Upgrading a video card vs. upgrading a CPU for gaming?
February 9, 2008 9:06 PM   Subscribe

I just got a relatively new PC secondhand. What should I upgrade first in order to most successfully play games?

I just inherited a custom-built box that's got some really decent parts in it. Basically I'm wanting to play some of the more current games out there and try to do it as cheaply as possible. I don't necessarily need to run these games at the highest settings, but I'd like some eye candy along with a good clip.

Here are the current machine specs:

-Celeron D 3.06 GHz
-nVidia GeForce 7300 GS (PCIe)
-Generic Intel motherboard (sorry, don't have the exact model right in front of me...)

So I'm looking around online and I found a pretty sweet deal on a GeForce 8600GT (256MB GDDR3), which from what I can tell is a pretty good card.

Then, of course, we're dealing with that Celeron processor. I'd like to get a Core 2 Duo in there, but it would cost me almost twice what the video card would to get the one I want.

I'm going to be able to upgrade both relatively quickly, but my question is this: which of those two components is going to be the best option to upgrade first in order to see the biggest performance boost for gaming? I'm thinking the video card, but some friends are convincing me that whatever video card I get above what I have is going to be severely bottlenecked by the Celeron.

Help me, AskMeFi!

(P.S. Suggestions on components and/or deals are also welcome.)
posted by joshrholloway to Computers & Internet (18 answers total)
Yiiiiikes, get that processor OUT of there. An upgraded video card will do you nothing if you're sitting there chugging along with a Celeron. It's possible that the board your Celeron is on won't play nice with a Core 2 Duo processor, though - I'm not particularly up on Intel socketing. Upgrading the board might mean your memory doesn't get along, too, so be careful there. You're probably fine with DDR2, though.

In any case, the 7300 isn't a fabulous card, but even it's probably being held back by a Celeron processor. The 8600 would so ridiculously outperform the rest of your system that you wouldn't see the vast majority of the improvement it can really offer you. Processor first, hands down.
posted by Rallon at 9:25 PM on February 9, 2008

Rallon is right, a CPU upgrade would be best. But to know what the best CPU your computer can handle we need more info on the motherboard. At least find out what socket it holds. After that worry about the video card and the RAM. What's your budget? For the video card, I'd recommend a 8800GT and adding 1GB of RAM. DDR2 memory is very cheap.
posted by mand0 at 9:53 PM on February 9, 2008

The 3.06 Celeron D came in Socket 478 and Socket 775 versions. Depending on the Front Side Bus speed of your motherboard (check the manual), you should be able to upgrade to at least an equivalent speed of the regular Pentium 4 and possibly a Pentium 4 Extreme. There's still hope.

Socket 775
Socket 478
posted by rhizome at 10:19 PM on February 9, 2008

Yeah definitely upgrade the processor. The LGA 775 socket is very common; even the new quad-core cpus use it. Maybe add another GB of ram. The video card is still pretty good, and the fact that it's PCIe is great, since you'll be able to upgrade to pretty much anything in the near future.
posted by fvox13 at 11:12 PM on February 9, 2008

P4 Extreme along with an 8800 is kinda a waste. I'd go with a budget C2D board, a low-end c2d, salvage the memory, and buy a 7900gs card for now for about the same amount of money. Then next time you have money you should buy 1 more gig of ram and the 8800 when its 50% cheaper.

Or just buy a cheap 7900 card and buy a new PC next time you have money. That machine you have is pretty worthless if it cant do c2d. Pumping more money into a dead platform and a slightly faster p4 is really a waste of both your time and money. Hell, there's nothing wrong with a celeron, execpt you have slightly smaller cache. Blowing almost 100 dollars for a p4 of almost the same clockspeed is just stupid. Save up for a new rig or do what I suggested in the first paragraph.

Also its worth noting that your rig with a 7900gs and 1gig more of ram is still a pretty nice setup for modern games. Sure, for some games you may have to switch for medium-high to medium, but that doesnt seem worth 400 dollars to me.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:13 PM on February 9, 2008

For what its worth... I have a 775pin Pentium4 @ 3.8ghz (single core, but Hyperthreaded) and a Radeon X1900 512meg video card.

Wont play Half-Life 2 worth a damn. I posted to the HL2 forums asking if buying a new video card would help me.. .and users there replied that my video card wasnt the problem, that the bottleneck was my CPU and I'd be advised to upgrade my system to a Core2 or better.

At the time I also needed a new laptop.. so I decided to leave my desktop as it is and buy a new Macbook Pro. (glad I did that) ... and use my desktop for normal stuff for as long as I can (another year or two) before completely upgrading/replacing it.
posted by jmnugent at 11:37 PM on February 9, 2008

Exactly what games do you want to run? I mean, if you're talking about just cranking up Civ 4 then you're probably good to go. If you want Bioshock with all the goodies on, then you essentially need another machine.

Most games out there have recommended hardware. Check the publisher's website.

Before you do anything figure out what type of motherboard you have, and what CPUs and RAM it will support. Then you'll know what you're working with.

Off the bat I'd say add another gig of ram. That will certainly make a big improvement in Windows performance.

Otherwise you're looking at a new motherboard, dual-core cpu, and probably a new video card. That shouldn't be too expensive to get you into a core-duo or dual core AMD setup, using your current ram. You can also sell your old parts on Craig's List or eBay and recoup a little bit of the investment.
posted by wfrgms at 11:57 PM on February 9, 2008

that card is so basic that I have my doubts that you are CPU-bound, even with that poor CPU.
posted by Good Brain at 12:29 AM on February 10, 2008

Knowing the motherboard would help. Look at it and note the markings: they should tell you all you need.
posted by alexei at 1:42 AM on February 10, 2008

Before you start swapping parts out, you need to know the capabilities of the motherboard. Even assuming it's a socket 775 motherboard, there are a number of compatibility issues.

Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Quad, celerons and P4s all come in socket 775 form factors. However, most motherboards won't support a core 2 quad, and quite a lot won't support a core 2 duo either, especially if it was an old one. At the very least you need to find the model type printed on the board itself, and look up the cpu compatibility list on the manufacturers website. Intel chipsets are used by any number of different companies.

If it's an intel 965 or 975X chipset, it may support a core 2 duo. If it's a P31, P35 chipset, it will. If it's a 915 or 945, you're almost certainly out of luck. If it's an 845 chipset, you're definitely boned.

Similarly, with the graphics card; you'll need pci-e x8 support or better in a pci-e x16 slot to support a 8600gt or 8800gt (both are good cards; the new 8800gt's have a huge amount of bang per buck)

If the PC was built as a basic desk pc, it may well have a lower quality power supply in there; decent clean power is key to a stable gaming rig. You don't need mega-wattage unlike popular opinion, a decent 450-500W is plenty. A cheap 300W supply probably won't be.

As someone that's been in the PC gaming business for far too long, and is pretty much now abandoning it - PC gaming is very expensive. You buy stuff, and it becomes obsolete so very fast. The gaming PC you build now is utterly incapable within 2 years.

The short answer is you need to upgrade your cpu AND your graphics card. BOTH are useless for gaming (unless it's solitaire), and will bottleneck the other. If you've got an older motherboard chipset, you'll probably need to replace that also. You also need an extra GB of RAM, but decent 667 or 800 DDR2 is rediciously cheap atm, so that's not a problem. Your PSU may not be up the rigours of new gear also.

If you do need to buy a new motherboard, cpu and graphics card together, get yourself a high end AMD X2 + board bundle. They are definitely cheap for the performance in the midrange, compared to Core 2's. Stick to nvidia for graphics, they are still kicking ati's ass on bang for buck.
posted by ArkhanJG at 1:49 AM on February 10, 2008

I should say though, if you can afford it, a good core 2 (e6600 or better) is a great CPU, and they are faster than AMD at the mid-high to high end.
posted by ArkhanJG at 1:54 AM on February 10, 2008

Wont play Half-Life 2 worth a damn..... so I decided to leave my desktop as it is and buy a new Macbook Pro

Jmnugent, you're playing Half-Life 2 on a MacBook Pro?

On-topic, I'll endorse what most people here have said in a stronger way: if you want a games PC, you're best off salvaging the HD, RAM, optical drive, case, and maybe motherboard, and replacing the processor and video card at the same time.

If you shop around, a bare-bones replacement PC might be cheaper, too.
posted by rokusan at 7:56 AM on February 10, 2008

Celeron D 3.06 GHz
nVidia GeForce 7300 GS (PCIe)

1GB DDR2 SDRAM «← Your biggest problem.
Generic Intel motherboard

With only a gig of RAM, your system is going to be thrashing about in swap-land. That means hard drive access. Hard drive access is a couple orders of magnitude slower than RAM access. Of all the options you have, this is the cheapest and (IMHO) most direct way of seeing instant results. You can get two gigs of ram for $35 these days. Personally, I'd ditch whatever RAM you've already got and get 4 gigs of matched RAM. Like this (or this if your MB can't support 2 gig sticks).

Next up would be a new processor. But see how much the extra RAM helps you out first.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:22 AM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

1GB of RAM isn't a problem at all. I only have 1.25GB in my gaming PC and I can run Unreal Tournament 3 at full at 2560x1600!

It's the CPU and graphics card that are the problems here. If you're sticking to low resolutions, the CPU /far/ more than the graphics card.. if you're going to be hitting high resolutions, then the CPU is still /just/ more important given how poor that Celeron is.

The ideal trade off for the least money would be to get up to any current generation dual core (even one of those non-Core Duo Intel ones! or even a cheap Athlon X2 3800 or higher) and an ATI Radeon 3850 (far cheaper than the 8800GT but only about 10~20% slower). Unfortunately you might be looking at a motherboard change too though..
posted by wackybrit at 9:43 AM on February 10, 2008

It's a lot cheaper to stay off the cutting edge. Why not play older games that run perfectly fine on that hardware? Or get a console, which inevitably have a longer life-cycle than a high-end gaming PC. And if the latter is what you want, no sense trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
posted by 6550 at 11:38 AM on February 10, 2008

I only have 1.25GB in my gaming PC and I can run Unreal Tournament 3 at full at 2560x1600!

That's because you're playing Unreal Tournament.

But yeah, that makes total sense. Go drop a couple hundred on a new CPU. And a new motherboard that supports the new CPU. And a new graphics card for the new motherboard. And... oh yeah, more RAM, which you'll need anyway because the RAM you've got won't work with the new CPU and new motherboard.

Or, you know, you could just get the RAM first (just make sure you get the faster RAM that will work in the faster system) and try that out first.

No, no, that's crazy-talk. Listen to wackybrit.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:23 PM on February 11, 2008

Your bottleneck is clearly the graphics card.
Second is CPU (which is usually overrated, most games I play will never use 100% of my mediocre E6400, or even one core...), third RAM. 1 GB is probably okay for most games. As already mentioned please do check your mainboard for the socket type before upgrading. Maybe you will need a bios upgrade too. Most mainboards can be troublesome if upgraded with a CPU that wasn't available at release. A bios upgrade will make sure the board is aware of all necessary settings of a new CPU.

I second most of what ArkhanJG said: Socket types, bios upgrades, and power requirements (important! check the PSU!) may make it pointless to upgrade anyway, or you'll end up replacing every component in the end. It's not as easy as taking one component out and putting another in.
posted by Nightwind at 3:10 AM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

That's because you're playing Unreal Tournament.

No. Unreal Tournament 3. Unreal Tournament 3 is a pretty demanding game. Okay, it's not quite at Crysis level, but it still needs a beefy video card. With a 6800 Ultra it barely moved on the same hardware. Changing the video card resolved it all. Memory is so unimportant for gaming beyond a gig right now, unless you're running Vista. If you don't want to admit that, fine, but don't poo-poo more informed answers.

Or, you know, you could just get the RAM first (just make sure you get the faster RAM that will work in the faster system) and try that out first.

No, no, that's crazy-talk. Listen to wackybrit.

Just wanted to highlight that there's a little bit of text just below where you typed your response. It says: "Wisecracks don't help people find answers. Thanks."
posted by wackybrit at 4:55 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

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