No matter how high the performance of your computer, sooner or later it will start to slow down as newer programs demanding faster and faster hardware show up on your desktop. And, chances are you'll run out of performance before you or your company is ready to pop for a replacement computer. This chapter will help you make the hardware changeslarge or smallyou need to get the most work and useful life out of your computer. We'll discuss how to upgrade and install hardware, how to add a second monitor, how to connect new and old hard drives, and how to add memory.
The single most helpful thing you can do to make your Windows XP computer run at peak speed is give it enough system memory (or RAM, short for Random Access Memory). Just as a reminder, there are two types of memory in your computer: hard disk space and RAM. RAM is used to hold Windows and the programs you're actually using, and Windows XP wants lots more than any previous version of Windows. As we discussed in the early chapters of this book, XP can run with as little as 64MB of RAM, but it will run very slowly and you'll find the experience unpleasant. Memory is very inexpensive these days, and boosting your RAM up to at least 256MB will make a huge difference. I'll discuss adding RAM later in this chapter.
Now, if you're already running Windows XP Professional on a full-bore, state-of-the-art system such as a 3 Gigahertz-plus Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon system, and your computer has a fast video accelerator, a gigabyte or more of fast memory, and fast SCSI disks, there isn't much more you can do in the way of actual hardware optimizing. You might just adjust the pagefile sizes, or convert as many partitions to NTFS as you can. Some of the settings you can make are discussed in Chapter 24, "Configuration via Control Panel Applets," and Chapter 25, "Maintaining and Optimizing System Performance," and the remainder are discussed in Chapter 27, "System Utilities."
By the same token, if you're doing common, everyday tasks such as word processing, and you're already satisfied with the performance of your computer as a whole, you probably don't need to worry about performance boosters anyway. Your system is probably running just fine, and the time you'd spend trying to fine-tune it might be better spent doing whatever it is you use your computer for (like earning a living).
If you're anywhere between these two extremes, however, you may want to look at the tune-ups and hardware upgrades we'll discuss in this chapter.
This chapter just scratches the surface of the ins and outs of hardware installation and updates. If you want all the details, and I mean all the details, you should get a copy of the best-selling book Upgrading and Repairing PC's, 16th Edition, by Scott Mueller, published by Que.
Windows XP depends upon proper BIOS settings to enable it to detect and use hardware correctly. At a minimum, your drives should be properly configured in the system BIOS, and your CPU type and speed should be properly set (either in the BIOS or on the motherboard, depending upon the system). Thanks to some very clever work by Microsoft's engineers, Windows XP boots much faster than any other 32-bit version of Windows, but you can improve boot speed even more with these tips:
Upgrading Your Hard Disk
One of the most effective improvements you can make to a system is to get a faster or larger hard drive, or add another drive. SCSI hard disks used to seriously one-up IDE drives, but the new breed of Ultra DMA EIDE drives (which I call Old MacDonald DisksEIEIO!) and Serial ATA (SATA) drives are quite speedy and a whole lot cheaper than SCSI. An EIDE bus supports four drives (two each on the primary and secondary channels) and is almost always built in to your motherboard. Adding a CD-ROM (or CD-RW or DVD-ROM) drive claims one, leaving you with a maximum of three EIDE hard drives unless you install a separate add-on EIDE host adapter or have a motherboard with RAID support. Serial ATA (SATA) supports one drive per channel, but the latest SATA II connection system can reach top transfer speeds of 300MB/sec.
Many recent motherboards feature on-board IDE RAID, which can perform either mirroring (which makes an immediate backup copy of one drive to another) or striping (which treats both drives as part of a single drive for speed). While the RAID features on these motherboards don't support RAID 5, the safest (and most expensive!) form of RAID, they work well and are much less expensive than any SCSI form of RAID. Just remember that mirroring gives you extra reliability at the expense of speed, because everything has to be written twice, and striping with only two disks gives you extra speed at the expense of reliabilityif one hard disk fails you lose everything.
The following are some essential considerations for upgrading your hard disk system:
Perhaps the most cost-effective upgrade you can make to any Windows-based system is to add RAM. This is one is a no-brainer: If your disk is pausing and thrashing each time you switch between running applications or documents, you need more RAM. While Microsoft says Windows XP can run with as little as 64MB of RAM, we've found that this results in intolerably slow performance. XP only really runs at a (barely) acceptable speed with 128MB, and 256MB is far better. If you run memory-intensive applications, get even more.
Windows automatically recognizes newly added RAM and adapts internal settings, such as when to swap to disk, to take best advantage of any RAM you throw its way. Upgrade beyond 128MB of RAM if you can afford it, especially if your system uses the economical SDRAM or DDR SDRAM DIMM modules. Memory prices fluctuate constantly, but these days 256MB memory modules are selling for under $40. This is a very cost-effective upgrade indeed. But be sure to get the right memory for your motherboard. There is a huge variety of memory technologies out there. At the time this was written, common technologies included SDRAM, DDR and RDRAM (RAMBus). Memory speeds range from 100MHz (labeled PC100) to 4400MHz (labeled PC4400). And, on top of that, there are error correcting (ECC) and non-error-correcting varieties.
To find out what type of memory you need, you should check with your computer manufacturer or the manual that came with your computer or motherboard. You should get the fastest compatible memory your CPU can use and that your motherboard supports. You can get RAM that's rated faster than you currently need, but you won't gain any speed advantagejust a greater likelihood of being able to reuse the memory if you later upgrade your motherboard.
If you run very disk and memory-intensive applications such as high-resolution scanning, image processing, video editing, or databases, consider adding memory well beyond 128MB. Windows XP isn't crippled by the 512MB limit found in Windows 9x and Me, and many systems on the market today can use more than 1GB of RAM. For most serious computer users, 512MB or 1GB should do the trick.