possible upgrades for an old computer
January 21, 2008 10:21 AM   Subscribe

Potential upgrades to my aging desktop system- some advice from geeks would be greatly appreciated.

I'm planning to do a few upgrades to my 2002-ish Dell Dimension desktop system. The processor is a P4 2.0gHZ, and the system has 512MB of PC3200 RAM with a Radeon 9200 for a video card. I can provide an update on system specs later tonight if anybody has questions about something.

Now my primary use for this system is for playing World of Warcraft, which is not especially system intensive. Nonetheless, the game does run sub-optimally on my sub-optimal system- I don't need the graphics to look jaw dropping, but as you might imagine getting 2-5 FPS in Shattrath is brutal and slows me down a lot. My network connection is fine, so I think it's the RAM/video card that is having the biggest impact at this point, so that's what I intend to upgrade.

I'm probably going to buy a new computer at some point in the next year, but I can comfortably spend around $100 on upgrades just to get me over the hump.

First question: A co-worker has offered to give me some old DDR RAM sticks he has no use for, but they're PC2700 instead of PC3200. He's offering to give me 1GB of RAM, though- is the 1GB of PC2700 going to be faster than 512k of 3200? I imagine it would, but I really have no idea. Also, can I mix chips with different speeds, or will putting a PC2700 chip in my board make the 3200 run at 2700?

Second question: My Radeon 9200 video card is an antiquated joke at best. I'm looking at 512MB video cards on eBay and it looks like I can get one for about $60- the thing is, given that my system is somewhat older, I'm not sure if I'd be able to take full advantage of a 512MB video card. If I upgrade my RAM to 1GB will I be able to take advantage of the 512MB card, or is my comp too old/underpowered to utilize one, making it more efficient to buy a 256MB card?

Thanks!
posted by baphomet to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
You best bet is a memory upgrade. More, slightly slower memory is better than lesser, slight faster memory. Take your co-worker up on his offer.

Getting to 2GB RAM would be optimal.

Get the best video card you can afford for WoW performance. Even if other parts (CPU or RAM ) limit performance, your frame rate will be much better. Be sure to consider the card slot type ou have available in your computer (PCI, AGP, PCI Express) before you upgrade. Video card slots are not all the same.


Here is the Sharky Guide to Value Gaming which I find useful in looking at upgrades & new systems.
posted by Argyle at 10:29 AM on January 21, 2008


In a nutshell:

1) Despite being technically slower, it's likely that your gaming performance will benefit from having 1gb of RAM. Mixing speeds of RAM will make everything run at the speed of the slowest chip, but that's not likely to be a big deal either, especially if it gets you a total of 1.5gb (which it sounds like it would).

2) The amount of RAM in your computer has no bearing on or relationship to the RAM in your video card. You can mix them however you want. An upgraded video card will probably help WoW's performance as well, though my (admittedly light) understanding of the game is that RAM has a greater effect on performance.

All video cards are not created equal, by the way. Find out if you currently have a PCI or AGP video card, and be sure you replace it with the same type -- the physical connectors are different. Actually, any PC can use a PCI card, but if you have AGP, you'll want to keep using AGP. And don't be confused by "PCI Express" or "PCIe" -- it's a new standard which is not at all compatible with PCI.
posted by CrayDrygu at 10:32 AM on January 21, 2008


The video card I have is AGP. Thanks for the info!
posted by baphomet at 10:41 AM on January 21, 2008


More system ram will definitely help. I'm not sure you need to spend the money on a vid card with 512 if the chip isn't good. You'd be better off with a newer chip than a whole bunch of ram on the card. I run some pretty intense games on a 2ghz athlon with 1 gig ram (3200) and a 6600GT with only 128 mb ram. The Sharky link that argyle posted along with Sharky's Video Card Price Guide are good references to what you should be paying.

Also if you are planning on upgrading to a new system later this year, you are probably looking at some significant architecture changes (PCIe as noted above, SATA, DDR2) that you do not have in your current system. Whatever you buy for the old one probably will not be useful in your new one.
posted by Big_B at 10:45 AM on January 21, 2008


I found playing WoW with less than 2GB of RAM unpleasant, though you might be able to get by with 1GB if you don't load a lot of addons. I had a 6800GT with 256MB of RAM and was able to get 30fps or greater just about everywhere so you shouldn't have to go particularly high end on your video card.
posted by pombe at 11:03 AM on January 21, 2008


WoW is a memory hog, relatively speaking. A gig will help load times and those irritating freezes, but not nearly as much for framerate as a better vidcard. It's getting harder and harder to find decently priced AGP cards at retail, but if you're willing to take a risk on a used card, something along the lines of a Radeon 9800 or a GeForce 6600 will make a _big_ difference and can probably be found cheap on craigslist or ebay. Look at the performance of the individual card though - There are a lot of models out there, and a lot of variations. Also seconding Big_B. Anything you buy now will be useless once you upgrade your mobo and proc.
posted by Capostrophe at 11:06 AM on January 21, 2008


nthing more RAM. You're off the 'incremental upgrade path', meaning that you'd need mobo+CPU+new RAM+PCIe video (i.e. the guts of a new PC) for substantial benefits. More RAM is the best bang/buck choice: don't bother with a replacement AGP card unless you can get it cheap -- Freecycle/Craigslist cheap, because you are buying into obsolescence, and it's going to be a cheap sell-on or tax-writeoff donation when you make the big upgrade.

You should be able to mix and match DDR RAM at various speeds, but some motherboards can be finicky, and you may need a BIOS update.

(I'm getting decent performance for non-FPS games out of a Radeon 9600 on an old Athlon XP, w/ 1gig RAM.)
posted by holgate at 11:25 AM on January 21, 2008


Max out the RAM with your coworker's offer, then max out the video card. Since you have AGP and I went through a similar shopping task about a year ago, I'm going to tell you to get a GeForce 7600 GS (~$100) or GT (~$150). This is pretty much the last, best AGP video card, so you can rest easy knowing you won't have to upgrade the video card in this machine anymore. :)

Depending on which Dell model you have you may be able to upgrade the CPU as well. That'd be an additional expense, but it's also the only thing remaining unless you're going to get a PCI SATA card and switch all of your hard drives to newer technology. Since you're buying soon, this is probably overkill, but if you want to save money for your next system a little longer you could probably put an extra year on this machine with ~$2-300 in upgrades. For instance, a 2GB DDR3200 upgrade kit is $130.
posted by rhizome at 12:23 PM on January 21, 2008


Knowing you have an AGP narrows the choices.

Here is the Newegg page on AGP video cards, you can drill down your search from there.

Also, you can pick up 2GB of PC3200 RAM for just under $100.

Good luck!
posted by Argyle at 12:48 PM on January 21, 2008


Thanks for the answers everybody! Unfortunately I bought this PC on the cusp of the development of certain now-crucial features (like hyperthreading, USB2.0, Dual Channel RAM/DDR2 RAM, etc)., which was kind of a bummer when I initially started looking into upgrading it, but as per the recommendations of this thread I'm going to prioritize more RAM over a more expensive graphics card. I just want to throw some money at it for the short term so I can stop beating my head against a wall every time I cross a load line and generally get better performance. When I buy the upgraded tower it's going to be dual core, 3GB RAM, the whole bloody deal!
posted by baphomet at 12:50 PM on January 21, 2008


Just in case you do decide to upgrade your video card, make sure that your power supply has enough oomph to power it. Most of the newer AGP cards will require more power than your puny Dell power supply can provide. Upgrading a Dell proprietary power supply is an expensive proposition. I know because I've been there and done that.
posted by shinybeast at 1:08 PM on January 21, 2008


You can run Aida32 to get detailed information about all aspects of your system configuration.

You CPU is sucky. As in, slower than the fastest PIIIs type sucky, blame intel's marketing driven R&D. Still serviceable for most tasks, of course...

Memory upgrade, as everyone is saying. You need to know how many memory slots you have, if you only have two slots the upgrade will be a hassle. Most of the time, DDR modules of different speeds cooperate pretty well, falling back to the slowest, or sometimes overclocking, depending on settings and etc.

A video upgrade will help too, but you have to be careful not to put too many dollars into this project, it just isn't worth it. Don't buy a new AGP card, desirable obsolete hardware commands a price premium on the retail market. Instead, head over to one of the BST forums (2cpu, ars, [H])and put a Wanted post up telling them what you've told us (well, wait till we know your entire system spec, and you only need to tell them the motherboard/chipset information). There will be a few people looking for a sucker, but there will be some reasonable offers too, and you can always check against ebay or come back here to see if you are getting a reasonable price.

Also, I've heard that WoW likes nVidea much better than ATI.
posted by Chuckles at 1:44 PM on January 21, 2008


I bought this PC on the cusp of the development of certain now-crucial features

Well, it is always the cusp of new features :)    Be glad you didn't get stuck with RD RAM, that stuff costs a fortune, and it wasn't entirely uncommon in systems of your vintage. DDR was a standard for a long time, which is why you have a friend who can donate some. My impression is that hyperthreading didn't give the performance improvements it was supposed to, so that is no loss. USB2 would be very nice, but a USB2 PCI card might be a good way to spend $10.

It is a complicated business..
posted by Chuckles at 1:50 PM on January 21, 2008


Some Radeon 9200 cards are *really* slow (as against just being very slow by modern standards) becuase they made them cheaper by cutting the memory bandwidth in half. My guess is that a new (cheap) video card combined with more RAM will make a big difference.
posted by pharm at 3:56 PM on January 21, 2008


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