Computer upgrade options
January 5, 2006 8:25 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to upgrade my 4 year old Dell Dimension 8200 computer, while hopefully getting components that I could use later, should I decide to build a whole new system in a few months. Sadly, I know nearly nothing about computer hardware.

The system specifications (from the Dell support site) are:

3K363 PROCESSOR, 80531, 1.8G, 0, 400FSB, SOCKET N, D0
4T234 RAMBUS INLINE MEMORY MODULE, 128, 400M, 64X16, 4C, 40

Despite what (I think) is shown above, my system has 256MB of memory, but I'd still like to get more. Unfortunately, from what I can ascertain, my system takes RDRAM, and cheap memory of this type doesn't seem to exist. Am I mistaken in my system's memory type? Or, does cheap RDRAM exist? Could another type of memory be used instead?

I'm also thinking about getting a larger hard drive. I've read that SATA hard drives are better. Is this true? Can my system connect to a SATA drive? Or, if not, if I get an IDE drive, will it still be able to connect to motherboards in a couple years?

Finally, and if necessary, is it possible to replace the motherboard and processor in my computer? I've heard that with Dells, replacing major hardware components is not always possible.

Basically, I'm trying to cheaply upgrade my system now (while I'm poor), while getting components that I can use later in a new system (when I'm less poor). Is this possible, or am I stuck with what I've got?

I've googled for answers to these questions but I'm still unclear on many things. I'd appreciate some expert opinions!
posted by Elpoca to Computers & Internet (23 answers total)
You're way better off buying a new system than trying to upgrade something that old. Parts for older systems tend to overwhelm the price of a new system, especially with prices these days. There's tons of threads on finding cheap deals and recommended setups.
posted by kcm at 8:31 PM on January 5, 2006

You may want to consider "switching" to the "other side," an Apple Macintosh system. Next Tuesday morning, Steve Jobs, will deliver his keynote (Stevenote) address to the world regarding all things Apple, especially Mac. At that time, you will have some definite options available; either newly released systems or great systems that will "go on sale" due to the "gotta have the latest" crowd selling their current systems and snapping the latest and best Apple has to offer. There are far fewer problems associated with Macs, especially when it comes to the nasty Internet-type viruses that plague the PC platform weekly. And that's just the tip of the PC problem ice berg. Give it a thought! Just an idea. :-)
posted by thebarron at 8:55 PM on January 5, 2006

Yes, you almost certainly do have RDRAM in an 8200, and no, there is no such thing as cheap RDRAM. It's more difficult to manufacture and is no longer in demand, so it's expensive.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 9:02 PM on January 5, 2006

Dells tend to use non-standard cases, motherboards, power supplies and thus are a pain to mod much. I'd be shocked if a 4-year-old Dell mobo had SATA (which is faster than IDE.)

Read the guides linked to in this AskMe.

Follow TechBargains and DealNews for a little while and you'll see wholly adequate new systems going for under $300 and moderately kick-butt ones for around $450 -- you'd hit those numbers fairly quickly with components.

(Also, what kcm said.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:04 PM on January 5, 2006

The 8200 has a very easy to open case and is fairly upgradable to the limits of the original motherboard and to some extent the available space in the case. I can't remember anything about the power supply, but it probably isn't that great. If you're going as far as replacing the mobo... motherboard and processor, you might as well invest in a slightly more aesthetic and expandable case.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 9:07 PM on January 5, 2006

You know, something with lots of blue LEDs, backlit transparent fans, and flames painted on the side.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 9:22 PM on January 5, 2006

>Unfortunately, from what I can ascertain, my system takes RDRAM,


>and cheap memory of this type doesn't seem to exist.

Also correct.

>Could another type of memory be used instead?


See for details as well as motherboard info.

"Spongebob" had a site with all the information you may need, however it appears to be gone. Here's a link to the archived version

Spongebob Wayback Archive
posted by mduda at 9:25 PM on January 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

As Zed_Lopez mentions (and as I found out in the past) Dells are notoriously tricky to upgrade beyond 'plugging more stuff into what's already there'. And with most PCs of that age, the upgrade path is a lot bumpier than one which is only a year or two old. (Different RAM, processor and card slots, etc.)

If you're prepared to BYO (which will probably ensure smoother upgrades in the future) you could gut your system for removable drives, and sell on the RDRAM. The case and PSU are probably not going to be useful unless you do some jiggering.

If not, back up your stuff to an external HD and sell the system on -- or donate it to charity, writing the value off against your taxes.
posted by holgate at 9:40 PM on January 5, 2006

I agree with what everyone else has already said - this thing's a sinking ship and you can make your money work much better for you by starting anew. One significant problem is that the Dell case probably lacks much room for expansion - both in terms of drive bays and PCI slots. I would also worry about the power supply being puny if you are also considering adding a significant increase in load. But since Dell cases are custom made you can't just slap in a new motherboard so really your best bet is to ditch everything.

On the EIDE vs SATA note... I wouldn't worry too much about which flavor you get. Yes, if you bought a new SATA drive today it will be much faster than the EIDE HD currently in your system. But that is because it's newer, not because SATA really is all that much better than EIDE (aka parallel ATA.) In fact most SATA drives are exactly the same as the equivalently-spec'd PATA drive from the same manufacturer, just with a SATA bridge thrown on there. Now, SATA does support a much higher theoretical channel speed but no drive comes anywhere close to saturating that link so that's irrelevant except for transfers from data on the drive's cache, and that's just benchmark fodder.

SATA does have native command queueing but I don't think many drives support that yet - they would have to be "native SATA" drives and not "PATA with a SATA bridge", and those are still the minority. The big win of SATA is that the cabling is much simpler - both easier to manage as well as supporting longer cable maximum lengths. And of course the link speed is higher than PATA but that's really more of a future-proofing kind of thing.

Your current computer almost certainly does not support SATA, but you can get a PCI SATA card for approx $15 to $30 and a connector that converts the standard 4-pin molex power connector to the SATA kind will cost a few bucks as well. So unless you don't have a spare PCI slot, there's really no reason to assume that you can't install a SATA drive, especially if you plan to upgrade the whole system at a later date but want to get the drive now.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:46 PM on January 5, 2006

Oh and in case it wasn't clear... If you buy a new HD, choose based on price, features, performance, and warranty. Don't worry about whether it happens to be SATA or PATA. Pretty much any motherboard that you buy new will support either, and you can always get a PCI addon card of either flavor for chump change.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:51 PM on January 5, 2006

I'd suggest reading Ars Technica's recommended systems guide. They offer a number of systems for all sorts of price ranges/requirements.
posted by jedro at 10:09 PM on January 5, 2006

Sadly, I know nearly nothing about computer hardware is a statement fundamentally incompatible with the idea of dropping a new motherboard in an existing system. Sure, if you don't have any problems, it's not that big a deal to hook up the part properly assuming you can follow directions and purchased the right form factor, but what if you do have something go wrong? I've had experience building a few computers from scratch. I wouldn't do it anymore because it's not cost effective. About half of the time, something weird or unexpected came up during the build and we/I had to figure out how to fix the problem. It's not a good position to be in if you're a novice builder, nor even particularly pleasant if you're not.

What's the limiting componentry for what you want to do right now? Is there anything in particular you're itching to upgrade? Something bogging you down or running you out of space? Your processor isn't too bad, a Pentium 4 1.8Ghz is decently powered for most things, unless you're doing heavy video editing or talking via Skype or Google Talk while simultaneously doing other serious processing. Truth is, modern processors are overpowered for how the majority of people use them.

I would guess your main limiting factor on performance right now is your memory at 256M, 128Mx2, using 2 of your 4 memory slots. Unfortunately, as already indicated, you lost the lottery on memory. PC800 memory is obsolete. Any RAM upgrade here won't carry on to a new computer, it's a "for this computer only" thing. And it's pricey at approximately $50/128M across the board, with a need to install in pairs, so figure $100+ for 256M upgrade to 512M. It is not a terrible idea normally to bump an XP system to 512M for the performance boost, but here I would think twice. Depends on whether you desperately need an improvement before next year's new toy comes along.

Okay, that leaves the drive. Here, you do have the possibility of purchasing for the future. You can get a SATA 160G drive from major outlets for $100 US, maybe a little more up there, but bargin-hunting could bring that down again. As indicated, you'll have to grab a SATA card at, I see here around $30-$40, plus a power connector adapter for < $10 because your dell doesn't natively support sata through the controller or the power supply. if you're running out of room and really want to upgrade something very soon, it might not be such a bad idea. transfer of the sata drive to a new system as a secondary should be fairly painless. your lost cost is the controller card and power adapters, plus any price reductions along the way. the worry i would have here is that your power supply might be close to the edge and wouldn't like supporting another drive, but unless you've loaded the dell down with additional cards or other power drains already, i'd think you should be>
Another possible upgrade approach which avoids all this weighing of what to get and whether it can be used on your next system is to go the external route. Simply buy a nice LCD monitor larger than what you have now. More screen real estate is always better. Always. 19" LCD's are possible to get for under $300 US. My 19" LCD is on its second computer and ranks as one of the nicest presents I've given myself. 21", still up there at $600-$800, but if you got that much cash, something to consider too.

On a final note, it's too bad that with the ongoing OS wars raging on the site, a bit of it is leaking onto here. Unless you have a compelling reason to switch to a Mac, I'd stay where you are comfortable and experienced. Many of us using Windows actually do have experience with other systems, don't think they are all that superior in behavior or stability for the average end-user, and we aren't dumb as a box of rocks to think so. A modern Windows system that is well-maintained and built with reasonable quality parts will work fine for the vast majority of people using them.
posted by mdevore at 10:24 PM on January 5, 2006

Huh, looks like if you put a less than sign in the middle of your message, all of your uppercase letters afterwards get lowercased and the next linebreak is munged as a corrupted BR. Welp, I'm too lazy to report it, anyone else wants to ring the bug bell, please feel free.
posted by mdevore at 10:32 PM on January 5, 2006

Best answer: Your options are:
  1. Upgrade at a cost of $50-$250
  2. Sell for a $200 or more and then buy a new Dell for $350-450.
  3. Something other than a Dell, more effort but better value, possible software license issues if you seriously want to push the value envelope.
It looks like selling this one and buying new is a no brainer.

There is an important subtle consideration though. Depreciation is worst on a new and expensive system, least on the upgrades, and somewhere in between with a new budget system.

Possible upgrades:
  1. RAM - This is going to make the biggest difference. unfortunately it will also cost a lot. 768MB is very good for use with XP, 512MB is good, your current 256MB is quite poor. According to an ebay completed items search, You can get 128MB RDRAM RIMMs at about $50 per pair - these must be installed in pairs - but the price often approaches $75. 256MB RIMMs are close to $200 for the pair, I wouldn't consider this at all. The market for RDRAM is going to plummet in the middle term, leaving you with virtually nothing for your investment. The market may still be high for two years though...
  2. CPU: You have a socket 478 motherboard, which is good, but only some Dimension 8200 boards can run at 533MHz FSB, otherwise you are stuck at 400MHz. You might be able to upgrade the processor to a 2.4GHz northwood core pentium 4, about $95, or 2.8GHz for about $120.
  3. Hard Drive: Don't worry about investing in PATA drives, they should be compatible with systems for a couple more years, and PATA expansion cards or external drive enclosures are going to be around for many years to come. Unless you are content with the 80GB or so you will get on a new Dell, this cost is going to be necessary no matter which route you go, so the price doesn't really effect your decisions.
  4. CD/DVD drive: Get yourself a DVD writer if you don't already have one. They are cheap, at about $40, and it will still be very useful for several years.
  5. Video: You could get a big utility boost with a $100-$150 video card, if you are interested in that kind of thing (games and All-in-wonder functionality). However, the video connector has almost completely changed to PCI-E now, and you are still on AGP, this means that the investment will depreciate very quickly. Buying an All-in-wonder 9800 for about $150 today will give you a great Home Theatre PC for the future though... The video on a new budget Dell is going to suck badly.
I've had experience building a few computers from scratch. I wouldn't do it anymore because it's not cost effective.

Not exactly... It completely depends on how much control you want. Building a computer is like connecting expensive lego blocks, the compatibility issues are small, and if you are careful they are nonexistent. The benefit to you is that you are not buying proprietary and castrated hardware, giving you upgrade and overclock options long term. The value of this will vary by individual.

The difficulty is in finding out exactly which parts you should get, and finding and buying them for the right price.

I've written too much already... If you are totally into what has been said so far then you should really consider getting more involved in the guts of your computer, if you find it overwhelming just sell your system and buy a new one.

I will leave this with a couple of references. Aida32 will tell you exactly what you have in your PC, and the Dell Dimension Processor Upgrade FAQ is a great resource for your kind of problem.
posted by Chuckles at 7:04 AM on January 6, 2006

If you are in the US, you can donate your old computer and get a $250 write off on your taxes (monitor is the same thing.)

Then you can buy a brand new Dell for ~$300.

Try for coupon codes.
posted by k8t at 9:45 AM on January 6, 2006

I've got an 8200 Dimension at home, and I was going through the same question. Basically the machine is a workhorse, and a bit slow, but otherwise entirely satisfactory. I decided to pony up for the memory upgrade from opting for 512 MB (2X256M) Samsung chips from It was very easy to open the case and pop the chips in, and I now have 768 MB RAM.

The other upgrade I've done, which was about $30 was to put in a USB-2 board in the free expansion slot. This was very helpful for Ipod downloading, as the original USB-1 port worked fine for somethings, but just was way too slow for music.

The extra memory really dramatically improved performance and I'm now totally happy - for a bit over $200 I got a system I'm very satisfied with and that I plan to keep years to come.

I do lots of work on SPSS, which is a statistical package and the MS office programs (including Access), a bit of photo editing, as well as the standard internet things. Maybe if I was doing something that was highly graphic intensive, like lots of photoshopping or video editing and such I'd feel the need for something more heavy duty.
posted by jasper411 at 9:51 AM on January 6, 2006

Response by poster: Okay, so it looks like upgrading the memory is not worth the hassle or expense, but adding an IDE hard drive would be okay, as I would be able to use it in a new computer. Also, if I choose later to get a whole new system, then it seems to make sense to not get another Dell, given that the consensus is that these are difficult to incrementally upgrade.

Is that about right?

Thanks for all the responses!
posted by Elpoca at 11:33 AM on January 6, 2006

The memory upgrade will benefit performance, the hard drive change will not (well, barely).

Is your goal added functionality, or added performance? If you are running out of hard drive space that is a different problem again...
posted by Chuckles at 12:25 PM on January 6, 2006

is that about right?

Obviously it's your call, but just to make sure you read what I wrote, I thought the memory upgrade was no hassle, pretty cheap, and made a LOT of sense.
posted by jasper411 at 12:30 PM on January 6, 2006

Response by poster: Is your goal added functionality, or added performance?


I thought the memory upgrade was no hassle, pretty cheap, and made a LOT of sense.

Yes, except for the cheap part. I can't find 512MB RDRAM for anything less that $250 CAD (compared with about $50 CAD for budget DDR).
posted by Elpoca at 1:18 PM on January 6, 2006

Doubling your existing memory for well under $100 CAD is going to make a big difference in performance. Sure it would be nice to add a pair of 512MB modules, and it is really frustrating that they cost 5x what other memory types cost, but that doesn't necessarily mean the memory upgrade is a bad idea.

As I hinted at above, you can get an All-in-wonder 9800 with RF remote control (I think, but needs to be checked) for $159 from infonec, that is a great capability improvement!

I don't know how large your hard drive is yet, or what you do with it. A DVD burner might be a better solution than more hard drive space, it is certainly cheaper.
posted by Chuckles at 1:35 PM on January 6, 2006

No question, RDRAM is more expensive than DDR. But if you're basically happy with your 8200 (as I was, and am), it's cheaper than buying a new machine! If your 8200 is meeting your needs, basically, my experience was that I could improve its performance now, and worry about the future later.

I personally think the idea of buying equipment now that you plan to use later is questionable. Technology changes and prices keep coming down. For example, right now, through cheapstingybargain, you can get a 160MB external hard drive for $80! A year ago, I spent about that for an 80 MB drive.

As I said, a lot depends on what you do with the machine. My needs are totally taken care of by the 8200, but I don't do a lot of graphic intensive (e.g., games, etc.) activities with it.
posted by jasper411 at 2:10 PM on January 6, 2006

Upgrading Dells is just fine so far as putting in new cards or hard drives goes. It's swapping the case, motherboard or power supply that's impossible by design in some Dells. (Casemodders have done it anyway, but it's more work than I'm interested in.)

If you really enjoy playing with your hardware, and it's worth paying a premium to have the freedom to swap anything, then build your own from components. If you don't and it's not, then a Dell's a reasonable choice.

(My desktop machine is a Dell PowerEdge 400SC bought for $400 in 2003, and supplemented with more memory and a new hard drive. Much as I lust after building a shiny new machine, my rationalizations have been unable to overcome the fact that I'm not taxing my existing machine. Sigh.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 3:16 PM on January 6, 2006

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