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Great PC Hacks, from Easy to Techie and Beyond

by Jim Aspinwall, author of PC Hacks
11/30/2004

Even though today's off-the-shelf name-brand PCs provide incredible value and performance, you may find at least one component that could be improved or an additional feature added to make your system more of what you want it to be--a reliable, screaming, work-crunching, game-blasting powerhouse.

PC hacking is a way to address technical challenges and learn about computers. People are taking the covers off, learning which way chips and cables and sockets interconnect, and figuring out how to read technical details and make some sense of them, regardless of whether they understand them completely.

PC hacking is almost encouraged by both big and small names in the mainstream PC market--perhaps not Compaq, Dell, or Sony, but Intel, AMD, Phoenix Technologies, nVidia, and most PC system board and accessory makers in Taiwan. Through hacking come indications of what PC component makers should focus on in developing new features, faster performance, stylish packaging, and aftermarket products for the nonhacking PC buyers. Intel supports hacking--or, more specifically, PC modding--as part of its overall PC design innovation efforts. You can read more about it at Intel's Build Your Own PC site.

Regardless of the specifics, we hack because we can; we hack because we make a PC either faster or somehow better; and we hack simply because some hacks make our PC look cooler (er, more rad?) than someone else's.

At the very least, you can expect to get your PC to look better, run faster, or both, from a variety of hacks. On the modest side, you can gain new functionality with a new or upgraded peripheral. On the aggressive side, you can be easily rewarded with performance increases of 10 to 20 percent with some very obvious and safe hacks to CPU speed and video and disk drive performance.

Related Reading

PC Hacks
100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools
By Jim Aspinwall

Easy Hacks

Anything you can do to alter the performance of your PC without using tools and taking the covers off has got to be an easy hack. Starting right where you are (assuming you're browsing this page from a PC running Windows), you can access a handful of hacks from within Windows or with a couple of downloads.

The first step in any hacking effort is downloading and installing an arsenal of software utility programs listed in Part 1, including SiSoftware Sandra to begin exploring the details of your PC and operating system, 3DMark to measure video performance, and either ATITool, RadClocker and RadLinker (for ATI cards), or RivaTuner (for nVidia cards).

Armed with these tools, run the benchmarking programs to establish a baseline measurement of current, prehacked system performance--then you'll have information to compare with after-hack system performance to see whether you've made an improvement.

Using the appropriate video adapter hacking tool, increase the clock speed for your video adapter. While most video cards can take a 10 to 15 percent increase in clock speed, I prefer to boost the clock rate by an increment of only 2 to 3 percent so that I don't overclock my system into locking up or crashing. Once you've increased the clock speed, run the benchmarking programs again to see whether the video performance is measurably improved. Typically performance improves proportionately to the increase in clock speed, up to the point the card no longer functions or just can't move bits any faster. If performance does not increase with an increase in clock speed, it is likely that your system I/O bus (PCI or AGP) is maxed out and cannot deliver any more performance.

Another simple, outside-the-box performance-improving hack is to use the Via IDETool, which should be on your system board driver CD (if your board uses the Via chipset), to check and set the data transfer mode of your IDE interface and disk drives. You may find that your chipset or drive is not set to operate at the maximum Direct Memory Access (DMA) mode for the fastest possible data transfer; the IDETool utility program lets you fix that in a jiffy.

Another disk-related hack is to ensure that the Windows driver for disk drives has write-caching enabled. To find out, and set it, open My Computer, right-click on your C: drive, and then select Properties. Select the Hardware tab, highlight your disk drive make and model, then click on the Properties button. Select the Policies tab and make sure "Enable write caching on the disk" is checked. Click OK twice to close the dialogs.

Techie Hacks

It's time to break out the toolkit, pop the cover of your PC, and dig inside for these hacks. Two beneficial hacks concern your disk drive--the first is replacing the old 40-wire IDE ribbon cable with a new noise-reducing 80-wire enhanced IDE cable. With the advent of ATA-100 (100 megabits per second) disk drives, the old-style cable is just too noisy, allowing cross talk of signals between the wires and interfering with efficient data transfer. A new 80-wire cable is required for the best performance of ATA-100 and ATA-133 drives, and it even helps with older ATA-66 drives.

While you are changing the cable, consider upgrading your disk drive. Many of us moved our old ATA-66 or ATA-100 drive into a new system with a board that supports ATA-133 drives, and we're cheating ourselves out of an additional 30 to 100 percent disk performance improvement. If you really want to see your disk performance kick up a few notches, upgrade to a new Serial ATA (SATA) drive, and a SATA interface board if the system board does not provide a SATA connection. SATA can move data at up to 150Mbps and will shave a lot of time off boot-up and file operations.

Before you put the cover back on, how much RAM do you have? If you're running with only 128MB or 256MB, you'll be impressed by the difference upgrading to 512MB or more can make. More RAM means Windows and applications do not have to swap out large chunks of memory to the swapfile on the hard drive, so you spend less time waiting for that annoying hourglass to stop spinning.

Major Hacks

Remember that soldering iron I told you to include in your toolkit in Part 1? Did I mention the chain saw? The soldering iron is necessary for making a modification to your older, 800MHz to 1,300MHz AMD Athlon CPU chip, allowing it to be significantly overclocked. The devil is in the details, which we don't have space for here, but a full, illustrated description is available in my PC Hacks book.

In the book I've also got a hack for an ISA serial port card so that you can use all four COM ports simultaneously without the nagging IRQ conflict. Yes, even in these days of USB and FireWire, sometimes you still need a good old COM port or four.

For a performance boost without tools, most system boards that use AMD CPUs and a Via chipset also use the Award BIOS, which may provide settings to change the CPU clock speed or multiplier rates for an overall performance boost. Restart your PC, press the appropriate key to access the BIOS setup program, then navigate the menus until you find the settings for CPU and memory clocking values. Here too you should make only minor increases in speed, no more than 2 to 3 percent, until you encounter the maximum speed at which the system will run. Make your changes, save the settings, reboot, and run the benchmark tests to determine the performance-enhancing effects.

The chain saw? Oh, that! We save the heavy equipment, spray paint, and custom plastic molding for the radical case modifications that--with a bit of artistic flair--can make your PC look like a totaled-out car wreck, a huge pet rock, or something more sedate like Grandma's old console radio and phonograph with a pull-out keyboard and display instead of a turntable. If you're creative enough, you and your masterpiece could become a feature in Intel's innovative PC design contest!

Summary

Start hacking! Start scouring the Internet for more tips and the utilities programs you need. You have only the look and feel of a newer PC to gain. All of these hacks and more have been tried and tested on many systems, and they haven't rendered a single PC useless. If you have your own hacks, or comments about the ones in PC Hacks, the book, please let us know!

Jim Aspinwall has been the Windows Helpdesk columnist and feature editor for CNET.com and is the author of three books on PC maintenance.


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