upgrading an old computer
October 25, 2005 12:35 PM   Subscribe

Help me upgrade my work computer to make it run better.

I have this rickety old thing at work that runs Windows NT. Its processor is very slow and it has 256M of physical RAM, all of which is in use most of the time according to the task manager.

For various reasons, I can't just toss the box or install a new OS on this machine. But I can upgrade the hardware.

I want to upgrade the RAM for sure, and maybe the processor if possible. I've never opened a Windows box before, although I have been quite comfortable rummaging around inside my Macs over the past 15 years.

What do I have to do to determine what the possibilities are?
posted by ikkyu2 to Computers & Internet (31 answers total)
start>settings>control panel>system will get you started. You need to figure out which processor, and clock speed. This will determine your limitations are far as adding stuff.

posted by Danf at 12:39 PM on October 25, 2005

RAM will help in most, if not all cases. I just upped my work machine to 512 and it was much happier.

What kind of computer do you have? To upgrade it, you'll need to figure out

A: what kind of motherboard you have, and what CPUs it's compatible with

B: what type of RAM you need, and whether you have any slots open

If you have a stock business computer, you can probably find manual and specs online, and we can go from there. Otherwise, you may need to crack the case.
posted by selfnoise at 12:41 PM on October 25, 2005

Alright, Ikkyu2, I see you are a neurologist, which I take to mean that your time is money. I cannot emphasize enough that investing any time or money into upgrading your existing PC WITHOUT removing Windows NT 4 is entirely counterproductive. Even if you are using some old application that does not support a newer OS, you should invest in a new PC entirely, or at least a new copy of Windows XP. Keeping NT4 is dangerous to your business PC as it is no longer patched/supported by MS and is highly insecure.

Now is the time to have a look at the ridiculously low prices of new PCs - E-machines is offering a whole setup - PC, Monitor, Printer, Speakers, for $300 after rebate, ferinstance. If you factor how many hours you will likely spend tinkering with your business PC, times your billable rate, I bet it's way more expensive to keep the old one than get a new one.

Just a thought. That and 256MB on an NT4 system should not be getting used all the time on a healthy PC - you probably need to clean up the startup list.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 12:51 PM on October 25, 2005

The processor doesn't matter much, but the motherboard does. An old motherboard means that new ram, new cards, and new processors likely won't work. By the time you've replaced the motherboard, you're basically on your way to a new computer in the same case.

Without knowing what those various reasons are, I'd strongly suggest tossing the box. Working within the confines of it is going to end up being expensive for the payoff it will give you compared to buying a new inexpensive workstation.
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:57 PM on October 25, 2005

If you need the old machine because of data, definitely keep it. But, it might be more cost effective in the long run to just buy a new machine with Windows XP on it. Then, when the new machine is set up the way you want it, transfer the data over.

BLB was right regarding NT4 and hotfixes - Microsoft cut off issuing security hotfixes back in January.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:58 PM on October 25, 2005

Best answer: I definitely agree with the above posters that you are going to get diminishing returns on this existing setup. You should definitely consider getting a new cheap PC to run along side of this one if you aren't willing to part with this old machine.

With that said, Crucial offers an online system scanning tool that will probe your computer's innards and give you the details on what kind of (Crucial supplied) RAM fits your computer.
posted by mmascolino at 1:06 PM on October 25, 2005

Best answer: Examining the 'various reasons' really is necessary here, but assuming you really mean what you say...

What we really need to know is what motherboard you have. Try Aida32, it isn't in development anymore, but it will work for your machine. Once we know the motherboard it is easy to know what the optimal CPU, memory, and video card choices are.

If you can't make any sense of Aida32 then just run one of the report wizards. Read the result over before copying it to metafilter though, there can't be too much confidential information in there, but you never know - you don't really want to share which sex games you have on your work machine...
posted by Chuckles at 1:07 PM on October 25, 2005

Likely it's not that ikky is all that attached to his pc, more likely there's various organizational requirements about what machines have been vetted. Yes, completly eviscerating it would seem to defeate the purpose but I assure you I see this at client sites all the time. Only certain machines are pre-certified for certain purposes.
posted by phearlez at 1:47 PM on October 25, 2005

Would it be possible to set it up as a dual-boot machine, running XP on one partition (you could even buy a new hard drive for this) and NT on the other? If I remember correctly, the NT installation will set up a bootloader to let you do this easily...
posted by mr_roboto at 2:06 PM on October 25, 2005

Another option, if you absolutely need access to NT at all times, is to run it in a virtual machine in an XP environment. I'm pretty sure you can manage this with VMWare. I know I should just take you at your word that you can't install a new OS, but maybe this is an alternative that hadn't occurred to you?....
posted by mr_roboto at 2:13 PM on October 25, 2005

ikkyu, I'm curious as to why you can't chuck this computer as most business computers over 3 years old are considered to have zero retail value. There are a slew of computer geek Metafiltarians who have been awed by your medical awesomeness who'd be happy to provide detailed advice on the right setup you need for a new start.

My 2 cents says get a replacement, but if I couldn't, I'd replace as much of the internals as I could. What are your constraints? Budget, time?

Minimum bang for your buck says get a new operating system (whine, plead, and cry to the powers that be if you have to). Failing that I'd upgrade my motherboard, THEN put new RAM in that.
posted by onalark at 4:26 PM on October 25, 2005

Response by poster: This machine runs diagnostic medical software, the license cost of which runs into the six digits. If I change the box or OS, I lose the liability protection and technical support that my University has paid for. I do not have the authority to do this, nor can I afford to purchase another license, nor can I cajole someone into spending several hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the system for me. They can't even give me a desk of my own; this sorry-ass computer and the Playskool-grade plastic table it sits on is all I get.

So please, although I appreciate the sentiment; when I say I can't change the box or OS, I mean, exactly: that I can't change the box or OS.

The reason I want to upgrade it is that it runs this proprietary EEG review software - very, very slowly. It often runs out of RAM and crashes outright if I try to open two studies at once, or one study and a web browser. Since I actually have to use the Web for my clinical work, this is totally fucked.

Thanks for the suggestions; I'll run the suggested diagnostics and let you all know what they said tomorrow. I'll also crack the case, happily; I was more wondering what I should look for when I do so. Are there things, letters and numbers, likely to be printed on the RAM, processor, or motherboard that would assist in their identification? FWIW, the case does not identify the manufacturer; it identifies the EEG company (Nicolet, the software is BMSI_Revue, installed late 2000, if anyone cares.)
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:01 PM on October 25, 2005

In continuing with the derailing advice: What about two computers? You could relocate the box to a place under your desk but in as cool an area as possible. Then get yourself a KVM (Keyboard, Video, Mouse) Switch, and a new computer (minus monitor).

This allows you to use the diagnostic computer for its primary purpose (and only its primary purpose), whilst you can use the second computer for YOUR primary needs, like Metafilter! Switching between the two computers is as simple as a mouse click or keyboard combo.

You should probably also disconnect the NT machine from networks/internet if at all possible. It could be safe on some sort of private network local to your office, or a well-policed firewall. If you're behind an academic firewall an NT 4 box is simply a sitting duck. In fact, there's a good chance (better than even) your system has already been compromised if it's on the Internet.

Back to on-topic: Just remember that you're going to have to throw away any RAM you're using (and that you buy now) whenever you upgrade to a new mobo.
posted by onalark at 8:32 PM on October 25, 2005

Sounds like the motherboard is probably from one of the major Taiwan manufacturers (Tyan, Asus, MSI, whatever), which should be an advantage. The motherboards in Dell and HP systems can be much more picky about the parts you put on them.

You are looking for the make and model of the motherboard, if you can see it. Better manufacturers are proud enough to put it prominently on the board, as you can see on this Abit IS7. Lesser manufacturers will hide the make completely, and place the model number on a sticker placed on the last expansion slot, like the barcode sticker on the red expansion slot here. Sometimes the sticker is discretely placed on an edge of the board... It can be a real adventure.

Anyway, sorry to harp on about the new system issue, but there might be other solutions. For example, you could leave this machine for the one function it is absolutely needed for. Use a new machine for everything else and login remotely with remote administrator or PC anywhere. Can you do a new install on this machine? A new install could improve performance by itself.
posted by Chuckles at 8:36 PM on October 25, 2005

ikkyu, I think you're caught on the horns of the infamous Upgrade Dilemma.

The right horn of the beast is the NT4 Hardware Compatibility List (HCL), which is no longer actively maintained, but which is still viewable as a big old text file. To run NT 4 reliably, you have to be using hardware items on this list, with approved drivers. Note the astonishing lack of entries for modern CPUs and motherboards, and the thousands of entries for Pentium II and III processors, ISA feature cards, and obsolete video cards. It's like Microsoft drops support for an operating system, and people just quit developing hardware and software to work with it... Weird, huh? But the net result to you, an end user with a continuing need, is that it is tough to find upgrade pieces and appropriate drivers, that will be known to work together, and with the obsolete OS. And if what you cobble together doesn't play nice, you will be the one figuring out why, without a lot of resources. I say this since I appreciate entirely the bounds of your situation, but have often seen what appear to be simple and logical hardware upgrades on NT 4 systems fail, because NT 4 simply doesn't do a good job of probing hardware, even if it is supposed to know about it. So, for anything beyond addition of more RAM, I think you are getting out on a limb, and I wouldn't advise you to do this, for the same liability issues that are forcing you to look for alternatives in the first place.

The left horn of the beast is that not only has the OS development stalled, it did so ungracefully in respect of some key technologies that are now mainstream in most modern hardware. NT4 = no support for USB, no Advanced Power Management, no SMART hard drive support, limited support for AGP, no support for new PCI bus implementations (PCI-X, PCIe), no SATA support, and on and on. So many of the features that enable the current generation of PC's to work with a wide range of input devices and accessories, simply can't talk to a Windows NT 4 machine. And even older revisions of basic technologies, like PCI v2.0 and up, may not get proper OS detection and support, which can make it impossible for NT 4 to construct a workable HAL (Hardware Abstraction Layer) over upgraded hardware with embedded new features. Which is why this is generally ain't recommended in Redmond.

You mess with the NT 4 Upgrade Dilemma bull, you get the horns, so to speak. So, what's a guy to do?

I think there has to be some consideration in your organization, however byzantine, that PC's don't last forever, and that sooner or later, all that is going to be commercially available are current generation machines. Difficult as it may be, I think that, in light of your legitimate concerns regarding liability, you need to approach your hardware support organization for advice, and a consultative solution. If your motherboard smoked tomorrow morning, as it will eventually, with what could it be replaced, and who would be doing the replacing? A machine that is having problems with RAM, and is crashing to blue screens frequently is perhaps, already, not a healthy box. Moreover, most software vendors actively want users to upgrade to current MS OS versions, so that they can drop old support dependencies. They will frequently encourage this, by providing free upgrade assistance and newer versions of the software, for customers on software maintenance contracts, because it reduces their support costs. I really think this worth an hour of your time to check directly with Nicolet. If you could get a version upgrade without additional cost under your software maintenance contract, I suspect your upgrade options would be significantly better and easier, so please try. In 25 years of business systems use and support, I can say the number of companies where such policies are the norm is far, far higher than those who have paid upgrade policies, and even for that latter category, there is often an internal customer-by-customer exception regimen, if you just ask nicely, and appear to be genuinely having problems with the current package. It just costs less to send you an upgrade, than to deal with you as a support issue.

Failing this latter suggestion getting you a version directly compatible with a modern box, I like the VM ware idea. Put in a modern box that suits your needs, and run an NT 4 virtual machine for your work requirements. The virtual machine will be accessible in a window on your real machine, and will appear to all programs running there as an NT machine with whatever HAL and capabilities you've configured. It may use 20-40% of the real machine under it, and the balance of the real machine, with all its technological progress since 1996 will be available to you out in the Real World, for the full range of physician support services you need, simultaneously with the NT 4 wayback machine desktop running its own window. You can conveniently time travel between decades with a mouse move and a click.
posted by paulsc at 8:58 PM on October 25, 2005

Response by poster: It's actually the core functionality of the box - reading EEGs - that I'd like to improve. I spend most of my day waiting for it to open, close, or scroll through studies. If the damn thing would do these things faster, I could probably free up 2 hours a day.

I'm sure it's virused to hell and beyond, and I don't know how to fix that, and I can't take it off the Internet, much as I desire to, because my boss uses it as a remote server so he can read EEGs from home.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:11 PM on October 25, 2005

Response by poster: Also, you guys aren't listening. Removing the physical box, trying something fresh like running this software on a VM, etc, are not options. If I tried these things I would be trashing $250,000 of liability coverage and support that the University has paid for; the result would certainly be my immediate dismissal, and they'd have some guy come in to undo whatever changes I'd made.

Please confine your suggestions to the ones I asked for. You can open another thread somewhere else to suggest things that I've already twice explicitly asked you not to suggest.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:14 PM on October 25, 2005

Response by poster: There's already money in the departmental budget set aside to upgrade this to the new Nic One software once it's introduced formally in December; the timetable for this is that it will not happen until after my tenure in this particular daily EEG-reading job is over. I need a band-aid for the next 9 months, and I frankly couldn't give a fiddler's fiddle-de-do what happens after that.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:17 PM on October 25, 2005

Best answer: Couple of other quick thoughts:

Before spending a lot of time trying to identify hardware, you should probably verify what Service Pack you have for NT. The last "official" Service Pack for NT 4 Workstation was SP6a, which was generally required for Y2K compliance, but a surprising number of NT workstations weren't upgraded past SP4 or 5. SP6a also provide some improvements to HAL detection routines, memory leaks, and NTFS MFT management.

256MB of RAM was a lot for an NT 4 machine. It is possible that the memory was previously upgraded, but the swap file was never resized when memory was added. Here's a page that can help with that. One key tip that is kind of buried in this page is to make sure that, if it is available, DMA (Direct Memory Access) is enabled for IDE devices in your BIOS, and is working, so that memory paging to disk doesn't tie up processor cycles. You should also verify that your BIOS is up to the latest revision, but this requires that you correctly identify your motherboard, and that it has a flashable BIOS. Good news is that flashable BIOS has been pretty common since 1994.

Along the same lines as checking your paging file, adding a second disk, particularly one with a faster rotational speed, and moving your page file to the new disk can help quite a bit, in situations where there is significant swap occurring.
posted by paulsc at 9:43 PM on October 25, 2005

Additional ideas:

Verify that your IDE controller is set up for bus mastering of the PCI bus. Often, this capability requires a software driver or "shim" such as Intel's PIIX driver for its 82371FB chipset. Obviously, if your motherboard is based on Via or other chipset makers silicon, you'll need to identify that, set the BIOS options accordingly, and install the appropriate bus mastering drivers.

If the data files for your studies are stored on a remote server, it would be a good idea to check your network card and connection. Your workstation could still be running 10 MB Ethernet, and a swap to 100 MB is fairly painless and cheap, and could vastly improve the rate of data access on remote files, if your network supports 100 MB Ethernet. You would need a PCI slot to take advantage of 100 MB ethernet.
posted by paulsc at 10:09 PM on October 25, 2005

Thoughts on video:

If your machine use a PCI based video card, and you are moving a lot of data through the video system, you could be bottlenecked on PCI bus I/O. There is only so much you can do in these kind of situations, since both the video and I/O subsystems are generally using the same PCI bus. Also, you may not be able to change color depth, or resolution to reduce the amount of video data you are handling, due to diagnostic requirements. But assuming you are at least willing to play with it a bit, you could try reducing video color depth from 24 bit (or "TrueColor") to 16 bit. Maybe reduce resolution from 1024 x 768 to 800 x 600. But this could also produce changes in remote images viewed by your boss, if he is using some screen scraper remote video application, so be aware.

But if you can do both these things, you'll drop the amount of video data traveling across the PCI bus by more than half. There will be less contention for the bus, and therefore faster and smoother overall operation. You should also check that you have an appropriate, if not the latest, video driver and, if applicable, video firmware for your card.

You might find that putting in a video card with a better graphics engine and more on board memory could substantially improve things, but I'm hesitant to suggest this, as you may need a card which supports OpenGL for your medical application, and has specific features and drivers. AGP solves this problem, but probably not in your overbounded constraint universe.
posted by paulsc at 10:30 PM on October 25, 2005

Response by poster: Crucial says my machine is an Intel SE440BX-2, and recommends some 256MB DIMMs.

Various control panels point out that the system is MS WinNT, 4.00.1381, with IE 5 6.0.2800.1106 (whatever that means.)

The computer is Nicolet Biomedical x86 Family 6 Model 8 Stepping 1, AT/AT compatible, with 130472 KB RAM. Does this mean that the 256 MB I'm seeing in the task manager is half virtual?

The graphics card appears to be a Matrox Millenium G400 AGP with 32MB onboard and a dual-head addon. The VGA Bios version is 1.5.22.

Just switching to 16-bit mode noticeably zippified the system and didn't produce problems with the video-EEG display.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:05 PM on October 26, 2005

Ikkyu2, if I'm understanding you correctly, you're looking for information about what the inside of a computer looks like and what it contains. Perhaps this would be helpful. And this page of Google images, each of which can be expanded and examined more closely, could also be helpful. If I were having the problems and constraints you describe, I would add as much RAM as my system would allow for starters.
posted by Lynsey at 12:12 PM on October 26, 2005

Response by poster: AIDA identifies my motherboard as an Intel Seattle II SE440BX-2, same as Crucial. It gives a lot of information, including about the 64 bit, 100 MHz bus, the 1 CPU socket, 2 ISA, 4 PCI and 1 AGP slot. Apparently I have 3 DIMM RAM slots (that I could fill up with 256x3=768 MB?)

The CPU is an Intel Pentium IIIC at 700 MHz, with 16K each of code and data L1 and 256K of onboard L2.

AGP is disabled, and its 'aperture size' is more than half of system memory size. Hm, AIDA even suggests installing more RAM. Maybe that's just the way to go? What do folks think?
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:16 PM on October 26, 2005

I had to fight so hard to suppress the urge to guess that you had a 'BX' board (which is the name of the chipset, technically 440BX, as you note above).

Anyway, here is intel's support site for the SE440BX-2, if anyone wants it quick. Intel boards are a bit picky about upgrades too, unfortunately, but it won't be too bad.

You are right about the memory upgrade, and it will make a significant difference, I think.

Your front side bus (FSB) is limited to 100MHz, which limits your CPU choices a bit. Intel says 850MHz is the limit on that link above. However, I know for sure there are a few 1GHz slot 1 PIIIs with 100MHz FSB. Regardless, the better choice is a powerleap slot adapter, which will let you run the last generation of PIII CPUs (taulatin) in your BX board.

Here is powerleap's upgrade page for the SE440BX-2. It suggests a 1.2GHz taulatin celeron (don't let the celeron name fool you, it is the same as a PIII), but I am 99% sure a 1.4GHz taulatin would work just as well in the slot adapter. They must be out of stock of the faster part.
posted by Chuckles at 12:48 PM on October 26, 2005

The only reason to touch the graphics card is if your diagnostic software does some 3D rendering. If that is the case please let us know, I assume it doesn't.

I don't think the AGP aperture setting is an issue. Here is the first link I googled up that describes the AGP aperture bios setting, it says the memory isn't used until the video card 'needs it', which basically means the setting isn't effecting your performance.
posted by Chuckles at 12:54 PM on October 26, 2005

Finally, I would be somewhat concerned that even a memory upgrade may effect your liability coverage and technical support.

One possibility, if you really need to do this securely... Buy another copy of the same motherboard and build a test system around it. That way you can flash the bios with impunity. Ghost the OS drive onto a new drive for the test system. Swap the existing video card and network card into the test system, it can't hurt anything and it is too much bother to pursue all the part. I don't think using other proprietary cards could hurt either, but there is some small risk there. By getting the backup system running with the existing OS install you can be sure that nothing will fail.

I wouldn't do all that unless a BIOS upgrade was needed. I'm not sure I would even do it then, but I don't have liability to worry about.

(doh! The powerleap URL won't work... Here is a the PL-iP3/T page, it is the part they recommend for CPU upgrade.)
posted by Chuckles at 1:07 PM on October 26, 2005

Best answer: I'll disagree a little with Chuckles about the memory upgrade. But IANAL, and you'd have to be the judge of what impact touching the memory would have on liability issues. My guess is, not much, if you stick to quality memory from established suppliers.

From what you've posted, you have a total of 128MB of RAM, and adding some RAM will probably give you a noticeable performance boost, with minimal problems. Compared to most other physical upgrades you could do, it's also the simplest, and most cost effective upgrade. First step is to open the case, locate the memory slots, and find out what is currently in the machine. Common 128MB configurations would be 1x 128MB DIMM stick (only one slot filled, 2 empty) or 2x 64MB DIMM sticks (2 slots filled, one empty). If you have a single 128 MB stick, you could add a couple more and get easily and cheaply to 384 MB. If you have 2 64MB sticks, the best thing to do would be to pull them both, discard, and replace with 1 or 2 256MB sticks. NT 4 Workstation is "leaner" than Win2000 or WinXP, and I doubt you'd see any observable difference in performance going up to the full 768 MB your board will support.

The 700 Mhz PIII processor you have supports 100MHz front side bus, so get high quality 100Mhz memory. If you are keeping any of the current memory, you'd be best advised to match its type, but if you are discarding it, you can choose to replace it with either ECC or non-ECC type. ECC stands for Error Correcting Code, and specifies memory that has 8 additional bits of word width, provided by some extra control lines and chip on the ECC type DIMM. The memory controller on your motherboard automatically senses the presence of ECC memory, and does a hash of the memory contents with each read/refresh cycle, compares this calculated value to the hash stored in the extra 8 bits when the memory word was last written, and can automatically perform error correction of single and multi-bit errors. This can be important in server applications, where the machine needs to be as absolutely reliable as possible, but it costs more to make these kind of DIMMS, and they are made in smaller quantities, so the cost may not be justified. Quality non-ECC memory has a very low error rate anyway.

I'd order the type and amount of memory you decide to put in, and wait for it to arrive, before I took anything apart. Kingston and other memory manufacturers have good guides that walk you through a memory upgrade, and this one won't require any tools other than your fingers, once you have the case open. So go for it!

Once you do the memory upgrade, it would be a good idea to recreate the swap file, to size it for the increased memory. Even if you have gazoodles of memory, NT will always try to page out to swap to make best use of available RAM, and staying with the recommended swap sizes for the RAM you have lets the NT memory manager work in the best way it can. Having enough RAM keeps the paging activity to a minimum, but letting NT page out to disk when it needs to is a good idea, and if you have enough RAM so that it isn't paging constantly to try to handle normal tasks, the performance hit of paging is pretty minimal.

As for processor upgrades, I'll again differ with Chuckles, only because I get the sense that what you want to do is the minimum to get to a reasonable level of performance. AFAIK, what you are doing with this machine isn't very processor intensive, and any extra processor cycles you add that aren't used, aren't going to mean a lot. Once you get the memory upgraded, I'd open up the system monitor (Ctrl-Alt-Del) when you have a study up, and see if the processor is maxed out when scrolling around your images, but I think you'll find, for what you're doing, you have plenty of processor, most of the time. So, if I were you, I'd look into a few other things, that you could do for free, before I laid out bucks on a short term project like this.

I would go into BIOS (hit F2 during a cold boot) and turn on the verbose option for boot info, so that you can see the memory test and the boot process. The .pdf files on this page from Intel have info on BIOS features and fixes of BIOS upgrades, to help you understand BIOS settings and revision level fixes. You'll then be able to see the BIOS version, and compare it to the last posted BIOS revision. If yours is older, definitely do the BIOS upgrade. The Intel updater is solid, and running the latest BIOS can patch errata that should be fixed. After updating the BIOS, you may have new BIOS screens and options, so go back in to BIOS Setup after the upgrade, and verify your settings, or update them to suit your hardware. You definitely want to enable any BIOS option for DMA transfer, particularly from IDE disks, if they need to be set, and you are using IDE disks. And you definitely want your IDE controllers to be set up for bus mastering operation, since you have an AGP video card. If you don't use sound, USB, or other BIOS features, and can turn them off in BIOS, you'll speed up boot possibly, and use fewer system resources.

It's possible your machine is using SCSI disk, but not too likely. If you find you are using SCSI, there are a number of things I could advise you to check, but for brevity, I won't at this time.

Another thing to check while you've got the case open is the IDE disks. You may have ATA 66 or ATA 100 disks, but don't have the 80 pin IDE cables needed to make them work at full speed. This is a pretty common build issue in older computers of NT 4 vintage, and is easily corrected by replacing the standard 40 pin IDE cable with one of the 80 pin variety. Your BX chipset can support UDMA 2 level, which is ATA 66, and it would be worth checking the stickers on your disks, and your cables, to see if ATA 66 operation is possible. If you do have the 80 pin IDE cables, make sure your BIOS settings are correct, and that your disks are detected as UDMA capable. Finally, to get the benefit of UDMA 2, you should be running NT Service Pack 6a. The NT build number you've given us indicates you are running at least SP6, but confirm you have SP6a, and upgrade if you don't.

The Matrox video card you are using isn't a bad one, for its day, but the video BIOS revision you've posted is seriously out of date. On this, my advice is also different than Chuckles, for reasons that are kind of arcane, but the upshot is, I'd really consider updating this, and installing the latest drivers for NT 4, as later firmware and drivers could substantially improve your happy factor with this box. Most of what you are doing is depending on the performance of this video card, so getting the most from it will be worth your time and attention.

Before you close up the case, I'd also check the network card. If you have an old ISA slot network card, and your study data files are stored on a server somewhere else, putting in a PCI network card, and moving up to 100 Mbit Ethernet will make a huge difference, assuming you are on a a 10/100 Base T Ethernet network. If you are on a Twinax or older coax type Ethernet network, or if your study data files are always local on this workstation, there may not be much you can, or need to do about network connectivity.

At any rate, within what you've told us, this is what it makes sense to me to suggest you do. I'll continue to follow this thread for a few days, in case you have follow up questions.
posted by paulsc at 4:59 PM on October 26, 2005

One other thought regarding low cost performance boosts.

NT 4 didn't ship with a disk defragmentation utility. If the machine has been used a long time, and never maintained, your file system could be seriously fragmented. This is not good for performance, and makes your disk drive work a lot more, which is also bad for reliability. Here are some common sense recommendations for defragmenting your disk with a third party utility, and keeping your page file from becoming fragmented in use, after re-creating it. I'd check to see if there is a defrag utility installed on the machine, before buying another. But if there isn't one, get at least a free 30 day evaluation version of Diskkeeper, and see what it can do.

Info you posted above indicates you're still using Internet Explorer 5, which was kind of a dog as browsers go. You might also see about upgrading to IE 6, if that is the main Web browser you use. Installing IE 6 updates more than just the browser, in that it puts a different visualizatrion engine on the machine, which other Microsoft applications can use. If you just want a lightweight browser, consider Opera, or Firefox.
posted by paulsc at 6:35 PM on October 26, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for all the helpful replies to this sort of specific and unusual question.

I popped the top and confirmed that I do have 3 168-pin DIMM slots, of which 2 are currently empty. So I ordered 2 256M sticks from Crucial.

We'll see what good that does; I suspect it might be all that's necessary. Again, I appreciate all the help!
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:28 PM on October 27, 2005

Response by poster: First of all, I want to thank everyone who replied: I appreciate all the help. You guys are solid gold.

What helped:

1) I added 512M of RAM for a total of 640. This was probably overkill - 256 would have been sufficient - but it eliminated those long, obnoxious pageouts that were making it take 5 minutes to close an app. I can now run three browser windows, the dictation signout app, the MRI viewing applet, and the EEG reader software all at once without worrying about extra delays or crashes.

2) Turning the display from True Color down to 16-bit color really, really sped things up.

3) Installing the newest video BIOS and drivers helped somewhat, too.

4) I upgraded to IE 6, but didn't notice much appreciable difference. I don't browse the web much at work, though, apart from the internal sites I have to use to get work done.

Thanks again, all. You've saved me countless hours of frustration.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:52 PM on November 1, 2005

« Older Die Zeitung!   |   Need Socks for Winter Nights Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.