I hate throwing away old computer equipment. Whenever I buy a new system, the older ones tend to find other roles in my digital life. Maybe not on my desktop any more, but maybe in the playroom, or in a closet, or on my floor, or some other location where it can still serve a purpose. Usually, near the very end of a PC’s life cycle, I’ll install Linux on it and it will still be viable for another few years at least.
Earlier this year, my Dell Dimension 4600 wasn’t quite ready to be turned into a Linux box just yet. And technically, it wasn’t exactly my Dell Dimension 4600 to start with. It came as a package deal with my wife, since it had been her desktop computer when we started dating (and the tool via which she stalked me online — true story… kinda).
By looking up its ship date on Dell.com, I could tell the Dimension 4600 had been born on May 8, 2004, and had shipped with 256MB of RAM, a 128MB graphics card, and Windows XP. We had upgraded my wife’s desktop to a faster computer, so I decided to put this one out at our cabin; mainly to connect to our video security system out there, so the kids could use it to print out homework if we were out there on weekends, or if I wanted to tinker around on it when I needed a vacation from my vacation.
I was able to get Windows 7 installed on the system, but it ran slooooow. I decided to try and speed things up with a RAM upgrade first. I went to Crucial.com and looked up the RAM upgrade options for a Dell Dimension 4600. Crucial told me that the system had 4 slots on board, and could take up to 4GB of RAM. The system already had two 256MB sticks in it, so I decided to buy two 1GB sticks and take the total memory to 2.5GB.
After installing the new RAM in the old system, things ran more quickly than before, but I still found myself waiting… a long time… for stuff to appear on screen. So I decided to check the Windows Experience Index of the system to discover the weak link.
If you’ve never done it before, finding out your Windows Experience Index is easy. Just press the Start button, then right click Computer, and select Properties. Under the System section, you’ll see a Rating: line, with a number and a link for Windows Experience Index. If you click that link, you’ll see a breakdown of the different components of your system that affect overall performance, and how they measure up. Here’s what mine looked like after the Dimension 4600’s RAM upgrade:
A score of 1.0 is awful. No wonder it was still slow! Although the info showed that the additional RAM helped my memory become the 2nd strongest performance element on the system (exceeded only by the hard disk), the real boat anchor was obvious: the graphics. Desktop Graphics performance was at a 1.9, and Gaming Graphics (which I believe is a misleading name because 3D graphics performance is important even for non-gamers) was at a 1.0. The overall Windows Experience Index is always equal to the lowest individual score, since that’s what’s pulling you down. Clearly, I needed to upgrade the graphics adapter before trying anything else.
Doing so, however, turned out to be a harder problem to solve than I originally imagined. I needed to find a graphics adapter that supported DirectX 9 (which is part of the graphics system used by Windows 7), but most of the cards that do are are PCI-e cards. The Dell Dimension 4600, however, doesn’t have any PCI-e slots on the motherboard. Instead, it has an AGP slot… but finding an older AGP card that supports the newer DirectX 9 graphics was nearly impossible. And then I had to worry about whether or not Windows 7 native drivers were available for it.
I experimented with a few different cards I had lying around in my computer boneyard in the basement, but none worked. After some more research, I decided to take a chance with an nVidia GeForce 6200 card. It was only $43 on Amazon, and I knew that returning it would be easy if it didn’t work. It would double the amount of video RAM available to the system, support DirectX 9, and my research showed it should still have Windows 7 drivers available.
After installing the card in the computer, and happily discovering that native Windows 8 drivers were available, things seemed to be running a lot faster. I re-ran the Windows Experience Index and got:
That’s almost a 300% increase in score! That resulted in massively improved performance. I could actually surf the web at normal speeds, run my video security software, and do standard desktop computer stuff (checking mail, running a spreadsheet, etc.) without having to wait.
All told, I spent less than $100 on a RAM upgrade and a better video card, which made the old Dimension 4600 actually usable with Windows 7. It’s been chugging along just fine for almost five months now. I doubt I’ll spend any more money on upgrades, and it will likely become another of my Linux-running minions eventually, when some other system trickles down and displaces it (unless it dies first). But the $100 was money well spent, and a good example of how a couple minor upgrades can result in major performance increases.