Pentium Upgrades: When Do They Make Sense?

Your agency probably has many older Pentium PCs bought two or three years ago when they were the fastest systems around. Now, however, these PCs are finding it difficult to handle today's complex Web-based and multimedia applications. Should you upgrade them or replace them?

That's the question facing many state and local government buyers trying to eke out more time from their older Pentium PCs. Such machines are prime candidates for upgrades, as are some 486s. But upgrades are not the best answer for every user. You need to be careful that you're not pouring $500 or more into upgrading a system that is better off replaced.

Checklist

To make that decision, you need to ask yourself a few questions. Will the additional performance you get from the upgrades meet your users' needs? Do you have the money in your budget to spend enough on the upgrades to ensure an extra two or three years of life out of the systems? Can you afford the downtime needed to upgrade each system? If the answers to many of these questions are no, you may be better off buying new systems.

There are also a few technical issues worth considering. For example, will the computers you want to upgrade support an upgrade processor? Do these systems have enough physical space available to support the upgrade processor's built-in fan and heat sink? Do you know the type of CPU socket style of each system you want to upgrade? The answers to these questions can mean the difference between a simple and easy project and one that will give you and your IS staff a good case of heartburn.

If you choose to buy a new system, you can get a lot of computing power for less than $1,500. At press time, an open-market price for a Nexar Technologies Inc. Pentium 200 MHz MMX system with 16M of RAM, 256K of cache memory, a 1.2G hard drive, a 16X CD-ROM drive, 2M of video memory, a 32-bit sound card with 12-watt speakers, Windows 95 and a three-year limited warranty was $1,196 (without monitor). The same system is available with a 166 MHz MMX processor, 32M of RAM, a 3-D graphics card with 4M of memory, 512K of cache memory, a 1.2G hard drive, a 16X CD-ROM drive, a 33.6 kilobits/sec data/fax modem, a 32-bit sound card, two Type II PC Card slots, Windows 95 and a three-year warranty for $1,419.

Upgrading, on the other hand, can easily hit the $500 mark. A top-of-the-line video accelerator costs from $179 to more than $400, depending on the vendor, card type and the amount of memory included. Add to that the cost of an Intel Corp. OverDrive processor, which runs from $299 to upgrade a 75 MHz Pentium to a 150 MHz MMX to $349 to upgrade a 100 MHz Pentium to a 200 MHz MMX.

In addition, to support this new processing capability and today's powerful multimedia applications, you may want to throw in a 16M memory upgrade for about $75 (assuming your system originally shipped with 16M installed).

When you're deciding whether to upgrade or replace multiple PCs, you need to look closely at the economics of each choice.

For example, if you were to upgrade the 75 MHz Pentium desktops of a small workgroup of 25 users with all of the items mentioned above, it would cost $553 per system, or $13,825. Although that figure sounds high, it's a bargain when compared with spending $29,900 for 25 new Nexar machines. That's why upgrades are a good idea for agencies interested in keeping their out-of-pocket information technology expenses down.

Investment Protection

But $13,825 is still a hefty chunk of change, and it may not provide the investment protection you want. Therefore, it's worth the effort to find out what type of work your users are doing and why they need more powerful systems. Then buy only the upgrade options that best meet those needs.

For example, if the workgroup described above does mostly office applications, a processor upgrade alone would fulfill users' needs, and it only costs $7,475.

State and local agencies also should consider the hidden costs associated with upgrading 25, 50 or more PCs.

Upgrading a medium-size workgroup will require downtime and loss of productivity as well as work-hours to install the components. A full system upgrade takes one to two hours per system. This includes taking apart the system, downloading BIOS upgrades, flashing the system with the new BIOS, replacing the video card, installing new video drivers, installing the new CPU, adding memory, putting the system back together and testing it.

We recommend that you test the upgrade items on each platform before you buy them in large quantities. This step will save you a lot of heartache and will give you a realistic estimate of the amount of time needed to upgrade multiple systems.

Our Performance Results

We evaluated the three most common hardware upgrade options available to users of low-end Pentium systems: processors, RAM and video cards.

To evaluate these upgrade options, we used a 75 MHz Pentium PC from NEC Computer Systems Division and a Plus Data 100 MHz Pentium PC. We upgraded the 75 MHz system using a 150 MHz Intel OverDrive CPU with MMX technology. We upgraded the 100 MHz system using a 200 MHz Intel OverDrive CPU with MMX technology as well as a 233 MHz Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) upgrade CPU from Evergreen Technologies Inc. We also added 16M of RAM to the systems and more powerful video cards.

What we found is that the biggest performance increases come from upgrading all three components. However, this also is the most expensive option.

Simply adding 16M of memory to your system will only boost its performance by 5 to 7 percent. At roughly $75 for a 16M memory upgrade, this doesn't seem to be a smart buy. However, the additional memory can boost productivity by allowing users to run more applications simultaneously. Alternatively, adding only a higher-end graphics card, such as the Matrox Graphics Inc. Millennium II we used for testing, will give you an 18 to 20 percent performance boost over the base system and will cost around $199.

In order to squeeze more significant performance gains out of your 75 MHz and 100 MHz Pentium PCs, you'll need to invest $300 or more for a CPU upgrade. We found that by investing in a 150 MHz Intel OverDrive processor and 16M of memory--total cost: $374--users can improve the performance of a 75 MHz Pentium system by 54 percent. The cost for this upgrade on the 100 MHz Pentium system is slightly higher at $424, but the performance boost is 61 percent.

Clearly these upgraded systems are faster, but how do they compare with new systems on our benchmarks? The 75 MHz system upgraded with the 150 MHz OverDrive CPU and 16M of extra memory scores just short of the average score for 166 MHz Pentium systems we tested last year [GBB, Aug. 5, 1996]. To get this system on par with the 200 MHz Pentium MMX machines we tested in July, you'll need a higher-end graphics card [GBB, July 7].

One application area where the OverDrive processor really beefs up performance is in business graphics (see PDF chart). Performance on this portion of our benchmark suite rose from 49 to 65 percent, depending on the amount of memory installed. Adding a 64-bit or 128-bit graphics card will boost performance by another 17 to 22 percent but will cost $200 to $400 more. So if you're looking to increase the speed and response time of your graphics applications, you may want to limit your spending to the processor upgrade.

There still is an argument to be made for investing in better graphics cards. Future govern-ment desktops must be able to handle the increased bandwidth provided by Intel's Advanced Graphics Port (AGP), VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) 3-D Web content, OpenGL 3-D graphics operations and video output to TV. A card that can support these types of applications makes sense from an investment-protection standpoint for power users and those involved with computer-aided design. Higher-end graphics cards also accelerate multimedia applications, so presentations can have smooth, full-screen video and more life-like animation of 3-D objects.

We saw the biggest perform-ance increase from AMD's PR233 MMX upgrade processor provided to us by Evergreen Technologies Inc. Evergreen ships its upgrade processor with a BIOS upgrade for $499 plus shipping. Users should consult the company's system compatibility list before buying. Evergreen also offers a diagnostic utility called Winpinfo, which will automatically identify a system's motherboard. You'll have to send the report to Evergreen via e-mail or online registration.

The AMD PR233 upgrade provided a whopping 136 percent increase in overall system performance on our 100 MHz Pentium machine equipped with a Matrox Millennium II card and 32M of memory. The system's SYSmark/32 score of 224 would have positioned it comfortably in first place in our roundup of 200 MHz Pentium MMX systems in July [GBB, July 7]. The total cost for this solution is $773, including the processor, the graphics card and 16M of additional memory.

The AMD upgrade processor alone boosted our 100 MHz base system's performance by 67 percent. By adding 16M of memory, we were able to boost perform-ance by 89 percent. Memory aside, adding the Matrox Millennium II card with the AMD processor more than doubled the system's performance, with an increase of 103 percent. The AMD solution provides plenty of bang but at a total upgrade cost of $773 for the processor, 16M of memory and a Matrox Millennium II graphics card. The difference between the $499 AMD upgrade and the $349 Intel OverDrive processor is only 21 points on our benchmark.

To boost the performance of older Pentium systems by at least 50 percent, you'll need to spend $300 per machine. Though that's not cheap, it's a lot less than the $1,500 to $2,000 you'll spend on new systems. The trick is figuring out when to discard aging systems and when to squeeze a few more years out of them. Most agencies will need to upgrade at least some of their PCs on a regular basis.

Once you decide to upgrade, you need to choose the components that will benefit you over the long run. Our advice is to first define the tasks performed by your users and then think about the applications they'll be running two years down the road. PC upgrades are a short-term solution that won't solve all your users' problems.

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