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Finding compatible memory and a new hard drive for an older PC

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / October 9, 2008 5:49 AM PDT

This is a two-part question, but I'd be happy to understand even one of them:

The PC is not brand name. It is running Windows XP, and I plan to add more RAM to it. But I don't know what to buy. How do I figure out which memory will work in a PC (size/speed/max capacity)? I'm guessing some of the RAM available today is not compatible (too fast?) and I don't know what the main board supports. Normally, I'd look at the manual for the mother board specifies is supported, but there isn't one. I don't want to do the trial and error method. Is there a way to find out what memory is supported?

The second questions is about today?s hard drives. What hard drives are compatible with anything or are some only supported with the latest and greatest? It used to be there were just SCSI and IDE drives. IDE drives eventually surpassed SCSI drives in terms of speed and became the norm.

All I had to do is look at faster RPMs, faster seek times, and larger capacities and buffers (well, reliability was another). Life for the ignorant was so simple. I've fallen behind the times (even more) and don't know what to look for, especially when I want to upgrade older PCs. I don't know what UDMA and SATA are. Are these connections? Then there is SATA2 or is it SATA II and are these compatible with any "SATA" supporting PCs? Does it work with older PCs that use IDE cables or do some HDs support both while others do not? What is NCQ and is it something I should look for? What else should I look for, as I wonder if these things are worth enough to upgrade the motherboard for too? Thanks!

--Submitted by Dan C.

Here are some featured member answers to get you started, but
please read up on all the advice and suggestions that our
members have contributed to this member's question.

Making your upgrade easier... --Submitted by Wolfie2k5

Upgrading your computer --Submitted by waytron

Components for an older PC --Submitted by Watzman

Not terribly hard, but unclear whether you should upgrade. --Submitted by BigGuns149;posts#2879966

Older PC memory and hard drive upgrades --Submitted by DrMicro

If you have any additional advice or recommendations for Dan, please click on the reply link and submit it. Please be as detailed as possible in your answers and if you have links even better. Thanks!
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Finding compatible memory and a new hard drive for an older
by jjdetroit / October 10, 2008 10:49 AM PDT

>> How do I figure out which memory will work in a PC (size/speed/max capacity)? <<

First thing I always do in this situation is go online to the Crucial website and run their online scan. It almost always can figure out what memory your PC can use. Even if you have a "no-name" PC, it can often identify your motherboard and go from there.

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Finding compatible memory.
by newcompin / October 11, 2008 2:28 PM PDT

Dear Friend,

There are some simple things you can try.

1.Right click on My computer icon,it will open general tab.
see the processor under computer if the processor is "Pentium(R)4-1.8 to 2.4GHZ Your system will be having DDR1 Ram (266 or 333MHZ).

2.Start the PC and watch ath the start when BIOS Shows the configuration of the RAM.

3.Start the PC ,go to BIOS Setup either by pressing F2 Or Del key.
In standard cmos setup you can find out the type of the RAM.

Kindly do,


Prasanna Khire

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by brandoncwilson / October 19, 2008 12:41 PM PDT

I second the suggestion that you check out FRom their site you can run a scan of your system and it will tell you how much RAM you currently have installed, the type of motherboard in your system, motherboard RAM capacity, etc..

After the scan it will automagically select right amount of RAM to max out your system and with one click you can add it to the shopping cart and checkout. (Very handy stuff for a lazy shopper like me!)

I was also surprised at how cheap RAM has gotten recently. I am going to buy some for my system right now! Good luck! Happy

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Components for an older PC
by Watzman / October 10, 2008 11:07 AM PDT

Finding components for an older PC is not that difficult.

The disk drive is the easiest thing to deal with, because there are very few issues. Assuming that this is a desktop, and that it is not truly ancient (before mid 1990's; assuming that it is at least a Pentium of some ilk), you are looking for a 3.5" hard drive, and you only really need to worry about the interface and the capacity. Everything else can be ignored. Broadly speaking, there are only two interface types, SATA and IDE (technically, there are about 5 subvariants of IDE, but you can ignore that detail). IDE drives use a wide flat ribbon cable with a 40-pin connector (2 rows of 20 pins each). The only other concern is capacity, and in general, any drive of 120GB or less will work. If the PC was made before about 2002, you MAY have issues if you try to go larger than 120GB, due to an issue known as 48-bit LBA. If it's made after 2002 or so (some variation here), that probably won't be an issue as far as the hardware is concerned (this can also be an issue with respect to the operating system as well). You asked a lot of other questions, about which I would direct you to Wikipedia, but the fact is that you can pretty much ignore all issues other than IDE/SATA (and you can generally ignore the sub-variants of both), and the 48-bit LBA capacity issue I mentioned above (not an issue if you stay below 120GB). [Note: your only source of drives below 160GB (and probably even of 160GB drives) will probably be E-Bay. Current new drives mostly START at 320GB and larger.]

Memory: There are a bunch of TYPES of memory that an older PC could be using:

-30 pin SIMMs (386 & 486 PCs mostly)
-72 pin SIMMs (486 and a very few very early Pentium PCs)
-SDRAM (Pentiums, 1996 to about 2003)
-RDRAM (Pentium 4's mostly, 1999 to 2002)
-DDR (2003 to about 2005)
-DDR2 (2005 to present)
-DDR3 (2007 to present)

[Note: CPUs and dates are generalities; many exceptions exist]

The memory type is determined by the chipset, which is part of the motherboard. You should be able to identify the memory type by looking at what is already installed, or by identifying the chipset (either look at the motherboard, or go into Control Panel / System / Hardware / Device Manager. Contrary to what you may think, the motherboard can PROBABLY be identified from silk screening (printing) on the motherboard itself, and at that point you can probably go to the mfgrs. web site and download a manual in PDF format. You really do need to identify the chipset OR the motherboard to buy memory with near total assurance that it will work, but if you just know the memory type (above list) you can take a chance and have a reasonable chance of success. The type has to be right; with a few exceptions, any given motherboard takes one and only one type of memory.

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by melburstein / October 10, 2008 11:08 AM PDT

An excellent website for determining memory upgrades is

Mel Burstein

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Are you able to get online with that same computer?
by desirawson / October 10, 2008 11:10 AM PDT

If so, go to and look for the tools they have on their website to identify what you have and what you can upgrade to (your PC may not have "room" to grow). It's a great site and takes all of the guess work out of it.

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Compatible memory
by Micsup / October 10, 2008 11:13 AM PDT

Normally you could get onto the support website of a major computer manufacturer and find out all you need to know. Not the case here. Best and fastest way to find out what memory to use(I'm guessing PC100 or PC133, 168 pin SDRAM) is to open up the computer and scour the motherboard for make and model number. Google that information or, if you can definitly get the manufacturer's name((ASUS, MSI etc) go right to the motherboarb maker's homepage and navigate through support until you find your model number, including version more than likely. That will give you all the information you need as to what type and maximum size memory you can install, what type and size of processor etc. By the way, with what you describe as an older computer, you can probably disregard any references to SATA or SATA II connections with regard to your harddrive. You will almost certainly have an IDE connection(long grey ribbon connector). So any new harddrove will have to be an IDE also. is a wonderfull source of products for doing exactly what you want to do. Good luck.

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Finding compatible memory and a new hard drive for an older
by cjwolff / October 10, 2008 11:15 AM PDT

install " Belarc Advisor " download at download .com ,it will show you almost everything you want to find out you system ,hope this helps

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by heidiw2 / October 10, 2008 11:20 AM PDT

Go to I have used them for years
(used to be Micron). They will match you up. They are fast and reliable.

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Crucial Rocks!
by TechWire-21770559572842363290467914034695 / October 10, 2008 11:37 AM PDT
In reply to: RAM

I agree.

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Here's a clickable text link for you...
by santuccie / October 10, 2008 11:59 AM PDT
In reply to: Crucial Rocks!
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Behind the times, play catch up...
by 1centwiz / October 10, 2008 11:58 AM PDT

I too know what it's like to try and up-grade older pc's. Here in Montana, there aren't a lot of people that have "extra" money, or a lot of it...

First you say you don't know what a Sata II/Sata2(same thing different way of typing it in, I think) drive is? Well if you are working on an older computer, you probably don't need to worry about this unless you buy a new motherboard(MB). It is a type of connection which is better than the older IDE pin connections. It looks like a flat plug that's shaped like a long L and usually has a red(could come in different colors) cable. These drives are smaller in dimension, but big on performance since the connections to the MB are tight and less prone to pin breakage and transfer loss.

Hard drives tend to be a bit of a puzzle, like you said it will depend on the ability of the MB and the processor as to how fast will be too fast.

Take a look at the BIOS and you should be able to see what the FSB/MHz speed is currently and that should give you a start as to how fast you can go. Same goes for the RAM upgrades. If you already have a RAM module, make sure you continue the same Latency and MHz, (CL-2,PC3100, etc.),otherwise you'll be wasting money. You can effectively mesh different manufacturers, but not the speeds. Also, make sure that if you have a buffered module, you stick with that. If you don't, then don't add them unless you know the MB can handle it.

If you are running XP, having at least a 512mb RAM is best. However, if you want to upgrade to Vista Sad you will need at least a 512mb module. You also have to take note of how many RAM spots there are on the MB. If you only have one, then upgrade to a full GB, if you have 2, then you can split the amounts 50/50. Adding a module bigger than the first one in this case will work, but is not usually advised.

Also you can find out more info on upgrades by going to or as they have a super support areas for learning.

Best of luck! I'm sure I don't have all the answers, but hope this helps.

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Compatible memory is a snap.
by clavall / October 10, 2008 11:58 AM PDT

Finding compatible memory is as easy as visiting The Crucial homepage'
There is a Memory Advisor tool that is dead on. Still not convinced. Call customer service toll free. The number is cleverly hidden deep in "contact Us". Not anymore: Toll-free for US and Canada 800-336-8915. They are friendly and helpful. Like me.

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by tpond76 / October 10, 2008 12:07 PM PDT

To see what kind of RAM you have: go to and do a system scan. (you probably have SDRAM -- not DDR or DDR2, these are newer)
As for the hard drive: IDE and SATA are the connections/interfaces. UDMA or EIDE are the same thing. SATA is a different interface, different controller and different plug. 99% sure that you have an IDE drive (IDE, EIDE, UDMA are all interchangeable-- if your motherboard/bios are newer you can leverage the capabilities of UDMA for higher data rates) However, the point is, you can purchase any "IDE" type drive and it will work with Win XP in your system.
As for your upgrade question-- if you're going to spend more than $100, you're better off buying an entirely new system and bringing your software over from the old PC. You can buy a barebones kit with a new processor, lots of RAM and big hard drive for less than $200. Or, you can even buy a new DELL (or other online retailer) system without an operating system for about the same cost and forego all the headaches of upgrading an older machine.

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Older computer--newer memory
by marcysg / October 10, 2008 12:09 PM PDT

I've had great luck dealing with They have a small download on their website that will look at your computer (no matter the age) that will tell you what you HAVE and what you have ROOM/CAPACITY to add.

The program will also tell you (I think) what hard drive you have.

The nice thing about Crucial--they guarantee that their memory will work in your computer. And considering that many other companies SELL Crucial RAM -- you cut out the middleman plus the guarantee that it will work.

I've updated 4 different computers over the years (2 of mine and 2 of a parental unit) and each time the RAM worked the first time and was exactly as ordered.

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The easiest way - Silly!
by rongreenfield6 / October 17, 2008 11:40 PM PDT

is to open up you computer, take out the memory chip(s) that are in there and obviously work. Many of them have stickers that say what they are. If not the part number will reveal what they are- just Google it.
Now while you are in there you can see how many slots you have.
For example. If you have 3 slots - each with a 128mg in it then you would want to get the same speed and get (3) 256's every one can take 256's and you're done!
(If you want to get more extreme, you will need to download the motherboard manual to check and see if it can take 512's or 1G and if it can use double or single sided ships)
Example 2: is that you only have one big chip in it. It has one 256 or 512 chip and 1 or 2 slots empty. Now its really easy. Just buy more of that same chip and put it in!!!!
Ron G

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Memory and Hard drives
by DJHRVV / October 10, 2008 12:15 PM PDT

I can understand your questions as to how to determine what memory you should use and hard drives. Lets start with the memory. Depending on how old your computer is they had two types of memory before DDR memory came out. The foirst on is called simm's which means single in line memore module, they had to be installed as a pair of identical size and speed. The sticks are about 3 1/2" in length and were usuall sitting at a slant on the mother board. The next generation of memory is called SDRAM. Which means Static Direct Random Acess Memory. Which had 168 pins and 2 "U" shaped slots in them where the pins connect to the mother board. They came in various megabytes and speed. The most common of sdram is 128mb, 256,and 512MB's speed was set at either 100 MHZ or 133MHZ. I am willing to bet yours has the SDRAM in it. One way to find out is remove the side of your case and look at the memory sticks. They are Green in color and will have small black processors on either one side or both. The memory usually sits next to the processor. As it still does today on the more advanced mother boards. Anouther way to find out which is the simplest is to right click on my computer and go to properties, left click on it and a window will come up letting you know your processor and memory speed and size. This window tells you just about everything you will need to know. I am willing to bet you have SDRAM in your computer. There is one thing about SDRAM, that is the speed either it be 100MHZ or 133MHZ. You can inter change the speed to 133 if you are running 100MHZ, but you can not mix them. If you have only one or two slots for memory the sticks that you put back must match. Being either 100MHZ or 133MHZ. as far as the Megabytes, that part you can use say one stick of 128 MB and a stick of 256MB. But I really wouldn't do that. I would make sure that they are both the same.
Your second question Hard Drives. SCSI hard drives were mostly used in servers because of so much data being transfered and the spun at a higher rate then an IDE hard drive. The older computers had hard drives usually IDE spinning at either 5400 RPM or 7200 rpm's. The older computers used a IDE 40 pin ribbon. They were usually grey in color and had black connectors at each end. With a red line running down one side to show where pin 1 was. You can update your computer to 7200 RPM's at any size. weather it be a 80 GB or 160GB hard drive.
I would advise you to change the IDE ribbon to a 80 pin ribbon, it still has the same number of pins which is 40 but it has 80 strands of wire going through the ribbon. As far as seek time goes it depends on the processor and the memory of the hard drive weather it be 8 MB's or 16 MB's of memory. UDMA Ultra Dynamic memory assoc. This is used for burning to disc. If your system was set up with SATA it does not support UDMA. SATA means serial. It has a totally differnt connector and is much faster at transfering data. Where IDE usually transfers data at 100 MBPS, sata transfers at a rate of 133MB per second Sata drives also spin at 7200 RPM's or 10,000 RPM's unless you have a very updated system that supports RAID, which means you can connect 2 or more SATA drives together and the system will see them as one drive totaling up all the Gigabytes together. Where IDE you either have a master and a slave drive. Sata drives do not offer this function. Also sata drive only have an 8 pin connector compared to the 40 pin connector of the IDE drives. Hard drives today do not support both IDE or SATA they are either one or the other. Ide drives have a jumper on the back of them to make them a master or a slave or cable select connection. Where SATA drives do not.
If I were you I would just either build me a new computer or buy a new one. But beware the new computers that are comming out now are using windows Vista. Unless you specify you want windows XP. Also most manufactures partition the hard drives so that they don't have to supply you with a windows or mother board disc. It is on the partition that is locked. You then have to make your own recovery disc from this partition which you should do after you set up your new computer. I hope this information helps.

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Memory and Hard disks
by Rick75230 / October 10, 2008 2:04 PM PDT
In reply to: Memory and Hard drives

As someone mentioned, try Belarc Advisor. Also, just Windows System Information.

A third thing is to press the Pause button DURING BOOTUP. Almost all motherboards will display the model number of the SYSTEM BOARD, the BIOS date, and some other useful information. Also, WITH THE POWER CORD DISCONNECTED, just look at the top side of the system board itself. They all have the manufacturer's name and part number. Then visit the manufacturer's website or google the part number for the motherboard. In most cases you will be able to find a picture of your motherboard.

You don't mention how old your system is. If you go beyond a certain age adding memory gets impractical. First, the older boards can't handle as much memory. Also, memory prices run on a U-shaped curve. When a new type of memory first goes on the market its price is high. As it catches on, prices fall. But because technology keeps improving, gradually it loses market share. When that happens, prices go back up due to low demand. Nowadays it might be cheaper to replace the motherboard AND CPU AND memory rather than just add more memory. 2 GB of DDR2 is a LOT less than 2 GB of PC-133, and you probably couldn't even get 2 GB running. (Remember that XP *HOME* can't run multiple cores.) Of course, if you replace the motherboard you may have to reactivate software, and/or obtain new device drivers, and media with DRM might not work.

Regarding hard disks, virtually all IDE disks come with available jumper settings that will report to the board that the drive is less than 32 GB. Even boards from around 1999 will run with disks under 32 GB. Setup software provided with the drive will let you use the full capacity. However, you might have to partition the drive. The under-32 GB limit is basically a PHYSICAL ELECTRONICS limit. If the ELECTRONICS think the disk has more than 32 GB, the motherboard BIOS can lock up and the board won't boot. If you use the "under 32 GB" jumper setting, the setup software modifies the BOOT sector to load PRE-BOOT software.

Also, still regularly sells hard disks in the 120 GB range and even in the 80 GB range.

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three alternatives for adding RAM to an unknown PC
by ckollars / October 10, 2008 1:01 PM PDT

I've added memory to half a dozen old carcasses about which I initially knew nothing. Here's what's worked for me: write down the brand name and model number and serial number of the PC (turn the PC around to read the label on the back if you have to). Then web browse to the brand name's site. Look for some combination of "support", "manuals", and a place to enter either your model number or your serial number. You'll eventually get to a page where you can download a copy of the missing manual. Voila. Nowadays (unlike just a few years ago) every device always has a manual.

Don't worry about "too fast"; memory will work at a lower speed too. (Worry about "too slow" though.) Match 'parity' and 'dynamic/static' to your motherboard. (Most home systems don't have 'parity'; most servers do. One way to find out is to count chips on an existing memory stick-- if it's a multiple of eight you probably have 'no parity'; if it's a multiple of nine you probably have 'parity'.) Fortunately you can pretty much ignore all that hocus-pocus and just pay attention to the connector. Count the pins and look at the locations of all those cut-ins where pins are missing. There are quite a few slightly different connector types, and the slots on your motherboard are specific so you can't force the wrong memory into them.

A second alternative is to go to a website that sells memory, and when asked enter your brand name and model number. Almost always they'll tell you what kind of memory you need. (My experience is this often works even better than the brand name site for really old PCs.) If all else fails, the third alternative is to take out one of the existing memory sticks, take it to the store with you, and say "I want more like this".

With any luck you now have a manual and the manual will tell you about disks as well as memory. If the manual doesn't say, here's some background:

For disks, IDE grew up into ATA. Then those with a wide cable (which used to be everything) were called Parallel-ATA or P-ATA or PATA. The newer ones with a much narrower cable were called Serial-ATA or S-ATA or SATA. Finally, folks quickly got frustrated with the limits of the new SATA, amped it up, and called the result SATA-II. Applying the same thin cable treatment to SCSI resulted in Serial-Attached-SCSI or SAS. (UDMA is a kind of SCSI.)

You can think of SATA as the "new-fangled" replacement for PATA that will allow faster HDD speeds in the future. And you can think of SATA-II as "near-SCSI-quality", to be used in for example high-performance applications and 24/7 applications. (The "quality" of SATA/SATA-II is a "religious" issue and I'm sure others will disagree with what I've just said. So take my opinion with a grain of salt as just starting guidance.)

(Typically you can hook up quite a few devices to a SCSI cable, and two devices to a PATA cable. But you can only hook up one device to each SATA cable; there's a connector at each end but never any in the middle.)

No, PATA and SATA are not compatible (at least not unless you can stuff a whole lot of wires into just a few pins). And no, they don't mix very easily; it's best if any one PC remains either all PATA or all SATA. And no, they don't "convert" easily (unless you're willing to pay as much for the 'converter' as for the drive itself). Look inside your PC-- if you see wide (about 2.5") cables it's PATA (or ATA or IDE); if you see narrow (about 0.6") cables it's SATA.

(At the store the terms IDE, ATA, and PATA mean essentially the same thing. One of the great things about "standards" is there are so many of them to choose from.:-)

In theory the new SATA drives also have a different SATA power connector, which many newer power supplies also have. But in practice there are quite a few "hybrid" SATA drives with both old and new style power connectors so they can work with any power supply. As far as I know there's no useful terminology for this, you just have to look. Plug in one or the other (but not both, unless you want "sparks"). Anyway, such hybrids will probably become uncommon in a few years.

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Not quite...
by Wolfie2k5 / October 11, 2008 8:16 AM PDT
I've added memory to half a dozen old carcasses about which I initially knew nothing. Here's what's worked for me: write down the brand name and model number and serial number of the PC (turn the PC around to read the label on the back if you have to). Then web browse to the brand name's site. Look for some combination of "support", "manuals", and a place to enter either your model number or your serial number.

That might work if you've got a branded box, such an HP or Dell, but if you've got a noname white box built by a local builder, you won't likely find one.

Fortunately you can pretty much ignore all that hocus-pocus and just pay attention to the connector. Count the pins and look at the locations of all those cut-ins where pins are missing. There are quite a few slightly different connector types, and the slots on your motherboard are specific so you can't force the wrong memory into them.

You're kidding... Right? Most modern RAM sticks have at least 184 pins. I can just see someone trying to count the number of pins on a DDR or DDR2 stick... Geeze...

No, PATA and SATA are not compatible (at least not unless you can stuff a whole lot of wires into just a few pins). And no, they don't mix very easily; it's best if any one PC remains either all PATA or all SATA. And no, they don't "convert" easily (unless you're willing to pay as much for the 'converter' as for the drive itself). Look inside your PC-- if you see wide (about 2.5") cables it's PATA (or ATA or IDE); if you see narrow (about 0.6") cables it's SATA.

Actually... You can buy a PATA to SATA adapter as well as a SATA to PATA adapter. They'll set you back less than $10 USD each on eBay all day long. I'd guess they're a bit more expensive at a local electronics superstore. But that's the price of buying retail.
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upgrading older pc
by tkoon / October 10, 2008 1:28 PM PDT

my motherboard failed and I thought I'd replace that and go on....the bottom line.. it isn't worth it... while your old PC still runs....take everything off of it that you can take off and transfer to the new windows vista (I know it does suck, but you will get used to it, and it will still such, blue screens etc. but no choice) on a machine that has the latest technology...the machine will last you for about 3-4 years before going out of date. Then the old machine will run much faster without all the stuff on it that you liked..and wouldn't run on the new vista...about 80% of everything you owned. Everything going to vista needs new drivers, upgrades and whatever else they can charge you for so that you have to spend more money to get the old software to work. Basically, you are out of luck and trying to upgrade an older PC will only make your situation worse.

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Finding Compatible Memory
by DragRacerX / October 10, 2008 1:29 PM PDT

The two websites below will scan your system, tell you what is installed, what the maximum configuration is, how many slots, how many are populated, and the correct memory options.

MemoryGiant "Check My System"

Crucial "Scan My System"

Mike ONeill /

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by sjulty / October 10, 2008 1:56 PM PDT

This is a pretty easy one to solve...just browse over to and click on the "scan my system" link. Once you accept the download, it will scan and analyze your computer and the resulting information it comes up with will tell you the type of RAM your system uses, how much is currently installed, how many slots your motherboard has and the maximum amount the motherboard will accept. Note: In order to save some money (since it's an older computer), your best bet would probably be to browse over to some place like Newegg, Compgeeks, Overstock or even EBay and find some discounted RAM as Crucial's RAM prices are often a bit higher than current market rate. As for a replacement Hard drive, they are physically pretty much standard sized, the difference being the interface & once again, since it is an older computer, it is more than likely ATA, IDE ore EIDE. Don't forget that if your intention is to replace your main "boot" drive, you will need either an OEM system restore disc or a genuine Microsoft install disc. & don't forget your drivers (Audio, display & network card) + any additional "extra" software such as for CD/DVD burning, MS office, etc.

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upgrading an older PC
by LloydSchulz / October 10, 2008 2:14 PM PDT

There are too many possibilities that can end up costing you more money, and in the end you still have 'an older PC'. For my money I would just buy a whole 'newer' off-lease PC. Leased PCs are generally higher quality PCs typically used in a business or government, and they are usually replaced when the lease is up (usually 3 years). You can often buy these for less than the cost of upgrading your old PC, and you get warranty on the whole unit. One year warranty is standard for the company I deal with. Check out If you are looking forward to the challenge of solving the puzzle, then check out other posts. If you just want a reliable computer that works better than what you have, this will reliably get you what you want.

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Time moves on
by Flirkann / October 10, 2008 2:27 PM PDT

As you are already aware this comes down to hardware.
Without a mentioned model number, you will have to Google your board to determine the type of memory you need, most boards will have this screen printed on the "top" side somewhere.
As you have described the machine as "older" but not as a dinosaur/relic you could reasonably expect to be shopping around for regular DDR modules - not the current DDR2 products.
The good news about RAM speed is that using faster modules than the motherboard can use won't break anything, they just won't run at full speed.
Mixing speeds can cause issues with some motherboards - some boards require the RAM to be inserted in a particular order so it can detect the speed of the slowest module, if they aren't in the right order then the board may set the speed too high for one or more sticks.
Size can be an issue for really old boards, however if the board supports DDR then you should be quite fine with modules upto 1GB in size, again check your motherboard specifications for confirmation just in case.
Another thing to look out for is registered/ECC RAM - this is server RAM and most consumer motherboards don't support it.
And finally, quality. Intel CPU motherboards are generally rather accepting of RAM, AMD CPU boards have tendency to loath the cheap stuff - the CPUs and chipsets have tighter tolerances which the cheap stuff often can't meet. If you can get Kingston/Legend/Samsung/Hynix branded modules you can't go wrong - there are other reputable brands which are dearer and perform much better, but unless you're upgrading a performance oriented machine they are overkill.

Hard Drives...
Again choices come down to motherboard abilities, thankfully (P)ATA (IDE you called it) is a standard capability on all but some of the newest motherboards.
The same benchmarks apply when making a decision, IMO Seagate/Western Digital are THE brands to consider - some would even go as far as to only use Seagate for warranty and performance, but I've yet to have a reliability issue with WD (I use both FWIW)
UDMA - Ultra DMA - Ultra Direct Memory Access - DMA is effectively a personal assistant for the CPU when some form of I/O operation is required. The DMA controls the data transfer on the CPU's behalf so it can get back to the running program, and because it is highly specialised it is more efficient itself which means faster transfers and computer that doesn't slow down as much when data needs to be moved about - and hard drives are pretty slow compared to the rest of the machine.
SATA - Serial ATA - a newer interface standard that uses a 7pin data cable and sends data/commands in serial form. Thinner cables mean less clutter and airflow impediments, and SATA is hot pluggable.
1.5Gbps transfer rate for ~150MB/s of real data transfer ability - the drive internals are still the same as ATA so sustained data rates are still about 60MB/s depending on the drive.
SATA2 - 2nd Generation SATA - same deal, just faster.
3Gbps/~300MB/s link speed but is still limited by drive design for sustained transfer rates.
NCQ - Native Command Queuing - The drive's control logic allows it to re-organise the order of commands it receives to optimise performance.
This does have to be enabled at the driver level, and XP will need specific drivers to use this feature.

Hmm, longer than I expected, hope it helps =)

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Upgrading an old computer...
by 1centwiz / October 10, 2008 3:02 PM PDT
In reply to: Time moves on

Wow, I thought I was going to be the long winded one.. lol...
It's great to see so many people that have such great ideas, mostly the same, but even I learned something!
Thanks for sharing!

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by SlamX / October 10, 2008 2:35 PM PDT

First off it would be good if you could find the manual for your motherboard. Usually you can find it online at the manufacturer website. So you will need to identify the make and model motherboard. The manual will tell you what type of RAM and how much you can upgrade to and what type of hard drives it supports i.e. IDE, SATA etc. Hard drives are huge now days but the very large ones may not be compatible with your motherboard If you have an open PCI slot you can get a controller card that will handle the new large hard drives.

A good utility to do this is Everest Home Edition or Belarc. Here are links for those.

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Finding compatible memory
by blackcat55 / October 10, 2008 3:26 PM PDT

The easiest, cheapest and simplest way to find compatible memory is . You can enter your make and model computer and search for compatible memory or download their tool and they will read your system for you and tell you what memory is compatible. I have used them many times for my desktops and laptops and they have even old EDO memory with top name brands and the cheapest prices. You can also ship back your old memory you are not using any more, and they will give you credit for it but is not that much.

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Compatable memory
by garfield411 / October 10, 2008 3:56 PM PDT

Well the easiest way that ido it and I tell alot of my friends. First if you have internet connection on the PC in question I go to They have an applet that you install and it will tell you exactly what type, how much you have and what is the max you can put in. I copy all the info and then look around for the cheapest also I would check out computer fairs they tend to have older stuff. If the PC is not internet ready you can take out the chips and check out the fairs and note how many slots you have and OS you are running.

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Your answer in one simple download
by Forked_Tongue / October 10, 2008 4:34 PM PDT

You can download this from Cnet's download section, the program you want to download is PC Wizard 2008, which you can find here simply install it and when it first runs it tells you immediately what is your mainboard/motherboard (model number so you can do a search) what chipset it has, your cpu speed, how much ram you have and what type,and your video card type as well, etc. Now that your armed with this information you have to decide is it worth sinking money into an old computer or buying a newer motherboard, cpu, and ram? You can reuse the current hard drive you have though before shutting off the computer uninstall the graphic's driver to avoid a reboot conflict (Xp is tough, after you change out the motherboard, enter the bios, set boot order to CD/Hard drive or whatever, and then have the driver's disk available for the new motherboard and after about 3 reboots you're up and running). Once you identify your board post here and we'll all suggest what memory you should buy or even if you should.

Right now I'm typing on an Intel Atom z530 dual core @ 1600MHz with 2gb of ram which can be put into any tower with a micro-atx form factor (this board has four screws, quick and easy install) which pretty much is any budget tower most people would have bought. I bought the motherboard/cpu combo for $90 and the 2 gb single stick of ram for $25,and reusing the hard drive, Dvd burner, powersupply, and case (I intend to add more hard drives and make this a media file server and will downgrade the powersupply accordingly since it's overkill). If you look around you can do better if you want to do more work (seat a cpu and heatsink/fan combo) and get a better rig (Intel e1200/e1400/e2180 and a cheap board or Amd 4400+ Brisbane/BE-2400 Brisbane 2.3GHz, both brands can be had with a budget board for under a $100 if you shop around, you should be able to reuse everything but ram and possibly video card) for a main duty computer. I wouldn't recommend any single cores though, multicores are the future. Lucky for you most of the budget boards will also have floppy drive (worthless), one ide connector (for CD rom and hard drive), and usually a pair of sata connectors. Another thing you like is that the newer boards support usb booting, with pendrives you can experiment with various versions of linux as well.

UDMA, Ultra DMA, or Ultra Direct Memory Access, it supports direct memory access with ide controller to enable faster data transfers, "Ultra" is a marketting slang for IDE 100/133 speeds.

Sata, Serial ata, a faster interface for data transfers for hard drives, I like the fact it allows better airflow though most cables are way too long. Sata drives and now faster, larger, and cheaper than their IDE counterparts at given comparison points, you'll get more bang for the buck. This is not backwards compatible with most of the older single core models (early p4s and athlons) motherboards usually. Sata 2 is marketting hype, I've yet to see a sata drive that can consistantly deliver on the limits of sata 1, in fact lot of the Western Digital Raptors were the benchmarks and they're sata 1s.

NCQ native command queuing, from wikpedia "Native Command Queuing (NCQ) is a technology designed to increase performance of SATA hard disks under certain situations by allowing the individual hard disk to internally optimize the order in which received read and write commands are executed. This can reduce the amount of unnecessary drive head movement, resulting in increased performance (and slightly decreased wear of the drive) for workloads where multiple simultaneous read/write requests are outstanding, most often occurring in server-type applications. However, the current (as of 2004) technology actually slows down HD access in certain applications, like games and sequential reads & writes, because of the added latency induced by NCQ logic" so it's application dependent.

Dan if you don't mind, give us your intended main intention(s) with this computer, an approx budget, and we'll all pull our hair and argue about the best way to help you spend your money. If you can follow instructions, somewhat capable, and have decent motor skills (main finesse skill is plugging in the front panel wires into the motherboard) you'll do fine if you're open to the option of upgrading.

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