Upgrading A Packard Bell

by Anthony Olszewski

A Packard Bell Legend 695 Ready To Be Hot Rodded! External Cache Will Go Into The Two Rows Of Sockets On The Left. An OverDrive CPU And Fan Will Be Installed Into The Blue ZIF Socket. A 72 Pin RAM SIMM Chip Fills Out The Long White Socket On The Right.

No, you're not a bad person! Nobody gets it right the first time around! You might have thought, since Bell was in the name, that it had something to do with the phone company - and so was high tech. You didn't know that difference between a DX and an SX 486. Or the difference between a 100 meg. or a 300 meg. hard drive. The sale price seemed great, but you got stuck with 4 megs of RAM, no CD-ROM and a 2400 Baud modem - bottom of the barrel, even by the standards of two years ago.

Maybe WINDOWS 3.1 never ran right? Maybe the hard drive ran out of space over a year ago? Maybe you want to play a game that requires 256 colors? Maybe the local BBS or ISP has given up on "slow" modems, shutting you out? Maybe the new software that you want to install only comes on CD?

Or maybe your child or spouse or significant other has voiciferously informed you that he/she is no longer going to use that old clunker of a Packard Bell! And thereupon appropriated your new Pentium!

What to do? Should you buy a new machine?

Maybe yes. Maybe no.

The one essential flaw in the Packard Bell - as far as repair or upgrade is concerned is the design of the shape of the motherboard, case, and power supply. These components are all made to fit together like pieces from a jigsaw puzzle (BTW, the same goes for COMPAQs, DELLs, and IBMs). If the power supply or the motherboard goes, you might as well put together a new machine. Packard Bell (along with the other big names) charges very high prices for these parts.

The incidental, though not superficial, flaw was that most Packard Bells were sold woefully lacking in hardware firepower. I presume this to have been part of a marketing strategy. First time buyers would look for a "486" and a low price. That they were getting a neutered system, with CPU, RAM, hard drive, modem all shortweighted, would come as a nasty suprise down the road. This can be, if not cured, at least, remedied.

The 486SX 25 processor that graced most Packard Bells was inadequate even at the time of purchase. The SX version of the 486 lacked a functional math co-processor. This slows down all sorts of things, Spread sheets, data bases, the user-interface in WINDOWS, and lots more. And at a speed of 25 mhz., you don't have any speed to be slowing down with!

Pefrectly functional 486DX 50 and 66 processors can be found on USENET and at computer shows for $10 - $20. The 80 and 100 mhz. versions change hands at maybe an extra $10. This will be like enrolling the 98 pound weekling 486SX 25 into the CHARLES ATLAS body building course!

And if you feel like spending money, Intel OverDrive PENTIUM processors work in many Packard Bell systems.

THIS OLD 486 provides a complete discussion of swapping CPUs. Here I'll give some pointers that are especially important concerning performing this operation on a Packard Bell.

All electronic gear can be damaged/destroyed by static elecricity (also called ESD or Electro Static Discharge). Packard Bell motherboards seem to be particularly easy to fry! Before you open the case of your system, touch a radiator or other water pipe. This will draw electicity out of your body. When touching the actual components, try to only handle the ceramic, plastic, fiber, or other non-metallic surfaces. Do the actual work with the system on a wood, plastic, or other non-conductive surface. And always make sure that the plug is pulled out of the wall. Don't just turn the computer off! If the power goes on while you are inserting or removing a device, any number of things can be ruined!

Settings For A Packard Bell Legend 695 Printed On The Inside Of The Case Cover
Before you install the new CPU, you will have to set jumpers on the motherboard for the CPU speed and the bus speed. Before you do anything else, WRITE DOWN THE CURRENT SETTINGS! Most older Packard Bells have a label inside the case cover explaining the jumper settings. I've found that these printed directions are sometimes wrong! If you install a new processor and nothing works, you might have to resort to trial and error to determine the correct jumpers.

Basically all Packard Bell motherboards used 5 volt CPUs. That's fine for most used 486 processors, but watch out. If you do get a 3 volt chip, you'll need a voltage regulator to put between the CPU and the system board. 5 volts will surely destroy a 3 volt chip!

RAM is the easiest and most important upgrade to do. And now it is also the cheapest. Packard Bells generally were sold with 4 megs of RAM (memory) built into the motherboard. A number of slots for 72 pin SIMMs are provided on the motherboard. SIMMs are described as having pins, but they really don't. SIMM memory is really a little circuit board with a gold-edged ("finger") connector surface. Most Packard Bells require parity memory, though some will allow the use of non-parity. All vendors of computer memory know what these terms mean. If you have the choice between parity and non-parity RAM, you will be better off with the parity version. But you will pay more for it. You can buy the SIMMs anywhere. You don't need to get them from Packard Bell.

With perhaps the majority of Packard Bell systems, each SIMM slot operates independantly. On some, the SIMM slots are organized into banks - sets of two or four slots. In each bank the same capacity (one meg, 2 meg, 4 meg, etc.) and the same type (parity or non-parity) of RAM must be used. The banks need to be filled in a certain order and with certain sizes of memory chips. This is in the manual for the individual system.

The original 4 megs was not ever good enough! At least 8 megs is required for the proper operation of WINDOWS 3.1. The difference in performance between 8 and 16 megs is very noticable. If you are aiming for WINDOWS 95 get 16 megs. Really, every system in use today should have at least 16 megs of RAM! The more memory the better. Though, most often, the benefits are much less apparent. When you go from 8 megs to 16 megs of RAM, performance is doubled. To gain the same amount of speed jump again, you'd probably need to go from 16 to something like 64 megs. But memory is now very economical. Buy as much as you can!

To actually install the new memory (again, as always, taking precautions against ESD and making certain that the plug is pulled), first locate the SIMM slots. On a desktop (as opposed to a tower), you might have to remove the sound card (and any other adapters) to gain access. The SIMM slots are white plastic a row of little metal teeth inside. You place the new SIMM inside the slot, lining the notch in the center of the SIMM with the bump in the middle of the slot. Hold the SIMM in at a forty-five degree angle with the bottom edge of the SIMM firmly inserted into the slot. Then carefully lift the SIMM into the holder until the snaps catch into the holes on either side ot the SIMM. DON'T SNAP THE PLASTIC SIMM HOLDER! There is no economical way to fix it if you break it!

Most programs today (and basically ALL games and multi-media applications) expect the video to be able to handle 256 colors. You can first just try to reset this in WINDOWS or to download new video drivers from Packard Bell. If this does not help new video memory can be installed. There is a series of sockets on the motherboard for upgrading the video RAM. Video RAM is a little delicate and not widely available. It's easier to simply install a new card. Again, look on the inside of the case cover (or silk-screened on the motherboard) for a jumper that disables on-board video. You'll problably need an ISA card. Your Packard Bell might be able to use a VLB card. Make sure that the new card has at least one meg of RAM on it already. Any particular SVGA card might fail to deliver the 256 colors to any particular system. You can try different drivers. Make sure that the vendor will allow a return if your new card turns out to be a flop.

In most cases, unless your monitor is way over 14 inches, the 640 X 480 setting is fine. I think that the 800 X 600 and 1024 X 768 are only realistic on 20" displays, but it's your eyesight!

Installing a bigger hard drive is not hard (to do). If you have a desktop, there might not be room to put in a second hard drive. Then you will have to remove the original and put the new on in its place. With a tower, or a desktop without a CD drive, the new hard drive can be installed on the same cable as the old one. The 5.25" floppy drive might have to be taken out to make room for a second hard drive.

If you want to install a CD ROM drive, again with a desktop, make sure that you have the space. It's a good idea to buy the CD ROM drive and the sound card at the same time. This way you know that they will work together. Or at least you only have to make one trip to return the duds! If you have a single hard drive, the new CD ROM will hook up ( as SLAVE) on the same IDE cable as the hard drive. If you have two hard drives, make sure that the CD can interface with (be connected to) the sound card. If the CD is hooked up to the sound card, it is set as MASTER.

The easiest way to up the modem speed is to buy an external modem and just plug it into the two (9 pin or 25 pin) serial port. First run MSD (MicroSoft Diagnostics) from DOS (the C prompt). Go into COM PORTS. If the UART is listed as 16550 (or some variant), then an external modem will work OK. If the UART is a 8250, then you really need to install a new internal modem. Go into the Packard Bell's system SETUP and DISABLE either a serial port or the existing (factory installed) modem. Set the new modem to whatever COM PORT the device had that you disabled.