Gaming PC on the cheap
May 23, 2007 5:02 PM   Subscribe

Yet another PC upgrade advice question.

My PC is showing its age. Current configuration: 1.5GHz Athlon XP 1800+, 1GB RAM (plain old DDR, I think), Radeon 9600 Pro. My primary interest is gaming, but I'm kinda poor, so I'm not so interested in the state-of-the-art; I want hardware that's new enough to make a big difference, old enough to not be outrageously expensive, and ideally be upgradeable easily when I find myself with more pocket change.

So: even though I know the video card is the most important component in a gaming PC, most newer games I've tried have low framerates and don't run much faster at low display settings, so I'm thinking the CPU is the main bottleneck here. Is this a reasonable assumption?

If it is, I could either pick up a slightly better Athlon XP for cheap and probably get a fairly small performance boost, or I could delve into this fancy new multi-core and/or 64-bit architectures, of which I know nothing about and which would probably necessitate new RAM and who knows what else. An overview of my options in that department is mainly what I'm after with this question. Advice?
posted by squidlarkin to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think you'll be better off with a new video card than a CPU upgrade that doesn't involve a new motherboard. I don't have anything to back that up other than my own personal, anecdotal experience with my own gaming machine, which now has a video card that runs so hot, and is so big, I can't put the side of the case back on.
posted by me & my monkey at 5:24 PM on May 23, 2007

Forget the Athlon XP; that's a couple of generations behind the curve and almost certainly aren't being produced any more.

In fact, your entire system is fairly old; I had a computer with similar specs four or five years ago. The graphics card would've been pretty good then but has long since been eclipsed.

You're in luck, however; prices on the current generation of PC components have dropped drastically over the past couple of months, most notably CPUs (Intel and AMD have both slashed prices, and Intel will slash further in late July) and memory (DDR2 has halved in price over the past six months) so now's as good a time as any to buy yourself a new dual-core setup.

You're in the same situation I am—your computer is built on old architectures. Your graphics card is AGP, which is no longer being used; your CPU is Socket A, two generations behind the curve; and DDR3 RAM is due for wide release any day now, so your RAM is also obsolete. This means nearly every component in your system will need replacing; at best you can probably keep your hard drives so long as you get a motherboard with IDE support (many motherboards nowadays are SATA only, so watch out). If you're not the tinkering type, you may just want to bite the bullet and buy yourself a new computer. If you want to put it together yourself, though, here's a short list of what you'll need:
  • Power supply. A five-year-old power supply might cut it, but it also might die because of the higher power requirements of your new parts. A decent 450-500W supply should more than adequately cover any budget gaming system's power requirements. Expect to pay around $100.
  • Motherboard. AMD boards use the AM2 socket; Intel motherboards use LGA775. AMD boards are slightly cheaper but expect to pay between $100-$150 for a decent no-frills/overclock board.
  • CPU. I'm not as familiar with the Athlon offerings as of late because the performance crown has gone to Intel with the new Core 2 Duo chips, but you should be able to pick up a decent dual-core chip for $150-$200 (that'll get you an Intel E6420 chip, if my Canadian->U.S. price conversion is right).
  • Memory. DDR2 is the reigning king and will be for a while yet, even though DDR3 is coming. DDR2-667 (otherwise known as PC-5300 or PC2-5300 or PC/PC2-5400—yup, confusing as hell) is the general standard and perfectly fine if you don't plan to overclock; you can pick up 2GB of the stuff for well under $100 these days. DDR2-800 (PC/PC2-6400) is better if you do plan to overclock, and prices on those are coming down rapidly as well (you can find 2GB for under $100 as well if you look).
  • Video card. AGP is out, PCI Express is in. The general mid-range these days lies around the 7900GS/GT series for nVidia cards, and the x1950Pro cards for ATI; they hover around $175. DirectX 10 cards are hitting the pipeline too; nVidia has 8600GTS cards that are about comparable to the 7900GTs but cost a bit more (say, $200) and offer no real advantages for gaming—yet. Your pick as to which card you want to choose, they'll work with all motherboards out there today. If SLI/Crossfire is a consideration, picking motherboards becomes more of an issue (motherboards tend to support one but not the other) but SLI = expensive so I'll assume it's not in the cards for you.
Optional equipment, depending on the motherboard you buy:
  • Hard drives. If you buy a motherboard without IDE support, you'll almost certainly need new hard drives. Seagate 320GB drives go for about $80 nowadays.
  • Optical drives. Ditto the optical drives if you have an SATA-only motherboard. DVD writers are about $30.
Add all the required pieces up and you've got about a $600 upgrade if you decide to go whole hog. That's pretty cheap, considering you're jumping two or three generations in a single bound. But say you don't want to go quite that far. What options do you have?

Sadly, the Athlon XP/Socket A motherboard is the biggest problem. You can buy faster AGP video cards, you can buy more memory, but it's near impossible to find new Athlon XPs these days. If you're okay with buying a used one off eBay, it'll probably be a cheap upgrade, but otherwise it's not a great plan.

The other trouble is upgrading the motherboard almost certainly means entering the PCI Express era, which requires that you toss your video card and possibly your memory as well. The only way to avoid such a fate is to find a decent Socket 939 board and an old Athlon 64 x2 chip from Newegg; that way you should be able to keep your video card and memory until the next upgrade (but incidentally you'll be upgrading to almost the same system config I have).

I don't know how easy it is to find 939 boards these days, but that and an x2 939 CPU should run you under $200 if you're careful. It'll be a massive boost over your Athlon XP system but it just shifts the bottleneck to your graphics card, and it's very very hard for me to recommend you purchase components with outdated architectures like AGP and DDR1. Pursue this upgrade course at your own peril, and realize that you'll be saddling up to the trough again in a year or two as newer games burn your old system to the ground.

So, in short: bite the bullet and do the $600 upgrade if you can. If you're desperate, do the $200 upgrade to Socket 939. The games I've managed to play on my Athlon 64 3000+/Radeon 9700 Pro/2GB RAM system is impressive considering how old the 9700 Pro is, but my system is starting to run into games it can't run well at any resolution, and by purchasing the $200 upgrade you'll be putting yourself in the same situation.
posted by chrominance at 5:50 PM on May 23, 2007

How "kinda poor" are you?

NewEgg has a great deal -- at least until the end of the month -- $69.99 for an AMD-64 proc/mobo combo. The processor would be certainly speedier and more efficient than what you have, and the new mobo ... well, that's kind of just icing on the cake.

Of course, the dilemma here might be the fact that the FoxConn mobo in the combo only accepts slightly newer PCI-Express video cards ... and I'm willing to bet that your 9600 Pro is a trusty AGP model, right?
posted by grabbingsand at 5:50 PM on May 23, 2007

Oh, and I should mention that there's a third option: cheap out on current-generation upgrades. A cheap LGA775 motherboard should run you $100; an Intel E4300 should be about the same; 1GB of DDR2 should be under $50; an nVidia 7600GT should be $150 or less, and I think I've seen x1650s for even cheaper. Get yourself a Coolermaster 450W or something similarly cheap for a power supply ($50-$70—DON'T GO TOO CHEAP ON THE PSU OR YOU'LL REGRET IT) and you'll have a decent system for $450 or less that only does marginally worse than the $600 upgrade I mentioned, and puts you in a much better position for future upgrades than the $200 Socket 939 upgrade I mentioned. In fact, forget I said anything about the Socket 939 upgrade; do this instead if you're desperate.
posted by chrominance at 5:55 PM on May 23, 2007

Great answers so far. At this point I'm leaning heavily toward a lowish-end LGA775 system. Mind telling me more about the various processors available?
posted by squidlarkin at 6:23 PM on May 23, 2007

E4300/E4400 are the low-end Core 2 Duo processors at the moment. They run about as fast as the low-end E6000 series (E6320/E6420) but only have 2MB of L2 cache versus 4MB for the E6000 series. The effect on performance is sizable but relatively small, especially if you overclock the E4300 (which is apparently decently overclockable).
posted by chrominance at 6:32 PM on May 23, 2007

I saw this thread about "Gaming PCs On A Budget" on TomsHardware. It's a couple months outdated, but there's definitely some useful info in there, I think.
posted by inigo2 at 7:22 AM on May 24, 2007

Another good reference point would be, and their System Guide. They update the specs every 3-4 months, and this is the latest.

I just upgraded almost everything in my machine about 4 months ago myself -- here's my list of components:

Intel E6400 processor
Asus PB5 Deluxe motherboard
2GB DDR2 PC-5300
Geforce 7600GT 256MB video card

Cost me about $700 or so. It's certainly not cutting edge, but it can handle any current generation game that I can throw at it.
posted by Jim T at 10:37 AM on May 24, 2007

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