Advice about PC Upgrades

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Matt Barton
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Wow. I've fallen way behind in my knowledge when it comes to modern PCs, particularly regarding CPUs, graphic cards, and mobos. Right now I'm running an AMD Athlon 2400+ (32-bit), an NVIDIA GeForce 6200 (256 mb, AGP), and an MSI k7 mainboard. I have 1 gig of RAM.

Vista tells me my index is only 2.0 in graphics, though the rest of the specs are up to snuff. Unfortunately, I can't just plug a better graphics board in, since my mobo has the old AGP slots. On the other hand, I'm worried that a new mobo might require re-installing Vista, and I'm not sure what the implications of doing that would be (I want to keep my system "valid").

To make a long story short, I'm wanting answers to the following questions:

1. Does a 64-bit processor really make a difference for gaming and multitasking?
2. What about dual-core?
3. Just how "obsolete" is AGP and how is it affecting my game performance?
4. What's the cheapest/easiest way to get a noticeable boost in my system's performance? Should I go for more ram, a new mobo/cpu, or a better AGP graphics card (if they even make them anymore??)

Any help or advice would be appreciated! But, please, don't just say "BUY A NEW SYSTEM." ;-)

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Matt Barton
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Custardo wrote:Why not
Custardo wrote:

Why not upgrade your system and enjoy the extra performance in XP?

Well, to be perfectly honest, I had an illegal version of XP Pro running on my machine. Ethics and legality aside, the problem was that I was never able to validate my copy and was thus prevented from downloading any of the necessary security patches and the like. At first I didn't think much about it, but eventually I started to get worried that my system was becoming increasingly vulnerable--you know how Microsoft releases "critical updates" every few weeks, it seems.

At any rate, I had two choices. I could either buy XP or go ahead and get Vista. I opted for the latter choice. I shopped around, and discovered the price difference was actually pretty negligible. Either way, I was going to spend somewhere between $150 to $200. I figured, heck, Vista is obviously the future, so I might as well spring for that rather than get XP and watch it slowly but surely go obsolete within the next 2 years. Yes, I know that the majority of games will be compatible with XP, and supposedly most XP games are compatible with 98 or even 95.

Besides, I honestly think Vista looks and runs better than my XP. I was expecting it to be rather clunky on my system, but it runs very smoothly. I think that's because of its memory handling routines, which boost the system's speed by placing programs you run a lot into memory. I'm thinking another gig might double the effectiveness of that technique.

At any rate, I guess I'll table my upgrade plans for awhile and focus on other things. God knows I've got enough to do without mucking about with this stuff. ;-)

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mrCustard (not verified)
Last year i did buy an

Last year i did buy an Nvidia 7800GS AGP card for my PC, because my old graphics card wasn't coping with the latest games. If I had to do it now, i probably sit it out a while, and then buy a new system, because my main PC has to be able to run games reasonably well. The big problem here is DirectX 10. At the moment there are no native DX10 games available and only the expensive NVidia 8800 chipset the supports it. With any other graphics card the performance will be slightly to significantly lower in Vista, compared to XP. Unlike some video upgrades in the past, the 8800 gives a nice performance boost to DX9 titles as well. If you want to get a nice big monitor and Vista, this is the way to go.

However, if you just want your PC to not completely suck in Vista (At least you want to be able to run Aero) of if you want to get some extra mileage from XP, then a relatively cheap graphics and memory upgrade should do just fine.

For video: NVidia kept its promise,and (unlike ATI) released a few nice DX9 compatible AGP cards. A 6600GT with 128 or 256 MB should do for the Aero and older/less taxing games; I could run Halflife 2 just fine with this card (and Mark had some success with it as well). The Nvidia 7800GS should be able to play last year's games with medium high to high settings (including the notorious FEAR), but you have to have a fairly quick CPU (say 2.8 GHz+), or the video performance will be throttled due to lack CPU power. With no DX10 games available, it's hard to judge how this card will hold up when the new generation of games hits.

(On a side note, Mark remarked that upgrading is only worth when the performance gain is 100%. I disagree. It is nearly impossible to determine the exact gain, when you have to take different brands and generations of hardware into account. To accurately determine the performance increase, you have to include the graphical fidelity as well, but that make the comparison a rather subjective affair. It is usually better (and cheaper) to determine a clear performance goal (for example:I want to be able to run Battlefield 2 in 1280x1024 at 30 fps) and adjust your hardware accordingly, than try to reach a relative gain. However, if you need a number, you should consider a minimal gain of 50% as more realistic. It's the number you need to increase the average speed of a certain game from 20fps (which is considered to be just unplayable) to 30 (just playable))

As for memory: if you want to play newish games, do photo/video editing, you need 2GB of RAM. The first game that really needed 2GB was Planetside (2003), to the dismay of the community (the box said 512MB would suffice). Now, even the semi casual Sid Meier's Railroads only really runs well on a system with 2GB of memory. It seems that the conservative use of memory is no longer a requirement in software design.

In the end, upgrading your PC for Vista is a waste of money. Because of the increased load on the system, the best you can hope to achieve with a moderate upgrade, is the same performance as you had in XP with your old hardware. Luckily there is no need to upgrade to Vista. Why not upgrade your system and enjoy the extra performance in XP?

Gamertag: Custardo

Bill Loguidice
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I would 100% have a Boot

I would 100% have a Boot Camp setup, though like I said, I would hope that within the 2 - 3 year window, I can get Vista pre-installed direct from Apple (fat chance though probably). You know me, I like experiences with my computer stuff, so I'd like the full blown Mac experience for once rather than after-the-fact through collecting older systems. As for gaming, the type of gaming that I do would work just fine under Vista on a Mac. Also, within 2 - 3 years, Mac gaming will be optimized for Intel-based Mac's if I chose to go that route instead of Vista games for a particular reason.

As for old Mac games, I obviously collect Mac hardware as par for the course, so I have Mac systems, just like I have old DOS and Windows systems that give me the ability to run just about anything (I need to get something from the CRT-based iMac era and a final generation RISC system to fully round out my collection at this point).

Right now I'm working on acquiring a Sinclair QL (NTSC version) and Apple III. There are a few other deals I have pending as well, but with the Apple III, I'll pretty much have my Apple collection nailed, save for an Apple Lisa, which will be very difficult to pull off. I'm still debating about the value of an Apple 1 recreation system - they're a bit pricey and obviously not the real thing, so they probably have dubious collectible value at current retail prices.

======================================
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
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Matt Barton
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Yes, it's something I've

Yes, it's something I've been pondering a lot myself. The only thing that's got me wondering about it is that bloody "Vista Experience score," or what have you, which claims my graphics card and 3-D abilities are sub-par. I also notice just a bit of stutter when I try to use the Windows Media Center. I haven't tried any high-end games on the system yet, unless you count Dreamfall, which runs fine. I guess I could install FarCry or the like and give that a go, or maybe Civilization IV if I can find it cheap enough.

I might caution you on that Mac idea, though. I haven't been able to find a single Mac game for my system anywhere in town, and St Cloud isn't exactly a village. Likewise, almost every game I've tried that claims to be compatible with Mac hasn't worked because of the Intel business. Finally, it's noticeably slower than Windows and doesn't seem to multitask well. These problems could be related to a poor setup on my part, but I do notice a severe speed difference between my iMac and my desktop PC. I honestly think a gamer should stick to Windows. Yes, I know all about the bootcamp and whatever, but I haven't heard anyone but diehard Mac addicts raving about it. My guess is that trying to have two juggernaut OS's on the same system would be a headache for many reasons.

Plus, you're probably accustomed to using lots of freeware on Windows. Besides the stuff that came with the system, I haven't been able to find hardly anything for free on Mac, such as a comic book display reader. The software library is probably 1% of Windows, and it's also harder to find help for problems. My guess is that most Mac users are satisfied with the software that ships with the system and seldom seek out new programs. I know you're thinking that you'll use your consoles for gaming and never the PC, but it's nice to have that option nonetheless.

Really, Vista has everything that the Mac OS has to offer, and it's much faster.

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Bill Loguidice
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I agree it's probably a

I agree it's probably a waste of time. I'd get a sub-$100 graphics card if it was roughly 60% faster and had more memory, otherwise, why bother? Going to 2GB under Windows XP is not a huge advantage, but what I've read, it certainly helps with Vista. It all comes down to how long you want to stick with your current system. If it's going to be another 2 - 3 years, then definitely just do those two minor upgrades - or JUST the memory when you catch a good deal. I wouldn't even remotely think about cannibalizing anything from your current system for a new computer. It's NEVER worth it in my opinion since newer and better stuff is generally cheap enough.

Also, what games do you really want to play? If you want to play the latest and greatest FPS games, then you probably need something better, but if you're going to stick with adventure games and some emulation, why bother with something tip-top? You'd be better off investing in a console and keeping the PC you have doing what it's best suited for.

Myself, I figure I'm about 2 or 3 years away from getting a new system. By then, quad core processors will be standard and Vista will be more mature. It would be wonderful if Apple was able to offer Vista installs on their systems, but I'd install it myself if I still had to like you have to do now. Yeah, I think I'm going for an Apple as my next system. It finally seems to make sense. My next laptop - if I get a new job - will definitely be a loaded Gateway Tablet PC. If Apple offered one with something equivalent to Microsoft One Note in it, I'd be there, but they don't, so I'll go for the superb Gateway Tablet.

I don't know, I don't see anything on PC these days that I can't do on my "standard" PC as it already is and probably will be able to do for several years (I may even be able to get away with a good ~$100 graphics card at some point, as right now I only have a 128MB PCI-e card with DVI output for my 19" Dell monitor; I could definitely use an improvement; my sound card is good, but my speakers leave much to be desired (on purpose, they're attached to the LCD monitor)). All the "high end" games I want to play are on the 360 and eventually I'll have a PS3 as well.

======================================
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
======================================

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Matt Barton
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Thanks, Mark, for all the

Thanks, Mark, for all the great advice. I've been looking at the different possibilities pretty closely. It looks as though buying a new "gaming rig" from Dell that would really "rumble" will set me back at least a grand, maybe two. The Alienware machines I'd really like to have are far more.

Dell XPS machines
Gateway Gaming Lineup
Alienware
Newegg
HP

Trouble is, I can't even tell if any of the $1,000 computers will really offer a performance boost. It looks like I'd need to spend at least $2,000 to get something that really offered it. Realistically, if I were going to spend that kind of money, I'd probably also want to spring for a system with a nice monitor. I'm using a trashy dual-view setup now with a Dell 17" and a Samsung 19", both CRTs. They take up the majority of my desk space, and I'd much rather have a single large monitor (that Gateway 24" widescreen sounds ideal, assuming it'd fit) on my desks' monitor platform.

At any rate, my current system can pretty much run anything as long as I knock down the graphics settings. I'm just wondering if there's any way to get a noticeable improvement in performance for under $200. Here's what I've been struggling with:

1. I could double my computer's RAM from 1 gig to 2 for around $80. However, would that make any real difference?
2. I could upgrade my graphics card to the BFG Tech GeForce 7800GS. This would cost around $200. Again, it's a "dead-end" investment, since I'd have to dump it if I ever upgraded my motherboard to PCI-e.

My guess is that trying to upgrade my mobo, processor, and graphics card would end up costing more than just buying a complete system, to say nothing of the time.

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Bill Loguidice
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I think you're right about

I think you're right about moving it, Mark. You can even do that with MS Office apps. As long as you tell MS that you removed it from the old machine and put it on the new one, they'll reactivate it for you (they give you a new code over the phone).

As for Vista, last I read, you can buy additional licenses for your other machines at $50 a pop from MS.

======================================
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
======================================

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Mark Vergeer
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1. Nope not really, unless

1. Nope not really, unless you use a 64 bit OS on it which I do not recommend at all. Using those in 32 bits makes them just as fast as their 32bit only cousins.
2. Dual core can be faster, separate programs can run on separate cores and single multithreaded programs can also run on more than one core. The thing is most games use a single thread and you'll only get the performance of one core, which might be a bit faster than using a single core because WindowsXP will probably do all the Windows services etc on the other. More and more games will be sporting a multithreaded design in the future.
If you run a lot of programs at the same time, doing quite a bit of multitasking, a multicore system is faster than a single core system.
3. AGP is obsolete. Some latest generation graphics cards are offered with AGP and still offer a fair performance but not as good as their PCI-e counterparts. So if your AGP card is very old and very slow it might be worth investing in a better one. Investing in a card in my eyes is only worth it if the perfomance will at least improve twice and brings it up to a level with other modern PCI-e cards. It will need to suppert at least direct X 9.x. But I must warn you AGP really is a dead-end-street not really worth investing in unless you intend to keep using this machine for a longer time to come.
4. Getting a Dell system with PciE slot for a couple of hundred bucks and invest in a nice PCIe graphics cards might be the cheapest and best solution....Because I do think that any investment in your current hardware is wasted, unless you intend to use it for a longer time to come. Keep it around as the basis for a future mame cabiner or emulation machine I say!

As for the new Vista OS, isn't it so that when you deinstall it from one machine you can install it on another? From what I understood the hardware-tie that XP used is less strict with Vista and people are allowed to move the installation to another machine. Correct me if I am wrong.

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Mark Vergeer - Editor / Pixelator
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
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