BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 1998

  

 

BOOT CAMP 021

MEMORY UPGRADE Part 1

Before we begin a few words of warning. If electronic gadgets keel over and die if you so much as look at them, or you always seem to have bits left over when you take something apart, please leave now. On the other hand, if you can wire up a three-pin plug or change a fuse without electrocuting yourself, adding extra memory to your PC should be a breeze…

This week we'll be looking at what's involved in a PC memory upgrade and preparing the ground. Next week we'll be doing the deed.

A memory upgrade is the easiest, quickest and most cost-effective improvement you can make to your PC. The memory in question is known as RAM or Random Access Memory. It's a collection of microchips that the computer uses to temporarily store programs and data which it need to access quickly and frequently. RAM capacity is measured in megabytes, a Windows 95 PC will operate with just 8 megabytes but 16Mb is considered the safe minimum. 32 megabytes is optimum for most types of home and business software, 64 Mb is recommended as the starting point for PCs running graphic intensive applications or fast action games.

RAM chips are mounted on small strip like modules that plug into sockets on the large printed circuit board or 'motherboard' inside your PC's system box. The modules are designed to be easy to fit, and impossible (hopefully…) to insert the wrong way around. If you're properly prepared the whole job shouldn't take more than fifteen to twenty minutes.

Increasing RAM capacity can make a dramatic difference to the speed of your applications, you will experience fewer crashes and it may even extend the useful life of your machine. It is usual to increase PC memory by a factor of 2, 4, 8, 16 etc., up to the capacity of the motherboard. This also happens to be a very good time to do it. Memory prices are at a five-year low; they currently average out at around £1.50 per megabyte.

There are so many different makes and type of PC on the market that we're going to have to keep this fairly general, and we'll confine ourselves to Pentium and Pentium-class PCs using Windows 95. Increasing memory capacity on older PCs with 386 and 486 processors (using Windows 3.1), beyond 16-megabytes, say, gives only marginal performance gains. If you have one of these machines and want to be able to use the latest software you would be better off putting your money towards buying a more up to date PC. We should also point out that more memory won't magically enable a 75MHz or 133MHz Pentium PC to run software designed for a 200MHz MMX processor.

Begin by familiarising yourself with your PC's current memory status. It is essential that you have this information, you cannot proceed without it. You need to know how much RAM your PC has now and what sort it is. If you can't remember how many megabytes you have open Control Panel, click on the System icon then select the General tab and it will tell you. There are lots of different types of RAM but most recent PCs use either EDO RAM or SDRAM (see Jargon Filter). As a general rule of thumb the chips on SDRAM modules are thinner and have more pins. It's important to get the same type when upgrading. If you're not sure check the labelling on the system box, you may find it mentioned on the instructions or even on the sales invoice, otherwise you'll have to contact the manufacturer or dealer.   

You need to find out how many free memory slots there are on the motherboard. To do this you have to remove the system box lid or cover and have a look inside. Have a desk lamp or torch handy, so you can see what you are doing.

Before opening a PC we always suggest disconnecting it from the mains. Some experts advocate leaving the mains plug connected but with the socket switched off. The idea is the metal case of the PC will still be connected to earth, so any static charge you may have built up on your body and clothing will be safely dissipated, as soon as you touch the case. The contrary view is that static charges are still dissipated by the system metalwork, whether or not the case is actually earthed. Damage will only occur if a charge is discharged through vulnerable components. In either case the risks can be minimised with a few simple precautions. We will look at them in more detail in part two, this week we're only looking, so you can unplug the mains socket if you feel safer.

There should be a diagram or photograph of the motherboard in the motherboard manual that should have come with your PC. This will show you where the memory sockets are located. If they are obscured by ribbon cables gently move them out of the way. Make a note of how many memory boards are installed, which sockets are occupied and the orientation of the memory boards. If your PC has 8Mb of RAM and two memory boards, that's 4Mb per board, and so on. Notice how the boards are kept in place, most memory sockets have little spring clips at each end. If it looks as though you are going to have to disturb some cables to get at the sockets make a sketch of where they go, or take some photographs of the innards. Replace the case or lid and check everything is working.

Your motherboard manual has other vital data, including the electrical characteristics of the memory modules. The two items we're interested in are the number of pins, and the operating voltage. The latter will be either 5 volts or 3.3 volts, if it's a newish PC. There are three pin configurations; older PCs (386 and 486s) mostly use 30-pin modules or SIMMs (see Jargon Filter), some 486 and Pentium PCs use 72-pin SIMMs. Most recent Pentium I and all Pentium II PCs use 168-pin memory modules, called DIMMs.

The motherboard manual should also mention memory capacity and the combinations of modules you can use. It varies from make to make but newer machines are usually more flexible. On some older motherboards it may be necessary to upgrade RAM modules in pairs. Be prepared to compromise, you may have discard some original modules in order to get the capacity you require. You may be able to offset the cost of the upgrade by part-exchanging your old RAM modules.

You should now be able to work out the number, type and size of memory modules for the upgrade. Have this information to hand, plus the motherboard manual, when you order your memory modules. You may well be asked some additional questions. If you can't supply all the answers or there are any doubts don't guess or take chances, pay to have the upgrade carried out by a qualified engineer.

Next week, lids off and screwdrivers out.

 

JARGON FILTER

EDO RAM

Extended data out, random access memory, high-speed RAM chips used on recent PCs with specialised memory controllers

DIMM

Dual in-line memory module, usually with 168 connecting pins

SDRAM

Synchronous dynamic random access memory, another family of memory chips that allows data to be accessed at higher speeds

SIMM

Single in-line memory module, with 30 or 72 connecting pins

 

TOP TIP

The Windows 95 Clipboard is a useful way of moving files or blocks of text around and between applications but it can only hold one item at a time, and that is lost the next time it is used. There is a handy utility on the Windows 95 CD-ROM, called Clipbook Viewer, which will allow you to inspect the contents of the Clipboard at any time, and save whatever is in there, for future use. To install Clipbook insert the Windows CD-ROM, open Control Panel, then click on the Install/Remove icon. Select the Windows Setup tab, click on Have Disc then the Browse button. Assuming drive 'd' is your CD ROM, select it and look for a folder called 'Other', in there you will find the 'clipbook.inf' file, select it and follow the dialogue boxes to 'Install'. Clipbook can then be found in the Accessories folder on the Program menu.

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