Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Maintaining and upgrading my desktop PC for photography – Part 3: Upgrade the main components

Having done some simple software system maintenance which successfully boosted the system’s performance and improved the system and CPU cooling and reduced the PC's noise levels it is now time to think about further hardware improvements.

There are several hardware areas that can be reasonably easily upgraded without any specialist knowledge or much risk to the system as a whole; and they are sensibly priced. These are:
  • System memory (RAM)

  • Upgrading a USB 2 external hard disk to an eSATA interface

  • The main internal hard drive

  • The graphics card for a twin monitor system
System memory
It is generally accepted that one of the most effective ways of boosting performance is to add in more system memory (RAM). Since I already had all four slots on the motherboard filled with 4x 512mb memory modules giving me 2gb in total I needed to change at least some of the memory. I have always been a bit mystified why if there was 2gb of memory installed the system only thought there was 1.5gb (as reported by right-clicking “My Computer” and looking at the “Properties” option under the “General” tab), but that’s PCs for you.

Windows XP will only recognise up to 4gb of RAM with the system’s “Physical Address Extension” turned on (which it is in Service Pack 2 onwards), unless you move to a 64 bit version of XP or Vista, so there is no point going above 4gb.

I like to use memory from a reputable supplier, and Kingston and Crucial came immediately to mind. Crucial have a neat system scanner utility [downloadable from – here] that scans your system and recommends compatible upgrades, which they guarantee will work with your system if you buy it from Crucial. I ran “Crucial Scan” and it recommended a set of 2x 2gb memory modules for my system, giving 4gb in total. I was slightly wary as the manual for the motherboard (a Foxconn 925XE7AA) says that it only supports up to 1gb memory densities, but with the Crucial guarantee I decided to risk it – when the manual was written I suspect that 2gb memory densities were not available. I ordered it, along with an anti-static wrist strap to use while installing it. They arrived in the post a couple of days later, along with a free 2gb Lexar USB memory stick – all for £38 – not exactly a huge investment.

I installed it with the usual concerns about zapping the entire system with static or some act of clumsiness; but using the anti-static wrist strap, natural material clothing and avoiding static creating environments I installed the memory. This was not without alarm, however… It did not simply succumb and meekly sit into the memory slots; no it resisted and I thought that I was going to damage the motherboard, so I re-read the instructions a couple of times and noticed in a diagram that I should be pushing at the ends of the card, not in the middle where logic told me I should. After a bit of jiggling around they both eventually popped into place.

When I turned it all on it booted up fine and on checking I could see that more memory was installed – again rather puzzlingly 2.75gb, not the full 4gb. I gather that this figure is after some system overheads have been deducted, such as graphics cards etc; but in any case it nearly doubled the available RAM.

Did it make a difference?
Well it is not immediately obvious – the system seems more resilient with more applications open so it is almost certainly working, but I guess that there is some optimisation I have yet to do in Photoshop and Lightroom, but I am confident that if I end up with some huge multi-layers image files in Photoshop the extra memory will come into its own.

Upgrade external hard disk to an eSATA interface

eSATA is a connection standard just like USB, FireWire etc. It is based on the Serial ATA (SATA) connection initially used inside computers for internal hard drives as a replacement for IDE standard drives; connecting directly into sockets on the motherboard. SATA disks can be used as external hard drives using SATA enclosures, but most of them use the USB2 standard interconnect to connect too the PC.

eSATA stands for external SATA. By installing an eSATA plate in the computer case connected to a spare socket on the motherboard you can create an external connection for an eSATA enabled external hard disk. This should boost the connection speed from USB2’s max of 480 mbits/sec to 1.5 or 3gbits/sec depending on the SATA generation (I or II) used. The cable length, however, can only be about 1-1.5m and no power is available so the connected disk will need its own power supply. The diagram below, from, shows the relative typical interface speeds for the common inter connection types – 1394 is better known as FireWire.

This performance boost seems worthwhile, especially if Photoshop is using an external hard disk as a scratch disk in your set up, as it is in mine.

I chose to buy an high quality Icy Box 351 3.5” SATA enclosure (about £35 on eBay) offering USB2 and eSATA, which come with an eSATA plate and connector, which I planned to use as part of my hard disk replacement process, as described in the next section.

I installed the plate using the same precautions against static as I used for the memory, along with an extra set of 4x USB ports for good measure. Both installations were very straight forward – the eSATA plate is the one with the red cable coming out of it in the photo below.

Internal hard disk upgrade

My main internal hard disk has been doing sterling duty for 3½ years and I should probably replace it as a precaution in any case as it occasionally makes ominous grinding noises on start up. But in that 3½ years technology has moved on apace and now faster, bigger, lower energy and cheaper disks are around.

After looking around it seems the Western Digital currently have a good reputation. In their range the current best price/performance model seems to be the 640gb disks, which come in a low energy “Green” variant. I bought a pair Western Digital 640gb Hard Drive SATAII 7200rpm 16MB Cache - OEM Green Power from eBuyer for about £50 each – one to transfer the system hard drive to and one for the eSATA box.

To transfer to the new hard drive I wanted to use one of the disk image transfer systems as I did not fancy reinstalling all my software with all the tweaks that have accumulated over the years. To do this I chose Acronis’ Migrate Easy 7.0 – they offer a 15 day free trial (from – here) which was all I needed to try it out. The software was easy to use and transferred the 200gb disk to the new one in the eSATA box in about 2 hours – and it worked fine when I swapped them over.

Twin monitor system
I have wanted to upgrade my system to a twin monitor system for some time. I decided to buy a 24” Dell Ultrasharp 2408WFP monitor and keep my old NEC MultiSync 1850X as the second screen. To use both in DVI format I needed a new graphics card with two DVI outputs; not knowing a lot about graphics cards and not planning to do any really graphics intensive activities like gaming I rather randomly chose an Asus EAH3650 with 256mb of DDR3 memory.

It all worked well enough, although the first Dell monitor arrived and went pink within a day or so, but Dell replaced it without demur by overnight courier so I can forgive them that quality issue this time, but I found out that I can only profile one of the monitors with my ColorVision Spyder 2 monitor profiling system – so I chose to profile the Dell and accept the inaccuracy on the NEC – not ideal and not something I had thought about in advance.

I have also found that there are plenty of peculiarities about using a pair of unmatched monitors, but one free utility I have found useful is the MultiMonitor TaskBar – available from here – which allows easy switching of applications to the other monitor and adds a task bar to the second monitor.

Having gone to some effort to reduce the PC’s noise the fan in the new graphics card increased it a little…


I have a quieter machine which is a bit quicker and more nimble, now with twin monitors.


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