When people want to improve their technology experience, they often focus on fixing the most complex things, thinking that a big, complicated technology swap will give them the most bang for their buck.
I suppose this makes sense to part of our brains: A lot of money replacing a CPU must equal a lot of performance gain, right? And certainly, the advertising industry fuels this belief. But many people throw big money into silly upgrades, attempting to solve problems that can be more easily and economically solved with simpler solutions. Here are my top silly upgrades--and the smart alternatives to them.
Silly upgrade: high-speed wireless networking hardware
Smart upgrade: better broadband
High-speed local network equipment is getting faster. You can buy 54Mbps 802.11g wireless hardware today for the same price that 11Mbps 802.11b hardware sold for a year ago. So it's very tempting to upgrade your network equipment.
And, to be sure, the newer Wi-Fi standards are more robust, with better security options. But for most purposes, upgrading to a faster in-home or in-office local network technology won't increase your online speed. The reason is simple: even the fastest broadband connection--the cable, DSL, or T1 line coming into your home or office--transmits data at a maximum speed that's much slower than that of even the slowest local network equipment. A good cable broadband link is 3Mbps. Once that connection gets into your building, it's usually sent via either via 802.11b Wi-Fi to your computer at 11Mbps or via wired Ethernet at 100Mbps. Making your in-building network faster (54Mbps with 802.11g or 1Gbps with the most current Ethernet technology) won't give you a better online experience. If you want to upgrade your Web experience, upgrade the slow part: broadband.
For in-building networking, and especially for media networking (such as for sending videos around your workgroup), a faster setup will get you a lot. But it will not get you faster downloads.
Silly upgrade: sound card
Smart upgrade: speakers
Almost all desktop computers today have some rudimentary sound capability built into them. While unspectacular, this suffices for general office computing tasks. But if you want to play music, you'll want high-quality, low-noise sound circuitry, and an aftermarket sound card will fit the bill.
At the same time, a sound card is also a silly upgrade if that's the first place you look to improve your audio experience. Spend money first on quality PC speakers--these will make a difference you can immediately hear, and if you later spring for a new sound card, you'll experience the real advantage of all your new electronics.
This advice also applies to graphics cards: make sure the devices that interface with you (the speakers and the monitor) are top-notch before you go upgrading the hardware that you hide under the desk. However, see next topic…
Silly upgrade: CPU
Smart upgrade: graphics card
Intel, AMD, and the legion of computer manufacturers push faster and faster chips on buyers, and it's tempting to look at these products as the key drivers of a satisfying computer experience. But for many users, processing power is just a part of the equation. For gamers and graphics professionals, it can be much more important to spend upgrade money on a graphics card. If all you want to do is run an Internet browser and do e-mail and word processing, almost any modern CPU will provide the performance you need. But if you want to start running some games, look to upgrading your graphics card, not your CPU.
Silly upgrade: fast car
Smart upgrade: move to Germany
I can understand the desire to get a new, fast car. But unless you have a flagrant disregard for local traffic regulations, you'll never come close to exercising the vehicle's real capabilities for any length of time. Is it really worth the extra thousands of dollars to be able to take an off-ramp at 30mph over the recommended speed? Or to jump out of the tollgates faster than the other working stiff in the lane next to you?
Smart upgrade: If you really want to enjoy driving, keep your car and move to a place with better roads. Like Germany, where they have the autobahn. Or spend a few bucks and take up karting. These little carts don't go as fast as your family car, but they are incredibly fun to drive, and you sit so low to the ground that cornering at 25mph makes you feel like Mario Andretti at an Indy.
We've all made boneheaded upgrade purchases. Mine was a state-of-the-art DVD player--which I connected to a 10-year-old pedestrian TV. What's your idea of a silly upgrade, and what is the smart alternative?