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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Hardware Secrets

Hardware Secrets
53 Hardware Secrets

Ready to revitalize the gear you already own? We have scores of smart tips and thrifty add-ons for your PC, printer, camera, phone, and other devices.


By Andy Rathbone

Add Memory--And Save

Illustration: Glenn Mitsui

Microsoft says Windows XP requires 64MB of RAM, which is plenty--if you're running simple programs such as Notepad. To run larger apps, Microsoft recommends 128MB of RAM, but your system will likely bog down without at least 256MB. For PCs less than two years old, 512MB is a reasonable total amount (the forthcoming Windows Vista Premium mandates at least this much), though 1GB will give you a much smoother ride. (See instructions on adding memory.)

Bonus tip:

To save a few bucks on your memory upgrade, ask your local memory retailer for a trade-in: Some computer stores buy back old memory or give discounts on new RAM for your old modules. You won't get rich from the trade-in, but it's more than you'd make by stashing the old chips in a shoe box.

Include a Media-Card Reader

Getting stuff off your media cards is a lot easier if you don't have to connect your camera or other device to your PC with a USB cable. Fill your PC's unused 5.25- or 3.5-inch drive bay with an internal memory-card reader, such as Comp-USA's $25 Removable 9-in-1 Flash Media Reader/Writer; see FIGURE 1). If all your bays are in use (and you don't feel like adding yet another external device to your desk), swap out your floppy drive. Personally, I couldn't bear to part with my treasured floppies, so I chose Mitsumi's FA404M seven-in-one media card reader). The device, which costs about $25 online, positions the memory-card slots just above the floppy slot.

Other manufacturers slip a USB 2.0 or FireWire port onto their readers for easy, up-front access. The most expensive models--some priced over $100--add Serial ATA ports, speaker and microphone jacks, or even a tiny LCD screen to display your CPU's temperature.

Expand With SATA

If your new memory-card reader didn't come with an external SATA drive port, pop in a card with a few external SATA connections to accommodate the fast new generation of portable hard drives. The 2-Port eSATA PCI controller made by Addonics ($29) can be used to power any standard 3.5-inch SATA hard drive through your computer. If you're converting an internal hard drive into an external one, you'll probably want to use a drive enclosure; click here for step-by-step instructions.

Back Up Externally

External drives aren't cheap, but boy, they sure come in handy for backups. With an external drive attached to your PC, you can use Windows XP's Backup and Task Scheduler programs to automate the chore (browse to "Answer Line: Synchronize Important Folders on Two Computers" for instructions). An external drive also facilitates the transfer of large files between PCs, if you've configured the unit as a shared drive on your network (browse to "Windows Tips: Right-Click for Faster Windows Navigation" and scroll to the bottom tip for instructions). Or leave one drive attached to your network for unattended backup of all your PCs. To restore files, simply connect the drive directly to the PC that needs the data, and you're in business.

Upgrade to a DVD Burner

If your PC has only a CD burner, consider adding a DVD burner to the mix. The latest DVD burners handle the popular DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW formats, support both single- and dual-layer recordable discs, and can store up to 8GB of data on a blank dual-layer DVD (read more on DVD formats). Certain models also handle the less-common DVD-RAM format that some users favor for data and backup applications. Since the devices burn CDs as well, adding a second optical drive to your system simplifies copying those discs. With DVD-burner prices falling below $50, there's little reason to wait.

Bonus tip: If you have a lot more money to spare and need more capacity, consider upgrading to a Blu-ray high-def DVD burner (the rival format, HD DVD, won't have high-capacity burners out until next year). Read more on DVD format wars.

Wring Out More Power

When CPU manufacturers set the speed of their devices, they look for the sweet spot between reliability and performance. But you can drive your CPU a little harder by overclocking it, inducing it to crank out more performance for free.

Some graphics cards can be overclocked as well (see "Wind Up Your Graphics Clock" for more). You can get the performance boost by changing the clock speed or voltage setting in your PC's setup program, or by tweaking the motherboard directly. The hard part is figuring out exactly how much faster the clock should go. Most overclockers start by increasing the speed or voltage in their BIOS incrementally, backing down a notch as soon as they spot any system instability or other glitches.

For further information about overclocking your CPU, read "Secret Tweaks", or drop by one of the many sites dedicated to the topic:, Extreme Overclocking, and all provide detailed, step-by-step instructions. Be sure to read their sections on cooling, as overclocked chips run hotter than their stock cousins.

If you bought your PC from Dell, Gateway, HP, or another big-name manufacturer, you may be out of luck. These firms often lock down their CPU speeds to keep experimenters from frying the chips and then tying up tech-support lines.

Swap Your CPU

If overclocking just won't deliver the speed boost you crave, a new processor might be the answer. Pull out your motherboard manual (or visit the vendor's Web site) to find the CPU speeds it supports. The fastest chip you can upgrade to is likely more affordable now than it was when you bought your PC. Click here for instructions on replacing your CPU.

Clean Up to Speed Up

A PC doesn't run at its peak when it's overheated, so give your system a good, regular dusting to clear blocked vents and clogged heat sinks. First, vacuum the dust balls out of the front and rear vents on the outside of your PC's case. Then pop off the case and blast your vents, fans, and heat sinks with a careful spritz from a can of compressed air (available at any electronics store for about $7). The closely spaced prongs and fins on the heat sinks are dust magnets, and dusty components can lead to freezes, unpredictable shutdowns, and other bouts of PC unfriendliness. Clean the heat sink on your graphics card, as well: It's just as vulnerable.

While inside, route your PC's cables along the case's inside edges to maximize air circulation. (Wear a grounding wrist strap, or ground yourself by touching the case beforehand, to avoid damaging components with static electricity.) Make sure the newly cleaned vents aren't blocked by a wall or the side of a desk. Find more PC cleaning tips in our "Gunk Busters!" feature.

Make a Sound Decision

Unless you're running a 5.1-channel home-theater or gaming rig, you're probably piping your PC's audio from its generic sound card (or the audio chip integrated on its motherboard) through a pair of nondescript speakers. To soup up your PC's sound, plug a low-cost amplifier into your audio-out ports. I connected a vintage Radio Shack SA-700 amplifier that I salvaged from my mother-in-law's garage and a pair of 1980s-vintage Radio Shack Minimus 7 bookshelf speakers to bolster my PC's not-so-dulcet tones. Visit "Best PC Upgrades" to read instructions for other low-cost PC audio upgrades.

Go for Bluetooth

Bluetooth is a great technology for connecting wireless headsets and making data transfers. However, while plenty of cell phones and handhelds have Bluetooth built in, most desktop PCs and many notebooks lack support for the technology out of the box. The solution: a USB Bluetooth adapter about the size of a thumb drive that you can plug into your PC when you need it, yet is small enough to throw into a laptop bag. I went with D-Link's DBT-120 (see FIGURE 2), which costs about $30, but cheaper models are available online and at your neighborhood computer store. And read about Nokia's new Wibree technology, which the company claims enhances Bluetooth.

Andy Rathbone is the author of Windows Vista For Dummies.


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