains when to give in to your desire for a new PC, and
when (and how) to get some more mileage out of your old one

Most of us would love a fresh start with a shiny new computer.  And, with a new
Windows operating system (OS) launching late last year and some tempting
bargains available in the sales, many of us have recently scratched that itch
and indulged in a new PC or laptop.

But even if you decided against moving to a new Windows 7 system, you'd
probably still like a bang-up-to-date machine.  And, fortunately, there are
other ways to get one.

Give an old PC a boost 

Replacing your system's older technology with new can reap dividends in terms
of a smoother computing experience, an improved interface and stronger security.

If you've not yet taken the plunge and bought a new machine, check whether
some judicious upgrades are a better option.  Some more RAM, a larger hard drive
or even a new OS could give you the feel of a shiny new device with a lot less
damage on your wallet.

Don't throw it away! 

Whether you're upgrading a few components or buying an entirely new system,
think carefully about the older kit that's heading into retirement: it may
still have something to give.  Perhaps someone you know could make use of an
older PC, or it could be donated to charity.  Perhaps it could
continue to have a role as a backup PC hoarding your old files, or as a
dedicated media server.

Another option is to cannibalise your old system for parts.  After all,
replacing a computer is an expensive business; you may as well salvage what you
can and use the proceeds to offset the cost of the new machine.

But before you start hunting for your screwdriver and shelling out cash on
components, we'll help you decide whether to use your old PC in another
capacity in your home or upgrade it yourself.

New uses for old PCs 

Before you pass on your old PC to a friend or sell it as parts on eBay, it's
worth considering whether it could be put to good use somewhere else in your
home.  In the long term this will save you money.

Media spotlight 

One of the most popular uses for a comparatively elderly system is as a media
centre.  By installing a TV tuner and some speakers, you can not only watch
television on the PC but record your favourite shows as well, turning your old
machine into a personal video recorder (PVR).

Two types of TV tuner are widely available.  PCI cards are installed inside the
PC just like a graphics card; external TV tuners plug in to an available USB
port.  If your semi-retiring system is a laptop, you'll need the latter.  MSI,
Elgato and Pinnacle make USB tuners that start from ukp30, while Compro and
Hauppauge offer PCI tuners, with prices from ukp50.  For an idea of what to
expect, see our review of the Elgato EyeTV Diversity ( bit.ly/8zVPX9) from last

Amazon.co.uk and Dabs.com offer a wide selection.  The tuners feature software
that allows you to set up recordings and browse programmes on available
channels.  For more information on installing TV tuners, see

As for the speakers - which really are essential if you want to use the PC as
part of an entertainment setup in a bedroom or study - there's plenty of
choice out there.  We'd recommend Logitech and Creative, both brands that are
known for their PC peripherals, as well as audio specialists Altec Lansing and
Teufel.  eBuyer.com has a huge selection, with prices start from ukp15.

Upgrade to Windows 7 

Alternatively, if your PC meets Microsoft's minimum spec requirements for its
latest OS and you've got the spare cash, consider installing Windows 7 on your
PC.  The new OS features an updated version of Windows Media Centre for which
it's worthwhile having a TV tuner.  As well as terrestrial TV stations,
Freeview ones (if you install a DVB-T TV tuner) and Sky can be viewed on your
newly set-up home media centre, but you'll have to pay to view individual
programmes if you don't have a Sky subscription.

Bear in mind that recording TV on your PC can take up a lot of space,
particularly if you have a habit of letting the programmes pile up before you
get round to watching them.  So you might need to replace the PC's existing
hard drive with something larger, or install a second drive that works in tandem
with the original.  If you've got a free bay, you can install a second
internal hard drive; otherwise an external USB hard drive will work just as

Another option - and this is a great tip if your PC is going to be a media
centre - is to adjust the amount of space Media Center is allowed to claim.
More information on adjusting the settings can be found at tinyurl.com/yao5kfr.

Before you fork out for a copy of Windows 7, however, it's vital to check that
your PC has the specs needed to handle the OS.  Visit Microsoft's Windows 7
Upgrade Advisor ( bit.ly/3Bat7P) from the PC in question.  This site will
analyse your hardware and tell you if anything needs upgrading.

Multimedia treasure trove 

Another use for your old PC is as storage on your home network.  It could be
used as a multimedia archive, holding all your photos, video and music, along
with files.

Once again, you'll need to look at the size of the PC's current hard drive.
If it's not capacious enough for your family's media, you'll need to
install a second hard drive.  A temptingly straightforward option is to buy an
external USB 2.0 drive - perhaps a sleek or discreet unit such as the Philippe
Starckbranded LaCie model ( bit.ly/4YPSyA) or one of its Porsche designs.

This might be worthwhile if you plan to have your media-server PC on show.  But
if not - and provided you've got a spare hard drive bay in your PC -
you're better off opting for an internal drive.  A one-terabyte (1TB) USB
drive from Maplin, eBuyer or Dabs (or indeed a high street retailer) will cost
around ukp70.  An internal PCI or SATA one will cost roughly two-thirds that

Make sure you choose a drive with a suitable type of internal connection: faster
SATA drives won't work with all motherboards, which is another reason to
consult the details of your current PC setup using a Belarc tool.  

If you're keeping your existing hard drive, it will need to be installed as a
'slave' drive.  This is a matter of setting the jumpers on the primary drive
and the new one accordingly.

Once it's installed, reboot your PC and introduce it to the home network.  And
you'll probably want to select suitable sharing preferences for its new role.
If it's to be accessed by Windows 7 PCs, there are different rules than for
Windows Vista and XP setups.

Home security 

An old PC can also be used as the basis of a home security monitoring setup -
you simply need to add a webcam.  These are relatively cheap, with prices from
ukp30 for basic VGA or 1.3Mp webcams; motion-sensing, infrared and
higher-megapixel models can cost ukp149.

Security-minded readers and small-business owners should also look at IP cameras
from manufacturers such as Swann that are geared towards home surveillance.
They're fairly easy to install, usually connecting via USB to your current PC,
or via Wi-Fi on your home network.  You can then position the camera wherever
you like in the home, and view a live feed from any PC in the world with web

If this sounds a bit sinister but you like the idea of a webcam to keep in
touch, you could move the older PC, complete with webcam, to a study or spare
room and use it as a means of communicating with relatives and friends that live
far away.

The webcam will allow you to chat for free via instant-messaging programs,
providing your loved ones have a PC with the same chat programme installed.  You
could also install Skype, or any other voice over IP (VoIP) software on the
machine and use it as a way of making low-cost telephone calls.  However,
you'll need a headset and microphone to enjoy this to its full capacity.

Upgrading your current PC 

If you can't justify forking out for a brand-new PC or laptop, consider
upgrading your system's components to give you the feel and power of a newer

Check the spec 

But before you even consider which components need replacing, perform a complete
specification audit, creating a list of what's inside your machine.

On Windows Vista PCs you can get a performance overview and see which parts of
your current hardware setup are holding back the rest.  Go to the Control Panel
and look for the Windows Experience Index.  This allows you to work out exactly
which new components will be compatible.

However, if you can't access this - and you can't find the original spec
list from the PC supplier - don't panic.  This is where the Belarc Advisor (
belarc.com/free_download) comes in.  This free online software scans your PC and
creates what it calls "a detailed profile of your installed software and
hardware, missing Microsoft hotfixes and antivirus status", which is displayed
in your web browser.  Printing this will give you a list of components you can
refer back to.

Pick your upgrades 

We took two sample PCs from three years ago and looked at which component
upgrades would be viable.  The first was a Windows XP machine powered by an AMD
Athlon 64 2.2GHZ processor, an Asus A8NE motherboard, 1GB of RAM, a 160GB SATA
hard drive and a 16x DVD burner.  We also looked at a Windows Vista PC with a
2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, an EGS P965T-A motherboard, 2GB of RAM and a 400GB SATA


The simplest way to improve the day-to-day performance of your PC is to increase
the memory.  However, before attempting to replace the memory, you need to make
sure you purchase modules that are supported by your motherboard.

Either check your manual, if you have it, or use an online analyser, such as the
one offered by Memory manufacturer Crucial.  Its free scanner (
tinyurl.com/y99p9mr) identifies the type of RAM in your PC and then lets you run
the Memory Advisor Tool, which suggests memory that's guaranteed to be
compatible with your system.

Motherboard and processor 

Upgrading your processor seems an obvious move, but it's one of the most
expensive parts of a PC.  However, you may be able to bag a secondhand chip: a
3GHz Athlon 64 X2 costs around ukp70; a used one is half that.

The motherboard, too, can be expensive, but may be worth replacing if you're
keen to take advantage of a technology that wasn't around when you bought your
PC or want to be able to fit more RAM.  Compatibility issues need to be
thoroughly researched and you may want to defer to an experienced upgrader to
perform the surgery: it's all too easy to shortcircuit a motherboard.

Likewise, replacing the processor can be a difficult task.  You'll need to
identify which sockets your motherboard supports before purchasing your new chip
(Intel and AMD use different sockets for their processors).  You'll also have
to identify the CPU and memory speed supported by your motherboard.

You're only likely to see a difference in performance by installing a CPU
that's at least 50 percent faster than your current chip.  If your motherboard
can't handle this, you'll need to think about replacing that too.

Storage and other upgrades 

Our Windows XP machine is a prime candidate for a hard-drive upgrade, and we
would consider swapping the Vista PC's 400GB hard drive for a solid state
drive (SSD), which reads data faster than an HDD and is much quieter.  For more
on upgrading hard drives, see tinyurl.com/yaq7tr2.

Other upgrades that are worth considering including installing a graphics card
that features an HDMI port.  This will allow you to connect your PC to an HD
display to view content stored on it in better quality than your older monitor

A new OS will also give your PC a shiny new feel.  Both of our sample machines
meet Microsoft's minimum requirements for Windows 7.  As we mentioned earlier,
remember to visit Microsoft's Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor ( bit.ly/3Bat7P).  If
your PC passes with flying colours, splash the cash; otherwise implement the
necessary upgrades before making your purchase.

Get some advice 

This is a very important point: you should never be afraid to ask for advice.
The web offers a huge number of forums full of users that have at one time or
another attempted to upgrade their PC, and will be only too happy to offer you
their advice and experience on the subject. 

just typing how do I upgrade my PC?  into a search engine will take you to
related forums, while component vendors such as Dabs, Overclockers, eBuyer,
Maplin and IT247 are potentially useful sources of information.

Doing the dirty work It's very likely that your PC will be out of warranty, so
any upgrades will have to be completed by you, a competent friend or relative or
a trusted local business.

If you're keen to undertake the upgrade yourself, we advise you to take your
time - it's doubly important in this case that you visit those online forums
and get as much advice as possible beforehand.  If the whole thing goes wrong,
it'll end up costing you more than if you'd bought a new machine.

Make sure you earth yourself to remove static electricity before you touch any
of the components.  This will help you to avoid blowing up the circuitry.

Laptop upgrades 

Laptop owners should bear in mind that upgrading components will be partiularly
fiddly, thanks to the compact nature of the chassis.  If you've never
attempted an upgrade project before, it's advisable not to start with a
laptop.  Instead, consider purchasing a new model and putting the original to a
good use.  If none of the uses on the previous page appeal, you can put it to
work as a second monitor.

Adding a second monitor to your workstation can greatly improve your
productivity.  We recommend MaxiVista ( tinyurl.com/ycg4t35), a clever utility
that lets you turn an extra laptop into a second monitor.  The only requirement
is that both systems be connected to your home network.

The program has been around for years, but only version 4.0 offers support for
Vista and Windows 7 (including the 64bit editions).

Most users are likely to pair a desktop with a laptop, although it's just as
easy to configure two laptops, a laptop and a netbook and so on.  The software
now supports third and fourth PCs as well.

We put MaxiVista to work on a desktop PC running Windows 7 and a laptop running
Vista.  It worked flawlessly.  Even Windows 7 features such as Aero Snap worked
on the secondary system.  Very impressive.

MaxiVista costs $40 (ukp24).  A 14-day trial version is available, and you
should install this first to confirm that your configuration works properly.


There's no sense upgrading every part of your PC.  Instead, you should look to
get the most bang for your buck from the one or two upgrades you do decide upon.


Most rewarding is adding RAM.  Head to the website of a specialist such as
Corsair or Kingston to check you're buying suitable memory.  Upgrading from
1GB to 2GB on a Windows XP or Vista 32bit machine or from 2GB to 4GB on a 64bit
Windows Vista or Windows 7 PC are the usual scenarios.

Cost: ukp20 to ukp50 

Hard drive 

Adding a second hard drive may extend the longevity of the PC, but won't boost
performance.  Switching to an SSD drive (if your motherboard supports it) can
noticeably improve access times.  Cost: ukp50 to ukp250

Windows 7 

You might have skipped Vista, but Windows 7 is a stable, dependable platform -
consider a double RAM and OS upgrade.  An extra benefit of Windows 7 is its
support for ReadyBoost.  This uses a USB drive to expand the complement of
memory it can draw upon, making your upgraded PC seem nippier still.

Cost: ukp109 for Home Premium Edition 

Graphics card 

Better resolution support and the ability to support multiple monitors are
certainly desirable, but don't go overboard.  If yours is a fairly elderly PC,
limit your budget to around ukp50; you'd need more firepower to take advantage
of the latest and greatest cards.  If your system is slightly younger - say
two or three years old - spend ukp150 at most.  DirectX 10.0 graphics will
work on the latest Vista and Windows 7 machines, but not XP.

Cost: ukp50 to ukp150 

External hard drive 

Archiving your clutter to an external drive will keep it safe and means you can
spring-clean your PC and claw back some of its diminished capabilities.  A 500GB
or 1TB drive will be the best value.  Choose a 2.5 inches version if the backup
drive needs to be portable; otherwise a 3.5 inches drive from a trusted brand
such as Iomega, Western Digital or LaCie will offer the most gigabytes.

Cost: ukp50 to ukp80 for 1TB 

Selling it on 

If you've made the decision to claw back some cash from your old PC by selling
it on, bear in mind that, unless your system is less than two or three years
old, your prospects are better if you put separate parts up for sale, rather
than the system as a whole.

PC enthusiasts are accustomed to scouring the web for second-hand components. 

Good options include eBay and Amazon Marketplace ( amazon.co.uk/marketplace), as
well as dedicated computer auction sites such as Computer Exchange ( cex.co.uk)
and Secondhand Mac ( uk.secondhandmac.com).

However, as with any auction site, remember to check the feedback on any
potential buyers, never dispatch goods until payments has been received and,
where possible, use a secure payment service such as PayPal; this will offer
protection in case you get scammed, and will also allow you to either pay for
your new PC or parts directly or transfer the money to your bank account while
you browse new machines.

You'll need to consider how you'll send fragile components - consider
courier services rather than the traditional postal service, and make sure
everything is marked Fragile in big letters.

Data safety tips 

If you're selling your old hard drive, you'll need to remember to transfer
your old data from the drive on to your new machine.  If you already have a
backup, this will be fairly easy - just a case of transferring the files from
your memory stick, external hard drive, online storage space or DVD to your new
system.  Alternatively, if your PCs are located on a home network, simply allow
your old machine to access your new machine and transfer the files.

Windows Easy Transfer (tinyurl.com/easytransfer) is another easy way to move
files and settings from one Windows computer to another.  You can transfer
files, email contacts and program settings, but not the programs themselves.

Make sure your data is permanently deleted from your old hard drive before
selling it on.  Anyone with a cheap data recovery program can recover recently
deleted files - even if you've emptied the recycle bin - so you need to
completely wipe and then format the drive.  But this will also uninstall your
operating system, so make sure you have your install disk handy.

Note that you can advertise a PC for sale complete with the software you have
loaded on it, but upon sale you'll need to ensure all the discs and copies of
the software are sent to the buyer.  You cannot keep a copy of the software
yourself as this is, in effect, piracy.

Other options 

If you find you struggle to sell your old PC, stop and think before you take a
trip to the dump with your old PC.  The WEEE Directive, which came into force in
2007, aims to reduce the electrical and electronic equipment being produced and
encourage everyone to reuse, recycle and recover it.

It's highly unlikely in any case that you'll be able to fund your entire
upgrade by selling on your old PC, either as a complete system or as individual
components.  Rather like cars, PC parts depreciate very quickly.  About the best
you can hope for is to secure around half of the funding for a brand-new machine
or the parts to upgrade your current PC to a spec that equals those currently
sitting on retailers' shelves.

With a little bit for time and effort, you could find that your old computer can
be put to use somewhere else in your home, and the chances are that you won't
have to fork out hundreds of pounds to make it suitable for its new purpose.

Finally, consider donating your PC to a charity that will refurbish it and pass
it on to someone who can experience a bit of the joy the PC provided you with.
Try Computer Aid ( computeraid.org), Envocare ( envocare.co.uk) or Donate a PC (

Preparing your PC for a new owner 

If you're ready to pass on your old PC to a new owner, there's a very
important checklist you need to follow.

Purge programs 

It's wisest to offer your unwanted PC or laptop with nothing but its operating
system.  This avoids any issues over copyright.  Unless you have the original
software discs and hand these over along with the PC you're selling or
donating, the Add/Remove Programs menu and a thorough purging of any third-party
programs you've installed should be your first port of call.

Remember that some programs have proprietary file formats, so check on any data
you're likely to need if you're going to use the same program on your new
PC.  If you're taking programs with you, ensure you've made a note of any
serial codes.  You may have an email record.

Copy data 

Next, have your backup drive at the ready and check you've got enough room to
copy everything you want to retain on to it.

You need to copy your email .pst file if you're using Outlook, plus everything
in your own user account (and any others that need to be ported across),
preferences and settings.  Updated drivers for any peripherals will need to be
installed on the new PC.

If you've already bought your new PC, you can use a migration program to
transfer to the new system.  Syncables Desktop Premium is one option (see page
55).  Software such as the Windows Easy Transfer utility or a program such as
Laplink PCmover can help ease the process of migrating from one PC to another,
but you also need to ensure that you've got a backup of your valued photos,
music, videos and so on.

Authorisations and cookies 

If you're an iTunes user, you'll need to deauthorise the PC so it's no
longer associated with your account; Apple limits the number of devices that can
be associated with an iPod or iPhone, and with a user account.  You don't want
the new owner being able to access your music library (don't worry, they
won't be able to log into your iTunes account without your password).

On a similar note, you'll want to clear the browser's cookies, history,
bookmarks and so on.  Most importantly, make sure there are no auto-logins or
password auto-complete settings in place.  This applies to your email accounts
as well, of course, but we suggest you delete any email programs in any case.

To be really sure, you could install a new web browser, refuse the option to
import any settings and then delete the other browsers.

Get deleting 

Delete anything from the Recycle Bin, right-clicking the bin icon and selecting
the option to permanently delete its contents.

Next, begin deleting the contents of your PC, starting with the documents
folders, including videos, photos and music.  You may also want to purge the
downloads folder.

Make sure you properly delete things in the Recycle Bin, then use a permanent
erasing utility to overwrite them.  This is vital, as disposal via the Recycle
Bin actually only moves unwanted files.  Try Eraser or File Shredder (
fileshredder.org).  Your PC should now be stripped back to its basics.

And that's it: your old PC is safely cleared out and ready for its lucky new

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