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In-Car Computers: Upgrade or Replace?

Much of this decision depends on what make and model of computer you have, what is broken, and/or what you need the computer to do that it isn't able to do now. Sometimes you can do a transplant, and in other situations the best thing is to let it go and give it a decent burial.

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Sadly, nothing new in the computer world remains new for long. In 1965, Gordon Moore (one of the founders of Intel Corporation) published a paper predicting that computing power would double every two years. That rule of computer evolution has come to be called Moore's Law. It has remained true and consistent for more than 50 years.

The upside to that is in computers that get smaller and do more. Something I wrote about 10 years ago mentioned that the big desktop computer I was using at that moment had an 800 MHz processor and 64 MB of random access memory (RAM). Today, my iPhone has an equal processor and eight times the memory. A computer from that day would not run most of the programs and the operating system I am using now. That's the downside.

Do I Have To?

Do you have to upgrade your hardware? If everything is working and you haven't changed any of the software you were using when the machines were new, the answer is probably "no." Chances are, though, that one or more of the software companies you work with has upgraded its code, and each upgrade typically requires more computing horsepower. If you've added or want to add features and capability, you'll probably need to upgrade to make them work better than sluggishly, or at all.

If you're still using Windows XP (or something older), you should know that support for XP ended in July. XP will still work, but Microsoft is not producing updates and service packs for that operating system, and that leaves it open to attacks from viruses and other threats. Vista, the operating system that followed XP, was reviled by many, but has now been supplanted with Windows 7. Win 7 is a very stable and reliable product, but your hardware may not run it, and the software you're using may not run well under Win 7. To see if your computer will run Windows 7, do a search for "Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor," then download and run the program. To see if your software will run under Windows 7, you'll probably have to run your software under Windows 7. Fortunately, you can download a 90-day trial version of Win 7 from the same place you get the upgrade advisor.

It's also possible that your hardware is just wearing out. Computers used in the field - especially in cars - are subjected to extremes of heat and cold, direct sunlight, constant vibration, spills, dust, and moisture. They get dropped now and again. In short, they wear out. When they do, is it possible to repair or replace individual components, or is an entire new setup called for?

Much of this decision depends on what make and model of computer you have, what is broken, and/or what you need the computer to do that it isn't able to do now. Sometimes you can do a transplant, and in other situations the best thing is to let it go and give it a decent burial.

Processors and Motherboards

The motherboard of a computer is analogous to the chassis of a car-everything else bolts to it. If the computer itself is more than a few years old, you may not be able to buy a new motherboard for it anymore. Fortunately, you probably can buy a better processor, and likely for less than you paid for the first one. The latest and greatest, top-of-the-line processor typically runs from $700-$1,500, but five years later you can get the same one for $50. Even so, there might not be much bang for the buck here.

The difference between the cheapest and dearest processors of a single product line is usually in the clock speed-the number of computing cycles the processor will handle each second. Unless you are running some very high-demand applications (and on a patrol cop laptop, you probably aren't), the difference may not be noticeable.

You can swap out motherboards fairly easily in most desktop computers, but laptops are another story. Laptops are obviously very compact, and that means arranging everything inside the case very carefully. Each computer manufacturer's interior design is unique, and may even vary between laptops of the same model line. A few vendors offer an upgrade path where they standardize on a basic design, and then fabricate their motherboards to fit into that design, even though what's on the motherboard may have changed considerably. One way to determine if the computers you have might be upgradeable is to compare the vendor's current line with the models you own already. If the computers are the same size and have the various ports (USB, microphone, external video, etc.) in the same places, it might be possible to upgrade without replacing the entire machine.



Computer memory (RAM) is often confused with disk storage capacity. RAM is where the information the computer is processing at any given moment resides. RAM is made of solid-state memory modules (often called "sticks") with no moving parts, very similar to the USB flash drives that many people carry in their pockets or around their necks. Disk storage is usually (but not always-read on) contained within a spinning "hard drive" that holds the software, operating system, and data files the computer uses.

If your computer is crashing when too many applications are running or there is a lot of processing going on, a RAM upgrade might fix the problem. Most portable computers have two slots for RAM, and one may be empty. Upgrading or adding RAM is easy to do, and not especially expensive.

Accessing the RAM slots is usually done via a small panel on the underside of the machine. Once you get to the RAM slots, note whether all (there may be more than two) of them are occupied by the memory sticks. If all are occupied, you will have to replace all of them with bigger (in terms of capacity), faster sticks. If one or more of the slots is empty, you can add a stick, but you must add exactly the same kind and capacity of memory as resides in the other slot. In most cases, you can double the RAM in a system with an upgrade. There's some help on identifying and replacing memory modules at

Hard Drives

Most public safety computer users don't run out of hard drive space unless they're storing a lot of music, video, or photos on the drives. Other data files don't take up all that much space. To see how much space you're using, click on the "Computer" icon of your Start menu for a display of the drives on your machine. If they're nearly full and the files stored there are authorized, then you can use an upgrade.

More likely, the hard drive on your machine has crashed. Hard drives in laptops are designed to take a lot of abuse, but they are mechanical devices and all of them will eventually fail. Hard drives are also user-replaceable, but some of them are more of a challenge than others. Check with your vendor to see if this job is something you want to tackle.

If so, search online for a compatible replacement. There is not as much of an aftermarket for laptop hard drives, so they're a little harder to find and may be more expensive than a comparable desktop-size drive. Consider buying one of the new solid-state drives (SSDs) that are essentially high-capacity flash drives, with no moving parts. These are very fast and very reliable, but much more expensive than the traditional spinning-disk drives. If you're replacing hard drives frequently, they may be worth the extra investment.

Replacing the drive is usually a matter of unplugging one and plugging in the other. Remember that your data, including the operating system, will go with the old drive. If you can't back it up, you'll need the installation or restore CDs that came with the computer.

If the old drive is functional, you can "image" the drive and then copy the image onto the new drive. This allows you to pick up where you left off, with everything intact. There are a number of commercial drive imaging software packages on the market, Norton Ghost being the most popular (and expensive). There are also free programs that do exactly the same job. One is Clonezilla, an open-source package available at If you have Windows 7, there is a drive imaging application built into the operating system.

Drive images have a file extension of *.iso, and they're around the size of the used capacity of the drive they're made from. There is an excellent chance they won't fit onto a CD (700 MB capacity) or DVD (4.7 GB capacity). You may need to use an external hard drive or a network drive to store the drive image.

Having a good drive image on hand is a good idea, anyway. Once you get a machine set up just the way you want, image its drive. If one of your employees decides to install their favorite game or some other files or applications you don't want there and the machine isn't running right as a result, you can format the drive and restore it to its pristine state with the image. It's also a great way to set up multiple computers with the same operating system, applications, and files.

Input Devices

Keyboards, touchpads, and other input devices are easy replacements if you can get the parts. These are usually vendor-specific, so you're tied to the manufacturer. The task itself is easier than you might think. As a rule, anything involving me and moving parts is a recipe for disaster. When a key on my Lenovo ThinkPad fell off, I thought I'd have to ship the machine to the manufacturer. Instead, they sent me a replacement keyboard and I had the job done 15 minutes after it arrived. Some of this stuff is a lot easier than you'd think.


If you do decide to replace rather than repair or upgrade, don't just toss the old hardware in the dumpster. Computers contain all sorts of heavy metals and other hazardous waste no one wants in their landfill. Most computer retailers can direct you to a proper computer recycler who can dispose of the hardware properly.

One final word of caution: Make absolutely sure that any hard drives in your castoff computers have been wiped of all their data. Just deleting the files doesn't do it. The information needs to be deleted and overwritten with random data.

More than one government agency has had its sensitive information fall into the hands of bad guys when they surplused their old computers. If you're not sure how to wipe the drives, drill holes through them and hit them with a 20-pound maul a few times. 

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement Websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached via

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Officer (Ret.)
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