Salvage or DTMFA and Start Over?
June 16, 2009 2:23 PM   Subscribe

I've inherited an older PC from work and would like to turn it into a media center / game-playing box, but I'm not sure if it's up to snuff.

I've inherited a Compaq Presario mini-tower, SR1315 (specs). The hard disk died and it wasn't worth replacing, apparently, so they got a whole new PC. I can add a new hard disk myself of course. It has a 2005 manufacturing date sticker on the back.

It's only an AMD Sempron 3100+ CPU, which seems pretty wimpy to me, but it does have 2Gb of RAM. It was last running WinXP SP3 and "seemed" snappy and fast to me the couple of times I used it, but I haven't re-installed Windows or downl purchased any real games yet to push it, since it's due for a fresh setup anyway. I just popped it open and dusted the crap out of it, and I'll be ordering a new HD shortly.

In addition to poor built-in graphics (unused), it has an add-on video card someone threw in there, which (reading the sticker) is a 256Mb GeForce FX5500. It's PCI and not AGP, though there is an open AGP slot. This card was doing 1920x1200 DVI last week.

But I doubt that's enough. Would a better video card bring this beast up to spec enough for Fallout 3 or the Valve games, or will that processor pretty much cripple me? If a video card is enough to do it, which one should I be finding?

The CPU looks soldered-on to me (damn Compaq), so that's not an easy upgrade path. I am guessing that motherboard swaps aren't easy on these "brand name" PCs, since the connectors and cutouts probably won't ever line up.

Other than gaming, HDMI would be nice I suppose, so I could hook it into the LCD in the living room. I assume XP is still the right choice to squeeze the best performance.

So.... is there hope, or is that CPU a killer, which means I should I just junk it and pick up a new no-name case/power supply and start fresh?

Any other related advice is welcome, especially if I'm dead wrong on my assumptions above. If the consensus is DTMFA, I have seen many MeFi threads on spec'ing out a new one so I'm okay on that I think.

(I'm reasonably capable of doing anything technical short of soldering, but I'm not a native Windows person so use small words, please.)
posted by rokusan to Technology (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The AMD 3100+ is pretty ancient. As a benchmark, I have an AMD 3700, with a ATI x800 $40 card (as well as an nVidia 9600 GSO 384mb $100 card) that was able to run TF2 at ~1024x768 at ~40-50 fps sometimes, 30fps othertimes.

I am not sure what kind of games you want to play -- but most vendors have dropped supporting AGP -and the CPU is a budget crap cpu.

The AMD 3700+ was ~P4-2.8ghz speed.. the 3100+ is probably more like a P4-2ghz machine.
posted by SirStan at 2:37 PM on June 16, 2009

Check out the System Requirements Lab site once you have the system up and running.

You can easily build a decent gaming pc for something like $500. It's probably not worth spending a lot of cash to update this computer but if you can get your hands on a good AGP card, give it a shot. I doubt you'll be able to play Fallout 3 but the Source engine is pretty forgiving so you may luck out.

Shameless plug for the MeFightClub once you get any PC up and running!
posted by Diskeater at 2:39 PM on June 16, 2009

"I am guessing that motherboard swaps aren't easy on these "brand name" PCs, since the connectors and cutouts probably won't ever line up."

Compaq typically uses a standard case and power supply -- its the power buttons and front peripherals that are non-standard. While Dell uses their own custom motehrboards; Compaq (typically) uses customized versions of standard manufacturers boards (my eMachines -- for examlpe -- had an MSI motherboard).

You might be able to drop a new motherboard into that machine and reuse the case/power supply.

If you are going to spend any money on a real video card, check the power requirements, and make sure whatever power supply you have is up-to-snuff. A name-brand 300watt power supply can run most modern systems, but some of the higher end boards, combined with high-power-usage CPU's (100+watts!) need more than a good 300 watt'er.
posted by SirStan at 2:41 PM on June 16, 2009

From what I recall, Valve's Half-Life 2 was more CPU-bound than GPU-bound. Your graphics card might be fine (not too sure how much slower a PCI card is compared to AGP) but your CPU probably isn't up to the task.

As far as HDMI output goes, you'll definitely want a newer video card for that. A quick search on NewEgg shows two AGP video cards with HDMI output, but the one I'd recommend is $100 and there's still no guarantee your CPU would be up to the task.

I'd recommend using this guy as a file server or test machine or something else hacky and cool, and spending the $600 to put together a decent HTPC/low-end gaming PC.
posted by xbonesgt at 2:50 PM on June 16, 2009

You could make this system do some of what you're asking, but not all of it:

-You meet the system requirements for games like Half Life 2 and Counter Strike Source. Maybe Left 4 Dead or Fallout 3 if you upgrade the graphics card with something like this (with HDMI), but you'd be playing at minimum spec. Any games more demanding than that and no. If you try to go much more expensive with the video card, you'll need a new power supply. And even then, the CPU would be limiting you.

-You could use it for playback of video/music files you already have, using VLC or XBMC, but using it as a DVR would be sketchy at best, especially if you're trying to record in HD.
posted by JauntyFedora at 3:36 PM on June 16, 2009

One question I've got is you say media center/game playing box. Is this an either/or, or a both? If it's an either/or, I'd say it's more capable as a media center. My current "media center" is the centerpiece of my living room, a MythTV box hooked to a projector that's an AMD Sempron 2800 with 512 MB of RAM. And for watching TV and standard Divx/Xvid encoded stuff, it's great. More demanding video files, like 720p and above, MKV files tend to give it fits.

The OS is Linux on it (MythTV gives that away ;) ), and it has more than enough horsepower for that. Installing Myth on it was done from the excellent KnoppMyth distribution. Steps were download the CD image of KnoppMyth, burn it, make sure there's a compatible tuner card in the machine (if you care about doing the TV/PVR thing) and then booting from the disk and answering about a dozen questions. Ta da.
posted by barc0001 at 3:57 PM on June 16, 2009

HDMI can easily be acheived with an HDMI -> DVI cable, or adaptor, don't limit yourself. If you are planning on running Blue-Ray, you should get a card which supports hardware decoding and HDCP (the encryption standard, so you can play at 1080P). Otherwise, any decent AGP card will have DVI output.
posted by defcom1 at 9:44 PM on June 16, 2009

Response by poster: I already have a similarly Windows box that I use as a media streamer now, but it's even less well-powered, so I was hoping to replace it here and get gaming ability for free-or-easy, but if it's not to be, it's not to be. I suppose I could use it as a media box in the guest room.

SirStan, the motherboard is 'described' on that Compaq spec sheet linked above as an "Asus K8S-LA". How do I know which kind ("size?") cpu-motherboard combos can be dropped in as replacements?

(Remember, tech-savvy guy, but WinTel amateur. Be gentle.)
posted by rokusan at 10:21 PM on June 16, 2009

As a media playing PC a Sempron 3100+, no matter what video card you put in it, is likely to be incapable of any decent bitrate of 720p video... Or even 480p resolution H.264 at higher bitrates.

If you want to hook it up to your TV anyways, uou could probably use it for a MAME PC, and it'll also play SNES, Sega Genesis and similar generation emulation software just fine.
posted by thewalrus at 1:43 AM on June 17, 2009


The motherboard is likely spaced with a standard ATX pattern. This means that as long as the new board isnt physically too large for the case, it should fit in.

The motherboard appears fairly small google image search result, but the screws do appear to use a standard ATX setup.

Here is a standard sized intel motherboard. Open up both images and compare them. (The intel board is rotated 90 degrees). Notice the intel board has an entire extra set of screw holes past the expansion slots that your case probably doesnt have -- and may not fit.

So if you go the keep-the-case, buy-a-new-motherboard-route make sure you download the measurements of the new board, and that it will fit.
posted by SirStan at 10:58 AM on June 17, 2009

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