Making Your PC Work For You – PC Self Upgrade and Repair, part 1

HELP FOR YOUR PERSONAL COMPUTER

Buying a new computer every couple of years can really take its toll on your pocketbook. If you purchase a good, expandable system, you should be able to get good use out of it for several years without having to replace the whole thing. In many cases, simply adding some memory to your computer can dramatically improve performance and allow you to run newer software. Upgrading your computer isn’t as hard as it sounds, and with the following tips, you should be able to do this yourself.

WHY MEMORY?
The fastest and cheapest upgrade to any computer is a memory upgrade. If your computer seems slow or if your hard drive starts whirling like crazy for what seems like hours whenever you try to do something, some additional memory might do the trick. My use of the term “upgrade” in this article means an increase to the amount of memory. You can do this either by increasing your virtual memory, or your system’s main memory.

VIRTUAL MEMORY
Back to some basic computer workings – The CPU interprets information and stores bits of it in memory for later use. If you don’t have enough RAM or main memory to store the programs it will store these programs on the hard drive in what is called Virtual Memory. Virtual memory stores the least used portions of the program, leaving the most used portions in the main memory.

An example of this is: If you can only remember 5 items at a time on a shopping list and your list is 10 items long, you write the remaining items down. So as you go shopping and remember coffee, bread, cookies, oranges and apples in your brain, on paper you have soup, chicken, paper towels, batteries and Soap Opera Weekly. The trick is to pick up items that are in your brain. So you start by getting coffee and cookies, then you have “space” to move an item from the paper into your brain. You pick up the soup. If the next two items are paper towels and batteries you need to move two items from your brain to paper, then move the paper towels and batteries to your brain. This would continue until all items are purchased.

Virtual memory or paging can work two ways. One way is that the virtual memory size is set as a range. This means the amount of disk space needed is not a constant size, but it varies. The other way is have the virtual memory as a constant. Virtual memory is slow, so the way to help speed it up is to set it to a constant size. When your computer starts it blocks off space on your hard drive and that file size never changes.

Now that we know about virtual memory, how do we set it?

Windows 95, 98, ME. – go to START – CONTROL PANEL – SYSTEM (double click). Select the PERFORMANCE tab – VIRTUAL MEMORY button – LET ME SPECIFY MY OWN MEMORY SETTING. If you have more than one hard drive, you may prefer to split the memory amount equally between the two drives. Another recommendation is to make the virtual memory size twice that of the amount of RAM that you have. You can check the amount of RAM you have by selecting the GENERAL tab on the SYSTEM PROPERTIES window. Setting the min and max values to the same amount creates a constant VM size. Then hit OK and reboot your computer.

Windows NT, Windows 2000 – go to START – CONTROL PANEL – SYSTEM (double click). Select the ADVANCED tab – PERFOMANCE OPTIONS button – CHANGE, and follow the instructions above.

Windows XP – go to START – CONTROL PANEL – PERFORMANCE AND MAINTENANCE then SYSTEM (if using CATEGORY view) or after CONTROL PANEL double click SYSTEM (if using CLASSIC view). Select the ADVANCED tab – the performance SETTINGS button – the ADVANCED tab, and click the CHANGE button under VIRTUAL MEMORY. Select the CUSTOM SIZE option and set both the INITIAL SIZE and MAXIMUM SIZE to the same amount. You can check the amount of RAM you have by selecting the GENERAL tab on the SYSTEM PROPERTIES window. Setting the min and max values to the same amount creates a constant VM size. Then hit OK and reboot your computer.

MAIN MEMORY
Main memory is commonly referred to as RAM. If someone asks you how much memory or RAM you have they are talking about the amount of main memory. Ram is a physical object. It is something you can actually hold in your hand. It “sits” on your motherboard. Your motherboard is inside of your computer box; it is a big circuit board that allows you to “plug” things into it. One item that plugs into it is RAM.

RAM is one item that has gone through many changes in the last few years. There are many types of RAM available today, but your computer is very picky about the type it uses. RAM modules mostly fall into 5 categories for computers today. There are more types so along with these five I’ll explain two older ones as well. The first five are 184-pin DIMM, 168-pin DIMM, 144-pin MICRODIMM, 200-pin SODIMM and 144-pin SODIMM. The 184 and 168-pin are for desktop computers; the remaining three are for laptops.

RAM can also be divided into ECC, parity and non-parity modules. ECC and parity modules are not necessary unless you are building a server or where you need an extra level of error checking for the data being processed. ECC and parity modules are also slower because of this check. How can you tell if the memory is parity or non-parity? Well, it’s all in the chips. Each module contains a number of black microchips; the number determines its parity. If the number of chips can be evenly divided by three or five you have parity/ECC memory.

Memory also comes in many speeds, which are listed in different formats depending on the type. FPM and EDO speeds are written in nanoseconds (ns). SDRAM and DDR speeds are written in megahertz (MHz) or with a “PC” rating.

I have provided a list of acronyms at the end of the article since they are used many times in the next section. Following are some memory types and information on the computer types that use them. Contact your computer’s manufacturer for further specifications.

184-pin DIMM: The 184-pin DIMM’S are commonly known as DDR SDRAM and are used in 64 bit computers. To complicate things, 184-pin DIMM’s are available in PC2100 or PC2700 types. So why is it 184-pins? Count the little gold ticks on the bottom; there are 92 on the front and back. That’s the total of 184. To use 184-pin memory a computer needs two things: it needs a motherboard that has 184-pin DIMM slots and a DDR-enabled chipset. Also notice the tiny notch in the bottom of the chip; 168-pin DIMM’s don’t have that.

168-pin DIMM: 168-pin DIMMs are normally found in Pentium and Athlon systems (each being a type of CPU), and also require a 64-bit system. The come in many flavours, including FPM, EDO, 66MHz SDRAM, PC100 SDRAM, and PC133 SDRAM. 162-pin chips have 84 gold pins on each side, and have two notches along the bottom.

144-pin MicroDIMM: MicroDIMMs are smaller than both regular DIMMs and SODIMMs so that they can fit in tiny, sub-notebook computers. This type of memory is also 64-bit and therefore needs to be installed in a 64-bit computer. 144-pin MicroDIMMs can be found as one type only, PC100 SDRAM. This memory has no notches and 72 pins per side

200-pin SODIMM: SODIMMs get their name because they are smaller and thinner than regular DIMMs. This memory provides DDR SDRAM memory for laptop computers. They are 64-bit for 64-bit computers, and also need a SODIMM memory slot and a DDR-enabled chipset. SODIMM’s will not fit in a standard SDRAM SODIMM slot and it has a notch closer to the left side of the module. Not to be a broken record, but look for 100 pins per side.

144-pin SODIMM: The 144-pin SODIMM is much like the 200-pin SODIMM, but it is not DRR enabled and is available in many formats; EDO, 66MHz SDRAM, PC100 SDRAM, and PC133 SDRAM. By now you can probably guess how many pins per side. These also have a small notch slightly left of center.

Two other types of RAM are more or less obsolete, but could still be around in older computers. They are the 72-pin SIMM and the 30pin SIMM.

72-pin SIMM: 72-pin SIMMs are found in 486s and early Pentiums. Unlike previous modules, these are only 32 bits and can be installed as singles in a 32-bit systems in earlier 486s or in pairs in Pentiums class and older 486s. These SIMMs can be found as FPM or EDO types. They also have notches in the bottom left and in the centre.

30-pin SIMM: 30-pin SIMMs are found in 386 and 486 computers. These SIMMs are only 8 bits and must be installed in groups of 4 and only come in one type, FPM.

Common acronyms:
CPU – Central Processing Unit.
DDR – Double Data Rate.
DIMM – Dual Inline Memory Module.
ECC – Error-Correcting Code memory.
EDO – Extended Data Out
FPM – Fast Page Mode.
RAM – Random Access Memory.
SDRAM – Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory.
SIMM – Small Inline Memory Module.
SODIMM – Small Outline Dual Inline Memory Module.

If you are unsure of the type of memory you require go to http://www.crucial.com/store/listmfgr.asp?cat=RAM and select any manufacturer and go. The next page will give you an option to have a scan done to determine your motherboard make. Just follow the on-screen instructions.

If you own a DELL, a COMPAQ, or another brand name you maybe able to look it up on their website or speak to a representative who can give you answers. If you have an owner’s manual, it too will show you allowable memory types and where to install them on your motherboard. Every computer has a limit to how many memory chips it can hold — more expandable systems have more room to “grow.”

***NOTE*** When doing ANY work inside your computer, touch metal before and maintain contact with it while handling computer parts; or, purchase an anti-static wristband to prevent shorting out your hardware. Of course you should also turn the computer off and unplug it. Never use magnetized tools inside a computer.

WINDOWS TIP OF THE WEEK

You can create a montage of pictures on your Windows XP desktop by following these instructions:

Find a blank space on your desktop and RIGHT CLICK. Select PROPERTIES – the DISPLAY PROPERTIES window appears. Select the DESKTOP tab. Press the CUSTOMIZE DESKTOP button. The DESKTOP ITEM appears. Select the WEB tab. Press the NEW button.

Find the pictures you would want to use (they are probably stored in you’re MY PICTURES folder in MY DOCUMENTS which is on the left side of your BROWSE window). You must select one picture at a time. Once all your pictures have been chosen press OK – APPLY – OK.

Selecting a picture on your desktop then moving your mouse to the top of the picture will show a small frame that will allow you to move the picture. At that time you may resize it as well to fit more items on the screen.

COOL SITE OF THE WEEK

To spice up your Windows XP visit http://www.xpthemes.com

If you have any questions or suggestions for topics you want discussed please email me c/o The Voice.

NEXT WEEK: Hard drives.

The Voice accepts no responsibility for loss of data or any other computer related problem you might encounter as a result of following computer advice in this or any other column. The tip of the week is intended to help you personalize your computer system. Novice users should ensure they understand the directions, and make backups of any files changed.

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