Buy a new video card or upgrade whole system?
July 5, 2005 12:08 PM   Subscribe

I have a 2.53Ghz Pentium PC (Alienware), 512 MB RAM, and want to play the latest games on it with very good quality. I have a (now lowly) Radeon 9700 Pro video card. Should I bother upgrading the video card, or wait to get a new system?

I've voluntarily abstained from virtually every major release for the PC since Doom 3 (including titles like Half Life 2 and Battlefield 2) because I knew they wouldn't perform well on my system, and I'm a stickler for high quality.

I don't like the prospect of having to turn down/off most special effects and lower the resolution to near-DOS levels in order to play the game -- if I'm going to spend my time and money playing something, I want the experience to be as good as the developers intended it to be.

That said, would I see a significant performance gain if I upgraded to the latest/greatest video card from Nvidia or ATI, given that my CPU is no longer king of the hill?

I'm willing to spend the money on the best card on the market (SLI configurations notwithstanding, as I would need a new motherboard, etc.) if it will significantly extend the life of my current system.

Alternatively, should I save the $400-$500 for a new video card and just wait to get a new PC in another 1-2 years when I can afford the latest system, knowing that I would continue to skip most major game releases because my expectations would be too high? (I'd expect to pay ~$3,000+ for a new system with above-average gaming specs.) If I do wait, I own all the current gaming consoles so I wouldn't be giving up gaming entirely.

I'm not interested in an incremental upgrade (like only spending a couple hundred bucks on a marginally better video card) -- I either want to get the best card out and stick it in my current system, or hear some opinions on why it would be better to just start saving for a new system.

I do realize I could also see some performance improvement if I upgraded my system RAM to 1GB or more for current and future games.
posted by robbie01 to Computers & Internet (20 answers total)
I have a 2ghz processor (Athlon64 though), a gig of RAM, and a Radeon X800 XL card, and I have no problem with any of the latest games at max quality. Doom 3 gets a little bit sluggish at times with lots of monsters on the screen, but HL2 is very smooth, and I consistantly pull over 100 FPS from UT2K4 on max res/quality.

I'd look at if you want PCI-X or not. Some new cards are PCI-X only, in which case you'd need a new mobo. And if you're going to get a new mobo...
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:33 PM on July 5, 2005

First things first: get another 512mb RAM. We have a Sempron 2800 and a 6600GT, and Half-Life 2, World of Warcraft, Doom 3, etc. run a whole universe better now we have a gigabyte. It's more than "some improvement"; with Half-Life 2 it made the difference between a stop-start frustrate-a-thon, and a smooth, playable game. Pop that in and see if things improve before you start a major upgrade.

(As a yardstick, with a processor about as good as yours, a 6600GT, and 1gb RAM, we get about 40fps in Half-Life 2 at 1280x1024 with 8x anisotropic and a bit of anti-alaising if we feel flash. You don't need a supercomputer to play most things with the detail turned up.)

If you have a 9700 Pro, I'm guessing you have an AGP motherboard. If you want to get the latest graphics card -- and if you want to take it with you when you upgrade -- you'll need to go for PCI Express.

You could have the best of both worlds: upgrade your motherboard to an SLI-enabled PCI Express-based one, and put your existing processor -- which is in no way outdated just yet -- and a Geforce 6800 of some flavour in. When the time comes you can drop in a higher speed Pentium and another 6800. Two of the high-end 6800s are reckoned to be roughly on a par with the new 7800, so you won't be behind the curve and you won't have to bankrupt yourself. You'd be looking at about $120 for a motherboard and $300 for a SLI-capable 6800GT. Add on a few quid for 512mb RAM and that's a BIG speed boost.

I wouldn't get a 7800 now -- too expensive. Better to buy half of one now, and the other half in 6 months.

We prefer not to spend £1,500 every couple of years on PC equipment. We spend a few hundred every year, get whatever's mid-range at the time, and play all the games when they come out. You end up paying the same amount spread over a few years, and you get to play all the games, too.

Whatever your choice, happy gaming!
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 12:34 PM on July 5, 2005

Well, with a 2.5ghz processor, you've got a pretty recent PC. Sounds like all you'd need is one of the newer video cards, and I'd up your RAM to a gig, since memory seems pretty cheap these days.
posted by misterioso at 12:37 PM on July 5, 2005

For what it's worth, I have a 2.4 GHz Pentium IV box with 1gb RAM. With a Radeon 9800 Pro (128mb), which is now an older card, I can play HL2 at very high detail and >40 FPS at all times.

You don't need the latest and greatest, particularly to run Source engine games. In fact, Source is less CPU/GPU intensive than the Doom 3 engine by far -- which probably has something to do with its having been targeted at much less capable hardware originally.
posted by killdevil at 12:40 PM on July 5, 2005

I've voluntarily abstained from virtually every major release for the PC since Doom 3 (including titles like Half Life 2 and Battlefield 2) because I knew they wouldn't perform well on my system, and I'm a stickler for high quality.

you're really depriving yourself of some decent experiences, man. i've got a 1.5 ghz p4 with 512 mb ram and a radeon 9200, and half-life 2 managed to run decently enough. hell, i can get san andreas running just as smoothly as the ps2 original at 1024x768.

i don't really have a lot of advice as to the question at hand, considering i only upgrade my PC once in a blue moon, but i figured i'd point that out.
posted by jimmy at 12:49 PM on July 5, 2005

ArmyOfKittens is pretty spot-on. My comments:

HL2 is really not that bad performance-wise. It's certainly less rigorous than Doom 3.

On preview: what killdevil said. The engine is coded to display small, detailed blocks of stuff really well which is nice for older machines. The constant loading screens get to be a bit much, though.

Yes, you absolutely need 1 gig + of RAM, preferably running in dual channel. Whatever else you're going to do, you need to do that. Particularly if you're going to be playing Battlefield 2 or not-yet-released games. AND it'll help with HL2.

I'd recommend buying a mid-range card (maybe a Geforce 6600GT) and 512 megs of RAM. No point in buying a high-end card at this point since the 6800s and comparable ATIs are going to be out of date soon and the new cards (7-series Geforce etc) are ludicrously expensive at the moment.

I've been buying pretty far behind the curve of late because must-have PC game titles are few and far between. I'd recommend the same for you... you've got a decent system at the moment and it may be a while before you really want a game you can't run.

Honestly, if you wait a couple of years to upgrade your machine the PC game industry may well be even deader than it is now. Live for the now!
posted by selfnoise at 12:51 PM on July 5, 2005

Strangely, HL2 has been pretty slow for me, though I'm only playing the demo. And I've got 3.2ghz, 2gigs ram, and a Radeon 9600 Pro. (Ho ho ho! But it's my work pc, so I don't get to take it home..)

Is it my video card that's tripping me up?

posted by metaculpa at 12:59 PM on July 5, 2005

Slow in what way, metaculpa? Constant low frame rates, or periodic stuttering?

I've had my share of problems with HL2. Steam seems to organize the game's assets in such a way that I constantly need to be accessing my HD all the time, even though I have a gig of RAM. Needless to say this causes stuttering on level load. I usually have to wait a couple of seconds after I enter a new area. Then the frame rate is silky smooth for half the area. At the half way point, the game freaks out for 5 seconds, and then is okay again.
posted by selfnoise at 1:16 PM on July 5, 2005

HL2? I'm full of it. BF2. Sorry. (HL2 works beautifully.)
The symptom is really just slushy video; everything seems to slow down and become unresponsive at high resolutions. It almost feels like my latency is 200ms, or like I'm very very drunk.

Anyway, I can't seem to look up the fps or do a video test for BF2, so I'm not sure how to diagnose it.

Please note that I'm not actually admitting playing games on a work computer while drunk. But yes, two out of three.
posted by metaculpa at 1:30 PM on July 5, 2005

I'd upgrade the video card rather than wait a year or two.

I've got a 2.2GHz Athlon 64 (aka Athlon 3500), a gig of RAM, and a sweet Radeon X800 Pro. It runs BF2 at 1600x1200 at 30fps at medium/high quality just fine. Half Life 2 had as many FPS as I wanted at 1600x1200. Far Cry looked awesome at 45fps.

Two BF2 tips for you geeks, from this thorough BF2 tweak guide.. To show your framerate, hit ~ to open console and type renderer.drawFps 1. And to get the best quality/speed tradeoff put the video settings on "Medium", even for your brand new computer. Only tweak to high afterwards. High makes for long load times, slower framerates, and nearly identical graphics.
posted by Nelson at 1:47 PM on July 5, 2005

selfnoise: in Half-Life 2, try typing this into the console:

sv_forcepreload 1

It will increase the time spent on the loading screen by a little, but should reduce loading stutters in the area. It's per-session, but you ought to be able to make a profile to load that every time if you find it works for you.

It worked great for us when we had 512mb RAM. Might be worth a defrag, too.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 1:59 PM on July 5, 2005


You can also download Fraps to check framerates.

But yeah. If we're talking BF2, that's a whole nother story. Could be your video card.

Army: I'll try that if I ever boot HL2 again. Which is doubtful. But thanks. :)
posted by selfnoise at 2:02 PM on July 5, 2005

meta: Barring anything strange (ie runing Windows Server 2003 on your desktop) then yeah, it's your videocard.

robbie01: what you want to do is patch up the system you have now as cheaply as possible, and then a year and change from now do a complete overhaul.

Up your RAM to 1GB, and then grab a GeForce 6600 256MB AGP for $139 or a GeForce 6600 GT 128MB AGP for $163.

Unless some major new technology comes out in the next year, your target system for the overhaul should be a reasonably high-end dual-core 64-bit AMD processor on a PCI Express motherboard that supports SLI videocards. Probably 2GBs of RAM.

As for the videocard - wait and see is my vote. 2006 is going to be a strange year between Longhorn, and the probably accompanying release of DirectX Next. nVidia's just released the first implementation of their next-gen chip (GeForce 7800), and in truth it just looks like a major speed bump plus a few tweaks (anti-aliasing of alpha-blended textures). ATI may have something tricky up their sleeves with reports of a Gallium-based cooling system (that is, liquid metal), so they might pull off something fantastic in the next year. We'll see.

For now, though, just patch up what you've got and wait until 2006 blows over is my vote.
posted by Ryvar at 2:18 PM on July 5, 2005

Thanks, y'all. It does run fairly well in low-to-medium, so I guess I'll stick with that. Unless I can convince the boss-lady to upgrade the video-card on my work machine, which would be a bad idea for both her budget and my productivity.
posted by metaculpa at 3:20 PM on July 5, 2005

I run HL2 on an AIW 9800 Pro, and it's beautiful.

My little brother runs HL2 on my old Radeon 9200 Pro 128 DDR, and it's not as nice as on the 9800, but it's also fine.

Seriously, a 9700 isn't too bad. The vid-card industry hype has poisoned your impressionable little mind. Smile, load your new games, live in peace.
posted by SlyBevel at 11:07 PM on July 5, 2005

Actually, one major question, robbie01 - are you using an LCD monitor?

Not running games at native resolution on an LCD makes them look like ass, and for some of us with high-rez LCDs (1600x1200 in my case) this can make running the latest games with all bells and whistles on rather difficult.
posted by Ryvar at 12:15 AM on July 6, 2005

Be a damn sight cheaper to buy a decent used CRT to game with than to buy a $250+ graphics card.

And if you run the game at 800x600 on a 1600x1200, shouldn't it scale cleanly with no artifacts?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:06 AM on July 6, 2005

Not necessarily if you let the monitor do it, but with Nvidia cards at least you can get the graphics card to do the scaling. Then non-native resolutions look pretty good, and 640x480 scales perfectly with little bars at the top and bottom (we have a 1280x1024 screen).
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 4:19 AM on July 6, 2005

It really is amazing how much people spend on this stuff, isn't it?

I've got one of them 6600gt cards and it seems to work fine with bf2, which is by far the best game ever. Ever! I would think that a decent video card plus an extra half gig of ram, should have you up and running with all the latest stuff.

You won't be able to max out everything, settings-wise, but it should still work alright.

'Course, there's still a raft of mods out there for BF42, so there's probably still a lot of fun to be had with the older games without upgrading.
posted by ph00dz at 5:04 AM on July 6, 2005

ROU_Xenophobe: even at max AA, GTA:SA at 800x600 looks terribly blocky on my 1600x1200 20". If I turn off the AA and turn down the effects quality (but not the draw distance) I get reasonable speed without sacrificing anything besides a lot of smoke and ricochet particles.
posted by Ryvar at 6:13 AM on July 6, 2005

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