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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Guide To Upgrading Your PC

Tips & Tricks

Technique : PC Musician

These days, many businesses plan to replace their computers every two years. Although bi-annual upgrades don't come easy on your wallet, in the fast-changing world of the PC-based musician, upgrades are eventually inevitable. MARTIN WALKER advises you on how to negotiate the troubled path to DSP processing paradise...

You may have noticed in my previous SOS features just what problems there can be for anyone struggling on with a 486 PC when today's software packages are all feature-laden and processor-hungry. My first all-out failure occurred when attempting to download sample data from my Akai sampler to Sound Forge on the PC using MIDI sample dump (see the feature that resulted from this problem in SOS October '96). With the Akai sending sample data at its standard rate, my 486DX33 simply couldn't intercept and store the data as fast as it came in through the PC MIDI port, and Sound Forge ground to a halt for the entire duration of the sample dump. Sooner or later, everybody still using a machine with a 486 processor will face this sort of problem if they try to use software written in the last year or so.

The time had come for me to take the bull by the horns and upgrade. As I have mentioned before, my preferred route is to use a local supplier who will upgrade the machine, give me a trade-in price on the parts no longer required, and provide a guarantee on all new parts and work carried out. I use Solutions of Cheltenham, who have provided an excellent service on each occasion that a major upgrade has been required. Using a local source may not be the cheapest route, but having attempted the alternative of buying blindly through mail order, and ended up with a graphics card that stopped one of my previous machines even booting up, I can personally recommend the peace of mind that comes from knowing that your upgraded machine has already been tested. Furthermore, this way, if anything does go wrong in the future, you are geographically close enough to return it in person and get everything sorted out with the minimum of downtime.

The anatomy of the typical PC has already been covered in these pages by Janet Harniman-Cook in SOS November '96, but even if you know the basics, there are still a lot of choices facing anyone attempting to upgrade. In the two years since I last took the plunge, a whole host of new features have been added to the latest PCs, such as pipeline burst cache and EDO RAM (of which more below). Starting with the choice of motherboard (and there are quite a few of these around using different chipsets, and having different overall performances), your decision will be affected by the number of expansion slots available in your PC, and whether they are of the newer PCI type or the older ISA version. More and more PCI cards are appearing in the marketplace, and there is the promise of higher-performance PCI soundcards in the near future -- so you can end up caught between choosing a motherboard which has more potential for future use, or buying one because it has more ISA slots to cater for your existing expansion cards. Anyone upgrading from a machine with the older VL-buss standard (like me!) will have the added frustration that whilst spare VL-buss slots could be utilised by ISA cards, the newer PCI standard does not permit this, so you may be faced with the possibility of having to discard an ISA device because there are not enough ISA slots to go round on a Pentium motherboard.

Far from being a simple procedure, a planned upgrade provides the ideal opportunity for you to think long and hard about your future plans for the PC, rationalise some of your more ancient ISA cards, and try and end up with an upgraded system that properly balances current requirements with further expansion potential. With cost-effectiveness firmly in mind, here is the SOS guide to upgrading PCs without (too many) tears.


The first and most fundamental choice is which processor to go for. A Pentium is pretty much obligatory, as anything slower will not run today's software effectively. However, there are a multitude of Pentium processors, not only from Intel, but also clones from AMD and Cyrix/IBM, which have the same functionality, but different performances and/or price points. The Pentium itself also comes in several varieties. Top of the range is the Pentium Pro, which was designed from the ground up for use with a 32-bit operating system, and so will not give optimum performance with Windows 95 (though you may have heard Windows 95 described as a 32-bit operating system, this is not always the case -- see the 'NT Promises' box for more details). The Pentium Pro also uses a more expensive motherboard, which can be up to double the price of an equivalent straight Pentium board. Although in raw power terms, the Pro chip outperforms a Pentium of equivalent clock speed, there are other ways to achieve this improvement.

The Cyrix range of processors uses many of the tricks that give the Pro its extra power, but using a standard Pentium-style motherboard. (Although designed by Cyrix, they are manufactured by IBM -- so they are often described as Cyrix/IBM). Such are the speed advantages that the Cyrix P166+ processor actually runs at a clock speed of 133MHz rather than 166MHz, on the grounds that its performance matches, and in many cases improves on, that of the standard Pentium 166MHz processor. Its only downside is in floating-point performance, which is not quite up to that offered by the standard Pentium. You won't always notice a difference, but if you anticipate performing functions involving lots of audio number-crunching, you should bear this in mind. Overall, the Cyrix range is about 6% faster than the equivalent Pentium. The other main manufacturer is AMD, who markets the K5 range, but these are intended as low-cost replacements for Pentiums, and so are probably not the best choice in a multimedia system.

"A planned upgrade provides the ideal opportunity for you to think long and hard about your future plans for the PC, rationalise some of your more ancient ISA cards, and try to end up with an upgraded system that properly balances current requirements with further expansion potential."

The latest development is the MMX (MultiMedia eXtensions) range from Intel, which are direct plug replacements for the two top Pentiums (166 and 200MHz), and which have their innards optimised for multimedia purposes, as well as a larger on-board memory cache. In a straight side-by-side comparison with a standard Pentium, they have only about a 12% speed improvement, but once applications start appearing that are optimised for its new architecture, there are promises of 30-40% average speed improvements, particularly targeted towards graphics and sound. Ensoniq have already announced AudioPCI, a sound architecture that uses MMX to drive wavetable and synthesis chips at a much lower cost than using a dedicated audio processor.

Ultimately, as the old saying goes, you pays your money and takes your choice. Entry level for PC-based audio recording and editing must now be 166MHz; so if you were intending to buy a Pentium 166 or 200MHz, the MMX version (at the same price) is the obvious solution, although they are still in short supply at the time of writing (the end of February) -- and don't expect MMX versions of much software for the next few months (we are still waiting for a 32-bit Windows 95 version of Cubase!) If, like me, you are driven by budget, then bear in mind that the Cyrix P166+ still outperforms the original Pentium 166MHz, but at a typical system price of about £200 less. Many PC suppliers also claim that a P166+ with 32Mb of RAM will outperform a P166 MMX with 16Mb in most existing applications. Always bear in mind that (apart from the Pro range) all processors are direct plug replacements -- you can always buy a faster one later.


If you are a DIY upgrader, you will need to choose a motherboard, but even if you are buying a complete replacement system, it is still useful to know the options. All modern boards are PCI and incorporate a Plug & Play BIOS, but there is still plenty of variation. The powerhouse of the motherboard is the chipset -- the support circuitry that interfaces between the processor and the rest of the hardware. For Pentium machines, the most popular is Intel's Triton 430HX chipset (also known as Triton II, to differentiate it from the earlier and less powerful Triton 430FX chipset), and you will find this on many modern high-performance boards. Most will support any Pentium between 75 and 200MHz, and the Cyrix range between the P120+ and the P166+. The P200+ is only catered for by a few designs, but at the moment the Pentium 200 MMX would seem a better alternative, so this is not much of a restriction. The other popular alternative is the Intel 430VX chipset -- the 430HX is supposedly aimed at power users and is currently the fastest around, while the 430VX is intended for Pentium processor-based home and small business PCs. The latest chipset for Pentium Pro motherboards is the Natoma (440FX) from Intel, which is cheaper than its predecessor, but still around £100 more than an equivalent Pentium board.


For the PC musician, another significant feature of the motherboard is the number of PCI and ISA slots available. Always get this confirmed or have the cover removed and see for yourself before parting with your money, as motherboards often change on a monthly basis. I was lucky -- my anonymous motherboard came with four of each, allowing me maximum versatility, but features one so-called 'shared slot'. This terminology can be confusing -- there are physically four of each type of slot, but you can only ever use a total of seven (either made up of four PCI cards and three ISAs or three PCIs and four ISAs). You should also find out how many slots will be taken up already. Most motherboards now have integrated disk I/O, but at least one PCI slot will probably be occupied by a graphics card. Other slots on the motherboard include those for the main memory used by the system.

The absolute minimum memory for modern machines is 16Mb, of whatever variety. The current most popular flavour is EDO (Extended Data Out) RAM, which gives excellent performance in conjunction with a pipeline burst cache. EDO RAM allows for a timing overlap between successive accesses, giving a speed improvement of about 20% over regular memory. The cache memory is very fast (typically four times the speed of the main memory) and sits between the processor and normal RAM. Any data that is likely to be needed again in a hurry will probably still be stored in the cache, and can be retrieved far more rapidly than from RAM. Many machines come with 256k caches (and some are hard-wired onto the motherboard), but for better performance the full 512k cache normally only costs about £15 extra if it isn't standard, and is well worth going for.

"The cost of replacing most of your PC's innards may well be such that it will be cheaper to sell or trade in your entire PC and buy a new one, which will at least come with a guarantee."

Most machines now use RAM in the form of 72-pin SIMMs (Single In-line Memory Modules). These must be inserted in pairs, so for 16Mb memory, for example, two 8Mb SIMMs are used, leaving two further sockets for future memory upgrades. Most motherboards have four memory sockets, so you only get to upgrade once before you need to trade in your existing memory for larger-capacity SIMMs. However, memory is currently about £50 per 16Mb pair, and buying 32Mb at the start may well give you a bigger boost in performance than opting for the next fastest processor. Other memory types include DIMMs (dual versions of SIMMs) which can be used singly, but fewer motherboards support these.

Once you have chosen the motherboard and its components, the choice of case is fairly easy. For musicians, avoid any slimline types, as they often have limited space for full-length expansion cards. Desktop types are fine if you intend to sit your monitor on top, but a mini or midi tower (different only in size and maximum number of drive bays) may be a better bet, as then you have the option of mounting them underneath a desk, where their whirring may well be less intrusive (see my article on essential utilities for the PC musician, which starts on page 124, for further ideas on this theme). Don't underestimate how many drive bays you might need in the future -- a mini-tower may have two 3.5-inch ones (one already used by a floppy drive) and two 5.25-inch ones (a CD-ROM will always occupy one of these). Allow for a possible Syquest or Iomega removable drive at least. Thankfully, some suppliers are also starting to feature systems that allow all expansion cards to be full length, as well as designing in lower noise levels -- machines featuring the Intel ATX motherboard and case are particularly good in this respect, although both are more expensive than average.


Disk drives for storing applications and data have come on in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years, with huge improvements in capacity and performance at an ever-lower cost. With current pricing such that a 1Gb (1000Mb) drive is available at about £120, there is absolutely no reason to skimp on size. Many PC outlets are already moving to 2Gb drives for entry-level systems, and this will no doubt be standard in a few months. For the musician, allow at least 500Mb for your normal applications (unless you're an old Scrooge like me!), and if you intend any hard disk recording, another 1Gb is a reasonable size to assemble a 650Mb CD's worth of music in stereo with a bit over for editing. With this in mind, 2Gb looks like a safe bet. Most modern EIDE (Extended Integrated Drive Electronics) drives will be suitable, and most will be able to operate in Mode 4, which allows very fast speeds to be achieved. Quantum Fireball drives are particularly popular with system builders. AV drives can be obtained, and if you can afford the bit extra, they are probably worth it, since normal ones must occasionally stop for a thermal recalibration, which may cause an audio glitch if you're recording at the time. Most people get away with non-AV drives -- it just depends whether you are prepared to wait until your first recording to see whether everything is OK. SCSI drives are more expensive, and need a host adaptor to control them, but they do allow you to add further drives external to the PC. For more information on choosing drives, see my previous two-part feature in the January and February '97 issues of SOS.


A fast graphics card is also a must, since hard disk recording is always held back by the slowest link in the processing chain. When running MIDI programs, the big crunch comes when the cursor reaches the right-hand edge of the screen, and a full screen update is required; slower cards can cause an audible glitch here. Although cheaper and slower cards will still show a sharp picture, it will probably be at a lower refresh rate. This is the number of times per second that the screen is redrawn. 75Hz is generally regarded as the minimum acceptable rate -- any lower than this and most people will discern flicker, which may lead to eyestrain or headaches. One of the most popular graphics cards at the moment seems to be the Matrox Millennium, a PCI card which can be obtained for about £130. The newer Mystique model is cheaper at about £90, and one of these two models always seems to be in the machine that beats the rest in those computer round-ups. 2Mb of video RAM is normally adequate, and will support even 1280 by 1024 with 256 colours, which ought to be more than enough for music applications.

Although 14-inch monitors are adequate, 15-inch ones give a clearer display at 800 by 600 resolution, which is the minimum you really need for music sequencing. All of the impressive screenshots you see for modern sequencer packages will probably be using a 17-inch monitor and 1024 by 768 screen resolution. If you need to see two packages running side by side (like Soundscape and Cubase for instance), this sort of resolution makes things much easier on the eye. Don't be tempted to go for a 17-inch model on price alone, as picture quality is vital, and a high-quality 15-inch will probably serve you better than a bargain-basement 17-inch with a fuzzy picture. If you are buying a complete system, the difference between 15- and 17-inch monitors may be as little as £175! Try to view models side by side if possible, to judge for yourself. I have used a 14-inch monitor at 1024 by 768, but you end up squinting at the screen, since details are so tiny, and it's not easy to write inspired music with a headache!


When I decided that an upgrade was finally essential back in December, the MMX processors mentioned above were still not available. Even as I write, many magazine ads show machines claiming 'MMX technology' in large letters, with 'upgradeable to' in small letters above. In the end, I chose a Cyrix P166+ machine, with 16Mb RAM and 512k cache, a cheap PCI graphics card, and a 1Gb Quantum Fireball disk drive. By retaining my previous monitor, CD-ROM and soundcards, and trading in my previous system box complete, my total bill came to under £500. If I need to in the future, I can upgrade to a 200MHz Pentium MMX just by replacing the processor, and still get a trade-in on the current one. At the moment, a P166+ machine is about £200 cheaper than an P166 MMX version, and for the time being, it's not that much different in performance until the new software arrives. And as is always the case in the ever-changing PC world, there's a gang of even faster components hiding round the corner, waiting for our wallets to recover from the current round of upgrading...


Whether you are having an upgrade fitted to your existing computer, or trading in the complete machine for a more advanced model, it can be frightening when you realise just how many files there are to back up. It is vital to have copies of everything, as no-one can be held responsible for data loss when your machine is in someone else's hands, and you will have to start from scratch on your new machine anyway. The first thing to do, which will also help you in the future, is to note down any programs that insist on hard disk installs. These require your current install to be physically uninstalled back onto the original floppy disk using the supplied uninstall program, otherwise you will lose it for ever. Back up all your work files and documents using a backup program like the one provided with Windows 95 -- this will compress selected files and save them either to an external hard drive or across multiple floppy disks. Look through application directories for stray work files -- if you have never bothered to set up separate folders for programs and work files you will probably now appreciate the benefits of doing so in the future! One trick is to sort the files by date. System files for an application are often date-stamped identically, making any of your subsequent data files fairly easy to spot. Never assume that an old file is no longer needed -- if a program worked perfectly in 1993, this may still be the most current version. Anything that you are not sure about you should back up anyway. Better safe than sorry!

Don't bother to try to save every file currently on your hard drive -- even a 500Mb drive may well fill a couple of hundred floppies, and this is not necessary. Do take copies of all INI files (normally found in the Windows folder), which commonly note all of your hardware settings and preferences for each application (subsequent set-ups will create new INI files, but it can save a lot of time if you still have the originals, which may contain records of any personalised settings you have made over months of use).

Make sure that you still have the original disks (floppy or CD) for each application, and that any serial numbers needed by the setup/install procedure are still to hand. Particular ones to watch out for are shareware authorisation numbers -- often you will receive these in a letter as a response to sending a cheque, or by email as a result of supplying your credit card number. Make sure that you have these numbers written down before you go any further. If you have installed applications from magazine cover-mounted CDs, make sure that you still have them to hand. For every hardware card, write down the settings used by software drivers -- they may well be included in INI files, but it is best to make sure. If you use the Internet, save your bookmark settings, as well as any files that you have downloaded. If you have downloaded zipped programs, make sure that you either have the original ZIP file as downloaded, or failing that, you may have to download the whole thing again. Simply copying all of the relevant files is not enough -- the Windows registry is updated by each new install, so if you have deleted the setup program it may be tricky to get everything working properly again.

If you are trading in or selling the machine, remove any expansion cards that are not included in the deal, and fill the resulting holes in the case with the original blanking panels (you did keep them, didn't you?). If you are keeping the same case, this is also an ideal chance to vacuum the inside of the machine with a suitable attachment -- air filters and fans in particular can attract large amounts of caked-on dust, and the machine will run cooler if air can flow freely over surfaces that are not coated in a thick layer of gunge. Finally, before you groan inwardly at the thought of re-installing everything on the new machine, think what a marvellous opportunity it will be to organise all of your folders and files to make future work easier and more pleasurable!


I fully intended to upgrade my old machine at first, on the grounds that I thought it would be considerably cheaper. In fact, if you have a VL-buss machine with 32-pin SIMM memory, as I did, very little can be salvaged. Most modern Pentium motherboards use 72-pin SIMMs. You can buy adapters that allow older 32-pin devices to plug into 72-pin sockets, but with memory at £50 for a pair of 8Mb SIMMs, this is folly. At the very least then, a 486 setup will need a new motherboard, new processor and memory. A bog-standard PCI graphics card will probably only be another £30. Then, of course, your existing disk drive may well be too small, and probably not one of the newer EIDE types, which will operate much faster. The cost of replacing most of your PC's innards may well be such that it will be cheaper to sell or trade in your entire PC and buy a new one, which will at least come with a guarantee. If you are strapped for cash, your existing monitor may be retained, but newer PCI graphics cards may have to be run at their lowest refresh rate if the monitor is more than a couple of years old, with a corresponding rise in flicker. Even keyboard and mouse can be bought for about £15 or less each. It's a sad fact of life, but unless you are extremely fond of your old machine, it is probably best to call it a day, and retire it in one piece at a better trade-in price.


Some people are beginning to wonder whether they would be better off using the Windows NT operating system than Windows 95. There are various issues at stake here, but the ultimate carrot is that Windows NT is a totally 32-bit operating system, so all programs should theoretically run faster than with Windows 95, which still contains some 16-bit code to maintain compatibility with DOS. In fact, using Windows NT (in either the earlier version 3.51 or latest v4.0) restricts you to hardware that appears on the Hardware Compatibility List (available from the Internet). If your soundcard does not appear on this list, then NT may refuse to let you run it. This is largely because NT is designed as a secure system (which has great appeal to organisations such as banks), and Microsoft provide drivers for devices that appear on the list. Because software must also use the correct calls to hardware, NT may be intrinsically slower than Windows 95, removing some of its 32-bit speed advantages. NT also lacks Windows 95's complete plug and play features.

Steinberg's WaveLab v1.5 helpfile states that a 200MHz Pentium Pro will deliver twice the power of a regular 200MHz Pentium. It will also run with either Windows 95 or NT v4.0, but will have about 20% more real-time power running under NT. However, not all 16-bit or even 32-bit programs will run properly, so it is always vital to check with the software manufacturers before taking the plunge. 16-bit drivers can be a source of horrendous problems with NT. Suffice it to say that you should check that all of your hardware has proper NT drivers before succumbing to any promises of great speed improvements!  

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