Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 117 / FEBRUARY 1990 / PAGE 36




You may be getting along fine with your old PC, but there are always easier, better, and more efficient ways of doing things. Your old PC may take a half-hour to digest a large spreadsheet. A new 386 computer could do the same chore in a fraction of the time. You'd really like one of these monster machines, but you don't have $4,000 to spend on a 386. Well, I have some good news for you: You can upgrade your old clunker without downgrading your budget.

Do It Yourself

Several shops and mail-order companies will gladly upgrade your computer for you. But, if they want to stay in business, they have to make money. Instead of paying for their overhead costs, pull out your toolkit and develop a closer relationship with your PC.

If you're not too familiar with the innards of your computer, you may have some reservations about tackling a job like this. But have no fear; you can do it. You won't wire or solder anything, and you won't have to operate any fancy equipment. You can assemble or disassemble an entire computer with a pair of pliers and a screwdriver. Most of the PC's components and parts are merely plugged in to sockets or connected to cables.

Upgrade Options

Once you've chosen to upgrade do-it-yourself style, you have to choose a method. Here are some options. For more information about the following products, see "Companies Mentioned."

The NEC V20

If you have a PC or an XT, your computer is running an 8088 microprocessor chip. There is a very inexpensive and easy way to speed it up and increase its performance by as much as 30 percent. Just remove your 8088 CPU and install a NEC V20. This chip is a direct replacement for the 8088, but its internal construction handles some types of data much more quickly.

Most electronics stores sell the V20 chips for $7-$ 12. depending on the speed of your system. JDR Microdevices is one company that sells these chips.

Faster Crystals

On the IBM XT and compatibles, the system clock operates at 4.77 MHz. By installing an additional 8-MHz crystal, you crank up the speed and get a Turbo XT. Some newer XTs operate at speeds as high as 12 MHz. Replacing your old motherboard with a turbo board costs less than $100.

The original PC AT used a 12-MHz crystal, and that speed was divided in half so that the system operated at 6 MHz. Many people discovered that they could replace the 12-MHz crystal with a 16-MHz crystal and boost the speed to 8 MHz.

Unlike the PC and the XT, the AT comes with two separate crystals. It's a very simple matter to change the one that controls the clock speed. Many of the 286s now operate at 10 MHz, and some run as fast as 20 MHz.

If you have an older AT or 286 that operates at the snail's pace of 6 MHz, you can buy and install a 16-, an 18-, or even a 20-MHz crystal, boosting your computer's speed to 8, 9, or 10 MHz. You may have some problems if you go above 18 MHz, but the crystals cost less than $2 each. Buy them all and try them for the highest speed. If you have problems, just plug in a lower-frequency crystal.

The crystal is a small cylinder that plugs into a socket. Most electronics companies supply the crystals.

New plug-in Board

Of all the boards you could choose to put in your computer, the ones that will be most useful are multifunction boards. These boards bring all kinds of goodies to your system, such as extra memory, video-display adapters, parallel and serial ports, print spoolers, game ports, floppy disk drive controllers, and other treats. The beauty of a multifunction board is that it offers several of these enhancements in the same package but only takes up one slot. The boards are very easy to install, and several companies offer different versions of the multifunction boards for $30-$79.

Installing a Coprocessor

If you crunch numbers or fold, spindle, and mutilate large spreadsheets, you could benefit from a math coprocessor. Depending on the program you run, a coprocessor can speed up math procedures so they run 5–100 times faster.

Almost all motherboards are designed with an empty socket beside the CPU. Most computers are sold without the math coprocessor that fits in this socket because some programs can't use this chip, and it's an expensive component.

The coprocessor chips all have an 87 at the end of their chip designation. For the 8088 family, the math coprocessor is called 8087. For the 286, it's 80287; for the 386, it's 80387. The new Intel 486 CPU will have the math coprocessor built into the microprocessor. You can find it somewhere in there among the 1.2 million transistors that make up this chip.

The coprocessor chips are priced according to their operating speed. For instance, an 8087 designed to operate at the standard 5 MHz costs about $95. An 8087-1 that operates at 10 MHz costs about $175; an 80287-10 at 10 MHz, about $240; and an 80387-16 at 16 MHz, about $350.

Accelerator Boards

Several companies have developed accelerator boards that you can plug into your old motherboard. Some of the less expensive boards can transform a PC into a much more powerful and faster 286. Veritek has one for $300. Other accelerators cost as much as $700 or more.

Quadram's 386XT turns a PC into a 386 machine. It costs about $900. That may seem like a lot, but the 386 CPU alone costs about $300. Intel's Inboard 386/PC costs $600-$1,200, depending on the amount of memory you get on the board.

Intel also has an Inboard 386/AT that can be used to upgrade a 286 to a 386. It costs between $850 and $1,500, depending on options and memory. The Master 386 from AOX can also turn a 286 into a 386.

Of course these boards won't give you all of the advantages of the real thing. But they give you most of the advantages of a 286 or 386 at a reasonable price. See "Companies Mentioned" for more information.

New Motherboards

The motherboard is the main board in your computer. It plays host to the CPU, the memory, the BIOS, the bus, and many other components. It also has slots so that you can plug other boards into it.

The standard 286 and 386 motherboards are considerably larger than the XT motherboard, so the trick is to make smaller boards with the more powerful processors. Chips and Technology, as well as several other companies, has developed chip sets using very-large-scale integration (VLSI), which combines several chips into single chips. Companies have used these chip sets to design "baby" 286 and 386 motherboards which can tit in an XT.

If you remove your old XT motherboard and install a baby 286 or 386, you get ail of the functionality and power of the bigger machines. At the same time, you can use most of your old components such as disk drives, plug-in boards, and peripherals with your new, more powerful motherboard.

Depending on the amount of memory and other options, a baby 286 motherboard costs $300-$600. A baby 386 costs $900-$1,500.

New Floppy Drives

A 1.2MB floppy drive reads, writes, and formats 5¼-inch disks in both the high-density and the old-fashioned 360K varieties. Likewise, a 1.44MB drive reads, writes, and formats 3½-inch disks in both 72OK and 1.44MB densities. These high-density drives cost between $75 and $125, only a few dollars more than a 360K or 720K drive. A 1.2MB drive stores three times more data than a 360K drive stores, and a 1.44MB drive stores four times more than its older cousin. Why would anyone buy a 360K or 720K drive anymore?

New Hard Disk

If you don't have a hard disk, then, by all means, get one. If you have an older one that holds fewer than 30 megabytes, you should probably get a second one or a larger one. Most hard disk controllers have provisions for controlling a second hard disk, but you should check the specifications of yours.

A Perstor controller increases the capacity of your hard drive. It stretches the storage on a Seagate ST 251 40-megabyte hard disk into 78 megabytes. See "Companies Mentioned" for more information.

Make sure that your hard disk is backed up at all times. You never know when it might fail, or you may accidentally erase a file that is critical. There are several good backup programs. One comes free with your copy of DOS—the BACKUP and RESTORE commands. Others cost money, but their speed, versatility, and convenience make them worthwhile.

More Memory

My first computer, a little Morrow CP/M machine, had a whopping 64K of random access memory (RAM). That was plenty for the few applications that were available back then, but now programs require much more. Some new programs such as Lotus 1-2-3 version 3.0 will require about two mega-bytes. If you have less than 640K of memory on your motherboard, you should consider increasing your RAM. Anything beyond 640K is expanded or extended memory, which you need for megabyte-hungry programs like that new version of Lotus 1-2-3.

New Monitor

New monitors have a much higher resolution than those of the early days with CGA. The prices have come way down, too. A good, high-resolution VGA color monitor costs about the same as a monochrome monitor did a few years ago. VGA will be the new standard, so consider the many options.

Monochrome monitors can give excellent resolution, but you may prefer color. Even if you do nothing but word processing, it may be worth the money. Besides, many applications require color.


The Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) resides in read only memory (ROM) plug-in chips on the motherboard. As the name suggests, it controls the input and output of data. In the early days, a BIOS was fairly simple. The orginal IBM PC didn't even support hard disk drives. BIOS chips have improved to meet more sophisticated needs as applications have proliferated. If you have an older machine, you probably need a new BIOS. Award Software is one company that sells BIOS upgrades.

Gadgets and Gizmos

A modem links you to the rest of the world. You can communicate with other computers, with electronic bulletin boards, and with telecommunication services; and you can even manage your banking with it. Down-loading software from a bulletin board can more than pay for the modem in a very short time.

Facsimile machines send pictures of text and graphics through telephone lines to other facsimile machines.

Think of fax machines as instant mail-boxes because you can send a letter to someone instantly. Now that companies have developed plug-in Fax boards, you can easily add this capability to your PC.

Scanners bring pictures into your PC, and they're very handy for desktop publishing. Some scanners simply translate an image into pixels, whether that image is of artwork or text. Other scanners can recognize characters well enough to import text files that you can edit. These are the more expensive species of scanner.

If you use your computer very much, then you know the importance of the keyboard. It's the primary method of data input. If the keys are too soft or they don't suit your typing style, you should consider upgrading.

If you upgrade from a PC or XT motherboard to a 286 or 386, you may have to buy a new keyboard. The PC and XT keyboards look exactly like the 286 and 386 keyboards; they even have the same connector. But the older keyboards have different electronics—they won't work with a 286 or 386. On some later-model keyboards, you can flip a switch when you change from an older system to a newer one.

A mouse can be as important as your keyboard. It simplifies many computing tasks and is essential for graphics-intensive programs. More and more software supports the mouse as an input device, so now is a good time to consider buying one.

For any of these peripherals, try your local computer store or your favorite mail-order company.

Alternatives to Upgrading

You could avoid all the trouble and expense of upgrading by buying a new computer. Depending on your old computer and on what you want from your new one, selling your first love might be a viable alternative.

But you might not get what you think it's worth. The computer that you paid $2,500 for a few years ago may bring less than $500 today. You may not want to go through the bother and hassle of advertising and selling it.

Another alternative is to donate the old computer to a charitable organization. You might come out ahead by deducting it as a gift on your income-tax return. Then, consider buying a completely new system. For less than $2,000, you could find a 286 clone with high-density floppy drives, a 30MB hard drive, and an EGA monitor.

You can buy a bare-bones XT clone for about $250 or a bare bones 286 for about $500. From the skeleton system, you could upgrade it yourself. Do it a little at a time if you're on a tight budget.

You probably never thought you'd hear this about working with computers, but dig in. Get your hands dirty. You'll love that indescribable feeling of pleasure that comes with turning on a powerful computer and having it instantly respond to your commands.

Is an upgrade worth it? Well worth it. See chart on page 42.

Companies Mentioned


486 Totten Pond Rd.

Waltham, MA 02154


Award Software

130 Knowles Dr.

Los Gatos, CA 95030

(408) 370-7979

Chips and Technology

521 Cottonwood Dr.

Milpitas, CA 95035

(408) 434-0600


5200 NE Elam Young Pkwy.

Hillsboro, OR 97124


JDR Microdevices

2233 Branham Ln.

San Jose, CA 95124


NEC Electronics

401 Ellis St.

Mountain View, CA 94039


Perstor Systems

1335 S.Park Ln.

Tempe, AZ 85281



One Quad Way

Norcross, GA 30093



1205 Linda Vista Dr.

San Marcos, CA 92069