How should I upgrade my gaming machine?
May 29, 2011 12:13 PM   Subscribe

I think it is time to upgrade my PC, can I get by with just upgrading the graphics card or am I seeing bottlenecks elsewhere? Also, what's the card to get? Specs inside.

I just installed and started to play Witcher 2 which place me at a humiliating "Low" on the system auto-detect. I've been really out of the loop as far as hardware is concerned, and don't want to spend a lot on an expensive graphics card if it is better to just upgrade everything. Here's what I currently have:

- Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 @ 3.16GHz
- 4GB Ram
- ATI Radeon 4850
- Asus A8N-E motherboard

I was looking at the GTX-580, but didn't know if that was complete overkill. Any suggestions? Also, if there's suppose to be a big overhaul of graphics cards that everyone is waiting on, let me know. I can definitely wait a couple of months.
posted by geoff. to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Did you try upping the system settings in the witcher and just seeing how subjectively playable it was? I also got a "Low" auto-detect, but pretty much scoffed and set it to High and had no issues the whole way through. My graphics card is somewhat more recent, but still, don't trust the auto-detect.
posted by pahalial at 12:26 PM on May 29, 2011

Have you gotten patch 1.1? Apparently there is a big boost in performance. Look at the readme and disable the stuff that takes a lot of power; SSAO was super-expensive even on my Radeon 6950, and ubersampling is for people with craaazy systems, or people who live in the future.

I'd also wait for ATI to release Catalyst 11.6, to see how things are then.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:37 PM on May 29, 2011

RAM these days is cheap and tends to do a lot of good. I just upgraded a Mac from 4GB to 8GB for around $80.
posted by bitdamaged at 12:54 PM on May 29, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions, I did get everything to about medium. I was, however, sort of looking for an excuse to upgrade my graphics card.
posted by geoff. at 1:26 PM on May 29, 2011

I haven't played the game, but I've heard that the autodetect is pretty pessimistic about your system specs. Probably try tweaking it manually.

I assume you mean you have a Radeon HD 4850. That card is several years old now -- I have an HD 4870 and it's starting to get a bit long in the tooth. I'm no expert, but video cards keep improving geometrically, and probably any half-decent video card being sold these days will net you a good performance increase. You'll almost certainly want a 1GB card (you don't say how much video memory your current one has).

I've found that system memory doesn't really have much performance impact on games -- 4GB is plenty, and most games only use a couple gigs at most.
posted by neckro23 at 1:31 PM on May 29, 2011

Best answer: Your CPU is a bit long in the tooth. Games (the Witcher 2 is one) are starting to use more than two cores. Upgrading would probably mean going for something like a Core i5-2500, for $215, a new mobo at $120-$200, new RAM (8 GB is cheap, $80). Add to that something like a 570 or a 560 Ti (depending on your screen resolution), and you're very close to the top of the line.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:38 PM on May 29, 2011

probably any half-decent video card being sold these days will net you a good performance increase

...assuming your power supply can handle it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:38 PM on May 29, 2011

A decent 500 W supply should be more than enough for a 570 + i5-2500, assuming you don't want to go SLI or overclock.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:54 PM on May 29, 2011

Best answer: Best bang for buck is getting a new $200-250 GPU. Wow. The 580 is in the $500 range. Increasing RAM and a new mobo/CPU isn't going to do as much, for the money, for actual gameplay (over saving games/loading times), as a new video card.

Here's a good summary from Tom's Hardware for current heirarchy of cards. A Radeon 6950 looks about a sweet spot a 6970 is closer to a "sweet" spot, unless you're perfectly happy to shell out $500 for a new card - the 580 is pretty sweet and reportedly not a noise monster and pretty well designed.

You don't mention what resolution you would like to game at - if you've got a massive monitor and want to play at above 1920x1200 resolutions, you're ultimately going to be happier with a $500 card than a more budget concious $250 card. If you're topping out at HD+ resolution, that $250 will be good for a few years now that GPU advances are slowing down ever so slightly (and monitor resolutions aren't ballooning quite as fast). Most games are still optimized for DX10 and there aren't many/any that absolutely require DX11 (although any new card over $200 is usually DX11 certified).
posted by porpoise at 2:16 PM on May 29, 2011

Come to think of it, the other way to go is to spend $500 on a new mobo/CPU/RAM and another 4850 (cheap, used? $100?) for crossfire (which will be close to a 6950). I think the new update for Witcher fixes/optimizes dual-GPU useage.

For a bit extra, you get a near top-of-the-line desktop + pretty damned good graphics bump. The i5s are a hefty bump over a Core2 especially if you use your desktop for video editing or other computation-intensive programs and 3-channel RAM is a significant performance enhancement over DDR2. I ended up getting a lower-tier i7 over the i5s, but there doesn't seem to be a big performance gap until you're spending an extra $200+ on an i7 over an i5.
posted by porpoise at 2:27 PM on May 29, 2011

Best answer: You're in a similar situation to me. I have a Core e7200 which has been sat at 3.16ghz (from 2.5 stock, I think) for a while now, and until recently I had 2gb RAM and an 8800GT. Then after seeing The Witcher 2 running on the other half's PC, which is a quad core with a GTX460, I got the upgrade bug.

I decided I'd just get a graphics card for now, since that was the weakest part of my system, so I picked up a GTX560 and another 2gb memory that I managed to find super-cheap, reasoning that if stuff still ran badly I could stretch to a new motherboard, CPU, memory, and (probably) PSU (I have a quality name-brand 450watter, but I expect that's not enough for quad core shenanigans). But so far (I've just hit chapter 2) I've been able to run TW2 at a mixture of high/ultra settings at around a 30fps minimum, although I've seen that later parts of chapter 2 are a little more demanding and I may have to drop a couple more settings. But I've been happy with the performance overall.

The trick is to select a medium config and then build up, as medium gives you a particular setting for ground level-of-detail. I run medium shadows and high shadowed lights, with everything else up to full except for no ubersampling (obviously), no cinematic DOF, no motion blur (it didn't seem to impact the framerate that much, I just prefer it off), and medium decals and hanging objects limit on, since those last two give the CPU a bit of a break.

So if you like you can sling a decent card into your existing setup and play quite happily, leaving off the CPU/motherboard/memory upgrade for a little while longer. And you'll still have the powerful new GFX card in the mean time.

You might also want to check out the neogaf thread on TW2 configs (it's spoiler-free). Note that several people in that thread have said the current Radeon drivers are all kinds of balls in the game, so you may find you get a performance boost from rolling them back if you've recently updated.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 3:05 PM on May 29, 2011

The Witcher 2 is going to sell so many video cards. Bless. I hope Radeon and Nvidia send CDProjekt a nice Xmas pressie.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:34 PM on May 29, 2011

Response by poster: I bought a GTX 560 Ti, the improvement is drastic. As others have noted, the bottleneck is now my CPU which averages >90% over the course of the game.

The atmosphere and everything about the game has improved so much, I'm almost tempted to start over. I still see some framerate hits, but it wasn't as bad as before. ArmyOfKittens guide also helped immensely.

I have no dog in the ATI vs nVidia fight, but it seems like I was always running into problems with my ATI card. I shouldn't say always, but every so often there'd be a PhysX problem or some other thing that seemed to hit just the ATI users. Of course, I'm sure nVidia has their own share of problems, and I'm only see issues that hit me, but it colored my perception of ATI graphics cards.

I don't really feel like buying a new computer, so this should be a nice fix. We'll see if games start pushing boundaries again, but in large part to console ports, everything on the PC has felt stagnate.
posted by geoff. at 6:08 PM on May 29, 2011

One thing you could do to alleviate the bottleneck somewhat is to overclock your CPU; if you're using the stock cooler, you'd have to get a new one (like the $25-30 Cooler Master Hyper 212+). You'd also need to do some reading to avoid accidentally your CPU, and spend some time on the overclocking itself, but it could help a bit for not much money.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:40 PM on May 30, 2011

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