Thinking From the Box

Upgrading Your Socket 7 Computer

James Burton - 2001.10.17

Remember when that Pentium of yours was the fastest on the block? Now it plods along slowly compared to modern machines. What should you do? Most people would recommend buying a new PC. Seeing how little most new PC's cost, that isn't bad advice.

However, many users don't want or need all the features of a new computer, or, more importantly, they don't want to pay for it. So for all of you low-end PC users out there, here are some of the best ways to upgrade a low-end PC.

1. Memory

Guess what, memory is cheap - very cheap. And it is probably the easiest way to upgrade your PC. Most Socket 7 PCs shipped with 16-64 MB of RAM, which is way too little for today's applications. Even a small memory upgrade will give a noticeable performance boost to your PC.

The first thing you need to know about upgrading memory is what type to buy. For this you need to open up your computer and take a look at what you see in the RAM slots. You will see either:

Short (roughly 10 cm) white RAM slots
Long (roughly 15 cm) black RAM slots
Both long and short slots

The short slots are for EDO and FPM (Fast Page Mode) RAM. The longer slots are for SDRAM. If you have a choice, get SDRAM. It's faster, cheaper, and better.

SDRAM DIMMs are installed one at a time. My recommendation is that you buy at least one 128 MB DIMM for your upgrade. Many retail stores are offering significant rebates on this, so it shouldn't be too expensive. However, do be careful (and save your receipt), because some older boards won't take more than 16 MB or 32 MB DIMMs. If your board will take the 128 MB DIMM, the follow the following procedure to upgrade your RAM

  1. Remove all EDO/FPM RAM from your system (SDRAM and EDO do not get along, and it really is cheaper to remove the old RAM than to upgrade it)
  2. Make sure your RAM voltage is set to 3.3V! This is usually controlled by a jumper on the motherboard.
  3. Put in the RAM (it only goes in one way).
  4. Put the computer back together and turn it on. If it boots and gives the right amount of memory, it works.

EDO/FPM RAM is older style RAM that tends to be more expensive. You must install EDO/FPM in matched (same type, same size) pairs on a Pentium system. You are probably best off buying this online or on eBay. EDO is faster than FPM, but FPM will work just fine in an upgrade. Installation is similar to that for SDRAM, except that the RAM voltage must be set to 5V.

Now that you have upgraded your RAM, you should notice that your PC operates noticeably faster, with a lot less noise from the hard disk due to the fact that you are not swapping to virtual memory as often.


Upgrading a CPU can be very tricky, and it is often thought not to be worth the time, effort, and money on a Socket 7 board, mainly due to the fact that most Socket 7 boards only officially support processors up to 233 MHz. However, with a little detective work you can determine if you can take an upgrade and how much of one you can take.

There is a little known trick about the AMD K6-2 and K6-III processors that allows them to run on older boards. The 400, 450, and 500 MHz versions of these processors will treat a 2x multiplier like a 6x multiplier. (These chips are only about $40 online.) However, your board must meet the following standards:

400 MHz 450 MHz 500 MHz 550 MHz
Bus 66 MHz 75 MHz 83 MHz 100 MHz
Core Voltage 2.4V 2.4V 2.2V 2.2V

If your board does not support these settings, don't give up all hope yet. Often there will undocumented settings available. Check the Internet and Google Groups to see if this is true of your motherboard.

If you are running Windows 95, you must get a patch from Microsoft before you upgrade your CPU. (Windows 95 had problems with AMD chips above 300 MHz.) If you are running Windows 98, make sure you upgrade to Windows 98 SE. (No particular reason for this, except that the original Win98 was unusually buggy)

Also, be sure to upgrade to the latest BIOS for your motherboard. This is usually available from the manufacturer's website.

If you can upgrade the CPU, just replace the old CPU, set the jumpers correctly (your motherboard manual will tell you how), and put the new CPU in. If it starts when you turn it on, the upgrade is complete.

Video Cards

A good video card will make worlds of difference, especially when playing video games. Although there are PCI versions of the Voodoo4, GeForce 200Mx, and the ATI Rage 128, you can find a Voodoo3 or Voodoo Banshee, Nvidia TNT2/Vanta, or other card for a much lower price.

Sound Cards

A SoundBlaster Live! Value is a nice sound card that won't set you back too much. Just make sure you have an open PCI slot and can disable any onboard sound.

Hard Disks

The bigger the better. However beware of the 8 GB limit imposed by some older BIOSes. Most drives will come with software to deal with this, or there might be a BIOS update available.

As you can see, there are several upgrade options available for older Socket 7 systems. However, do remember that Socket 7 is aging rapidly, and newer machines are falling rapidly in price. If you have to spend more than $250 to get your system where you want it, you probably want to start looking at a new PC. LEPC

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