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Scott's Column
nVidia GeForce 6600 GT Video Card, Mini Mac Attack

April 1, 2005
By Scott Lewis

I have read a lot about the new Mini Mac and thought it might be pretty cool, even though it doesn't come with a monitor, keyboard or mouse. It got me thinking how hard it would be to build something similar. I usually don't try to see how cheap I can build a system for, but I was curious what it would take to build a minimalist system to compete with the Mini Macs. On the more expensive side of the minimalist PC I bought a new video card for my main computer. It is a nVidia GeForce 6600 GT. Did it make a difference? Yes. Is it enough? Read on.

Mini Macs

The new Mini Mac comes in two configurations. One has a 40 GB hard drive, the other an 80. The more expensive one also has a faster processor. Below are the two systems. I added a 256 MB upgrade (to 512MB) to the more expensive unit. You would be foolish not to buy this upgrade with either machine, but it seemed appropriate to the faster Mini Mac and this exercise.

Here are the important specs:

Mini Mac #1
***********
1.25 GHz G4
256 MB RAM
40 GB HD
Radeon 9200 with 32MB
DVD & CD/RW
Price: $499

Mini Mac #2
***********
1.42GHz G4
512 MB RAM
80 GB HD
Radeon 9200 with 32MB
DVD & CD/RW
Price: $674

Can I beat them. Well, for starters I need to preface this will a few caveats. In the two systems I outline below I had to include the price of Windows XP Home edition. I don't do this normally because if I was building a system for myself I would install my MSDN copy of Windows XP Professional. I don't think I am anywhere near my 10 activations yet, but that would not be fair (to you), so I included the price of the OS this time. I did NOT put the lowest price for Windows I could find. The cheapest price I could find it for was $74.99, but I went with the $86.99 price because that means I was able to price the entire system from one vendor... NewEgg. That's right, everything on this list was available and in stock at NewEgg the day I created these configurations. One stop shopping.

I tried to match the Macs as close as I could. I could not find any ATI Radeon 9200 video cards in stock when I priced these machines. I went with a Radeon 9200 SE. I think the 9200 SE is slower than the 9200, but I don't know for sure. Regardless the card I picked has 64 MB of memory instead of 32 MB used in the Macs. My ATI card is from a "third party." I could only find a true ATI Radeon 9000 (also with 64 MB) which I thought would be less fair (plus it would have drove up my cost by $9, and I am pinching pennies this time). I also could not find any 40 or 80 GB drives that were slower than 7200 RPM. The Mini Macs use laptop drives that run at 4200 RPMs (I believe). Laptop drives cost more than desktop drives, but take a hit in performance. The plus side to the laptop drive's slow speed is less noise and less heat. Is this fair? You decide.

It is hard to match computers component for component, especially with the Mac. For processors I took two approaches. To compete with the $499 Mini Mac I picked the cheapest AMD processor that had at least a 256K L2 Cache. The chip I went with also has a 64K L1 cache. The Mini Macs have 512K Cache, but they don't mention on their web site if that's L1 or L2 or some combination of both. This was the best I could do. To match the faster Mini Mac I started looking at the AMD chips that cost $100 and went backwards (cheaper) until I found one that had a 512K cache. Then it dawned on me that I could find a better CPU for a little more. I decided to go for the best bang for the buck with the CPU on my faster configuration.

What about Intel? I was planning on doing both AMD and Intel configurations, but I got bored with this exercise after coming up with these two configurations. Sorry!

Did I beat them? Have a look:

Mini Mac Attack #1
******************
AMD Sempron 2400+ 1.667GHz, Socket A Processor      67.00
ASUS A7V400-MX, VIA KM400A Chipset AMD Socket A     51.00
Kingston ValueRAM 184 Pin 256MB DDR PC-2700         35.75
Athenatech Black Micro ATX Desktop Case W/220W      42.99
Maxtor 40GB 7200RPM IDE Hard Drive, Model 6E040L0   47.00
Sony 52x32x52x16 Combo Drive, Model CRX320E Black   35.99
Rosewill ATI Radeon 9200SE, 64MB DDR, DVI/TV-Out,    31.99
Sound (On Motherboard)                               0.00
Win XP Home                                         86.99
--------------------------------------------------  -----
Total                                              398.71


Mini Mac Attack #2
******************
AMD Athlon XP 3000+, 333MHz FSB, 512K Cache        126.00
ASUS A7V400-MX, VIA KM400A Chipset AMD Socket A     51.00
Kingston 184 Pin 512MB DDR PC-2700                  64.50
Athenatech Black Micro ATX Desktop Case W/220W      42.99
Maxtor 80GB 7200RPM IDE Hard Drive, Model 6Y080L0   59.75
Sony 52x32x52x16 Combo Drive, Model CRX320E Black   35.99
Rosewill ATI Radeon 9200SE, 64MB DDR, DVI/TV-Out,    31.99
Sound (On Motherboard)                               0.00
Win XP Home                                         86.99
--------------------------------------------------  -----
Total                                              499.21


I would say I clobbered them. Some of you Mac heads might be thinking this is unfair. After all the Macs come with iLife and other cool software. That's true. But I can install all the software I already own for my Windows PC... especially games. Even though these two systems are NOT gaming machines as configured (read below on my video card upgrade) they are upgradeable to gaming machines. The Mini Macs will not be good gaming machines for modern 3D games.

I was surprised that I found a case that I felt worked as a good compromise to the Mini Macs. Of course, I went with black. Sort of the Anti-Mac color. Or maybe we could call it the U2 color.

So, can you build something that can compete with the Mini Mac? YES YOU CAN!

GeForce 6600 GT

It has been a very long time since I bought a graphics card to upgrade a computer of my own. I have added and replaced bad video cards in other computers, but that was always to fix a problem, not for performance gains.

The last time I added a new video card to a computer for performance (sort of) was with my original computer, a Northgate 386 (20 MHz) computer. When I originally bought that computer in 1990 it could only handle a resolution of 640x480 at 256 colors. At 800x600 it dropped down to 16 colors. Granted, this computer played all the games I wanted to play at the time. I don't remember why I needed more colors at a higher resolution, but I did. I don't remember getting any performance gains back then, but there were few video cards with 3D acceleration. They touted 2D acceleration for Windows (3.1) at the time I bought that ATI video card.

When I built my first computer in March 1999 I built it with a RIVA TNT graphics card that cost $104.99. At the time this was one of the faster cards you could get (The RIVA TNT2 was not even out yet). I remember the best card at the time was about $200, but I could be wrong. The TNT was a screaming bargain and played games better than anything I had seen... to date. It even came with a couple of games that were specifically written to take advantage of the TNT chipset. I still have that video card in service because that computer is now my file/print/database/web server.

I have always read that the video card is the key to gaming performance. Well, now I get to find out for myself, first hand. A friend lent me Need For Speed Underground to try out. I loaded it a while back and the speed was so slow it was literally going in slow motion. It was unplayable. The day my GeForce 6600 GT arrived in the mail I installed it and installed NFSU again. I was blown away at how well it ran. The next day I told my friend about it. He told me to turn on the "motion blur" effect. I went to do this and saw that the video was set for LOW. I set it to HIGH and saw that the motion blur was still not turned on. I turned it on manually. Unfortunately the game was back to unplayably slow.

I reset the video back to LOW but with the motion blur effect still turned on. Nope. Performance was acceptable for about 5 seconds then it crawled. Of course I turned off the motion blur option, but it didn't improve performance. I could not figure out what had changed from one day to the next. I even tried reinstalling the video drivers and reinstalling NFSU. No luck. At this point I was worried I did something that made the card go bad. I starting downloading the demo for Need For Speed Underground 2. I installed the NFSU2 and sure enough it ran fine. It defaulted to low settings. I tried turning them up to medium and adding the motion blur. It did run a little slower, but the images on screen looked better. Exactly what should happen. Thank goodness. I never noticed any blurring of motion, but maybe I am not driving fast enough in the demo. I guess I will have to wait until NFSU2 gets down to 20 bucks so I can buy it. I can still play my recent purchase of Need For Speed Hot Pursuit 2 on my kids GameCube. That cost me $20. I like spending only $20 on a game.

I need a good first person shooter. My goal with this video card was to be able to play Doom 3. However, Doom 3 is still expensive. I was able to buy Halo and FarCry for $20 each. See a pattern. FarCry was used extensively to benchmark video cards before Doom 3 came out. Halo was also very popular for testing when it was new. I also saw a deal on some PC3200 memory and picked up a 512MB piece for $60 (after rebate).

Halo ran great. I had a crash and the game went into "safe mode" the next time I ran it. I gradually turned the graphics options back up to the higher levels after safe mode. I have noticed that the frame rates drops a little when there are a lot of bad guys on screen, but overall it is a joy to look at and is very playable.

FarCry on the other hand is not playable. After installing FarCry (which is a 5 CD install totaling 4 GB) I fired it up. The intro screen and menu looked marvelous. I played around with the settings and didn't see any speed issues. That was until I got into playing the game. It seemed slow, but playable while I was in some tunnel. I did notice that the lip-syncing was way off. Then I stepped outside (FarCry takes place on a tropical island). The game became incredibly slow.

I checked the video settings and they were on "medium." Clearly this was not going to cut it. I turned the graphics down to their lowest settings and reduced the resolution to 800x600. The game still looked great to me, but it was still too choppy to play. I could not get a good aim on the bad guys.

I found a video benchmarking tool for FarCry. I was able to get three successful demos with three average frame rates of 3fps, 9fps and 12fps. This is too slow to play. I was hoping for at least 30fps.

CPU Upgrade

I decided maybe I should buy a new CPU. I saw that Fry's had a 2.8 GHz Celeron with a 533 MHz FSB (front side bus). My motherboard supports 400 and 533 FSB and Celeron and Pentium 4 chips. This seemed like a logical approach. However, if I run the FSB at 533 MHz I need to have PC2700 or better memory. That means I need to replace the 256 MB Module (the original memory I built the computer with) because it is only rated at PC2100. While I was there I picked up an addition 512MB/PC3200 memory module which will give me a total of 1GB of memory.

I installed the memory and the new Celeron. I hit the power button and... nothing. Not a single beep, hum or anything. Did I damage the motherboard trying to put in the memory or the CPU. I took the memory and the CPU out. I put the original 1.7 GHz CPU back in and ran it with the 512 MB memory that I knew was good. It booted fine. I tried putting in the extra memory. Still boots fine. Try the CPU again. Here's were I did a slightly stupid thing. I installed the CPU WITHOUT its heat sink and fan. Hey, I just wanting to see if it would turn on. Sure enough it would turn on with my 1.7 GHz CPU, but would not with the 2.8 GHz chip. I put the computer back together with the 1.7GHz Celeron (with heat sink), 1 GB ram, and the GeForce 6600 GT. I definitely noticed the computer ran quieter without the disc thrashing due to the memory upgrade.

With everything up and running I looked on Intel's web site. I have an Intel motherboard. Sure enough it lists all the CPUs you can run on the board. All the Celerons have a 400 MHz FSB, and all the P4s have a 533MHz FSB. Apparently you can't mix and match them.

I called Fry's and they had a couple of 2.8GHz P4s with a 533MHz FSB. However, they were the newer Prescott design. (I won't go into what a Prescott is, just that it replaced the Northwood design. The big advantage is a 1MB cache instead of 512KB.) The fastest Northwood P4 they had in stock was a 2.53GHz. I wasn't in the mood to search the Internet for a chip that is not being made anymore. I just wanted to do a simple exchange. I headed back to Fry's to trade the 2.8 GHz Celeron for the 2.53 GHz Pentium 4. Keep in mind that the 1.7 GHz Celeron I am upgrading from has a 128 KB cache, so along with a speed increase of 853 MHz I quadruple the on chip cache. Hopefully this will be enough to get FarCry to run at a smooth frame rate.

P4 2.53 GHz

I installed the P4 and it booted fine. I ran FarCry and let it detect my hardware. It set everything to "High." Cool! Let's play. Nope, it is still too choppy to play. In fact, it didn't seem any better. I managed to get through a few checkpoints, but then there is a point where too many bad guys are coming at once and I just could not aim down on them with the speed it would take. I set graphics options back down to there lowest, and even set the resolution to the lowest listed. No help, it just wasn't fast enough to play. I realize the manufacturer's minimum specs are not realistic, but I was now 2-1/2 times greater than that without a playable frame rate. Darn. Well, this is not the first time I have bought a game that would have to wait until my next computer to play (which is one of the reasons I don't like spending more than $20 for a game).

I double-checked Halo and it was still running great. In fact, now it never slowed down and I began playing through quite a few missions.

Remembering that I have bought games in the past that needed newer hardware I decided to fire up Return to Castle Wolfenstein. I played this all the way to the end with the 1.7 GHz Celeron and on-board graphics. I had to turn the graphics details down to play it, but it was very playable. Now I should be able to play this three year old game with all the eye candy.

Wolfenstein would not play. It would not even run the menu. It would refresh the screen about every 10-20 second. I tried everything in the book from Activation's web site on this game. Nothing.

Let's run Need For Speed Underground with the new CPU. Nope. In fact, this is weird. NFSU would run super fast right up to a point (about 5 seconds into the race) then it would crawl. Even the menus ran slow after it hit the performance issue, even though the menus ran fine before that point. Hmmm.

Conclusion

I was able to beat Apple's Mini Mac. This actually surprised me. I didn't think it was going to be possible. It just goes to show you how Apple is not really giving out any bargains.

What about the video card upgrade and inconsistent gaming performance? Well, I guess I can live with it. I found an article on upgrading a computer to run games, and Doom 3 was one of the games they tested. It seems that I should be able to get playable frame rates from my CPU/Graphics combination. I just have to wait until Doom 3 gets down to twenty bucks.

Should I live with the fact that some games play well and some don't. Tune in next month to find out.
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