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PC Upgrades Almost Everyone Does Wrong

Upgrading your PC's hardware can be easy, but there's a right way and a wrong way to do each task.

Whether you're an experienced hand or a technophobic novice, chances are good that your last PC upgrade didn't exactly follow the industry's best practices. Many newbs flub upgrades through inexperience, but it's just as common to see a hardcore system builder throw caution to the wind while swapping out a CPU, snapping in some RAM, or swapping out a hard drive or graphics card. Whichever camp you fall into, cutting corners as you work on your computer puts it at risk of sustaining damage to sensitive components. In the worst case, you might even destroy the entire machine.

Adding RAM, swapping out a processor, or installing a new hard drive can be very simple tasks. But following basic precautions--however paranoid or myopic they might seem--can safeguard your system and save you money, time, and frustration. And taking a few extra minutes (or spending a few extra dollars) to route cables well and to ensure that your power supply is up to the greater demands of new components can make your upgraded PC perform better.

The most common error--and this goes for every type of component upgrade--consists of failing to use static protection. Novices typically don't even realize that static electricity in their body can discharge into a PC's components with just a light touch, potentially damaging sensitive circuitry.

Old hats, on the other hand, have the opposite problem: Years of handling hard drives, memory modules, graphics cards, and CPUs desensitizes us to the very real hazard posed by static electricity, leaving us vulnerable to a problem we know perfectly well how to avoid. So come on, folks. Wear an antistatic bracelet whenever you work on your components.

RAM Upgrades

The number one mistake that novices make with RAM upgrades is to buy the wrong kind of memory at the outset. Buying PC components has more and more become a self-service activity, and fewer safeguards are in place to prevent people from choosing the wrong package. So take the time to find out exactly what kind of modules your system takes, including the bus speed (in MHz).

Memory manufacturers produce RAM with various pin configurations, data rates, and bus speeds. If your laptop calls for 667MHz PC2-5300 modules, but the store has only 1333MHz PC3-10600 for sale, resist the temptation to try the flavor that's available. It won't work, you could damage your PC trying it, and the store probably won't give you a full refund for the opened modules.

The biggest RAM upgrade mistake that experienced users make is to neglect to check the capacity limits of their machine. Some systems--especially netbooks and ultralights (and a lot of Macs)--can accept only a certain amount of RAM. So despite the fact that your local tech store sells 4GB modules that fit in your machine, you could pack them home only to find that your two-year-old laptop takes only 2GB modules. The advice here is simple: Check the manufacturer's documentation before you buy.

Processor Upgrades

It should come as little surprise that some of the most devastating upgrade mistakes involve CPUs. The CPU is basically the brain of the computer, and if you mess up the installation even slightly, you can expect serious trouble.

Assuming that you've bought the right CPU upgrade for your machine, you still have to avoid three incredibly common mistakes that plague processor upgrades: pin displacement, poor thermal paste application, and improper heat sink installation.

Every PC CPU has lots of little pins that seat them in their motherboard socket to form the vital connections through which the computer's data flows. If one of these pins bends or breaks, you're hosed. So whenever you handle a CPU, take care to avoid touching the pins against anything--your fingers, a countertop, the edge of the case, other system components, anything. Also, don't force the CPU into its socket. If it doesn't fall right into place, something is off--and increasing your pressure on the processor is bound to bend a pin. Instead, lift up the CPU, check that the pins are straight and the socket is wide open, and try again.

In the event that your CPU does have a bent pin, proceed with straightening it out very cautiously. Use a nonconductive material, such as a piece of plastic to gently nudge the pin back into position.

Between the CPU and the heat sink is a thin layer of thermal paste whose purpose is to conduct heat away from the CPU and into the heat sink, where it can dissipate. To ensure good contact with the heat sink and to avoid creating hot spots on the surface of the CPU, this layer of paste must be smooth, thin, and uniform. One mistake that upgraders frequently make here is to leave the existing paste in place, or even to add new paste to the old paste. This can produce clumps in the paste, leading to uneven heat transfer and in some instances reduced radiation of heat away from the processor. To avoid this problem, make sure that both the CPU and the heat sink are completely clean of paste, and then add a fresh, even, ultrathin layer before reassembling the system.

Finally, avoid the mistake of using an inadequate or ill-fitting heat sink with your CPU. If your new CPU is substantially faster than your old one, it probably creates more heat, too. So unless you're already using a high-performance heat sink, consider treating heat-sink replacement as part of the upgrade process. You don't have to go all out with an expensive, complicated liquid-cooling system, but if you're spending $300 on a new CPU, spending $30 to $50 on a high-quality heat sink to protect that investment (and the rest of your PC) makes sense.

Hard Drive Upgrades

Next to RAM, a hard drive is one of the easiest PC components to upgrade. Often, the most difficult part of the process is reaching all of the screws with your screwdriver. That's because many system cases open only on one side, or contain framing components that block access to the drive cage. Resist the temptation to take the easy route of screwing the drive in on only the more accessible side. An unevenly mounted hard drive is likely to wobble slightly in its bay, causing undesirable vibrations that can make your PC noisier than it should be and potentially shorten the drive's life.

Nearly all PC chassis are designed to give you access to both sides of the drive cage. In most instances, the cage itself is removable, so you can snap it out, screw your drive in properly, and then snap the cage back into place. Take the time to do this, and you'll probably reap the rewards of a quieter PC and greater longevity from your drive.

Another common mistake--even among experienced PC builders--is to use the wrong type of screws to mount your hard drive. This error usually isn't disastrous, because the difference in diameter between case screws and hard-drive screws is subtle. But 6-32 case screws are slightly thicker and have a wider thread spacing than M3 hard-drive screws, so using the wrong screw will mangle the screw holes on the drive, which may cause problems later if you ever need to remove and reinstall the drive.

Don't Ignore the Power Supply

As we upgrade our PCs, we almost never reduce the system's overall power consumption along the way. So, after a few significant component upgrades, your machine's power demands could outstrip the capabilities of the power supply that came with the computer. This is especially true for users who upgrade an older graphics board to a newer, more power-hungry board with dual power connectors. Case in point: Upgrading an Nvidia GeForce 8600 board to a GeForce GTX 295 can quadruple the power demand on the PCI-Express channel. Not surprisingly, the power supply is one of the most commonly overlooked components in the world of PC upgrades.

If you've made a few upgrades to your system, take a moment to evaluate whether your current power supply is up to the workload you're giving it. Asus has a pretty good power supply wattage calculator to help you with this assessment. You may very well discover that you've been expecting a 650-watt power supply to run a system that can draw more than 800 watts under peak load. Upgrading to a more appropriate power supply can make your system faster and with greater stability.

Routing Cables Neatly

I know how it is: Maybe you're busy, or you don't care about the aesthetics of your system's components, and you just want to finish the upgrade so you can boot the thing and play some games. But it's a mistake to leave your PC's internal cables hanging like an impenetrable cobweb in the middle of your machine.

Good heat dissipation is critical to the stability and performance of any PC, especially as you add more-powerful (and therefore more-heat-producing) components to the system. If you block the flow of air through the center of the chassis by leaving it full of jumbled cables, you're undermining the performance of your system's fans and heat sinks. Routing cables neatly increases airflow through the system and helps keep your PC cooler.

If you look inside a really sweet machine from a performance builder like Velocity Micro or Maingear, you'll find cables virtually concealed from view, routed behind the walls of the chassis, under the motherboard, and along the corners of the case, held in place by itty bitty zip ties trimmed neatly at the neck.

You don't have to be as fastidious as the pros to give your machine better airflow and a slick, orderly appearance. Just buy a small bag of zip ties and use them to cluster cables together into vaguely coherent pipelines, leaving as much open space as possible in the center of the case. Then take a small wire cutter and snip off the ends of the zip ties.

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