What happened to that speedy computer you bought just a few years ago? Now it seems slow and tedious as you labor through your daily computer rituals. And how about that old and clunky operating system-is it time for a fresher version?

If you're wondering what else can and should be upgraded, perhaps it's time for a tech checkup. Who knows-maybe a few hundred dollars in upgrades can make you a whole lot more productive.

"The key to upgrading is knowing when to upgrade and when not to," says Mie-Yun Lee, editorial director for BuyersZone (www.buyerszone.com), a Watertown, Massachusetts, Internet purchasing resource company that provides searchable databases for businesses. "Sometimes it makes more sense to replace a computer or peripheral instead of spending the money to upgrade it. But more often, you can take care of a problem with a simple upgrade or two."

That said, here are seven items that should be on everyone's tech checkup list.

Eric J. Adams is a freelance writer in Petaluma, California, who has contributed to a wide range of computer, business and general-interest publications, including PCWorld, Macworld, Wired and The New York Times. While writing this article, he did a tech checkup himself and reports he's "woefully underpowered."

Modem

Still using that 28.8 Kbps modem? Ditch it, quick.

"Anyone who spends even a modest amount of time browsing on the Web would be best advised to put their first $100 toward a 56 Kbps modem," says Braj Agarwal, 52, a small-business consultant in Seaford, New York.

That's what Robert Graves did when he started his most recent company, Perfect Staple Removers, a staple-remover manufacturing company in San Francisco. "I knew I was going to do a lot of research online for my business plan, and I didn't want to lose valuable time waiting for pages to appear because of a slow modem," says Graves, who was piddling with a 14.4 Kbps modem before making the leap to 56 Kbps. If you, like Graves, have equipment so antiquated you need to leap two or three steps ahead just to catch up, take heart: You'll find 56K modems for as low as $50, or up to $300 when loaded with additional features such as voice mail and messaging.

If you're planning on replacing your computer soon, you may want spend the extra $20 to $30 to purchase an external modem that can be used with your new computer or kept as a spare.

And, if your local cable company offers it, you may want to consider a cable modem that, according to providers, speeds access up to 50 times over a 28.8 Kbps.

Local phone companies are also rolling out fast service known as asymmetrical digital subscriber line (ADSL), a modem technology that transforms ordinary phone lines (also known as "twisted copper pairs") into high-speed digital lines for ultra-fast Internet access. Although your service provider will usually supply you with the necessary modem, the actual availability of the service varies widely from region to region. For a list of vendors in your area, check the ADSL Forum at www.adsl.com.

Random Access Memory

Whether you have a Mac or a PC, your most cost-effective computer upgrade is the addition of more RAM. Christine Whyte, 45, owner of MediaBank Custom Publishing in San Francisco, upgraded from 16MB to 32MB of RAM, an upgrade that cost her all of $50. "I upgraded so I could run Windows 95, which requires more RAM," says Whyte.

The rule of thumb: It doesn't hurt to have at least 32MB of RAM in your computer. But why stop there? With prices so low, 64MB are even better. Now 32MB of additional memory can run you less than $100-in some cases, as low as $60.

You can buy additional memory in increments of 4MB, 8MB and 16MB on small modules called SIMMs (single in-line memory modules). SIMMs should easily plug into your computer's motherboard without hassle.

Here's one of the many caveats of upgrading: You'll have to answer a cavalcade of questions before you can purchase the right type of SIMM, including:

  • Does my motherboard accept additional memory?
  • What PIN configuration does my system require?
  • At what speed, in nanoseconds, must my memory operate?
  • How much is enough memory without piling on more memory than I need?

Check your computer's manual or call the manufacturer to answer these questions. Some computers, particularly laptops, require proprietary RAM that can be more expensive-not to mention harder to find-than nonproprietary or standard SIMMs.

But it's worth it. "A simple 16MB upgrade may double your computer's performance," says Agarwal. "There's no better computer upgrade you can make." SIMMs, which are not sold by brand names, are available from a wide variety of sources, including local computer stores and mail-order houses.

Storage

It's called "data creep," and it goes something like this: You buy a computer with five times the hard-drive capacity of your last computer. Soon you find it's not nearly enough space. How could you possibly have reached the limit? "You pull a few things down from the Web, add some programs, and all of sudden you're up against the wall," Graves laments.

Your first option is to buy a bigger hard drive or, better yet, a second hard drive. "It's by far the cheapest alternative," says Lee. Indeed, you can pick up internal 3.2GB drives for as a low as $129 and 8GB drives for $179.

You'll find drives available for Macs and PCs, but make sure you have your computer model name or number on hand as you order to ensure the correct interface. Get that right, and installation should be a snap. If you don't have room for another drive or feel a little queasy about drive installation, consider an external hard drive that connects to your computer via a parallel, SCSI or USB port.

If you want unlimited storage, the answer is a removable storage system, such as an Iomega Zip or Jaz drive, available from $119 to $349, depending on capacity. "Hard drives are the least expensive option, but a removable system lets you add as much storage as you need," says Lee. Removable drives are available in internal and external models and connect easily to your laptop or desktop computer. Once installed, low-cost removable disks or cartridges can be purchased in capacities from 100MB to 2GB, depending on the device.

"For a little more than a hard drive, you can buy unlimited capacity," says Agarwal. "And if you purchase an external model, you can use the drive with more than one machine."

You can also use your cartridges to exchange data and programs with clients, employees and others.

Keyboard

When it comes to productivity, most people don't think about their keyboard. A good one, however, helps you battle fatigue, wrist strain, back pain and other physical afflictions.

"A typical person who spends most of his or her day typing at the keyboard may make thousands of keystrokes daily," says Agarwal. "The human hand isn't designed to endure such repetitive motions. The result all too often is one of any number of repetitive strain injuries."

One of the culprits is the ill-conceived keyboard. Keyboards require users to keep their hands in unnatural positions-wrists tilted in, and concave instead of convex. Fingers of variable lengths must stretch awkwardly. "The entire ordeal of typing places an inordinate amount of stress on the hands, arms, shoulders and back," says Agarwal.

For Whyte, the pain attacked her wrists. "I spend a lot of time at the keyboard and was finding I had to take a lot of breaks because my wrists were aching with tendinitis," she says.

Her solution? An ergonomic keyboard. Microsoft and AT&T, among others, make "ergonomically designed" keyboards that allow your hands to rest in a more natural position when typing. Microsoft's $59 Natural Keyboard, for example, splits and rotates the traditional keyboard and adds an extra-deep wrist rest to promote straighter wrists and more relaxed shoulders. AT&T's $59 Ergonomic Keyboard comes with a detachable, contoured wrist rest and an integrated touch pad so you don't have to keep reaching for that mouse. You can buy a lot of aspirin for that price, but why endure the pain?

Monitor

Your monitor may be another low-productivity culprit, due to both its size and resolution. A coarse resolution can cause eyestrain, which in turn causes fatigue, according to Lee.

If that's the case, a new monitor may be in order. Look for one with a high refresh rate and a low dot pitch. The refresh rate is the rate at which the image is repainted on the screen, measured in hertz; a good monitor has a refresh rate of 70 HZ or higher.

When it comes to dot pitch, the distance between pixels, lower is better. Most monitors today feature dot pitches of 0.28. If possible, stay away from some of the less expensive models with dot pitches higher than that.

Also look for monitors that come with anti-glare coatings and flat screens to reduce peripheral glare. Size is also significant. "If you spend a lot of time flipping through applications and sizing windows, the amount of time you can save with a larger monitor is pretty substantial," Lee points out.

That's what Graves found when he upgraded from a 15-inch to a 17-inch monitor. "It's just a matter of having more real estate on which to work," he says.

How big? Lee recommends a 17-inch diagonal monitor at the very least, and a larger one if your work is graphics-heavy. You'll find models for less than $500 and as low $399. But keep in mind, a monitor is definitely not the place you want to scrimp.

If desktop real estate is at a premium, you can purchase one of several new LCD "flat" displays that require only about 30 percent of the desk space of standard monitors. Flat panels are sharp, use less energy and have no emissions (as do traditional cathode ray tube monitors). But get ready to pay more-a lot more. Flat panel displays cost $800 to $1,500 for 15-inch diagonal models and up to $2,000 for 17-inch models. "They truly are wonderful," says Agarwal, "but your money is better spent on other upgrades."

Operating System

ou've spent years stabilizing your operating system and getting your software and hardware to work together smoothly. Why would you possibly want to upgrade the brains of your computer now?

The answer is simple. "Most new software programs are written for the latest operating systems," says Agarwal. "So if you want to use the latest software, chances are you'll need to upgrade your operating system as well."

That's exactly why Whyte upgraded to Windows 95. "My clients are using Microsoft Office 7.0 and my Office version wasn't compatible," says Whyte. "I had no choice."

On the Windows side, Windows 95 and 98 offer plug-and-play capability, making it easier to add new hardware devices-a feature Macintosh users have enjoyed for years.

"If you have Windows 3.X, I would suggest upgrading to Windows 98," says Agarwal. "But if you're running Windows 95 already, I don't think a move to Windows 98 is worth it because Windows 98 doesn't offer much more than Windows 95. I'd rather put the $90 toward more RAM."

Some Mac users can move up to the new $99 Mac OS 8.5. It features improved networking, faster and easier searching of the Internet and local hard-drive content, new ways to streamline and automate everyday tasks, and a ton of interface enhancements. Unfortunately, you can't run the new operating system on older 680X0 Macs; you need a PowerPC-based Mac to take advantage of all these improvements.

On the other hand, there's an argument to be made for keeping things as is. "If your particular configuration is stable, and you have no need to add new software, then stick with what you've got," says Lee. "It can save you a lot of aggravation in the long run."

Printer

The other major component of your computer system is your printer. Two good reasons to upgrade here: color and speed. "If you want color to spruce up proposals, you can't beat the quality of low-cost ink jet printers," says Agarwal. For less than $300-and prices are still falling-you can pick up a Hewlett-Packard 722C or an Epson Stylus Color 740, which connects to your computer via an ultra-fast USB connection. Have less than $200 to spare? You can still get a great machine, like the 720 dpi HP DeskJet 420C, priced unbelievably at $119, or the $149 Epson Stylus 440. Both are a bit slower than their more expensive counterparts, but offer great color quality nonetheless. Although these machines are excellent alternatives for home offices, Agarwal warns of two possible problems: "Despite manufacturers' claims, inkjets are often not as fast as they're rated, and the ink still has a tendency to smudge when first printed."

If you're looking for a machine to pump out your paper, laser printers are still the best bet. You'll find color lasers now hovering around the $2,000 range (with some models as low as $1,200), but most buyers are looking for fast black-and-white output. And that's exactly what you'll get with the $399 HP LaserJet 1100se, which prints eight pages per minute at 600 dpi, or the $499 Okidata Okipage 10i, which offers 10 page-per-minute printing.

With prices like these, if you're still churning out just four pages per minute, a printer might be the most productive upgrade of all.

Out With The Old?

It's human nature to want something faster, bigger and more powerful. But do you really need a new computer, and is it worth the $1,500? If you agree with any one of the following statements, forget the upgrades and order a spanking new computer instead.

1. "I'm constantly waiting for software to load." First try pumping up your RAM to at least 32MB. If you still have serious performance difficulties, it's time to take the new-computer plunge. "The best reason to upgrade for PC users is speed," says Agarwal. "All those little delays waiting for your computer add up quickly."

2. "There are software programs I want to use but can't." Software programs today are big-40MB, 60MB, 80MB. And they consume massive amounts of RAM when loaded. Plus, not many software companies create new programs for Windows 3.X, or older versions of the Mac OS, so if you want the latest version of Microsoft Office or another program, you'll have to install the latest operating system.

"Many users find that the best reason to upgrade is to handle special computing tasks or specialized programs," says Agarwal. The bottom line: If you want to do something on your computer and can't because of limited power or inability to run the latest operating system, it's time for a new computer.

3. "I need to use my computer away from home." Laptop computers today are desktop equivalents in every way. If you find yourself wishing you could take that desktop computer with you to client sites, on the road, to the library or even to your mother's house, consider a laptop computer.

"For under $2,000, you can get a fully equipped machine with a 233 MHZ processor, a 2GB hard drive and an integrated modem," says Agarwal. Use your old monitor and keyboard while you're at your desk, and you'll have the best of both worlds.

4. "My computer is Crash City!" Older computers may not have printer and peripheral drivers required for newer printers and peripherals to operate. The result? Crash after crash after crash because the old system can't handle the newer technology. "If your machine isn't stable," says Agarwal, "better to replace it than spend time working out the bugs."