2.1 Rules to Upgrade By

We've repaired, upgraded, and built hundreds of systems over the years, and learned a lot of lessons the hard way while doing it. Here are the rules we live by? some big, some small, and some more honored in the breach. We admit that we don't always take each of these steps when we're doing something simple such as swapping a video card, but you won't go far wrong following them slavishly until you have enough experience to know when it's safe to depart from them.

Back everything up

Twice. Do a verify pass, if necessary, to make sure that what is on the backup tape matches what is on the disk drive. If you're connected to a network, copy at least your data and configuration files to a network drive. It's much easier to retrieve them from there than it is to recover from tape. If there's room on the network drive, create a temporary folder and copy the entire contents of the hard disk of the machine about to undergo surgery. If you have neither a tape drive nor a network volume, but you do have a CD or DVD writer, back up at least your important data and configuration files to optical discs. About 99 times in 100 all of this will be wasted effort. The 100th time?when everything that can go wrong does go wrong?will pay you back in spades for the other 99.

If you don't have a tape drive or a CD/DVD writer, installing one is an excellent first upgrade project. Floppy disks just aren't good enough for backup nowadays.

Make sure you have everything you need before you start

Have all of the hardware, software, and tools you'll need lined up and waiting. You don't want to have to stop in midupgrade to go off in search of a small Phillips screwdriver or to drive to the store to buy a cable. Our first rule of upgrading says you won't find the screwdriver you need and the store will be closed. If your system can boot from the CD- or DVD-ROM drive, configure it to do that and test it before proceeding. Otherwise, make sure you have a boot disk with drivers for your CD-ROM drive, and test it before you start tearing things down. Create a new emergency repair diskette immediately before you start the upgrade. Make certain you have the distribution disks for the operating system, backup software, and any special drivers you need. If you're tearing down your only PC, download any drivers you will need, and copy the unzipped or executable versions to floppies or burn them to CD before you take the computer apart. Just following that last piece of advice would have saved us many times from driving back to the office to download a driver we needed when upgrading a computer at another site.

Make sure you can get the answers you need

Read the manual first. A quick read-through often uncovers potential problems, hints, and tips that can make the upgrade go much more smoothly. Check the web site for any new component you are installing. You'll often find FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions), Readme's, updated drivers, and other information that can make the difference between a trouble-free upgrade and a major mess. In fact, the quality of the web site that supports a component is a large factor in our purchase decision, and we suggest that you make it one in yours. Before we even consider buying a major component, we check its web site to verify that it is likely to have answers to any questions that may arise.

Make the technology work for you

You may have a choice between a slow manual way and a quick automatic way to accomplish a given task. The latter may require spending a few bucks for a special-purpose utility program, but may save you hours of trial and error, manual labor, and aggravation. For example, if you are replacing a hard disk, you can move the contents of the existing disk to the new disk by spending hours doing a backup and restore, or you can buy a $15 utility program that does the same thing in a few minutes. In fact, most hard drives now come with software to migrate your data and programs automatically from the old hard drive to the new one. For some reason, few people use these programs or are even aware that they exist. Throughout the book, we point out utilities (many of them free) that we use to minimize manual trial-and-error work.

Record everything

During an upgrade, it's often important to be able to return to your starting point. If you've just spent an hour moving cables and changing DIP switches and jumpers, it's almost impossible to remember what went where originally. So, make sure to record each change as you make it. Some people like a visual record of what they're doing, and so use a digital camera to photograph the original state of the system and each change as they make it. In particular, if you are responsible for a large number of systems, the ability to file digital camera images by date or trouble-ticket number may be useful.

We find using a camera cumbersome, and prefer to use written or tape- recorded notes. The method we've settled on is to dictate the working details as we go along into a $30 Panasonic microcassette recorder?e.g., "pin 1 on the motherboard PS/2 keyboard connector is the red wire on the jack, with position 4 empty." Once we finish, we transfer important information?changes to jumpers and Dual Inline Pin (DIP) switches, what components we've added and removed, etc.?to the written log book for that computer. Each time we buy or build a new computer, it gets its own log book with its name on the cover. We use the black-and-white speckled hardbound composition books that Office Depot sells for a couple of bucks.

Change one thing at a time

When upgrading multiple components, do so in phases. For example, to install a new video card and a new sound card, leave the old video card in place while you install the new sound card. Restart the computer and make sure the new sound card is working properly before you install the new video card. If you change only one thing at a time, any problems that occur are clearly a result of that change, and are relatively easy to track down and fix. If you swap multiple components simultaneously, resulting problems are harder to troubleshoot because you're never certain whether the problem is caused by a bad or misconfigured new component, by a conflict between the new components, or by a conflict between one or more of the new components and one or more existing components.

Keep the PC grounded while you work on it

Most PC user manuals tell you to unplug the PC before working on it. They say that not because it is good practice, but to minimize the risk of being sued if someone somehow electrocutes himself while working on one of their PCs. Disregard their advice. Every experienced technician we know leaves the PC plugged in while working on it, and for good reason. Doing so keeps the PC grounded, which minimizes the very real risk of static electricity destroying sensitive chips. Best practice is to plug the PC into a power strip or surge protector that is connected to the wall receptacle, but turn the power strip off. That grounds the PC to the building ground, but also ensures that no voltage can reach the PC while you're working on it. Note that the presence of a two-to-three-prong adapter anywhere in the chain isolates the system from the dedicated ground circuit and eliminates the value of keeping the system plugged in unless the grounding wire on the adapter is connected to the building ground.

Turning off the main power switch on most older systems?those that use the AT form factor and its derivatives?removes voltage from all system components except the power supply itself, leaving the system in a safe state to work on without risk of damaging components. Many newer systems?those that use the ATX form factor and its derivatives?maintain low-voltage, low-amperage power to the motherboard even when the main power switch is turned off, unless that system is unplugged from the wall receptacle.

Most (but not all) such systems have a small indicator LED on the motherboard that remains lit to indicate that the system is still powered. Installing or removing an expansion card or other component on such a system without first disconnecting the power entirely may damage the motherboard and/or the component. Although some ATX power supplies have a physical power switch on the power supply itself, the safest method with such systems is either to unplug the main power cord, or to use a switched-off power strip as mentioned earlier. If in doubt, disconnect the main power cord and ground yourself by touching the power supply housing before touching other components.

Keep track of the screws and other small parts

Disassembling a PC yields an incredible number of screws and other small pieces. As you tear down a PC, organize these parts using an egg carton or old ice cube tray. As we can attest, one errant screw left on the floor can destroy a vacuum cleaner. Worse, one unnoticed screw can short out and destroy the motherboard and other components. The goal is to have all of the small parts reinstalled or accounted for when you reassemble the PC. Some people store the screws until they are needed by putting them back into the original component after removing it. This takes a bit longer, but does ensure that you use the proper screw for each component.

Some PCs use a variety of screws which look very similar but are in fact threaded differently. For example, the screws used to secure some case covers and those used to mount some disk drives may appear to be identical, but swapping them may result in stripped threads. If in doubt, keep each type of screw in a separate compartment of your organizer.

Use force when necessary, but use it cautiously

Many books tell you never to force anything, and that's good advice as far as it goes. If doing something requires excessive force, chances are a part is misaligned, you have not removed a screw, or something similar. But sometimes there is no alternative to applying force judiciously. For example, drive power cables sometimes fit so tightly that the only way to get them off is to grab them with pliers and pull hard. Some combinations of expansion card and slot fit so tightly that you must press very hard to seat the card. If you encounter such a situation, verify that everything is lined up and otherwise as it should be (and that there isn't a stray wire obstructing the slot). Then use whatever force it takes to do the job, which may be substantial.

Check and recheck before you apply power

An experienced PC technician working on a system does a quick scan of the entire PC before performing the smoke test by applying power to the PC. Don't skip this step, and don't underestimate its importance. Most PCs that fail the smoke test do so because this step was ignored. Until you gain experience, it may take several minutes to verify that all is as it should be?all components secure, all cables connected properly, no tools or other metal parts shorting anything out, and so on. Once you are comfortable working inside PCs, this step takes 15 seconds, but that may be the most important 15 seconds of the whole upgrade.

Start small for the first boot

The moment of greatest danger comes when you power up the PC for the first time. Do what's necessary to minimize damage if the smoke test fails. If the system fails catastrophically?which sometimes happens no matter how careful you are?don't smoke more than you have to. For example, we recently built a server for which we'd bought four 512 MB DIMM memory modules and two 15K Cheetah SCSI drives. A new motherboard sometimes shorts out the first time it's powered up, so rather than installing the new DIMMs and hard drives before testing, we used an old 128 MB DIMM and an old Barracuda hard disk to verify that the motherboard was good and all connections were right. Once we passed that hurdle, we installed the new DIMMs and hard disks. If the system had smoked, we'd have been out a motherboard, but our expensive new DIMMs and hard disks would be safe. We mentioned earlier another advantage to doing things this way. Limiting simultaneous changes makes it easier to get the hardware working properly. Starting small and adding components incrementally also helps you get Plug and Play configured more easily, particularly when you're installing "difficult" peripherals such as sound cards, which want to grab every free resource in sight.

Don't throw the old stuff away

Don't discard the components you pull. With new hard disks priced near $1 per gigabyte, an old 1 GB hard disk may not seem worth keeping. But you may be glad you have it the next time you need to troubleshoot your system. Despite those correspondence school ads that show a technician using an oscilloscope to troubleshoot a PC, nobody really does it that way. In the real world, you troubleshoot PCs by swapping components. Keeping old components you pull during upgrades is a convenient (and free) way to accumulate the swappers you'll need later on to troubleshoot problems with this or another PC. Label them "known good," date them, and put them on the shelf.

Leave the cover off until you're sure everything works

An easy way to tell an experienced technician from a novice is to see when he reassembles the case. Experts wait until everything is installed and tested before putting the lid back on and securing the external cables. A novice installs the component, reassembles the case, reconnects all the cables, and then tests it. We watched one young woman do this several times before she caught on.

The corollary to this rule is that you should always put the cover back on the case once the upgrade is complete and tested. Some believe that leaving the cover off improves cooling. Wrong. Cases do not depend on convection cooling, which is the only kind you get with the cover off. Cases are designed to direct cooling air across the major heat-generating components, processors, and drives, but this engineering is useless if you run the PC uncovered. Replace the cover to avoid overheating components.

The other good reason to replace the cover is that running a system without the cover releases copious amounts of radio frequency to the surrounding environment. An uncovered system can interfere with radios, monitors, televisions, and other electronic components over a wide radius.