While buying a faster processor, more RAM, or a larger and faster hard drive can provide a useful boost to your PC's performance, there comes a time when more drastic action is needed. My Pentium III 1GHz machine has performed very reliably over the last two years, and has been able to do everything I've asked of it until recently. Its main failing for my purposes now is that while it can still run quite enough plug-ins and audio tracks, it's beginning to struggle when I ask it to play lots of soft synth notes (see 'The Right PC For The Job', SOS June 2003, for more details on how resources are consumed).
The sensible choice for me, as a reviewer, is to stick with Intel's Pentium range for maximum compatibility, and to upgrade to a Pentium 4 processor. Since Intel are pushing their latest 800MHz-buss models, and at the time of writing the 2.8GHz model is considerably cheaper than the 3GHz and 3.2GHz ones, this is the one I decided to buy. Having decided on a processor, I had two choices: buy or build a completely new PC, or replace the motherboard in my existing one.
With a new PC you could continue to use the old one alongside for running soft synths, but I've already got four PCs dotted around the house, and I'm running out of space! So I decided on the latter strategy, particularly since this means I can retain my existing Lian-Li PC60 aluminium case, Quiet PC power supply, hard drives, CD-R/W drive, floppy drive, and cables. Many of you will be facing a similar decision, so it may be useful for you to know how I managed.
If you're building a new PC from scratch, with a complete set of parts, you won't need to consider what's already on your hard drive or drives, but for those who are replacing an existing motherboard, or transferring existing hard drives to a new PC, there's an important question to answer before you unplug a single lead: are you going to start afresh with a newly-formatted hard drive partition, or try to keep your existing operating system and applications intact?
In the past, I've always recommended a clean install when upgrading Windows, so that you stand the best chance of achieving optimum performance. After a year or two, a huge amount of detritus generally accumulates on most people's drives, and a PC reconfiguration is an ideal opportunity to have a good clean-out. It's always easier to do this if your audio data is separate from your Windows and application data, whether it's on a different partition or a second drive, since you can keep the project data intact and still start afresh with Windows.
When changing motherboard, the chances are that you'll retain the same operating system, so such considerations don't apply. Having said that, a large number of system devices will be detected by Windows when you first boot with your new motherboard in place, so the official advice is still to start from scratch with a cleanly formatted partition, install Windows, and then let it detect all the motherboard devices. Then you have to re-install all your software applications and re-authorise any copy-protected software. After all, you may be changing from an Intel processor to an Athlon one, or vice versa, and this means a huge number of different devices on board.
A clean install, then, is the ideal. But if, like me, you've got loads of applications spread across five Windows 98SE and XP partitions, as well as lots of challenge/response-protected software that may require you to persuade the developers that your request for a new response is bona fide, it's a daunting prospect. An 'over the top' install, where you run the Windows setup again and the same files are installed over the top of the existing ones, may work instead and will certainly be quicker if it does.
Although a huge number of people are faced with the kind of scenario outlined above, Microsoft don't offer a recommended procedure for an 'over the top' install. I'm sure many people have simply rebooted their existing Windows install after changing a motherboard and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, this will mean your Registry already contains lots of references to redundant hardware, so the procedure may or may not work, and it's certainly not recommended if what you want is the most stable machine. I decided to find a more thorough, and potentially a safer, approach.
For Windows 95, 98, and ME, the secret seems to be the part of the Windows Registry labelled HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE. In this folder you'll find a sub-directory named Enum, which contains sub-references to the specific hardware components found in your PC, regardless of whether or not they are enabled in each hardware profile, and thus applicable to all users. It covers motherboard devices, BIOS, PCI cards, USB devices, your hard and floppy drives, any SCSI devices, monitor, mouse, and so on.
Delete this Enum folder, then power down your PC. Then install your new motherboard. The safest way to do an 'over the top' motherboard upgrade with any operating system is to start with just the graphics card installed. Then, when you boot up for the first time with the new board in place, a new Enum folder will be created, and all your new motherboard devices should then be detected in sequence and added to it. I can't guarantee that this will always work, but it seems to be a trick that's fairly well-known by Win 98 users. As you'll soon see, I managed to use it successfully on all three of my Win 98 partitions. One tip is to copy the entire folder containing the CAB (cabinet) files from the Windows CD-ROM somewhere onto your hard drive, since if any additional driver files are required for the new motherboard, you won't initially have access to your CD-ROM drive during the procedure.
It's vital that you back up the Registry or, preferably, save an image file of your entire Windows partition, using software such as Norton's Ghost or Powerquest's Drive Image, before embarking on this kind of installation, so that you can restore the image if something goes wrong. After I'd saved my image files, I cheated and ran the 'over the top' upgrade before changing my motherboard, just to see if it correctly re-detected my existing motherboard components. The chances are that Device Manager will contain some duplicate entries after the process, so for the best chance of a stable machine, go into safe mode once you finally reach the desktop for the first time, by rebooting and holding down the Ctrl key. Then delete all instances of any devices that are duplicated inside Device Manager. Don't worry unduly about accidentally deleting any devices that are needed — they should be re-detected on the next boot.
Unfortunately, the 'deleting the Enum folder' approach doesn't work with Windows NT, 2000 or XP, largely because they won't boot without suitable chipset and IDE controller drivers in place. If the old and new motherboard both use the same chipset, you may be able to simply do nothing, and Windows XP will detect the new devices on your newly-fitted motherboard and install them automatically on the first boot, but I doubt that this will apply in many cases.
During my research for this feature, I spotted a few people claiming that you could install the appropriate new XP drivers for your new motherboard with the old one still in place, and then reboot after the change, but this requires some expert knowledge and still sounds risky to me. A better solution is to first uninstall any special chipset or IDE drivers (such as Intel's Application Accelerator, for instance), if there's an option to do so, then uninstall the old motherboard. Once the new one is in place, enter the BIOS and change the order of boot devices so that you can boot directly from the Windows XP CD-ROM, without accessing your hard drive. In my BIOS I did this from the dedicated Boot Menu, where there was an option named Boot Device Priority, but yours will probably be slightly different.
Then select the Setup option rather than Repair (which will simply check the existing XP system files against the CD-ROM versions). Setup should now find the existing XP install and ask if you wish to Repair it — click 'Yes' to this second repair option and it should re-enumerate all the hardware devices and install the new motherboard drivers. This allegedly works well about 90 percent of the time, but a few people may find they still have to perform a clean install. Since you've re-installed Windows XP from scratch from its original CD-ROM, it may afterwards be safest (and will do no harm) to run any updates that are available, to make sure your files are the most recent versions. I'm primarily talking about the 'Service Pack' upgrade here.
If you're replacing an existing motherboard, you'll first need to remove it from the PC case. Make sure you remove the power cable before starting work, and ground yourself, by touching a radiator or other earthed object, before you pick up any component, or you can wear a proper anti-static wrist-strap This should avoid static discharges damaging expensive RAM or CPU components.
First, remove the various PCI and AGP cards, after unplugging their backplate connections, remembering that some AGP slots may have locking clips (don't force the card before you check whether you need to slide the clip out of the way). Then remove the various cables connecting the cooling fans, front-panel indicators and power supply, and those belonging to the floppy, hard, and CD drives. It will probably be easier to unplug the latter cables at the drive ends as well, to make more space to get the old motherboard out and the new one in, but once again, do this gently, since it's not unknown for an IDE cable to part company from its connector if you yank it too hard. You may also have to remove the occasional drive to get your old motherboard out.
Many motherboard manufacturers recommend installing your new RAM, CPU and associated heatsink and fan before mounting the new motherboard in the case, and this makes particular sense if you've got a small case or are hamfisted! Personally, I prefer to install the RAM first anyway, since it often seems to require a fair amount of downward force to get the modules in their sockets, and doing it on a firm surface prevents the motherboard from flexing too much. As long as you pay attention to the static warnings I mentioned earlier, you won't need to place your motherboard on a metal or black anti-static surface either — in fact, this might potentially short out your motherboard's battery. Just don't place it on a nylon carpet!
It pays to follow the advice in the user's manual as to the best order for filling the various RAM slots on your particular motherboard. On my Asus P4P800 Deluxe board there were four slots, labelled A1 (blue), A2 (black), B1 (blue), and B2 (black), and it was recommended to use the blue slots first and then the black ones, if installing pairs of modules. I had two 512MB DDR400 modules, so I installed them in the A1 and B1 slots.
To fit the RAM, make sure that the motherboard's RAM-retaining clips are spread outwards, make sure each RAM module is orientated such that its locating notch or notches is/are aligned over the corresponding point in the RAM socket, then press it firmly downwards until the retaining clips snap back into place and hold the module securely.
The main thing to check when installing any CPU is that it's properly orientated with respect to its motherboard socket. Both Athlon and Pentium 4 processors have a tiny triangle on one top corner of the package that helps you align it over the ZIF (Zero Insertion Force) socket. Just raise the socket lever to its vertical position and gently drop the CPU into place — if it's correctly positioned no force is necessary, and you may bend the pins if you exert any — and then lower the lever into its former locked position.
The procedure for fitting the heatsink will vary considerably from model to model, but fortuntely most come with detailed step-by-step instructions, including diagrams. Most standard heatsinks bundled with CPUs are pre-fitted with thermal tape to provide good heat transfer between the two, aiding cooling, but more up-market devices tend to be supplied with thermal paste. This does tend to provide slightly more efficient heat transfer if applied properly, so if you want your CPU to run as cool as possible it may be worth carefully removing any tape with a solvent and knife and using paste instead.
Always use the smallest amount of paste needed to cover the CPU core, carefully align the heatsink over the top of it, and then use the minimum amount of force to get whatever clips or clamps come with your heatsink to click or screw into place. It's important to try to keep the force straight downwards during this process, and not press too hard on one side or the other, to avoid damaging the processor. Once the heatsink is in place, attach the fan, if it isn't an integral part of the assembly, and then either plug its cable into the appropriate motherboard connector directly, or via your choice of dropper resistor or Fanmate controller (both available from www.quietpc.com, among others) to bring down fan speed to a quieter level. I used a Zalman CNPS7000-AlCu CPU Cooler for my Pentium C 2.8GHz processor, and this is also suitable for the Athlon 64 range.
If you're replacing an existing motherboard, you'll already have a set of stand-offs (small plastic or metal devices that space the board from the case, to avoid shorting anything out, and also to hold it securely). Don't be tempted to scrimp on stand-offs. There are three rows of three mounting holes on most motherboards, and you should fit stand-offs under all nine points on the case beneath, providing sufficient support to avoid undue flexing of the circuit board when installing your RAM, CPU, PCI cards, and so on. Sometimes the row nearest the back-panel sockets has a fourth mounting hole to provide extra support, but if your previous motherboard had four holes here, don't assume the new one will too — check carefully and remove any extraneous stand-offs before placing the new motherboard into position, since they may cause a short underneath the circuit board that will prevent boot-up.
Once you've had a good read through the various options in your motherboard manual, you may also want to change an occasional jumper setting before powering up, by pulling off the existing jumper and replacing it in a different position. My Asus P4P800 Deluxe motherboard featured jumpers for clearing the RTC (Real Time Clock) RAM — which also clears the battery-backed CMOS memory of such things as passwords — another to enable/disable SM (System Management) buss support for the PCI slots, and two to enable keyboard or USB device wake-up from sleep mode, none of which required changing.
Before placing the new motherboard in your PC's case, push out the old I/O shield plate that surrounded the old motherboard's various back-panel sockets, and press in the new one. Now may also be a suitable time to plug the various IDE and floppy drive cables into the motherboard, while it's easily accessible, although as long as you do this before starting to install expansion cards into their slots you shouldn't have any problems connecting these cables even after the motherboard is screwed down. Taking the latter approach may also make it easier to keep your cables tidy and 'dressed' out of the way, to ensure maximum cooling airflow and future access to the PCI slots.
Now comes the juggling: adjusting the position of the motherboard on top of the stand-offs so that all its mounting holes align with them, while also aligning the motherboard's back-panel sockets so that they line up with the apertures in the I/O shield plate. Once you've got it approximately correct you'll be able to insert the mounting screws. It's good engineering practice to insert all the mounting screws loosely before tightening any of them. This practice makes particular sense with PC motherboards and cases, since the tolerances may be such that you have to wiggle the motherboard a bit to get them all to fit. Once everything is in place, tighten down all the screws in a random fashion, taking care not to over-tighten them, since you can quite easily strip a stand-off's thread and have to start over again. A useful tip is to insert a PCI card in the end slot and tighten down its backplate screw before finally tightening the motherboard screws. This should ensure that the motherboard is mounted squarely and should make installing your other PCI cards easier.
Next you'll need to attach the front-panel switches and indicator cables. You may find it easier to insert the various connectors using a small pair of pliers, especially with a compact PC case, but they are normally fairly easy to press home, and not prone to problems as long as you're careful that LED connectors are plugged in the right way around. Just refer to your motherboard manual for polarity details, and remember that the cables themselves are often colour coded, often with black or white wires for negative, and various other colours for positive. Some cases, including my Lian-Li PC60, provide a two-part multi-way connector for the front-panel wiring, so you can connect up all the motherboard ends before placing it inside the case, and then plug in the panel end of the multi-way connector later on. This makes things a lot easier.
Power cables are easier to attach than they once were, since the old-style twin connectors have been replaced by a single 20-way keyed connector that ensures that you can't plug it in the wrong way around. As mentioned in the box to the left, Pentium 4 and some Athlon motherboards also require an additional 4-pin, 12-volt connector; again, this has a latching key. Finally, now's the time to fit any additional cables, such as extra USB ports attached to a dummy backplate, and then your AGP graphics card (leave your other PCI cards alone until you've got this nucleus system working correctly).
Having backed up every single partition on my PC and prepared the Registries of the Windows 98 ones, as discussed earlier, I powered down, removed my old motherboard, and then installed the new one just as described above. After a final check of all the connections, I powered up, to be greeted by the reassuring spinning-up of my new CPU fan and the green standby LED correctly illuminating on my new motherboard, followed by a single short beep from the internal speaker. This means that the POST (Power On Self Test) routines have confirmed that everything is normal. It should happen every time you boot up.
If you're going through this routine and nothing happens when you power up, check that the mains really is connected properly, that the power switch on the PC's rear panel is switched on, and that the ATX power-switch lead on the motherboard is correctly connected to the front-panel switch. If nothing's wrong here, check that your CPU is correctly installed. If the PSU and CPU fans spin, but nothing else happens, check that your CPU and RAM are seated correctly, and that IDE cables are plugged in the right way round. Finally, if you get multiple beeps instead of just one, check both your RAM and graphics card (I provided a list of common beep codes in PC Notes January 2003).
On my new PC, a quick jab on the Delete key took me into the BIOS, where I could see that my new CPU and RAM, along with both my old hard drives and CD-R/W drive, had been correctly recognised. However, my floppy drive LED activity indicator remained on permanently, and I soon discovered that I'd plugged its cable the wrong way around at the drive end — oops! However, after powering down and reversing it, it worked perfectly on the next boot, so no harm done.
Checking For Compatibility
Before making a final choice for your new motherboard, do make sure that it's compatible with your existing case and PSU if you don't want unexpected surprises and extra expense. Fortunately, the vast majority of modern motherboards are of ATX form factor, which means a typical size of 12 inches by 9.6 inches. One of the main reasons for the ATX design was to move the CPU closer to the PSU, for better fan cooling, but if you're unlucky this may restrict your choice of CPU heatsink/fan — I've noticed Zalman detailing some motherboards that aren't compatible with their larger cooling devices, so do check before making a purchase.
ATX-format motherboards use a standard 20-pin power connector, which mates with the plug found on all ATX power supplies, but Pentium 4 and some Athlon motherboards also require an additional 4-pin, 12-volt connector, so if, like me, you're upgrading from an older processor such as a Pentium 3, make sure your PSU has the extra trailing 4-pin lead and connector (many system builders tuck it away inside an empty drive bay). While unexpectedly having to buy the odd new cable is annoying, it's a lot worse to discover that your existing PSU isn't compatible.
As standards move ever onward, another thing to double-check is that your existing graphics card will still work with the new motherboard. Most of the latest motherboards will support the AGP 8x technology, which doubles the bandwidth of the graphic buss from the 1Gb/second of AGP 4x to 2Gb/second. While this will remove bottlenecks for those running graphics-intensive applications using 3D shading, music applications still don't need a fast graphics card. I'm still quite happy with my Matrox G450 dual-head card, which only supports AGP 4x. My choice of Asus P4P800 Deluxe motherboard supports AGP 4x and 8x, but the standard version only supports AGP 8x, and if I'd chosen the latter I would have needed to buy a new graphics card.
Finally, there's nothing more frustrating than ordering your new motherboard, and possibly a new processor and RAM, only to discover on unpacking them that you still need some small component that prevents you from finishing the upgrade. The majority of motherboards are bundled with a few jumpers to change hardware settings if required, but may not include a set of stand-offs and screws, which are normally included with a new PC case. Moreover, you may not always get cables to connect up your floppy drive, hard drives, and CD drives, although thankfully most motherboards featuring Serial ATA ports do tend to supply the rather newer cables to plug into them.
I now undertook some basic motherboard tweaks in the BIOS, to disable such things as the on-board audio, LAN, and RAID controller that I wasn't going to use. I also changed the number of USB ports from eight to six. (I found during my November 2003 issue tests with the Inta Audio PC, using the standard rather than the deluxe version of this motherboard, that this was the maximum I could manage without IRQ-sharing, with three or four PCI cards installed). I was then ready for the big one — booting into my main Win 98 partition via BootMagic.
Dozens of new motherboard devices were detected during this phase, including the serial ports, which demanded a Win 98 CD-ROM cabinet file before my CD-ROM drive had been activated via the IDE connection. However, since I had taken the precaution of copying these files elsewhere on my hard drive I could point to them and continue undaunted. Numerous Add New Hardware Wizards appeared for me to click through, and I also had to reboot several times as specific drivers were reinstalled, but only a couple of files couldn't be found: drivers for the 'PCI System Management Bus' and 'PCI Universal Serial Bus', both of which subsequently appeared in Device Manager with an exclamation mark indicating a problem (see screen right). However, the first problem device disappeared once I'd run Intel's Chipset Update utility from the CD-ROM bundled with my motherboard, and the second after I'd run the USB 2.0 driver update from the same source.
I also had a duplicate DMA Controller with an exclamation mark in the System devices section of Device Manager, as well as duplicate keyboard and Display adaptors. To make sure there were no other duplicates, I rebooted into Safe Mode and also found two sets of hard drive, floppy and CD-ROM entries. Deleting all multiple entries and rebooting allowed Windows to detect one good set of devices. At this stage I had a fully working PC with no driver problems indicated in the Device Manager, and everything seemed to be in full working order. I did have to manually re-enable Bus Master DMA for both my hard drives, and plugging in my USB printer and modem required the original install CD-ROMs, but once I added my soundcards their existing drivers were found and installed.
I repeated the same re-detection process with my other two Win 98 partitions, and as far as I can see all my installed Win98 applications across all three partitions worked first time, apart from my Internet access software, which went through a long re-install routine, and then crashed each time I tried to log on. However, I'm fairly sure it was my USB modem with a coincidental fault here, since subsequently trying to use the modem with another PC running XP produced exactly the same crash and error report.
Using the procedure described earlier, the Windows XP partitions took rather longer to process. I found I needed to make each one active in turn, using the floppy version of PartitionMagic, before Win XP's CD-ROM Setup program would recognise them as valid contenders to select for a new setup. Once this had been done, I could use the 'To Repair the selected Windows XP installation press R' option, which first copied loads of files from the CD-ROM to the Windows installation folders. It then initialised the chosen Windows XP configuration, rebooted, and installed Win XP 'over the top', taking about 25 minutes for the entire process.
As I half expected with such a radical change to my PC system, I did have to re-enter the Win XP Product Key, but Microsoft's toll-free automated system was happy to accept the new data and provide me with a new Confirmation ID to partner the newly-generated Installation ID. Once back at the desktop of the first of my two XP partitions, the only change I could spot was that System Restore had been switched back on, but otherwise everything was as I'd left it. There were three Unknown devices in Device Manager, but one disappeared after I'd run the new motherboard's Chipset utility, and the other two after I re-ran the Service Pack 1 update to get the latest version of all the drivers and USB 2.0 support.
Of my protected software, the key disk install of TC Works' Native Bundle 2.0 was a bit suspicious, and demanded to see the original CD-ROM, but that of Prosoniq's Orange Vocoder carried on regardless, as did Waves' Pace copy protection, while the challenge/response protection of Spectrasonics' Atmosphere and Trilogy, and the AAS Lounge Lizard and Tassman, all survived unscathed.
My biggest disappointment was that while the second XP partition completed its update in exactly the same way, it crashed each time just after reaching the point of activation. No doubt I shall get to the bottom of this, but four partitions out of five is pretty good going, and saved me a huge amount of work. I had no problems running Passmark's (www.passmark.com) BurnIn test for extended periods, so my new machine also seems pretty stable to date.
I can't guarantee that an 'over the top' install after changing a motherboard or moving a used drive across to a different PC will work on your machine, but if the worst comes to the worst you can still reformat the partition and start again from scratch. However, this kind of install is certainly worth a try, and could save you several days of re-installing Windows and software applications. Good luck!