Here's my situation: I have an old HP Pavilion a1310n (specs below) that is my primary computer (I know, I know). I will be buying something newer sometime soon, hopefully, but I've got other expenses to deal with first. I'm trying to squeeze a little more life and use out of this thing, and once I upgrade, we'll probably keep it around as a secondary computer or hobby unit or something anyway.
I currently use mostly it for my freelance work, which is mostly in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. I know I'm vastly underpowered, but it's what I've got.
I'm planning to factory reset/format and start clean (and then uninstall all the crap HP shipped on it).
I can add memory to get it up to 3-4 gigs (though I saw somewhere it's more like 3.6 or so used), and plan to do so. That will run me $30-60 from what I've seen online.
Here's my main question - being such an old computer, with the small format board I have, etc., is upgrading the graphics card doable or even feasible? If I get much more than a couple hundred dollars into this thing, I'd almost be better off buying the latest budget PC off the shelf somewhere, so price would need to stay low.
I'm not expecting huge performance, just more speed and quality with my graphics programs, maybe some occasional (older) games. Dual displays would be nice, but realistically, I probably won't mess with that until I get a new computer.
Here is my recommendation, Use it without upgrades until You can finally buy a computer, then use the computer that you almost spent on this system, combined with the money spent on a new system, then you can go all out. The only thing you would be able to change in this computer is the graphics card, since HP has locked the BIOS for reasons. So if you changed CPU, Ram, or HD or anything it would register as a major hardware change in the BIOS and say you need to go in and save changes. But if your locked out of a BIOS then your screwed.
You can up grade the memory, that system will suport up to 4 GB, As you said it will see just over 3gb (a limitation of the 32 bit OS). You have a pci-e slot, but your system is old enough that I wouldn't spend too much on a graphic card, no more than $50 if that. I don't know how much imnprovement you'll really see, I agree w/ your better off just wiaitng & getting a new system.
You will not have much to gain on windows XP with more than 1GB of RAM, especially if you are using it only for Office apps and the internet. I would, however, find a clean ISO of Windows XP that does no include any of the trial software like what is provided by HP. You will see more gain from a clean reformat than you will from wasting $100 in parts.
Ok, so right now I have open Photoshop and Illustrator, with a file open in Illustrator. I also have a couple of tabs open in Firefox, including this one, and the Task Manager. With the exception of Task Manager, this is a pretty typical load for when I'm working.
Right now, these are the numbers I'm getting:
Physical Memory Total: 981480
Commit Charge Total: 1252472 (it's moving around a bit, but in this ballpark)
Commit Charge Peak: 1262188
PF Usage is holding pretty steady at 1.19 GB
CPU Usage is sitting around 40-50 with spikes into 60.
I have a HP a1730n, which is pretty similar to what you have. Mine has a Athlon 64 X2 4600+ which runs at 2.4GHz. I haven't put more than $100 into the computer and it runs like a champ. I got it a new case, a cheap CoolerMaster one which was needed, because the 8800GTX I placed in it was getting too hot. I got the card for free from a buddy of mine who seems to have blown up his computer or something.
I also upgraded the RAM. The computer is pretty nice right now. It runs LoL at a consistent frame rate. But I'll be honest, the CPU is kind of a bottleneck for the card. Nevertheless, the card was free, and the case, RAM, and PSU (which was free, but needs replacement, since its pretty bad. Dynex is not the best brand) were all less than $100. I figured I put a bit of life back into my old dog, and it still works well. It's not my main rig, so I don't really care too much about the performance.
I would recommend seeing if any of your friends has like an older card that they would like to give, or sell to you for really cheap. Older Nvidia cards really work well in these things, like the 8xxx series especially. If you don't want to spend very much at all, get something that doesn't need a power supply.
My sister gave me her old HP Pavillion a1310n 3 years ago (my old one was an HP Pavillion a305w). She never upgraded or even cleaned it. Since I got it, it's run beautifully with the upgrades I have put into it. My HDD died last month so I replaced it with a moderately priced 500GB one. I had not made back up discs but luckily I had an old copy of Windows XP Pro to install on it. My current system specs are as follows:
I experienced no problems with the bios while upgrading. A lot of people tell me I should have saved the money and just bought a new computer but I am unable to get enough money together at one time to buy a new computer. All of my upgrades have been spaced out over the 3 years I have had it. Granted, this system won't hold out much longer with the new games coming out demanding better equipment, but I can run Guild Wars 2 with mid to low settings on this machine just fine.