A Computer for College Part 2: Optimizations and Upgrades

First of all, sorry this took me so long to get out–apparently having a full time job takes quite a bit of time out of your schedule, and this went through much more rewriting and revising than my last post on this subject (with a hopefully better organized and better written result). Also, this is what was originally planned for the third post in the series, and is going to deal primarily with ways to keep your old computer running longer–both in terms of optimizing the software end, and in terms of upgrading the hardware end.

(This is the second post in a series. The first can be found here and discusses what you should look for when purchasing a computer. The third should hopefully be coming in the next week or two and will showcase some of the best deals that can be had from the various large manufacturers.)

Optimizations:

The first thing I’m going to discuss is optimization. Operating system installs (especially Windows, which this section primarily deals with) tend to become bloated over time. They’ll be filled with old programs you never use, remnants of programs you uninstalled, loads of temporary files, and possibly spyware or viruses.

Option 1: OS reinstallation

The easiest way to deal with this (in terms of time spent actually getting rid of stuff) is to reinstall. You’ll need an operating system install CD, and you’ll probably want to back up your data first, but reinstalling is otherwise the quickest and least painful (and in the case of some viruses/spyware, the only) method of making your computer run like it did when it was new. It’s a good idea to do this every year or so, even if you aren’t having problems.

You should be able to follow the instructions included with your operating system/computer or call tech support for specific instructions. The general idea is to insert the OS install media into your optical drive and then boot from the disc: from there you should be able to follow the instructions you’re presented with and things will hopefully go smoothly. If your computer is not set to boot from a CD automatically, there should be a button you can press during the initial splash screen that comes up to allow you to choose where to boot from: this is F8 in the case of many PCs.

Before you go ahead and reinstall though, you’ll probably want to back up most (or all) of your files. The best option is an external hard drive. If you don’t have one, pick one up. You should always keep a recent backup of your hard drive stored somewhere safe. If that’s outside of your means, DVDs are probably the cheapest option for physical storage media, and can hold a good deal. If you don’t have too much to back up and have a fast internet connection, (free) online backup solutions like Microsoft Live Skydrive (which gives you 5GB–about 1 DVD’s worth) of free online storage space might be a good option.

If your computer was purchased from an OEM like Dell or HP your OS installation likely came with some extra software. Manufacturers get paid to sell computers with specific software preinstalled. In most cases there’s a reason for this: there’s very little reason to use the software in the first case. You should go through and get rid of/uninstall most of it. Really the only useful stuff is the antivirus software, but there are better free (as in beer) antivirus programs–there will be a few recommendations later on.

Option 2: deep cleaning

If an OS reinstallation seems a bit daunting, reread that section anyway: it’s by far the easier (and better, in terms of the end result) option. If you are for some reason highly opposed to reinstallation, you can also go through and manually attempt to clean out most of the stuff that is causing performance issues. This is time consuming and not at all guaranteed to succeed–even if you’re quite familiar with your computer and know exactly what you’re doing. For that reason, I’m going to provide a brief summary of the steps rather than going into detail: if you have specific questions about specific steps I’ll be glad to answer them in the comments. Note that this is primarily targetted at Windows, since my experience with OS X is minimal at best (and many of these problems don’t affect OS X [or GNU/Linux] nearly as much).

Step 1: Run antivirus and anti-spyware/adware programs and get rid of the problems. (Never run more than one antivirus program at the same time–they can often conflict and Bad Things will happen. Multiple adware/spyware removers should be fine though.) Suggestions for both are listed later in the post.
Step 2: Uninstall all of the programs you don’t use or didn’t know you had installed. If you’ve forgotten about something, there’s probably a reason.
Step 3: Get rid of temporary files, remnants of uninstalled programs, and clean up unused registry entries (be careful with this). CCleaner can be a great help with this.
Step 4: Disable all but the most essential processes (antivirus, system processes, etc.) from starting on startup. You can do this in Windows with the included ‘msconfig’ module, but an easier and more powerful solution is Autoruns. There are innumerable resources online that have databases of safe and harmful processes. If you’re not sure what something is, Google is your friend.
Step 5: Defragment your hard drive. Windows’ built in defragmenter does well enough for this purpose.

Your computer should now (hopefully) be working quite a bit faster. If it’s not you either keep very good care of it in the first place or didn’t do a very good job of cleaning it.

Upgrades:

If your computer still feels too slow for comfort, you may want to consider upgrading some of the hardware in there. This is quite truly not nearly as complicated as it may seem initially. Except for the processor, which requires a very small bit more know-how (and probably isn’t worth upgrading anyway), the general rule is to put stuff where it fits, and not to put it where it doesn’t. Your computer is composed of a motherboard that has specific slots for specific types of parts. The general layout is pretty standard. If you’re completely lost, your computer probably came with a manual (or has one available online) that can get you started on identifying specific parts and their locations. If you need to see what specific parts look like, Wikipedia is usually a pretty good bet. The harder part is what to upgrade and what to upgrade to, which is what I’ll cover here.

What to Upgrade:

You probably could replace nearly every part in your computer if you wanted, but in many cases it simply wouldn’t be worth it.

The upgrade that is almost certainly worth it is RAM–memory. It’s amazingly cheap and can make a huge difference in system performance if you currently have less than 1GB.

You might also consider adding another hard drive or replacing your current one. A faster hard drive can noticable decrease startup times and load times for applications (provided you replace the drive your operating system is on. And there’s the obvious added benefit of extra storage space, which is cheaper than ever. The best deal per gigabyte of storage space right now is

If you play games, you might want to invest in a new graphics card. Even sub-$100 cards right now can get you playing new games at lower settings–and even lower settings look fantasic for many newer games.

While other upgrades are certainly possible, I feel that these give the best balance of price to performance.

Upgrading RAM:

RAM is astoundingly cheap right now. 1GB of DDR1 memory costs about $30, 1GB of DDR2 memory costs about $20. DDR1 and 2 (and 3, although if you have DDR3 RAM you probably shouldn’t be looking to upgrade) are standards of memory and are incompatible with each other, so you need to make sure you get the right kind. Unless your computer was built sometime in the last 2-3 years you’re probably using DDR1. The easiest place to check is probably the computer or motherboard manual. It is possible that your computer may be too old to be using DDR1, and may be using plain old SDRAM (DDR1/2/3 are variations of this). While it’s still available, it’s going to be significantly more expensive, and very likely your computer is old enough that upgrading isn’t going to be worth it.

There are also different speeds of RAM, and you will also want to get the correct speed. The speed is denoted by ‘DDR XXX’ or ‘PC-XXXX’. They’re simply different ways of saying the same thing. For example, DDR 400 is PC-3200. Your motherboard/computer manual is again the best place to find this information.

Upgrading a hard drive:

Hard drives come in two flavors: IDE (or ATA) and SATA (Serial ATA). IDE cables are the big wide ribbon cables and are rarely used anymore (although IDE hard drives are still easy enough to find). SATA is the modern hard drive connection standard. The easiest way to identify which you have is to look inside your case: it should be pretty immediately obvious which you have. (Note that optical drives generally use the same cables.) If you intend to install an additional hard drive (rather than replacing an existing one) You’ll need an open IDE slot or open SATA connector on your motherboard. You’ll also need an open Molex connector if you intend to install an IDE drive, or an open SATA power connector if you intend to install a SATA drive. If you intend to have multiple IDE hard drives installed, you will likely have to configure one as a master drive, and one as a slave drive. Instructions (all you need to do is move a jumper on the back of the hard drive over a pin or two, which you can do by hand) should come with your new hard drive, or can be found easily enough online. Either type of hard drive require an open hard drive slot inside the case. If you aren’t able to satisfy these conditions you might want to check out external hard drives.

Upgrading a Graphics Card:

There are also two types of graphics card connections: AGP and PCI-Express x16. If you don’t have an AGP or PCI-E slot, you’re not going to be able to get any graphics card upgrades worth having, unfortunately. Identifying which (if any) you have can be done by checking your manual or by opening up your case and taking a look. AGP slots look like this, and PCI-E slots look like this. Because AGP is an older standard in the process of being phased out, selection is a bit limited. Your best value is probably the ATI Radeon 2600 Pro or XT. If you have PCI-E, the best value is probably the NVidia GeForce 8600 GT. All of these should be available for under $100. Unless your computer was built in the last year or two it’s probably not worth spending more than that on a new video card. If you do have a newer computer, the NVidia GeForce 9600GT (~$130-140) offers the best performance/price of any card on the market.

Where to Buy:

Unless you want to pay high premiums and talk to salespeople who likely enough don’t know much more than you it’s easiest by far to shop for hardware online. Just make sure to buy from a reputable source, and make sure that source has an acceptable return/RMA policy. I buy most of my stuff from Newegg, and most of my cables/cable related stuff from Monoprice.

When buying hardware it’s also good to find a reseller that will let you return working parts (although most will charge a ~15% restocking fee), since there are times when you may purchase the wrong thing and it’s much better to eat a restocking fee than to get nothing back at all.

Other Stuff:

Software:

This list contains some of the most widely used free applications that cover what you need for general computer use pretty well. If you have suggestions for additional categories or programs to be added, leave a comment!

(All of this software is cost-free [applications with additional paid versions are denoted with an asterisk], some of it is free software, and much of it is open source.)

Web Browsing: Firefox, Opera
Productivity: OpenOffice.org, Google Docs
IM Software: Pidgin, Trillian*
Graphics: The Gimp, Irfanview, Paint.NET
Media Players:
-video focused: VLC Media Player, Media Player Classic, mplayer
-music focused: foobar2000, Songbird, Winamp*
Antivirus: Avast! Antivirus*, AVG Anti-Virus* (DO NOT HAVE MULTIPLE ANTIVIRUS PROGRAMS INSTALLED SIMULTANEOUSLY)
Anti-spyware: Ad-aware Free*
Operating Systems: Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSuSE


Again, I apologize for taking so long with this. If you notice anything that’s incorrect, could be expanded, or is unclear, please let me know. I’m pretty tired at the moment and in rewriting this (which I just did) I very well could have missed some things. I may add a few more things to teh end of this as well tomorrow or the day after–I’m pretty sure I was going to write more there, but at the moment my brain isn’t working properly and I really wanted to get this out in at least a mostly-finished form.

(As always, neither I nor Wesleying holds any responsibility regarding how you spend your money.)

44 thoughts on “A Computer for College Part 2: Optimizations and Upgrades

  1. Sam

    Firewire (aka IEEE 1394) is another type of connection that is faster than USB for transferring larger files. (making them better for things like external hard drives)All new Macs should have Firewire ports, as do many new PCs. Note that are two types of Firewire connectors, Firewire 400 and Firewire 800.

  2. Sam

    Firewire (aka IEEE 1394) is another type of connection that is faster than USB for transferring larger files. (making them better for things like external hard drives)

    All new Macs should have Firewire ports, as do many new PCs. Note that are two types of Firewire connectors, Firewire 400 and Firewire 800.

  3. Anonymous

    did you guys get the Wes computer info and order form yesterday? on the back of one of the sheets where the USB drives are, what is a Firewire drive?

  4. Anonymous

    did you guys get the Wes computer info and order form yesterday? on the back of one of the sheets where the USB drives are, what is a Firewire drive?

  5. Isaac

    Mac’s need AV for MS office on campus, they get word macros and then their word attachments get blocked by wesleyan email.Macs have problems too, not so much in the spyware category, but there’s plenty of times that I’ve had to reinstall because of other issues.

  6. Isaac

    Mac’s need AV for MS office on campus, they get word macros and then their word attachments get blocked by wesleyan email.

    Macs have problems too, not so much in the spyware category, but there’s plenty of times that I’ve had to reinstall because of other issues.

  7. direland

    Speaking as a Helpdesk consultant, Mac’s are not exactly maintenance free. And if you’re unfamiliar with an OS, it’s not always much fun switching. Of course there’s only one way to learn, but I’d hesitate before dropping beaucoup bucks on a powerbook before I knew whether or not I preferred it.

  8. direland

    Speaking as a Helpdesk consultant, Mac’s are not exactly maintenance free. And if you’re unfamiliar with an OS, it’s not always much fun switching. Of course there’s only one way to learn, but I’d hesitate before dropping beaucoup bucks on a powerbook before I knew whether or not I preferred it.

  9. Anonymous

    and hence the simplicity and convenience of the mac… and also the reason why it is generally cheaper in the longer run to get a mac.

  10. Anonymous

    and hence the simplicity and convenience of the mac… and also the reason why it is generally cheaper in the longer run to get a mac.

  11. Sam

    2:21: I don’t have personal experience with any Mac antivirus software, but Ars Technica recommends ClamAV, which is free and open source. (The full article, which has recommendations of various software for Windows, OS X, and GNU/Linux is here.5:58: You can do alright without it in most cases, but it’s not going to hurt.To the various people claiming Mac OS X never needs any tweaking and doesn’t need optimization: you’re wrong. OS X certainly handles aging better than Windows when confronted with the average user, but it is by no means perfect.

  12. Sam

    2:21: I don’t have personal experience with any Mac antivirus software, but Ars Technica recommends ClamAV, which is free and open source. (The full article, which has recommendations of various software for Windows, OS X, and GNU/Linux is here.

    5:58: You can do alright without it in most cases, but it’s not going to hurt.

    To the various people claiming Mac OS X never needs any tweaking and doesn’t need optimization: you’re wrong. OS X certainly handles aging better than Windows when confronted with the average user, but it is by no means perfect.

  13. Anonymous

    Hey, I just got a Macbook for next year. Which antivirus software do you think is best?

  14. Anonymous

    Hey, I just got a Macbook for next year. Which antivirus software do you think is best?

  15. Braille

    for the love of christ please put this on an old old post and link to it, this takes up three USSR’s worth of space. fucking red menace optimization bloc

  16. Braille

    for the love of christ please put this on an old old post and link to it, this takes up three USSR’s worth of space. fucking red menace optimization bloc

  17. Anonymous

    Mac users can always be counted on to chime in with some variation “if you don’t want any hassles, just buy a Mac.”While it can be said that you get what you pay for (and for those who can afford a Mac, it may be worth their investment), it’s also true that if you know what you’re doing you can run a trouble-free Windows or Linux machine for half the cost (or less).This post is for people who don’t have the means to (or choose not to) buy a new computer at all. Money may be no object for a significant percentage of Wesleyan students, but that is not universally true.

  18. Anonymous

    Mac users can always be counted on to chime in with some variation “if you don’t want any hassles, just buy a Mac.”

    While it can be said that you get what you pay for (and for those who can afford a Mac, it may be worth their investment), it’s also true that if you know what you’re doing you can run a trouble-free Windows or Linux machine for half the cost (or less).

    This post is for people who don’t have the means to (or choose not to) buy a new computer at all. Money may be no object for a significant percentage of Wesleyan students, but that is not universally true.

  19. Anonymous

    I’ve been using OpenOffice for the last couple of years, initially out of support for open source in general and then, after switching over to Ubuntu, because that’s what I preferred to use.That as an aside, I understand people’s preference for Microsoft Office, and considering it’s about $20 at the computer store at Wes, you might as well get it.You can also get copies of Windows XP (though I don’t know how long they will continue to stock it) and Vista for about $20-25. I think OSX sells for more, $70 or something, but that’s still half the retail price.Lastly, a good image editor worth trying out is paint dot net, another open source program that’s in continual development.

  20. Anonymous

    I’ve been using OpenOffice for the last couple of years, initially out of support for open source in general and then, after switching over to Ubuntu, because that’s what I preferred to use.

    That as an aside, I understand people’s preference for Microsoft Office, and considering it’s about $20 at the computer store at Wes, you might as well get it.

    You can also get copies of Windows XP (though I don’t know how long they will continue to stock it) and Vista for about $20-25. I think OSX sells for more, $70 or something, but that’s still half the retail price.

    Lastly, a good image editor worth trying out is paint dot net, another open source program that’s in continual development.

  21. Anonymous

    Nice write-up Sam. I just want to chime in that there’s no reason you shouldn’t try (free) Openoffice before going and spending money on Microsoft Office. I don’t understand why everybody else isn’t using it

  22. Anonymous

    Nice write-up Sam. I just want to chime in that there’s no reason you shouldn’t try (free) Openoffice before going and spending money on Microsoft Office. I don’t understand why everybody else isn’t using it

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