To buy or to upgrade, that is the question. Almost all personal computer owners face this decision eventually.
Upgrading a personal computer is not the same thing as fixing it, although the latter often prompts the former.
If the hard disk breaks and has to be replaced anyway, why not add a few dozen megabytes of storage? If the monitor burns out, it is a good excuse to buy a bigger and more colorful display.
Often, though, the PC goes out with a whimper, not a bang. Put another way, old computers don't die, they just lose their memory.
The owner buys a new software package and discovers that it will not run unless the computer gets more memory, or a fancier graphics card, or more space on the hard disk.
A new feature comes out that will make a job easier, like a fax board or a high-capacity floppy drive or a tape backup system. Or the owner visits a friend who has a new computer and marvels enviously at how fast it is, or how nice the pages look when they come out of a printer, and so on.
That is when the buy-vs.-upgrade question arises. Does it make more sense to spend a few hundred dollars to extend the useful life of an older PC, or to buy a newer model that has all the latest features?
The issue turns out to be more complex than simply deciding, for example, whether to fix the old jalopy or trade it in on a new car. Car owners rarely think in terms of adding a bigger gas tank, a more powerful engine, an extra row of seats and perhaps an air bag. Yet that is exactly how some PC owners keep up with the latest technology.
Cars were not designed to be upgraded. Luckily, personal computers were. Most computers come with expansion slots and extradrive bays and space to add memory chips.
Early computer designers did not anticipate, however, that the most important part of the computer, the microprocessor, would evolve as quickly as it has. Only recently have computer companies been offering machines with easily replaceable processors.
Most upgrades are simple, involving something as routine as snapping in a few memory chips in order to run newer software like Windows or OS/2 or System 7. Others are insidiously complex.
We hear regularly from people who have essentially rebuilt their older PCs from the chassis up, adding a new mother board (the main circuit board and processor), more memory chips, a bigger hard disk, a new diskette drive, a tape backup system, a math co-processor, a new graphics card, a fax-modem card, a bigger monitor, a mouse, a new printer, a CD-ROM drive, a new power supply and some new software.
The finished product is as powerful as any new system on the market, they say with pride.
We also hear from people who say it is easier and cheaper to donate the old box to a local school or charity, take a tax deduction (if applicable) and buy a new system. Computer prices have fallen so sharply, they note, that it is often more economical to start over than to make over.
Upgrading also requires more effort. Despite the bravado of some technophiles, upgrading a PC is not as simple as changing a light bulb. It involves screwdrivers and circuit boards and chip sockets and cables, and it takes time and patience.
There is a 4-year-old IBM PS/2 Model 60 in this office. It has a slow Intel 80286 microprocessor, one megabyte of random access memory (RAM), a 40-megabyte hard-disk drive, a 5.25-inch external diskette drive that can write only 360 kilobytes of data to each disk and an 11-inch color VGA monitor. It is ideal as a DOS word processor.
The goal, however, is to get a machine that can run the impressive new Windows and OS/2 software scheduled for delivery in the spring. Those new systems require a minimum of a 386SX microprocessor, four to eight megabytes of system memory and a much larger hard disk, probably 100 megabytes at a minimum.
We will also want a bigger "Super VGA" monitor to display Windows and OS/2 to best advantage, which means a new video card, too.
A CD-ROM drive would be nice, and so would a 9,600-baud modem, but whoops, suddenly we're out of serial ports. We need to add a serial card.
Adding all these extra things puts too much pressure on the original power supply, so we need to replace it, too. Pretty soon it becomes clear that buying a new computer is going to be much easier.
For anyone with a similar decision to make, the key issues seem to be time and money, not necessarily in that order. If money is no object, buy the newest system and forget about upgrades for a couple of years.
If frugality is the key, however, it makes sense to add or upgrade features in affordable chunks. Some people may discover that their frustration with a PC or a piece of software can be traced to one or two components that can be replaced for a few hundred dollars or less, rather than spending a few thousand on a new system.
"Upgrading your PC is easy, quick, and will give you greater confidence in using your PC," Winn L. Rosch writes in the introduction to his new book, "The Winn L. Rosch PC Upgrade Bible," $26.95 from Brady Publishing, (212) 373-8142. "To make a successful upgrade, however, you must carefully plan what you're going to do. In making your plans, you may discover that an upgrade is not the right solution for your system."
Mr. Rosch, a lawyer by training, provides a methodical but lively discussion of the upgrade issues, as well as a step-by-step guide for each upgrade process.
He urges PC owners to determine their objectives, which is harder than one would imagine.
"If you can't set a goal, you shouldn't be thinking about an upgrade at all," he writes. "You will just be throwing money at your computer."
The point of Mr. Rosch's "PC Upgrade Bible" is not to scare readers away from upgrades, of course, but rather to make sure the PC owners wind up with the best possible system to meet their needs, with the least cost in money and aggravation.