Upgrading My Athlon System
February 11, 2006 5:47 PM   Subscribe

I received a decent tax refund and I'm thinking about doing a computer upgrade. The last time I rebuilt my system was in 2003. I don't need to be able to play the hottest new FPS (although I do game occasionally), but I want to be able to comfortably run Windows Vista when it's released. Here are my current specs:

Athlon 2500+ Barton
ABit NF7-M Motherboard
512 MB Crucial 2700 DDR SDRAM
ATI All-in-Wonder 9600
Samsung DVD Burner
Maxtor DiamondMax 200 GB 7200 RPM IDE HD
Maxtor DiamondMax 120 GB 7200 RPM IDE HD

I'd also like to upgrade my 19" CRT to an LCD monitor, but that can wait. What upgrades will give me the most bang for my buck?
posted by wintermute2_0 to Computers & Internet (16 answers total)
RAM. When in doubt, get more RAM. You're going to want at least 1 Gig, but more won't hurt.
posted by drewbeck at 6:06 PM on February 11, 2006

Get more RAM. Like 2 Gigs. Sacrifice speed if need be. 512 is way too little for XP, let alone Vista.
posted by orthogonality at 6:16 PM on February 11, 2006

No one is quite certain about the Vista specs, but it would probably be a good idea to upgrade to a SLI board (unless you don't mind dropping half a grand on the latest gee-whiz single video card). The benefit of SLI is that is allows you to double-up video cards and take advantage of the extra processor. Instead of spending $350 on the latest & greatest (and hottest) video card, you can spend half that for two (slightly older) SLI-enabled video cards and have nearly the same performance as the brand-new single card (theoretically, of course.) There are plenty of video cards out there. My personal pick would be two XFX 6800's ($100 each). You only get 128M on each, but that only matters if you're using enormous textures.

Besides running Vista, what do you use your computer for, primarily? If you're doing a lot of multi-window operations that are CPU intensive, or run a lot of background services, I think the Athlon 64 X2 3.8Ghz. (Manchester Core) is the best bang-for-the-buck processor out there.

Count on spending at least another hundred for a good motherboard, then another $150 for a couple gigs of RAM. That should tide you over for a while. Oh, and get a good processor fan while you're at it.

Price list:
RAM (2 Gb, PC3200): $150
Motherboard: $150
AMD X2 3.8 Ghz.: $300
XFX 6600GT: $100
(Great) Processor Fan: Zalman CNPS9500 - $65

All prices via NewEgg, as of 2-10-06. I've been pricing a new system and asking myself the very same questions but our needs might be different.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:22 PM on February 11, 2006

You shouldn't need to get an SLI board. Are you ever going to buy two video cards? SLI boards are pretty much a way to get every last drop out of the bleeding edge stuff (when there isn't a way to go any higher with just one card). Otherwise, you're better off sticking with one card.

I'd get a 10k or 15k RPM HD for your OS/commonly used applications & data. HD access improvements are a nice little boost, and make everything a bit snappier.

Agreed on the extra RAM.

You should be good video-card wise for Vista - you're ahead of the curve all the articles are talking about. If you want to pick up a x700 or x800, or 6600/gt if you ever want to use linux or bsd, that wouldn't be a bad 'investment' either.
posted by devilsbrigade at 7:27 PM on February 11, 2006

Best answer: If you want it to run Vista, then you should probably wait if what you have is sufficient for what you do now. In 6 months you'll spend the same money but get better equipment, or it may be that Vista really will run on what you're thinking of getting, but you'll pay less for it.

In the meantime get more RAM, since that's never a bad thing to have, but I would wait on getting the other hardware if you don't need it now until MS has at least nailed down what Vista wants to run on.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 8:24 PM on February 11, 2006

Best answer: The problem you are facing is that you have a socket A motherboard with AGP. Those are both dead ends. All the latest stuff (on the AMD side of the fence at least, which I recommend you stick with) is in socket 939 and PCI-Express. You almost certainly would regret buying a new AGP video card later (unless you get it used or a VERY good deal.) You can certainly do upgrades to this system but you should think very hard about spending any significant amount of money on it as it's a sinking ship.

So, my advice would be to either do a very minimal upgrade (such as more RAM, which the other posters have already mentioned) or start fresh with a new socket 939 motherboard, a nice Athlon 64 CPU, and a PCI express video card.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:13 PM on February 11, 2006

I concur with the thought of buying more RAM and then waiting, unless you can put your finger on something your system can't do very well now that is holding you back somehow.

If you want, you could play with overclocking that chip. I think the Bartons 2500+ could generally be ramped up to a 3000+ equivalent without much trouble, though that PC2700 RAM might hold you back.

If you do decide to go with a new CPU, motherboard and RAM be aware that socket 939 is in decline. AMD will continue producing processors for that socket for a while longer, but they've appearantly released the last CPU for that socket, before moving to a new socketand support for DDR2 memory.
posted by Good Brain at 10:44 PM on February 11, 2006

Another thought is that you might try turning on the performance counters for your hard disks and logging with perfmon for a while to see how similar their level of utilization is. If it's wildly different (and it probably is), try reorganizing things. You could start by placing the majority of your swap file on the underutilized disk to see if that pulls things into better balance. Turn off the performance counters once you're done testing, because they are a drag on system performance.
posted by Good Brain at 10:50 PM on February 11, 2006

Best answer: So, my advice would be to either do a very minimal upgrade (such as more RAM, which the other posters have already mentioned) or start fresh with a new socket 939 motherboard, a nice Athlon 64 CPU, and a PCI express video card.

Completely agree (basically what I recommended.)

Basically your choice is, "Do I want to spend $70, or do I want to do spend $700?" Because at this point if you make any significant step in any direction, you're going to have to upgrade everything. No point getting a new video card (which you'll need for Vista, at least a 6- series) because AGP is a dead end. So, new video card == new motherboard. Now you're in new processor land. And new RAM land. Might as well make it two gigs while you're at it. See how these things can spiral out of control? :)

If you do decide to go with a new CPU, motherboard and RAM be aware that socket 939 is in decline.

Hogwash. If 939 was in decline, AMD wouldn't be releasing things like the Opteron 165 just to satisfy the 939 market. I would have recommended the 165 if you wanted to up your performance, only they're a bit hard to find these days at the AMD recommended prices (~$300). When you can find them, they're about $20 overpriced (like at the otherwise-glorious NewEgg). It's the price you pay for an extra half meg of L2 cache. I think it's worth it, but again, different strokes, different folks.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:37 AM on February 12, 2006

As for your hard drives, I think they're fine. If you did a lot of read/writes I might suggest you have a bottleneck at the hard drives, but unless you're doing lots of video editting and such, I highly doubt it. Games don't rely on hard drives nearly as much as they do the video card and processor (and to a certain extent, RAM). On the bright side, new SATA motherboards usually come with RAID built-in, so you'd have the RAID-0/1 option.

I have in my hands an unreleased memo that lists what Vista is going to require. For the safety of my source, I cannot reveal where it comes from. But here, in no particular order, are the requirements:
  • a smoking fast processor
  • a very good video card
  • an assload of RAM
  • a mediocre hard drive
  • several fans
You've got the mediocre hard drives and maybe the fans. It's the "everything else" part that is going to hurt your wallet.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:48 AM on February 12, 2006

939 is most certainly not in decline. It's just hitting its peak, and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. The new AMD socket M2 is not even out yet, and won't be until this summer. So unless you're a gullible beta tester early adopter you won't even want to consider touching it until fall/winter of this year or early next year. And that's assuming there aren't delays. The first generation of a completely new platform is always very expensive and sometimes has bugs. Besides, early reports of DDR2 have shown that it's only marginally faster (4 - 5%) and it costs more. (Naturally it will improve as time goes on.)
posted by Rhomboid at 4:37 AM on February 12, 2006

Civil_Disobedient & Rhomboid. I'm sorry if I was unclear. AMD will certainly be producing Socket 939 CPUs for a while now but my understanding is that they won't be releasing any new "desktop" chips faster than the recently relased FX-60 for socket 939(source AnandTech). It does look like there might be another socket 939 opteron, but that is a ways off.

So, perhaps 939 isn't in decline, but it certainly doesn't look like it's rising much higher. If the point in reccomending a 939 MB now is the opportunity for future upgrades then my point stands, future upgrades are limited. Sure, he can get into 939 with a $250-300CPU now (anything less probably isn't enough of a bump over his current CPU), but what are his options really going to be for CPU upgrades in a year or two, especially once AMD stops shipping 939 chips?

I'm not saying that a socket 939 board is (or isn't) the best choice if he decides to do a big upgrade right now. I am saying that its dubious that the theortical upgradability of the board should get much weight in that choice.
posted by Good Brain at 10:55 AM on February 12, 2006

Response by poster: I want to thank everyone for their good advice. I think, for now, I'll hold off on a major upgrade and simply add some a stick of 1 GB 2700 SDRAM. Any differing opinions? I'm also thinking of adding a hard drive and enclosure for backup purposes.

I have a feeling that if I wait until summer or early fall, I'll be able to get a lot more upgrade for my money.
posted by wintermute2_0 at 11:22 AM on February 12, 2006

I don't think PC3200 is any more expensive than PC2700 memory and you might be able to use PC3200 memory in a newer system.
posted by Good Brain at 11:48 AM on February 12, 2006

I'm certainly not an expert, but I have heard some talk about Hybrid Hard Drives (a hard drive with a cache of flash memory up to 1 GB) and their use in Vista. The benefits (mainly decreased power consumption and decreased heat production) are mainly aimed at the mobile platform, but it may be another reason for you to hold off a little longer.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:09 PM on February 12, 2006

my understanding is that they won't be releasing any new "desktop" chips faster than the recently relased FX-60 for socket 939

You're right, the 939/940 is the "end of the road" for this line. But you're going to have to wait at least another year for all the next-gen stuff to be out and about. Add another year for it to be anywhere near your price-range.

The way I look at system upgrades is like this: if you have a need, don't wait. Waiting is for chumps. There's always going to be something better down the road. Either get the fastest of whatever is most common, or get the slowest of whatever is next-gen. That's usually where you'll find the best price-point. I prefer the latter to the former because I like to tinker, but if you don't like tweaking things here and there (updating drivers, BIOSes, etc.) you might want to go with the former.

Either way, whatever you do, don't go buying stuff with the idea that you'll be "upgrading" it in a year. Screw that. Get the best stuff you can afford, and assume you'll need to upgrade everything all over again when the time comes.

I'm also thinking of adding a hard drive and enclosure for backup purposes.[...] I have a feeling that if I wait until summer or early fall, I'll be able to get a lot more upgrade for my money.

The RAM and the backup enclosure are two separate issues. Treat them as such. An extra gig of RAM will sort out most performance bottlenecks (for general usage, anyway). Don't go looking at hard drives to solve your speed problem, though, not unless you want to shell out mucho dinero for a 10k RPM monster like the Raptor. There's always RAID, but then you need two drives and (in your case) a controller card. For that kind of money you could get a pretty kick-ass video card.

but I have heard some talk about Hybrid Hard Drives

While there are certainly some good benefits to Hybrid technology, it's mainly on the mobile front. Read access speeds are not going to be improved significantly, so you're still going to have a bottleneck on the physical level. The Wiki you link to mentions this, which is interesting:
"the decreased heat generation theoretically allows the maximum rotational speed of the hybrid drives to be ratcheted up for short bursts beyond the current 10,000 rpm limit of today's Western Digital Raptor drives, possibly allowing for an increased performance."
That's nice. But I don't think it's going to beat a pair of plain-jane 7200 RPM drives that are out now in a RAID-0 configuration.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:26 PM on February 13, 2006

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