Opinions on upgrades for a old PC

I have a 4-5 year old Dell Inspiron 530s as my main desktop at home. I don’t really game any more (and when I do it’s an Xbox) and I use it for MS Office Apps, Web browsing and some music/video. It was a pretty cheap PC when I bought it and it’s been impressively robust for how underpowered it is on paper.

I’m considering throwing some money at it to try and extend it’s life a bit longer and wanted to get some opinions from the experts in these parts. Here’s notable specs:

Intel E2200 Pentium processor
3 GB DDR2 Memory (two 1GB sticks and two 512MB sticks)
1 500 GB Samsung SpinPoint T Series HD501LJ HD (OS)
1 1 TB Seagate Barracuda ST31000524AS HD (Media)
ATI Radeon HD 4300 Series GPU

Obviously an old, lightweight system but for the most part it meets my needs. I’m running Windows 8 64-bit and Office 2013 as well as all 3 modern web browsers as my most commonly used applications. Lately I’ve been needing to reboot frequently and browsers that have been left open overnight freeze, crash and need to be restarted. Windows modern apps tend to take forever to load when the system has been running a while. Outlook 2013 seems to be a bit sluggish, but ultimately the biggest problem seems to be with the browsers and their massive memory usage that seems to get worse over time.

So, I’m considering a upgrade of some kind. I could spring for a couple sticks of memory and up it to 4GB or higher. I could dump the older 500GB hard drive and replace it with a 64/128 GB SSD. I could do nothing and let the PC wither on the vine.

Because I use the PC quite a lot for work I do need to keep it up and running and will need to replace it at some point, but I’m not really eager to lay out the cash right now. I’m not sure how to figure out what the biggest bottleneck is and where my money would be best spent, perhaps Windows 8 is just too much for the old girl.

Opinions?

First to answer the question you asked: The most noticeable upgrade would be the SSD. Memory would be next up, but that shouldn’t be a problem with your usage.

But that brings me to the question you didn’t ask: How to fix your browsers’ memory problems. Because two web browsers should not be using up that much memory, nor should it get worse the longer your computer is on. I have almost the exact same specs on my dad’s PC, and it’s perfectly fine handling two browsers concurrently, with memory to spare.*

You almost certainly have a memory leak somewhere. How much memory are your browsers using? How much memory do you have free when your computer starts getting sluggish? Check your Task Manager in advanced mode to get this information. We need to get this software problem fixed for you before you worry about the hardware.

I had this problem with dad’s computer recently, too, and I wound up doing a system restore back to before the problems started. And I usually never need to use System Restore. This can be a persnickety problem.

*I’m actually running two different users simultaneously thanks to a Remote Desktop hack. And we still usually have over 1GB left.

Upgrade the memory to the max and do a clean, bare-metal OS reinstall. Nothing else stands out as being worth any cash outlay on that platform. You may, however, get sticker shock when you price RAM. DDR2 is essentially obsolete and thus VERY pricey. I have dumped several DDR2 systems when a DDR3 mobo, CPU and RAM were a cheaper path.

Have you tried using a flash drive configured for ready boost? That might be a very cheap way to get you some significant speed increase since I’m betting a lot of your problems are due to memory paging.

edit: if you try this, pay attention to the speed rating of whatever type of flash memory you buy. SD, SDHC, etc. for example have their own rating system IIRC, but a PCMCIA card, memory stick or thumb drive will be rated using a multiple of the original CD read speed.

That is almost exactly what I was going to suggest.

I’m assuming you upgraded from either XP or Vista to 8, rather than a “nuke and pave” fresh instal of the OS, so the registry is going to be full of junk. Add to that the possibility that just one out of date or wrong version DLL could be causing the memory leak.

I’d do the fresh OS install first. Chances are good the PC will be decently frisky after that. Then you can evaluate the cost of adding RAM vs the cost of just replacing the whole PC. An Inspiron 530s can only hold 4 GB of RAM, and you should use matched pairs of modules, so you’ll probably be replacing a pair of 512 MB sticks with a pair of 1 GB sticks. To go from 3 GB to 4 would cost about $40, according to Crucial.

Yes, it looks like about $20 a stick - I must have been thinking of larger DDR2 or maybe even DDR RAM that was insanely expensive. I’d go the extra $40 and replace all four sticks to ensure timing compatibilities, that or purchase some exact equivalents. Many of the glitches the OP mentions can be caused by RAM timing or chip errors, so $70-80 for a completely new RAM install plus the OS reinstall might do wonders.

A 5-year-old system is really limited to 1GB sticks? ETA: I guess so. Wow.

Given that you’re reporting problems with applications left open and running overnight, don’t discount dust and heat as a problem, especially as it’s an old system. You might greatly improve reliability with minimal outlay by giving the entire system a clean-out with compressed air, and re-applying the heat sink paste on the CPU. My mom’s old computer had similar stability problems, and doing these two things helped more than an upgrade of the memory.

Thanks for all the feedback, good stuff. I was a amateur system builder back in the day so I’m hopefully not a complete rube on this stuff, just a little out of date.

Thanks, I think that’s the biggest question for me. Is it worth springing for a SSD? I know there are big start-up benefits but that seems a little superficial to me, not sure about less obvious benefits that SSDs can take advantage of as part of Windows 8 and newer applications. How much faster with Outlook load? Firefox? Any impact on Flash and streaming video?

Yup, clearly that is a problem that I’d love to fix. Because of work I tend to always have Firefox and Chrome running simultaneously, and often have IE running as well to to access Outlook.com, SkyDrive and Sharepoint. Both my work laptop and home desktop have the same issue, but the work laptop is higher powered and suffers less quickly.

Looking at task manager on my work laptop right now, Chrome is consuming over 1 GB of memory with 2 pinned tabs (facebook & twitter) and 2 regular tabs open. FF and IE are each at about 200 KB with just one tab. The browsers each have only bee running for about 90 minutes, so this seems to be a problem.

I’ve tried reinstalling the browsers on both PCs and only have AdBlock and Roboform installed as Add-ons/Extensions on each. I’ve tried everything short of a clean OS install to fix it. Maybe one of those extensions is the issue, or maybe Facebook and Twitter gobble resources like crazy as pinned app tabs. In any case, the browsers are a big issue and I can’t imagine I’m anything close to a power user.

I did a clean wipe of Vista before installing Windows 7 clean. Then upgraded in place to Windows 8. I’m sure a clean install would help some, but I don’t think my PC is totally littered, I’m pretty lean when it comes to installing apps and such. Could be worth a shot when I’m desperate.

Not sure that my PC is limited to 4GB or 8GB of RAM. The manual (but not Crucial) says there are 3 variations, 530s, 530sa and 530sc. The 530s is limited to 4GB, the sa and sc can have 8GB. They use the same chipset and each had 4 slots, I’m guessing that the 530s had a 32-bit OS originally installed and the 530sa and sc had a 64-bit version. Long story short, I’m pretty confident that I could spend $150 and get up to 8GB if I wanted.

Come back to my original question, should I spend $150 on 8GB of memory or on a SSD and would either pay any meaningful dividends?

I don’t think dust or ventilation is an issue. I keep it pretty well cleaned out and it’s not in a cabinet or anything and it stock out of the box. The heatsink might be an issue, but it’s all still stock OEM stuff so unless Dell’s stuff is crappy it’s a bit of a long shot. I do have paste on hand so it’s a free fix to test out. That said, the apps running overnight should be idle browser tabs and Outlook syncing with Exchange. I’d be shocked if heat was an issue for that little use, it’s almost certainly a memory problem. Just not sure if it’s a fixable one or if it’s just the way browsers are these days.

If you go to Dell’s support website and punch in the tag number you’ll get chapter and verse for the model.

The heatsink may well be an issue given it’s been on 5 years. The fan may be failing and it’s definitely worth reapplying thermal compound.

And I’m wondering why you upgraded to Windows 8.

Been there, done that.

Might as well, while I’m at it I suppose I could toss a CPU upgrade into the mix of upgrade options. Not sure what the mobo/chipset would support, but if I’m going to do this there’s no reason not to evaluate it as an option.

Was having the issue on Windows 7, and the work PC is a Windows 7 device which sees the same memory usage issues but has enough oomph to remain mostly usable. Don’t really think Windows 8 is the issue.

I certainly would check interrupts, what you describe sounds like a hardware problem.
IMHO clean your system carefully, replace thermal paste everywhere (2 years will dry out most compounds enough to diminish drastically your cooling)
Dismount and clean gently memory sticks, be sure the mounts are in good condition.
Do a complete clean re-install, check browser updates BigT is right.
Cost at this point: about 5.00$ for the thermal paste, see from there.
You don’t describe anything using heavy disc access, you have to need a lot to be able to need an expensive SSD but they are lovely…

Check interrupts? That one’s over my head.

Okay, if you don’t care about application or OS start up times, and you don’t have a lot of disk thrashing otherwise, then I agree that an SSD might not be for you. Memory would be a good upgrade, but, again, we need to get your other problem sorted out first. Memory is not going to fix the problem by itself.

Like I said, we need to look at fixing software before checking hardware (like the heat sink everyone is mentioning). That 1GB on Chrome does seem to be a problem. That is much higher than I would expect in such a short amount of time. Leave the computer on and Chrome running and see if it goes higher. If it does, then experiment by restarting the computer and completely not running Chrome, and seeing if the problem stops.

Seriously, I’ve had the exact problems you are describing before (on the same basic hardware, save the graphics card), and it was software, not hardware. It was simply a memory leak (albeit in pool [i.e. driver memory] rather than any program.) I think everyone is jumping the gun a little bit talking about hardware.

Though I admit using thermal paste won’t cost much, so you’re not out much if it doesn’t help. If you want to try it, go ahead. I guess it’s less time consuming than reinstalling a fresh OS (and reinstalling all your programs), which is the direction we may have to go to fix memory leak problems (as I assume System Restore would be too much trouble).

Just a quick clarification, I do care about application load times. Quite a lot actually, especially when it comes to Metro apps on Win8. I care much less about OS boot times since my typical MO is to leave the PC on all the time and only restart with updates or when the system gets laggy.

There’s an item called System Interrupts in Task Manager, under the Details tab. Check to make sure it doesn’t go above 0% CPU very often. (An occasional 1% or 2% is okay.)

There’s more you can do, but that’s a good start.

I understand that. However, an SSD would help application start up times all the time. It wouldn’t help if applications are getting slower and slower over time. That’s either a memory or overheating issue.

I’m having my work PC reflashed right now and am on a loaner PC. Running Chrome on it for a short time and the memory usage is pretty similar. 5 tabs (same 2 pinned), Adblock running, no Roboform extension, 9 processes combining for around 600-700MB of memory. IE is using about 250MB.

This seems high to me, but it’s relatively consistent across all three PC I’ve been able to compare. I was just thinking that this is what a modern browser does today making my home PC a dinosaur.

ETA: Looking at the task manager on Win7 right now, not seeing a Details tab or interrupts anywhere.

If every task you use a computer for can be accomplished through a browser, you’re right.

There is no details tab on Win7. The task manager changed for Win8. On Win7, I believe the tab is called Processes or something similar. I’m also not sure if system interrupts are available in the Win7 task manager. (It’s listed as a process, even though it really isn’t one.) If you can’t find that item, you can try downloading Process Explorer., which I know has it.

Chrome may be perfectly fine, depending on the pages you are viewing. (600MB-700MB is not what I thought you meant when you said around 1GB) That’s why I want you to check and see if the memory usage goes up over time, even when Chrome is just in the background. And it’s also why I want you to tell me how much total memory you have left only once your computer is getting laggy.

A memory leak is a slow mounting problem. Whatever program slowly uses more and more memory without flushing what it’s already using. Eventually it uses up nearly all your memory. We had around 95K free when my dad’s computer started lagging. If your memory goes that low, that’s almost certainly what’s causing the problem. That’s the cause I’m trying to rule out before moving on to hardware solutions.

Context please?

The 600-700 was what my loaner laptop was using right after opening the apps. I’m back on my normal work PC and it’s at about 600-700 for 3 tabs as well right after load, fresh off a re-imaging. I’ll leave them running a while to see if it grows to the 1GB+ it was earlier today.

I have 4 GB on my work machine and just sitting here with only Outlook, IE and Chrome open i’m at 2.75 GB of memory used. It usually gets up to 3.0-3.5 by mid-day.

I’ll keep tabs on the memory usage on the old PC when I get home. Based on what my work PC uses going from 3 GB to 4 GB on my home machine might do the trick if this isn’t a memory leak issue.

System interrupts is constantly oscillating always between 0.1% and 01%. It rarely jumps over 1% and never sits at 0.0% for more than a second or two. Issue? This is on the problem home PC, btw.