System Upgrades 3 — Hardware Upgrading Tips

Upgrading hardware can be a two edged sword: the excitement and pleasure of getting something new and better into a system is sometimes tempered by frustration at making the new hardware work. Here are some tips to help:

  • Check the hardware fit. Make certain the system has the slots required for your upgrade, and see that they are the right type. Are you adding a PCIe, PCI, or an ISA card? If PCIe, are the slots x1, x4, x8, x16? Are the PCI slots the 32-bit or 64-bit slots, 5 volt slots or 3.3 volt slots? If you are short of slots, you might be able to free a slot of the type you need by rearranging cards in PCI slot one, as that slot might share its chassis exit point with an ISA card. Also, check whether the computer's case is regular height or low-profile: you might require a low-profile PCI card.
  • Check that operating system support exists for the technology you are adding. Serial and parallel are broadly supported across systems and platforms, although specific drivers may not always be available. IEEE 1394 (FireWire®) and USB 1.1 are natively supported in Windows® 98SE and later, in Mac® OS 8.6+, and in Linux kernel 2.4+. USB 2.0 is natively supported in Windows® 2000 and later; USB 3.0 support is evolving. Software complications can be legion. (More on this in the next article).)
  • Check the hardware resources available in the system. In particular, determine that older systems have an available IRQ for the board you are adding. To do this in Windows® 95 and 98, go to the Device Manager and double-click on "Computer" at the top of the Device Manager hardware tree. Windows® 2000 and later automatically and generally effectively allocate IRQs. Their IRQ use can be seen by selecting "View | Devices by Type" in Device Manager.
  • Check that the operating system you have in place uses the latest patches and service packs. In many cases, support for I/O technologies is incremental: an operating system might initially support some aspects of a technology, and add other support over time.
  • Check that the system has BIOS and motherboard support for the hardware you are adding. Requirements will vary system-to-system, but in general you should check that you have the most up-to-date BIOS firmware (check your motherboard manufacturer's web site for new firmware), a compatible chipset (some information can be found at, PnP support for PCI cards, and PnP enabled in the BIOS.

But you do have to be careful here: the old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" applies. We've seen BIOS upgrades create hardware incompatabilities, as well as fix them. The problem is sometimes that the "it" you are fixing is really more than one thing, and by upgrading to fix one problem you create another.  A good idea is to keep a backward path, that you can revert to if things don't work out.

  • Also check your motherboard's manual for slot information; simply put, slots on a motherboard are not always equal even though they may look alike.

We hope these tips help. The next article will offer some more advice, specifically focusing on the software interfacing to new hardware.