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Scott's Column
Upgradeable Computers... For Gaming

June 1, 2005
By Scott Lewis

Over the past couple of months I have told you about upgrading my computer from an Intel 1.7 GHz Celeron with 256 MB of memory and on-board video graphics to an AMD Athlon 64 3000+ with 1 GB of memory and a nVidia GeForce 6600 GT video card. During this time I have been doing a little research in preparation for building a gaming oriented computer for a friend of mine.

This month I want to explain some of the issues I dealt with in upgrading my computer. I will also cover the issues you have to deal with on any computer, but particularly for a gaming oriented computer. All of this will be important information to someone who is thinking about upgrading a computer, buying a new computer, or even building a computer.

Games This Month

Before we get deep into this month's topic I thought I would mention where I am with my own gaming. I could not resist playing FarCry. I previously mentioned that a 64-bit version was coming. Alas, I received my e-mail from FarCry/AMD about the 64-bit version of the game two days after I finished it. I just found the game too much fun to leave alone. I did have to cheat at two points in the game. The first time was while on-board a ship. You must set an explosive device to blow up a radio antenna. After that the bad guy comes after you with a helicopter and I could not survive. It was unfair. There was a room on the ship with a bunch of ammo and health, but as soon as you try to return to the room after blowing up the antenna all the goodies are gone. I expected to retreat there to replenish myself. I made use of the "ghost mode" cheat to get past this. Basically the enemy never sees you so you can take pot shots all day long. The second time was near the end of the game when you must storm a room full of bad guys, and again it was not fair. There was a supply room with plenty of ammo, health and armor just before the room with the bad guys. However, once you entered the room with the bad guys you could not leave. Also, no amount of taunting would get the bad guys to come after you until you were in the room and the door closed behind you. For this I used the cheat that provided 999 rounds of ammo without reloading. It was still pretty tough to get them all while blazing the fastest repeating machine gun I had. I cheated less than I did on Return To Castle Wolfenstein, but Halo is the only game I haven't cheated on so far.

My brother-in-law bought a Jedi Knight Jedi Academy game. He couldn't play it on his parent's computer (1.1 GHz with integrated graphic) so he installed it on my computer. My kids love it. I am finding it too difficult. It may be me, but the levels seem a bit too hard or getting through is too complicated. Maybe I need more time or a game guide that provides a decent walkthrough. I am also playing the original Splinter Cell. This is a stealth action shooter. I have found it to be impossible to play without a walkthrough. I don't know how you are supposed to figure out where to go next in this game. However, I find it fun to play. Some of it is frustrating, but that is more due to not being able to figure out where to go next without the walkthrough. I find some of the moves to be difficult as well, such as jumping across a small alley. It should be easy, but the character keeps wanting to climb down the wall rather than jump across to the other wall. I like the stealth factor, but I have been losing my patience with the frustration of needing the walkthrough.

Will I play the 64-bit version of FarCry. Not likely (at least not for a long time). I reformatted my hard drive twice a while ago and have it working perfectly. I have the x64 version of Windows, but I can't see reformatting my hard drive again. You have to install XP x64 stand alone. You can't install it as an upgrade to Win XP (x32). Plus I don't have the drive space to do a dual boot arrangement. Maybe if I get another hard drive I will try to install it in a dual boot fashion, but that will have to wait for quite a while.

Now onto this month's real topic.

Upgradability

A lot of computers get touted for upgradability. I have seen this many times over the years. This makes a lot of sense. Some of the components in a computer last a good deal longer than others, and some are not very performance sensitive. For instance, monitors will easily outlast a computer. This is why Apple is trying to push its Mini Macs on Windows users even without a monitor, keyboard or mouse. If you have those (the keyboard and mouse need to be USB versions) you are set to make a relatively easy switch to a Mac for minimal dollars.

What Doesn't Need Upgrading

Let's start by covering what doesn't need upgrading. The case of a computer rarely needs upgrading. This is because they are fairly constant. Don't think that the case is completely immune from this. The case holds all the important parts that make your computer a computer. The motherboard, CPU, video, sound, memory, hard drives, DVD/CD drives, etc. These all screw into the case in one format or another. And there in lies the rub... one format or another.

The most common format for a case is ATX. I don't know what that means, but it is important. If you have an ATX case you should have an ATX form factor motherboard. The power supply will also need to match this form factor, but most cases come with a power supply. Intel is pushing a new form factor called BTX. This is not compatible with ATX. However, there is still a huge supply of ATX stuff available, and probably will be for some time, so you can easily upgrade an ATX form factor PC. If you are starting from scratch (your first computer) you should consider the newer BTX form factor as it will probably be a standard for longer than most of the components in your computer will be functional.

As we said, the monitor, keyboard and mouse don't need upgrading. More and more you will need USB versions of the keyboard and mouse, but this is not a big deal as there are adapters that will let you hook up a PS/2 style keyboard and mouse to a USB port on a modern computer. Monitors are moving to a digital connector (DVI) that is gradually replacing the old, analog VGA connector. Again, adapters make this a non-issue.

Finally, the DVD/CD drive is getting fairly constant. I know, there are DVD burners and even dual layer DVD burners. But these are not necessary. My computer has an inexpensive CD-ROM drive. It works perfectly well, even with today's games. The CD & DVD burners are luxuries, and once you make the investment in them they can be used until they stop working. 

Bottom line... a case can last for many years, as can keyboards, mice, monitors and CD/DVD drives. Since monitors cost a lot relative to all the other components it is important to spend the extra money up front to get a quality monitor. Trust me, a good monitor will take you very, very far. The other components in this section are inexpensive unless you want fancy stuff (like wireless keyboards and mice), and don't require any serious thought. Buy what you like and you can keep them much longer than most other components.

What Needs Upgrading

Needs. That's an interesting word. Most motherboards can work with more than one CPU (the CPU being the processor, or brain, of your computer). Intel has many types of processors. Celeron, Pentium 4, Pentium M (mobile), etc. AMD also has different CPUs. The important thing to know here is that the socket of the motherboard will largely (though not complete) determine which processors can go with which motherboards. Many people don't think about the motherboard when they think about upgrades. This is a big mistake as we will learn below. Most people think in terms of upgrading the processor to a faster (or the fastest) CPU for the existing motherboard, and this is usually the way things go.

Memory and video are also high on the upgrade list. The graphics in your computer is dependent on the motherboard, as is the memory. There are different "slots" that a video card can plug into on the motherboard. AGP & PCI-Express are the two most important ones today, with PCI-Express becoming the next standard.

Memory comes in so many forms and speed ratings that it is one of the hardest to mess with. You need to know what memory the motherboard supports, but that's not all. Motherboards will support different speeds of memory, so you must consider the speed of the memory as well as the type.

Notice how the CPU, memory and video are all dependent on the motherboard. This is why the motherboard must be considered when you contemplate upgrading a computer. As we stated with cases, motherboards come in "form factors" that match the case.

The final component that is a truly upgradeable item is the hard drive. I mention this one separately because it is the most upgraded part of any computer. It is very common to add or upgrade a hard drive with a larger one. The first computer I built over 6 years ago just had to have its hard drive replaced. I was able to buy a modern hard drive and install it in that 6 year old system with only minor troubles getting it all running. Hard drives will always get the most attention for being compatible with existing systems. Many people will only upgrade their hard drives to hold more and more stuff, so although the hard drive is definitely an upgradeable part, it is the one you need concern yourself with the least.

The Problems With Upgrades

As I stated earlier, upgradability is sometimes a feature of a computer. When I build systems for myself I usually think of the upgradability. For example, the first computer I put together was a 400 MHz Celeron based system. At that time the fastest processor that Intel made was the 500 MHz Pentium III. Back then Intel was "pushing" a Slot 1 design for motherboards. This put the CPU and its external cache memory on a small circuit board. This board would plug into a slot (Slot 1) on the motherboard. Since I wanted an upgradeable computer, but wanted the best performance for my money I bought a Celeron processor and a Slot 1 adapter. The Celeron used a standard socket, but an adapter put the Celeron into a Slot 1 equipped motherboard for only $15. I saved a lot of money on the CPU.

Since I used premium parts for the memory and video card, I saw very close to Pentium III performance for a lot less money overall (I benchmarked mine to match some PIII 500 MHz systems when I overclocked my CPU to 450 MHz). Plus I had the added benefit of knowing I would be able to upgrade to a faster Pentium III later.

Or did I? Intel dropped the Slot 1 idea shortly after I built that system. Long before I needed to perform an upgrade it was no longer an upgradeable system.

Let's take a look at another example. When I built my current system a little more than two years ago I was NOT looking for upgradability, but I got it. I bought a 1.7 GHz Celeron (again, I love those Celerons for bang for the buck) and put it in an Intel motherboard that would take a Pentium 4 CPU up to 3.06 GHz. This was the fastest CPU Intel made at the time. Surely they would make them faster before changing the design. Nope. Although I think they did come out with a 3.2 GHz CPU that was of the same design, Intel basically switch to a new internal design to their chips... even those that would plug into the same socket. When I tried upgrading my computer a few months ago I found that the fastest CPU available was still the 3.06 GHz chip, something that was available over two years ago. The price for that 3.06 GHz CPU was $285, and I only found it at one online store. This "series" of processors were no longer being made, and the fastest chip I could find locally that would work with my motherboard was a 2.53 GHz chip.

So again, although I thought I had an upgradeable system I did not.

What about today. Let's abuse Intel again. You can buy motherboards that take an Intel processor. Today that still means a Celeron or a Pentium 4. These are updated versions of the chips and do not work with older style motherboards. However, there are a lot of AGP motherboards that take these current chips. AGP is the slot the graphics card plugs into. There are plenty of AGP video cards out there, but they are slowing down. Intel is pushing the new PCI-Express slot for graphics cards. If you buy or build a system today that has an AGP slot you are already limiting yourself in the video upgrade department. More and more video will be coming out only in PCI-Express format.

You may be thinking that you can just get a PCI-Express motherboard and you will be set. Nope. Intel has not increased its CPU speeds much over the last two years. Remember, that the fastest CPU available in early 2003 was a 3.06 GHz chip. It used to be said that chip speed would double every 1-1/2 years. That means we should have chips well above 4.5 GHz today. We don't. In fact, the fastest chip available (at press time) is 3.8 GHz. Intel has been de-emphasizing speed lately. You can see this in their mobile line of processors. The Pentium M processors range from 1.5 to 2.13 GHz. I am willing to bet that Intel will be moving its desktop processors to similar technology that exists in its mobile CPUs. They will be able to maintain overall performance this way, but it will mean an all new motherboard to take advantage of it.

Also, Intel is talking about a dual core CPU. This is essentially two CPUs in one physical chip. This will provide a big boost in performance, even at lower clock speeds than we have today. Of course a dual core chip will require a new motherboard design (as well as an operating system and applications that can take advantage of it).

Let's not leave AMD out of this. AMD has two different sockets for its current chips. Just within the Athlon 64 series (of which I now have) there is a 754 pin socket and a 939 pin socket. The 939 design is newer, so you should be able to use it and be upgradeable. Not so fast, Speedy. Many 939 socket motherboards are still running AGP slots for the video. As we mentioned earlier the AGP is already starting to feel the pinch of upgrading to PCI-Express. I know that the 754 socket will accept chips up to a 3700+ (I have a 3000+). There are no guarantees that anything faster than a 3700+ will be made for the 754 socket. Even if they do make faster chips a new computer should be good for a couple of years before needing an upgrade, and the faster chips could dry up in the supply channel by the time you are ready to upgrade.

What To Do

As we have seen, it is difficult at best to predict what will and what won't be a viable upgrade in the future... when you would be doing the upgrade. My recommendation is to consider the motherboard and the CPU as one item. That's right two components as one. I paid $229 for my ASUS motherboard and 3000+ CPU as a set. This gave me better performance than if I spent $285 for only a CPU upgrade. It is better to think this way. My system is an AGP system, so I will have a hard time upgrading the video next year, and it may be more of a problem find AGP video cards in two years when PCI-Express is everywhere.

If you are buying or building a system today I would strongly suggest you go with PCI-Express for the graphics... regardless of whether you get an Intel or AMD based system. This way you can get away with upgrading your components more gradually than I did in changing both the motherboard/CPU and the graphics together. If you are doing the gaming machine thing, you will invariably end up upgrading a lot of components anyway.

You will also have to deal with memory with the motherboard. Here is a problem I had to deal with. When I initially bought the 2.53 GHz CPU for my Intel motherboard (read about that in my March 2005 column) I also bought some memory. Fry's had a deal on Kingston brand memory. I was able to get 512 MB of PC2700 memory. This would work with the Intel motherboard running with a P4 chip. However, the ASUS motherboard I ended up buying required PC3200 memory. The PC3200 is rated at a faster speed than the PC2700. My brother-in-law ended up needing some memory so I was able to buy another PC3200 memory module for myself and put the PC2700 module in his computer.

I was lucky. I could have been stuck with the PC2700 memory. When you buy memory you may or may not have to think about this. Memory prices are usually cheap (relatively speaking), but also fluxuate up and down. You will have to be careful when buying memory if you think you will be buying some now that you will want to carry to the next upgrade cycle.

I have a hard time saying "buy the best memory you can afford." That would be overkill for the present, and may be the most expensive way to buy memory. Just keep the memory speed in mind when you buy and expect to have to buy new memory with a new motherboard.

Ouch! Now we're getting expensive. If we have to put the CPU and motherboard in the same upgrade, and now add to it memory, isn't that going to cost a lot. Yep, it sure is. However, it should be less than buying a new system, and that is the real point in upgrading an old system. You are upgrading it so you don't have to buy an entirely new system. And that becomes the real decision.

Upgrade or New

Should you even consider upgrading, or should you just buy another computer? That's a good question. I can think of a number of reason to support each one. Think of it this way... if you are upgrading a gaming machine to handle the latest games, it will probably be cost effective to upgrade. The key performance pieces I upgraded cost me $552. That seems reasonable enough for me to have a good gaming system that should last for a year or two (more if I am willing to overclock it). I would NOT be able to have an all new gaming machine that can match my current performance for only $552. Upgrading made a difference.

However, if you are thinking about upgrading a basic home/office type system you probably should consider getting a new system. You can find $500 computers that are good at basic home/office tasks without a monitor. You already have a monitor, right? This way if you are willing to buy a new monitor you end up with two whole systems rather than one and a bunch of spare parts. If you can do something with the old computer then the decision is made. Give your current computer to your kids and get a new system. Non-gaming machines are cheap and you can budget $500 a year toward new computer purchases. After 3 years you can have more computers than you know what to do with. But playing modern 3D games will not be one of them.

Conclusion

So, should you upgrade or get a new computer? That's why you have read this far. If you play modern 3D games then you are better off with the upgrade path. Just remember to buy the motherboard, CPU & memory together. Get a setup that uses the latest video card slot (PCI-Express) and enjoy. You will end up with enough spare parts that you will be able to build a cheap system for your kids for just a few buck more anyway.

If you are not a serious gamer than get a new system. Don't spend too much, and pass on the old one to a needy child, sibling, spouse, etc. You will be surprised how much you will enjoy a budget system just because you don't have to share a computer anymore. That can be the ultimate upgrade... two computers instead of one.

As for my friend, well all the main parts came a bit before the end of May. I didn't have time to help him so we will be building his system as you read this. I will let you know what his final configuration was when it is all together.

Until next time.
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