The cheapest and easiest way to boost the speed and performance of an older computer is to add more memory modules, or random access memory (RAM) chips, to the main circuit board.
A RAM infusion that costs less than $100 may be enough to give that tired old computer a new lease on life.
With more RAM, programs will run faster. You'll be able to keep more programs open at the same time and instantly available for use. System freeze-ups and “out-of-memory” warning screens should diminish. You may even see an improvement in that perennial problem of waiting for pages to download from the Internet.
You'll get all that for about $2 per megabyte (MB) of RAM, which is a fantastic bargain compared to RAM prices from just a few years ago. When I doubled the RAM in an anemic 16 MB home computer in the mid-1990s, it cost more than $30 per MB.
RAM chips are sold in electronics and computer retail stores, at Web sites of computer manufacturers, and through major memory vendors like Kingston Technology (www.kingston.com) and Crucial Technology (www.crucial.com).
If you feel comfortable working inside a computer's system unit, RAM chips are a snap to install. The system unit is the box-like device that contains most of a computer's electronic components. It opens at the side or front. The new RAM chips slip into empty slots designed for RAM upgrades.
Your computer operating manual should have a diagram showing location of the RAM slots and directions for buying and installing more memory. The new memory chips also have directions. Be sure to read and follow directions, especially those for avoiding damage from static electricity.
If a do-it-yourself upgrade makes you uneasy, look for a more computer-savvy acquaintance, who might install the RAM chips as a favor. A lot of computer owners have done RAM upgrades. Computer stores also will install RAM for a fee.
First, check on the amount of RAM in your computer. Right click on the My Computer icon on your Windows desktop, the background screen that appears after you turn on the computer. Left click on Properties. The General tab should appear. If not, click on the General tab. Look for a line that indicates the amount of RAM. It may state “16,000 KB” or “32,000 KB.” That means 16 MB or 32 MB.
The bare minimum amount of RAM for a Windows 95 or 98 computer is 16 MB. Yes, a computer will work with 16 MB, but slowly. It will work very, very, slowly if you go beyond simple work like word processing and e-mail, and may balk if you try to keep multiple files open at the same time.
Deciding to increase the RAM to 32, 64, or 96 MB is just the start. Don't just rush out and buy any memory module with the desired number of MBs. It may not work in your computer.
Get key details about the type of RAM your computer needs, its speed, the number of “pins,” whether the pins are gold or silver coated, and how many modules are needed.
Your computer may take memory modules termed SIMMs or DIMMs, for instance, and also could use DRAM, EDO DRAM, or SDRAM memory. The modules may operate at 60, 70, or 80 nanoseconds. The RAM sockets on your master circuit board, or motherboard, may accommodate 30, 72, or 168 pins. To increase RAM by 16 MB, you may have to buy two 8-MB chips rather than one 16-MB chip.
Check the computer's documentation, get advice from a retail store, or use the selection features on the Web sites of Kingston, Crucial, or other memory vendors.
Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. Email him at email@example.com.