PC Advisor outlines 50 low-cost upgrades that will boost your PC, from raw speed and graphics performance to wireless, printing and multimedia.

No one seems sure whether we've turned the economic corner or the downturn is here for the foreseeable future. One thing we do know, however, is that we're not as flush as we used to be.

Belt-tightening and thrift have become bywords for all but the most bulletproof politicians and City bankers, and the technology sector is no exception: we're all more inclined to make do with what we've got than throw away last year's laptop or PC. Extending the life of our technology is a much cheaper option than trading it in for a replacement.

So, while you'll be able to drum up a few extra pounds by selling no-longer-needed items on eBay, you'll probably still be faced with the issue of how to improve the gadgetry you need to use on a regular basis.

Part of the answer is to use firmware can fix bugs, improve performance and unlock features in the hardware you own (see The ultimate guide to updating firmware). There's also a lot to be said for lightening the burden on your PC or laptop. A good clear-out of outdated files, a trimming-back on applications that load at startup but needn't do so, and offloading the items you don't need to access all the time - these steps will all go a long way to improving system performance.

Major improvements, minor expenditure

But the next few pages aren't just a new spin on how to declutter and speed up your PC. They're also an acknowledgement that sometimes you need to spend a little to gain noticeable enhancements. And while a whole new laptop - or at least a speedier processor - may be your first-choice scenario, the items we outline here all set you back less than £100 (many cost far less) and each offers benefits and improvements worth having.

In fact, each piece of kit we describe here offers plenty of bang for your buck and will help you get your machine ready for Windows 7. We outline 50 excellent graphics, storage and memory options to suit your ongoing needs.

NEXT PAGE: software boosters >>

Index:

  1. 50 excellent graphics, storage and memory options
  2. Software boosters
  3. Graphics and memory
  4. Portable storage
  5. Networking & the web
  6. Optical options
  7. Sound & vision
  8. Better prints
  9. Invaluable extras

PC Advisor outlines 50 low-cost upgrades that will boost your PC, from raw speed and graphics performance to wireless, printing and multimedia.

50 low-cost upgrades: software boosters

Optimise your PC and improve day-to-day Windows performance

Software is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to impeding your PC's performance. Microsoft is well known for adding features to its Microsoft Office productivity suite that make it sluggish to use, not to mention harder to find items and format documents.

Monitor your PC today >>

Web-based applications, which cause less of a drain on system resources, are now coming to the fore. Zoho Writer, Google Write and Microsoft's brand-new Office Web Apps are designed to overcome the need for a fully fledged desktop suite. Even Adobe's processor-intensive Photoshop has a web-based equivalent, photoshop.com. There are also 3D-rendering and video-creation programs that can run directly over the
web, putting next to no strain on your PC.

See also: Five things you need to know about Office Web Apps

However, if you need more than basic tools, you'll probably be looking for a leaner, meaner alternative to Microsoft Office that doesn't demand a live web connection for you to access files. If so, OpenOffice and Ability Office are ideal. Both are compatible with the majority of files you'll need to open and edit, and both have feature sets similar to that found in Microsoft Office before the bloat set in.

Their installation footprints are small, too.

Similar principles can be applied to your email client - why not dump Outlook in favour of its less hefty stablemate, Windows Mail? It's a rebranded version of Outlook Express. As an alternative to Microsoft, Mozilla Thunderbird is another lightweight desktop option, while Google Mail, Yahoo Mail and GMX are all dependable webmail options.

Having taken some of the daily burden off your day-to-day tasks, it's time to start tweaking resources to work to their optimum. Getting rid of applications you use only occasionally is the first task, and a range of free and trial programs can help.

CCleaner

• Freeware • ccleaner.com

CCleaner is a highly rated tool that gets rid of unwanted cookies and redundant Registry entries. It also works out which items you can prevent auto-loading at startup and helps you delete any that you don't use. The result: a trimmer system that runs more smoothly.

Advanced System Care Free

• Freeware • Advanced SystemCare Free

Advanced System Care is a useful decluttering app that can also tweak other elements of your setup with its optimisation tool. Before it sets to work altering the way Windows runs, it cleans out the junk and unwanted Registry entries. It also takes an inventory of your machine's hardware and software, and takes this into account when it begins the optimisation process.

PC Tools Registry Mechanic

• Trialware • pctools.com

PC Tools says Registry Mechanic is the world's most popular Registry cleaning utility. Like the other apps we've suggested here, it can improve performance as well as degunk your system. This user-friendly tool scans and compacts Registry entries, keeps a handle on running Windows processes and prioritises the important ones so your PC runs more smoothly.

Vista Smoker Pro

• Trialware • xp-smoker.com

What we like about Vista Smoker Pro is that it works at exactly the level you want, adapting to your technical knowledge and inclination to tinker with your PC. There's a one-button autotuner if you want instant results - useful for tightening your Vista security settings and access privileges. If, on the other hand, you prefer to fine-tune things yourself, the program gives you 100 different settings and options to play with.

Of particular interest is the ability to tweak how Vista's User Account Control operates.

Tweak UI

• Freeware • Tweak UI
While most users are satisfied with the way Windows XP runs, there's always room for improvement - and this set of tweaker tools comes courtesy of Microsoft itself. Tweak UI lets you access settings you wouldn't normally see within the main interface. You can adjust mouse behaviour, refine Explorer menus and personalise the Taskbar setup.

TweakVI

• Freeware • totalidea.com

There are two versions of this Vista-specific app: TweakVI Basic and TweakVI Premium. Given that Vista isn't as easy to tinker with as XP, a program that helps you make effective changes to the way the operating system runs is a real boon. TweakVI offers more than 100 ways to finesse your system, adjust the Start menu and otherwise ensure Vista does exactly what you want.

NEXT PAGE: graphics and memory >>

Index:

  1. 50 excellent graphics, storage and memory options
  2. Software boosters
  3. Graphics and memory
  4. Portable storage
  5. Networking & the web
  6. Optical options
  7. Sound & vision
  8. Better prints
  9. Invaluable extras

PC Advisor outlines 50 low-cost upgrades that will boost your PC, from raw speed and graphics performance to wireless, printing and multimedia.

50 low-cost upgrades: graphics and memory

Improve 3D graphics performance and application response times

The most effective upgrade you can make to your PC is to its operating memory. Greater capacity and/or faster RAM will make a big difference to the way your PC performs.

A similar principle applies to your graphics memory, where more clock cycles per second and dedicated memory for visuals result in smoother playback and better gameplay.

The tricky part is knowing what your PC or laptop can take. Thankfully, you can establish this by consulting the Belarc Advisor at crucial.com or its equivalent at kingston.com. Both will take an inventory of your PC setup; to get this information for yourself, click My Computer, View System Information. Now choose Device Manager from the Hardware tab and scroll down to see a list of sound cards, graphics cards and processors installed on your machine.

Jot down the details of the graphics card and CPU. It may also be helpful to establish which motherboard your PC uses, since this will affect how much and what type of RAM you can install. If you're upgrading a Windows Vista machine, note that the 32bit version won't see any benefit above 4GB of RAM.

Note, too, that mismatched products will run at the speed of the slowest element. If you buy a 1GB stick of 3,200MHz DDR2 memory to supplement a 2,700MHz module, both will run at the slower speed.

For good deals on internal components, dabs.com, ebuyer.com and it247.com offer a range of options. We were able to get a pair of non ECC-buffered 1GB 3,200MHz DDR2 modules from Dabs for £56. Meanwhile, two 1,066MHz 2GB Kingston HyperX 240-pin Dimms were offered at the same site for £41.

If your machine is up to it, faster ‘performance' memory such as the Crucial Ballistix range may be worth the money. Once again, the limitations of your motherboard, graphics processor and operating system will need to be factored in.

You should always buy branded memory from well-known manufacturers, such as Crucial (the brand name for Micron), Kingston or OCZ. These suppliers back their products with lengthy warranties and have well-established reputations.

If in doubt, ask the forum members at pcadvisor.co.uk or on the sites of the memory manufacturers. Dud no-brand components frequently end up on auction and tech sites that thrive on undercutting other retailers but don't stand by the products they sell.

Upgrade your graphics card

Graphics memory is the second on our list of recommended internal upgrades. Here you have a straight choice between an AMD- or nVidia-based setup. These two manufacturers share the graphics-cards market and produce the graphics processing units (GPUs) around which the likes of Sapphire and Gigabyte build their cards.

Gaming and graphics are hotly contested areas of the PC component market, with the sub-brands vying to outdo each other in the framerates they can eke out of a graphics chipset, or the extras they offer.

If performance is your top priority, a 1GB graphics card may be worth the expense, although the best 1GB models are likely to exceed our £100 limit. Turn to our charts on page 144 for a suitable candidate.

An excellent, cheaper alternative is the £86 HIS Radeon HD 4770, a current PC Advisor Best Buy. This comes with 512MB of fast GDDR5 graphics memory and an 800MHz memory clock, and surpasses many 1GB cards in gaming framerates.

At the hot end of the market are scaleable link interface (SLI) or CrossFire setups: the use of a matching pair of cards. Bear in mind that expensive cards quickly fall in price; the £120 HD 4870 and nVidia nVidia GeForce 9600 we reviewed not long ago are now available in 768MB and 512MB configurations from XFX for £86 and PNY for £78 respectively. These deals can be found from online retailers such as oyyy.co.uk and lambatek.co.uk.

High-end graphics cards draw a lot of power and require large fans to keep cool. You may find the space available inside your PC case limits your options, and you may need to shell out for a beefier power supply.

As well as a decent complement of graphics memory, make sure your card has a good memory clock speed. A DVI connection for your monitor is also important, as well as HDMI for HD viewing. Hardcore gamers (or anyone looking to play the latest games) should look for DirectX 10.0 or 10.1 support.

NEXT PAGE: portable storage >>

Index:

  1. 50 excellent graphics, storage and memory options
  2. Software boosters
  3. Graphics and memory
  4. Portable storage
  5. Networking & the web
  6. Optical options
  7. Sound & vision
  8. Better prints
  9. Invaluable extras

PC Advisor outlines 50 low-cost upgrades that will boost your PC, from raw speed and graphics performance to wireless, printing and multimedia.

50 low-cost upgrades: portable storage

Handy, secure storage you can sling in a bag and take on the moveGet a ReadyBoost

Upgrading your system isn't simply about changing a few settings and shovelling in a new stick of RAM. There are plenty of less obvious ways to boost the performance of a Vista or Windows 7 PC. Inserting a USB drive that supports ReadyBoost, for instance.

ReadyBoost makes use of available flash memory on a suitable USB drive and treats it as additional operating memory, giving you a temporary cache of extra RAM. The technology works for one USB device at a time in Windows Vista and for multiple devices simultaneously in Windows 7. It can also work with memory cards.

Not all USB devices are created equal, of course. For starters, some drives transfer data at greater speeds than others. Check the packaging or the stated specifications or click the Compare button at your chosen online retailer to ascertain whether differences in price per GB also disguise variations in performance.

Expand your storage

If you're looking to expand your storage options by adding an external hard drive, ensure it's got a fast spin speed and, if you're going to be drawing on its contents regularly, nippy access speeds and read speeds, too.

The Seagate Maxtor BlackArmor drive at the top of our portable hard drives chart can copy data at a fairly average 480 megabits per second (Mbps), but distinguishes itself by offering full-disk 128bit encryption. Should someone walk off with your drive, they won't be able to read or copy its contents - which is pretty crucial if it's your dissertation or end-of-year accounts.

For sheer GB per pound, the £83 Toshiba 1TB USB 2.0 drive is hard to beat. However, it comes without any form of backup software or encryption, so you'll need to add your own. Note, too, that if you're likely to be using your external USB drive in a mixed operating system environment - for example, plugging it into a Mac as well as a PC - the promised encryption may not be compatible. This is also the case with the otherwise excellent Western Digital MyPassport range. They have solid credentials when used with a PC, but aren't so great for Mac or Linux.

Security precautions

Similar qualifications apply to USB flash memory drives. These are ideal for plugging into a machine, copying across a few files and then sticking in your pocket as an instant backup option, but their security credentials are less clear-cut. USB-slurping - whereby some sneak comes along with a USB memory key, attaches it to someone else's computer and copies across their files - is a surprisingly common form of theft.

Choose a drive that requires a PIN code or password to access its contents, just in case you inadvertently misplace the device. If it's really sensitive information you'll be storing on the drive, consider choosing a biometric model. Look for drives from well-known brands, too. Cheap flash memory can be unreliable and drives can fail without warning. If in doubt, keep more than one copy or use an online backup site such as Mozy Home to archive files for you.

Suggested secure USB flash drives include SanDisk's Ultra range and Corsair's Flash Voyager, while memory specialists Crucial and Kingston also offer encrypted drives.

Don't discount your media player as a backup device, either. Many players allow you to simply drag-and-drop files to a Data folder. It's not a perfect solution, but if money's tight then gadgets that can perform several functions should be considered. Transcend, iRiver and some of the lesser-known but well-established brands are worth a look in terms of value. Advancedmp3players.com, play.com and amazon.co.uk offer good deals.

When looking for a new music player, check the specification list to see whether data storage is supported. Apple's iPhone and Apple iPods all support this function, which can be activated within iTunes.

NEXT PAGE: networking & the web >>

Index:

  1. 50 excellent graphics, storage and memory options
  2. Software boosters
  3. Graphics and memory
  4. Portable storage
  5. Networking & the web
  6. Optical options
  7. Sound & vision
  8. Better prints
  9. Invaluable extras

PC Advisor outlines 50 low-cost upgrades that will boost your PC, from raw speed and graphics performance to wireless, printing and multimedia.

50 low-cost upgrades: networking & the web

Upgrade your home network and enjoy a more reliable connection

Updating your wireless network can bring security benefits, as well as enabling you to access your files and photos more quickly. If you're still using an 802.11a/b network, we strongly suggest that you at the very least update the firmware on the router to take advantage of improved security. You should ideally upgrade the network to use Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) encryption, which 802.11a doesn't support. Your router chip ought to support Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), too.

More robust networking is provided by 802.11g routers, particularly with a multiple input, multiple output (Mimo) router - these offer more than one antenna to achieve a stronger signal. Of course, if you've already got a laptop that offers draft-n connectivity, it makes sense to opt for this flavour of Wi-Fi.

Expect to be able to copy files from your PC to other devices on the network and to stream music, but the network is likely to stumble when it comes to streaming video. For decent video streaming you'll need to invest in a draft-n wireless network.

Our top choice of draft-n router, the £135 Linksys WRT610N, is over budget for our purposes here. But the Recommended Sitecom Gaming Router WL-308 and the classy-looking Belkin N+ both cost £100.

Power network

For a speedy home or small-office network, you could do a lot worse than installing ethernet HomePlugs. These make use of the electrical circuitry in the building and have the advantage that, unlike with Wi-Fi, there's no issue over the number of walls the signal is being beamed through. You can network pretty much any electronic device using a HomePlug, provided there's an ethernet port where it can be attached.

HomePlug products are often sold in pairs. Although prices are coming down, you'll probably only be able to get one pair of 85 megabits per second (Mbps) HomePlugs for the £100 budget we're working to - these devices also come in 200Mbps designs. The two speeds don't work well together, so choose one speed rating and stick to it.

Well-known brands include Belkin, Netgear, D-Link, Devolo and Solwise.

We found a three-pack of Devolo High Speed II 85Mbps HomePlugs for sale at Maplin for £69, but were able to get a faster 200Mbps pair at the same site for £89.

Some good deals were also available at ebuyer.com and dabs.com, where a Belkin Gigabit HomePlug kit was listed on preorder for £125 - expect less-known brands to jump onboard and undercut this shortly.

Faster broadband connection

Of course, a ‘fatter pipe' delivering faster broadband into your home is one of the most appealing upgrades. As the results of our soon-to-be-published home broadband survey show, most of us have stuck with the same ISP for years, and it's worth investigating whether you could get a better deal elsewhere, with more bandwidth and faster download speeds.

Speedtest.pcadvisor.co.uk will establish your current download and upload speeds. Armed with this information, you can then compare available broadband deals for your postcode using a comparison service such as thinkbroadband.com, broadbandgenie.co.uk or moneysupermarket.com.

One option for ADSL customers is to spend £10 on a BT i-Plate and replace the ADSL filters between the phone sockets and landline handsets in your home or office. This can improve line quality, so your connection is able to send more data, speeding up your setup. However, it's dependent on your location and distance from the exchange.

An increasingly popular alternative is to add a 3G mobile broadband dongle, which lets you access the web wherever you have a mobile phone signal. A USB port and the necessary setup software is all you need.

Vodafone, O2 and 3 are all equally Mac- and PC-friendly, but watch out for differing data download limits.

NEXT PAGE: optical options >>

Index:

  1. 50 excellent graphics, storage and memory options
  2. Software boosters
  3. Graphics and memory
  4. Portable storage
  5. Networking & the web
  6. Optical options
  7. Sound & vision
  8. Better prints
  9. Invaluable extras

PC Advisor outlines 50 low-cost upgrades that will boost your PC, from raw speed and graphics performance to wireless, printing and multimedia.

50 low-cost upgrades: optical options

Fit a new drive for speedy archiving and home-entertainment bliss

If you've got a PC or laptop that's a couple of years old, the chances are that the DVD writer is less adept at playing DVDs than you'd like, and slower than the latest drives on the market. Optical drives are often among the first parts of a PC to go wrong - the pop-out bay that holds the discs stops responding, the optics get choosy about which discs they'll read, and more and more backups fail and have to be redone.

Replacing a faulty drive is therefore a pretty common PC repair. Thankfully, it needn't be an expensive one - and a newer drive can bring other benefits beyond improved reliability. Support for a wider range of recording formats and the ability to record at a higher speed are obvious advantages. Advances in connectivity mean a SATA drive will offer superior performance over an EIDE one - provided that your motherboard supports the standard.

Look for a drive with a spin speed of 7,200rpm and the ability to both record and rewrite at eight-speed or higher. Beyond this, recording media gets pretty pricey and, in the case of dual-layer discs, hard to find. Given that most of us now store far more data on our computers, a dual-layer drive that can store twice the standard DVD capacity of 4.5GB makes sense.

For our money, an eight-speed dual-layer DVD writer costing £30 to £40 is one of the best-value upgrades you can make.

Adding support for HD

Jumping from a run-of-the-mill DVD writer to a Blu-ray one is a cool option for even more storage space, plus the tempting ability to play HD films on your PC. Blu-ray Discs can store 25GB of data at a time, and twice this if they're dual-layer discs.

Our restricted budget will stretch to a good DVD writer that can read but not write Blu-ray discs. A quick look at a site such as meshcomputers.com, for example, reveals a BD-ROM drive can be bought for £98, while one that writes to Blu-ray costs £198.

You'll also need some video software capable of playing Blu-ray movies, and will need to factor in the additional cost of CyberLink's PowerDVD software or similar if you're buying a ‘barebones' drive.

A few companies make BD-ROM drives, notably Plextor and PLDS (an alliance of Philips and Lite-On). The Lite-On iHES208 internal drive we reviewed last issue doesn't write to the Blu-ray Disc format, which is largely why it can be yours for just £98, but its support for eight-speed DVD and DVD dual-layer recording is admirable and will ensure that the drive won't become outdated for a while. In line with our advice on choosing a drive that writes quickly but not necessarily at the maximum current speed, be prepared to hunt around for recordable DVD media or to wait until quad-speed BD discs drop in price.

External drives

External optical drives are an option if you don't want the hassle of upgrading internally, but you'll have to compromise on specs if you're sticking to a budget of £100. Around £75 will get you a slimline Freecom drive that can record to CD-R at 24-speed and write DVDs at eight-speed. Format support is
thin on the ground, so check you're buying DVD-R discs rather than DVD+R, if that's what your drive accepts.

It's possible to add a Blu-ray drive as an external add-on, but there aren't many options, and you'll need FireWire and/or USB 2.0 connectivity. We found just two on amazon.co.uk - a smart-looking £69 PLDS model and an unbranded model for a few pounds more. We also recommend the LG BE06LU10 from our Blu-ray drives chart and the LaCie d2, but both come in at a budget-busting £180.

NEXT PAGE: sound & vision >>

Index:

  1. 50 excellent graphics, storage and memory options
  2. Software boosters
  3. Graphics and memory
  4. Portable storage
  5. Networking & the web
  6. Optical options
  7. Sound & vision
  8. Better prints
  9. Invaluable extras

PC Advisor outlines 50 low-cost upgrades that will boost your PC, from raw speed and graphics performance to wireless, printing and multimedia.

50 low-cost upgrades: sound & vision

High-quality displays are more affordable than you might think

A new monitor can transform your computing experience, and it's possible to pick up a decent flat-panel for under £100. The secret is to look for models that are long in the tooth but have good specifications.

We often advise readers to buy a PC and a monitor separately so you can ensure you're getting a strong all-round computing setup. And it's worth noting that monitors usually come with three-year warranties (provided by the manufacturer), whereas your PC will probably be covered for only a year.

Whether you go for a standard 4:3 aspect ratio or a widescreen (16:9) display is a matter of preference, but bear in mind that if you're likely to be watching films on your PC a widescreen display will let you enjoy the action without the picture being resized. Such displays can also be useful for viewing two documents side by side.

Choose a monitor that offers a tight pixel pitch of 0.28mm or less and has a high native resolution. A fast response time of 6ms or less will also ensure smoother playback. For a 21.5in or 22in widescreen display you should expect 1,920x1,080.

The 17in widescreen Hanns-G HG171AB we found at oyyy.co.uk for £70 inc VAT has a 5ms response time and a 0.26mm pixel pitch, but its resolution is limited to 1,440x900. For an extra £13, the same site offers a 17in Samsung SyncMaster 723N that boasts a far more respectable 1,280x1,024 resolution.

Also at oyyy.co.uk is a 19in LG W1941S display with a 1,000:1 contrast ratio, a brightness rating of 300 cd/m2 and a resolution of 1,366x768 for £80 inc VAT.

Just as good value is the smart-looking 19in Samsung SyncMaster 923NW model at ebuyer.com, which has an impressively high 1,000:1 contrast ratio, again with a resolution of 1,440x900. It costs £87 inc VAT.

Another good-quality option is the 19in ViewSonic V1926W, costing £88 at dabs.com and primed with a DVI connector to make the best use of its 1,440x900 resolution and 2,000:1 contrast ratio.

If it's screen size you're interested in above all else, Acer's 20in X203H model with a 20,000:1 contrast rating and 1,600x900 resolution, also on sale at dabs.com, is about as much monitor as £100 will get you. The catch is that it's analogue-only.

Finally, if you're unfussed by brand names, Dabs has a 20in Best Value JT209RP flat-panel with a resolution of 1,680x1,050 for £79 inc VAT.

Speakers

As well as a decent-quality screen, it's a good idea to fit out a media-centric PC with good speakers so you can make the most of your movies and music.

While the Creative GigaWorks T3 PC speakers we tested last month are rather pricey at £150 inc VAT, there are plenty of striking options out there. For a proper show-off setup, there's the conical Altec Lansing FX3022 - we found them at microdirect.co.uk for £72 inc VAT.

For slightly less outlay, the £50 Edifier C2 speaker set is a popular inclusion with many of the chart PCs we test.

If you want a more discreet listening experience, desktop speakers such as the Logitech LS21 - £18 at amazon.co.uk - offer great local playback. And brand junkies may fancy the Bose Companion 2 speaker desktop pairing (£99 inc VAT at bose.co.uk).

NEXT PAGE: better prints >>

Index:

  1. 50 excellent graphics, storage and memory options
  2. Software boosters
  3. Graphics and memory
  4. Portable storage
  5. Networking & the web
  6. Optical options
  7. Sound & vision
  8. Better prints
  9. Invaluable extras

PC Advisor outlines 50 low-cost upgrades that will boost your PC, from raw speed and graphics performance to wireless, printing and multimedia.

50 low-cost upgrades: better prints

Most cheap photo printers are a false economy – but not all

Open a newspaper or switch on the TV and, as often as not, your eyes will alight on an impossibly cheap printer that promises bright prints and ultra convenience. Even supermarkets have got in on the act, while a visit to a high-street PC shop will reveal tempting offers involving a free printer as part of a computer package.

The internet also offers great cut-price deals. While researching this article, we found a £44 Epson Stylus SX200 and a £36 Lexmark X3650 all-in-one printer at play.com. But should you buy them?

Long-term costs

This may not come as a huge surprise, but such deals aren't always a good idea. The real cost of a printer isn't in its purchase price, but in its running costs - primarily ink, but potentially new drums and printheads.

And don't assume you'll be replacing a single-ink cartridge or roll. Most printers have one cartridge for black ink and another for cyan, magenta and yellow inks, so you'll have to factor in extra expense when calculating how much each page costs to print. Bear in mind that the figures given in specification lists are usually for only 5 percent page coverage.

Visit our Printing Zone for more.

Epson does things a little differently, selling each ink separately. The company claims this is the most economical and least wasteful approach for the user.

If you're after a fast, efficient multifunction printer (MFP), for example, the £76 inc VAT Canon Pixma MP540 costs about 3p per mono page and 9p per colour page.

The Epson Stylus SX200 is our Best Buy MFP. It costs £52 inc VAT and is an economical printer to run, provided that you insist on high-yield cartridges. Note that manufacturers often quote cost-per-page figures based on high-capacity cartridges, so read the fine print carefully and make sure you know what you're in for.

Speed and networking options

You'll also want a model that turns in a fast performance and - if several of you are sharing a printing resource - ethernet or wireless connectivity. A good example is the fairly pedestrian but dependable HP Deskjet 6940. It won't win any beauty contests but, at £45, it's inexpensive to buy and run, and it can be networked.

You'll generally end up with a faster model that supports higher print resolutions if you buy a machine that prints and does nothing else. A MFP, meanwhile, has space- and cost-saving appeal, but only if you need to be able to photocopy and scan documents.

Consider, too, whether it would be a more cost-effective strategy to buy a fast mono inkjet and outsource occasional professional jobs to a copy house or online photo printer. Colour is a luxury that adds considerably to a printer's expense.

Stop printing!

Finally, remember that not everything needs to be printed out. You can print to PDF or scan to email, while shrinking the text or selecting only certain parts will mean you print fewer pages. Duplexing is a cost-effective feature worth looking out for; it makes it easier to print on both sides.

And upgrading your printing capabilities won't necessarily involve getting a new printer. It could be that altering the settings on your existing machine can improve its performance and may also save you money. Printing in Draft mode is a good first step.

You should also check that, when you're printing text-only pages on a colour printer, you've specified that only black ink is used. This may sound obvious, since you only want to produce mono output, but photo printers often use small amounts of other colours in order to produce a richer-looking black.

NEXT PAGE: invaluable extras

Index:

  1. 50 excellent graphics, storage and memory options
  2. Software boosters
  3. Graphics and memory
  4. Portable storage
  5. Networking & the web
  6. Optical options
  7. Sound & vision
  8. Better prints
  9. Invaluable extras

PC Advisor outlines 50 low-cost upgrades that will boost your PC, from raw speed and graphics performance to wireless, printing and multimedia.

50 low-cost upgrades: invaluable extras

Assorted accessories to get the most from gadgets and laptops

Standby Saver

Today's average household harbours an arsenal of gadgets, and keeping them all powered up has become a serious question of convenience and expense; no wonder, then, that solar- and USB-powered devices and chargers have become popular.

For power-hungry devices such as desktop PCs, monitors and games consoles, however, a steady supply of mains electricity is all that will do. If this is the case, the best bet is to ensure you don't waste any of it by investing £50 or so in a Standby Saver that can switch off multiple unused devices.

Extended laptop battery pack

The latest laptops are capable of operating for far longer between charges than models that are only a year or two old. Acer's Timeline range, for example, is touted for its 8-hr battery life, while HP has managed to produce a laptop battery that lasts 24 hrs.

You don't need to get a new laptop in order to enjoy improved battery performance, however. Lowering the brightness setting by just 2 percent can result in 20 percent more battery life, Sony told us recently. And adjusting the power management options so the machine hibernates or the screen powers off after a shorter interval can make a huge difference.

Another option, of course, is to fit a more powerful battery. If you're still using the standard three- or four-cell battery that came as part of your standard laptop spec, look into whether a six-cell pack is available for it. Even if your precise model doesn't have an extended battery pack option, some laptop manufacturers offer generic ones that are compatible with models with a set power rating. Check carefully, mind. We were able to find one for an ancient Toshiba Satellite model by searching on the model name, but do your homework on the specifications, as you could damage or completely destroy your machine if you try to connect it to the wrong power supply.

Akasa laptop cooling stand

Another way to ensure you're getting the best from your machine is to keep it cool. Helping cool air to circulate around your system will ease the burden on the fan, and make your laptop operate more quietly. Akasa sells a range of ridged and curved laptop cooling stands designed to exhaust air either side.

A quirkier option is available from Belkin, which produces a soft rubber strip consisting of fingers or prongs that cushion your laptop while it's on your lap, but also allows air to flow. Belkin also does laptop stands in the vein of the Akasa ones mentioned previously.

Veho USB fan

Another natty option is a fan to keep your work area cool and comfortable. The Veho USB fan gets our vote for its simplicity: its foam-rubber sails are powered by the residual energy in your computer's USB port. However, the £6 device (scan.co.uk) also has four USB ports of its own at the back, so you can plug in and manage several devices.

Security cameras

IP cameras - ones that work over a network - aren't a cheap option, but can be a good idea if you want an extra layer of security and peace of mind.

An IP camera such as the £99 AlertMe Starter Kit (alertme.com) may not be the most exciting addition to your home computing setup, but it could be the one that makes the most difference to its security. Assuming your firewall and antivirus suite are present, correct and up to date, of course - if not, grab a copy of PC Tools Internet Security, AVG or BitDefender Total Security, and get your defences sorted now.

Index:

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