Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Publication Date: 03/1/2009
Archive >  March 2009 Issue >  Tech Watch > 

Upgrading an Old XP Machine

In my December Editorial, I wrote about what I saw as a need to update my aging HP tower with new RAM, a new HDD and a new CD/DVD burner. The reason: the hard drive was just itching to crash; it was long overdue. A reformatting of the old hard drive would not postpone this crash by much. Old is old.

Why not buy a new computer? The reason is embodied in one word: "Vista". Now that the word has gotten out to the computer manufacturers, an increasing number of new laptops are being offered with a choice of XP or Vista. I guess they really got the message when Microsoft started its advertising campaign to rename Vista and to try to fool the public into thinking it was something else. But the buying public just wasn't buying it. I had to buy a Vista machine a couple of years ago as an emergency replacement for a computer that crashed and burned in the middle of a U.S. Tech deadline (Murphy's Law at its finest moment). The Vista wouldn't let me use any of my favorite legacy software, so I ultimately had the computer refitted with XP, but many of its features will not work now. I will have to convert it back to Vista or possibly to the new Windows 7 that's coming down the pike. In the meantime, I am using that particular computer as little as possible. Getting back to my aging HP tower: I purchased it in October of 2004 at Circuit City when our RV was parked in Salisbury, NC which had no Best Buy or CompUSA. The purchase was in an emergency situation; my old tower had died, once again in the middle of deadline week (naturally). The replacement computer lasted until October 2008, and died miraculously 2 weeks before the end of the extended warranty period. Once in a while, we get lucky. This time it wasn't the HDD; it was the power supply. The whole computer just shut down. I didn't actually get the warranty repair work completed until December, but the warranty was honored because I had initiated the service "incident" before the warranty period expired. The tech came to my RV, installed the new power supply, and came prepared to install a new motherboard as well, but it wasn't needed. My diagnosis had been right on target.

Restored to Life
The computer came back to life with its giant 19-inch flat panel screen which I dearly love, but it was stumbling along, so slow in virtually everything that it was unbearable. There were so many corrupted programs on the HDD that I didn't know how long I could stand it. I couldn't use the printer; I could no longer access my Palm Pilot software; MS Word was unbearably slow, and it didn't always want to recognize my USB dongles when I plugged them in. It was a mess.

I went online to
http://www.oempcworld.com, where I was able to download software that analyzed my computer and determined what kind of RAM I could order. The computer had two RAM sockets, with 512MB of memory plugged into one socket. I opted for 2 1GB DIMMs at $29.85 each plus $1.00 insurance and free shipping for $60.70 RAM upgrade. Another site that does this is http://www.crucial.com, but I had a problem when I tried that site. It tried to tell me that my computer would max out at 1GB total RAM, and I knew it could handle 2GB. Next, I went to http://www.newegg.com and ordered a Seagate 512GB hard disk drive for $89.95 and a Samsung internal DVD/CD burner for $23.50. They had a 1.0 Terabyte HDD for $109.95, but I thought that was an extraordinary case of overkill. I ordered a couple of SATA data cables for $2.50 each. The computer's motherboard had 2 SATA sockets which was good, but if the sockets were missing, a plug-in adapter card for about $19.00 would have done the trick.

When the order arrived, I found that the cables wouldn't work because the new devices required a combination data and power cable — a combination socket that plugs into the rear of the device. On the correct cable/connector combo, two different cables exit from the connector: one for data and one to the old-fashioned power supply connector. So I re-ordered. The new cables were $5.50 each.

Good Cleaning Needed
As soon as I finished the February issue, I took the tower apart, gave it a good cleaning out with compressed air, replaced the RAM, the HDD and the CD burner. The HDD and DVD/CD burner were exact-size drop-in replacements for the older parts, except for the connectors. On the way, I tried to obey the orders pasted onto the Seagate HDD that directed me to the company's website to download necessary software, which I did. There were 4 jumper pins on the back of the HDD with a jumper connecting 2 of them, and zero info about them in the documentation. I left the jumper in place, and installed the HDD in the computer. It didn't work. I couldn't get the BIOS firmware to reset the characteristics demanded by the Seagate website, and it wouldn't read the CD that I had so laboriously constructed from the download on another computer.

So I pulled the HDD and removed the jumper, put it back together and it still wouldn't work. Next, I put the jumper back and reversed the data connectors on the motherboard. One SATA socket was white, the other red — one for the HDD and one for the DVD burner. Since I had no idea what the colors meant, I simply tried reversing them. And miracle of miracles, it all worked! No installation software needed. Windows XP had all the info it needed to do this. I loaded the HP "rescue" CDs, one at a time (there were 9 of them), the software loaded nicely just as if this HDD had come with the computer. Windows didn't give a darn that the old HDD had been 160GB and the new one was 500GB. It all worked so well that I was totally amazed. The transformation was instantaneous and quite everything I had hoped for. The once-sluggish computer is now lightning fast, much faster than when it had been brand-new (that goosed up RAM really helped), everything is working once again, including the printer, and I don't curse at anything any more except the still crawlingly-slow Internet (I'm in a sub-prime signal area for my Verizon air card). Total cost of the remake was $204 including postage and the two incorrect cables that I had to eat. Newegg.com would probably have taken them back, but what with return postage etc. and time spent on packaging the return to take to the post office, it hardly seemed worth the trouble to get back 5 bucks.

In answer to the idea of cheap computers now available, there is one desktop system with XP available for $299 at Wal-Mart. One of our readers wrote in to thank me for the Wal-Mart suggestion which led him to this computer. It's called an "e-machine" and I was told it was made by Gateway. It's a no-frills computer with minimum everything and a case that has its CD drive mounted in a rather inconvenient way, and virtually no room for expansion. It will certainly answer some computing needs, but I happen to be partial to my old HP tower with its newly installed upgrades. It's got goodies that are missing from the new e-machine and it ought to be good for at least another four years.  

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