What needs to be upgraded in this computer?
November 19, 2005 6:39 AM   Subscribe

I am building a computer, and I would like to know what I need to upgrade in order to have a passable gaming machine. Specs inside.

So far this is what I have:
MSi 845 Ultra motherboard
1.6 GHz Pentium 4
512 MB DDR266 RAM
1 40GB 7400rpm IDE HDD

I'm running into a couple of thing here. First, the motherboard has only normal PCI and AGP 4x slots. Is there a video card that I can buy that will make this setup run games such as Civ 4 and The Sims 2 at a rate that won't be frustrating?
Second, the memory seems like the next obvious bottle-neck. I was going to upgrade to 1 GB of DDR400 RAM, but the board's manual says that it only supports DDR200/DDR266. If I buy another 512MB of DDR266, is it still going to suck compared to DDR400?
Does the fact that the hard drive is IDE and not SATA need to be a consideration? The motherboard does not support SATA.
Is 1.6GHz enough on the processor? I know that more work is shifted to the GPU these days for video games, but is this still going to be a problem?
Now, as much as I would love to just drop $800 on parts and have a killer rig, that's not possible right now. What's your take?
posted by Who_Am_I to Computers & Internet (15 answers total)
Have 1 GB of RAM vs. 512 is definitely a huge help, DDR400 vs. DDR 266 shouldn't matter that much (and RAM is supposed to be backwards compatible, so DDR400 should run as DDR266 on your computer).

I have a similar processor and IDE hard drive and I have no problem running World of Warcraft at fairly high graphics settings. Haven't tried the two games you mention, though.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:52 AM on November 19, 2005

Upgrade the processor, double your RAM, and buy a better video card (say, a Radeon 9800) and you should meet your criterion of "passable" while coming in under $400. DDR RAM speed and IDE/SATA are things you may need to worry about when you have a cutting edge machine, shouldn't make a difference here.
posted by Krrrlson at 6:53 AM on November 19, 2005

i just bought a computer with an asrock k8upgrade - vm800, sempron64 2600+, 512 mg ddr400, and 80gig hard drive for 329 plus tax ... adding a keyboard, mouse and used monitor brought it up to around 400 ... the computer was put together for me by the dealer because it just doesn't pay to build them anymore unless you're going bleeding edge

from what i'm reading on civfanatics.com forums, civ 4 seems to be a real hog ... some people with a little better specs than yours have run just fine ... others who have fast machines can't get it to run worth a damn

i don't know the specs on your motherboard, but i think the major problem is going to be a video card for running these games ... the only problem with your hard drive is that it's too small

my guess is that if you waited 6 months you could probably get a much faster machine for about what i paid ... in the meantime, i'd look around for the best video card your machine will run that isn't too awfully expensive, get another 512 of ram and put a 2nd hard drive in ... make do with the motherboard and cpu and do a major upgrade with another computer in awhile when you can afford it ... and transfer the video card over to the new one ...
posted by pyramid termite at 6:57 AM on November 19, 2005

get a decent 128MB video card and upgrade the RAM. I'm still running a 1GHz athlon and can run an amazing number of modern games.
posted by cosmicbandito at 6:57 AM on November 19, 2005

Response by poster: pyramid termite's comment reminds me: This needs to be done by Christmas, so I can't really wait for prices to come down on anything (not that we can't also upgrade later). Thanks everyone for the input so far!
posted by Who_Am_I at 7:10 AM on November 19, 2005

Check your power supply when upgrading your video card. Lots of them insist on 350W or more.

As long as you're in there messing around with the machine, adding a gig of ram isn't really much more expensive than adding another half-gig.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:51 AM on November 19, 2005

The problem with your computer is that you are on the fence. It isn't worthless but adding extra stuff to it (other than ram) will be wasting your money for upgrades down the line. Another issue is cost. You need to stay under a certain level, but haven't told us what. We should know. It would waste our time to advise a $600 upgrade if you can't afford it.

I recommend waiting until you can afford a new computer. For now you can add ram but adding a video card will be a bad idea too because everything is moving to PCI-E. Honest, AGP is over. So are socket 754 so buying a sempron (though absolutely a big improvement) will not future proof you, though if you can afford one and get a video card that will overhaul your computer.

1. The ram you mentioned on Newegg is backwards compatible to DDR266, and the speed difference doesn't matter as much as the other bottlenecks.

2. SATA isn't too important especially with your budget. IDE is fine and will still be available next year.

3. 1.6ghz might be fast "enough" but those games will be held back. Enough for you and enough for me are different. Then again i had nothing for a long time so I can stand 40fps as opposed to 60fps.

The last part: I can't wait. Well, give us a ballpark figure. Your money will be wasted upgrading this and expecting it to be good all through next year.

So, you are looking at this screen and saying to yourself "screw it. I have the money now and I want to be happy for christmas." OK. Here is what $425 will get you:

Sempron 64 2800+ 754 processor

GIGABYTE GA-K8NS (Nforce 3 250)

eVGA 6800 128MB RAM AGP 8x

Cooler Master 400 watt power supply

Corsair Dual Channel 400DDR memory, 1 GB
posted by Dean Keaton at 9:56 AM on November 19, 2005

If you upgraded all that your bottleneck will now be your Hard drive and monitor. Congratulations, you can now pretty much play every new game on the market with a typical midrange computer. You should add some more ram by the middle of next year to stay competitive.
posted by Dean Keaton at 9:58 AM on November 19, 2005

Wow here I am again to waste my morning :)

You can get a Socket 939 today with a 3200+ processor and a PCI-E video card for $532, which will open you up for future upgrades.

Get everything I mentioned in the first post, except for the CPU, Mobo and video card.

Gigabyte Nforce 4 SLI board

Athlon 64 3200+

6800 PCI-E
posted by Dean Keaton at 10:07 AM on November 19, 2005

Buy More Ram. This is the single biggest bottleneck and might just hold you over until you can afford a better new system. 1 Gig is passable and 2 Gigs is even better. RAM is going to be the best cost/performance ratio. After that i would probably upgrade your hard drive (IDE is fine but 80 gigs is not enough imo). You can get cheap 200gig drives these days which will allow you to pull your data off your main drive and have more space open for active swap file. A nice big hard drive is a good investment because it is something you can take with you to your next computer, and hard drives are dirt cheap and easy to install.

If you really want to upgrade the video card, do it when you get a new PCI-Express Motherboard and processor. I love and highly reccomend Sharky Extreme for value computer gaming hardware build advice.
posted by sophist at 12:47 PM on November 19, 2005

Tomorrow all of these specs will be outdated. Get a gaming console -- it doesn't need upgrades for each particular game and it's insanely less expensive.
posted by vanoakenfold at 12:56 PM on November 19, 2005

All I'd say is get the slowest AMD Athlon64 you can find in Socket 939 and go from there. It's a great processor and you will have no problem with upgrades later.
posted by anthill at 2:13 PM on November 19, 2005

When you want a gaming rig, you need three things to be as good as you can get them: RAM, video card, and CPU. Ones who does not have Triforce can't go in.
posted by jenovus at 3:22 PM on November 19, 2005

Who, I went thru the exact process you're considering. Civ 4 made my 512MB, AGP 64MB GeForce 440 Athalon 2000+ system, hitherto perfectly adequate for my needs, obsolete (Why the **** a turn-based strategy game has such stupidly high resource requirements is a different discussion.)

I first upgraded to an Sapphire AGP 256 MB Radeon 9250 for about $50 from NewEgg. That was all I needed to fix the graphics. Remember you just want to play Civ or the Sims. Then, as many have recommended, I bought a GB of DDR400 RAM for about about $85 on special from the same source. That fixed the tiresome diskswapping. Now I can play 'Huge' map, high rez games just fine. And this system should hold me 'til Civ 5 is released.
posted by mojohand at 3:35 PM on November 19, 2005

And this system should hold me 'til Civ 5 is released.

you'll actually need to have your own damn planet to play civ 5, the way they're going ... i would have bought that if the system requirements weren't so ridiculous for a turnbased game

sometime next year, i'll upgrade enough so i can run it, but for now, they've lost a sale
posted by pyramid termite at 7:51 PM on November 19, 2005

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