Making a better gaming PC
February 11, 2008 6:19 PM   Subscribe

What are your recommendations for upgrades to make a more competent gaming PC?

I'm looking to upgrade my PC to make it a more competent gaming PC for the games that shall be coming out in the near future. Specifically, I want to be able to play the upcoming game Spore. I know no system req's have been posted for it, but I assume there are enough tech heads on MeFi to give me some good recommendations. I built my current PC many years ago, with the only upgrade I've done being switching out a busted video card. I don't really need to worry about disk space memory.

My system is this atm:
Windows XP Professional 5.1
AWRDACPI Motherboard (Nvidia)
AMD Athlon XP 2700, ~2.2 Ghz
512 RAM, 2X256mb sticks (I know...)
Nvidia GeFore 7800 GS (256mb AGP)

I've heard different things about Dual Core processor Mobos, different things about RAM (DDR, RDRAM, DIMMs and RIMMs, or some other things like), and expensive video cards.
Time for my bullets points of the post!

1) I'm looking for peoples experiences, preferences, and predictions.

2) I don't mind spending some money on a machine that I know will be competent for some time. I don't need crazy balls-to-the-wall high end performance on everything if it's gonna cost me a shit tonne of money.

3) Potential sources to look at for parts aside from the obvious (Pricewatch, Ebay, Craigslist,
posted by ZaneJ. to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Off the bat more RAM, can you play any game with just 512?
posted by Max Power at 6:25 PM on February 11, 2008

Everything out of The Orange Box, Homeworld 2, Oblivion all run fine on my system. HW2 does get a little taxed when there are LOTS of polygons around. The Orange Box games are all not run at top settings, either.
posted by ZaneJ. at 6:30 PM on February 11, 2008


- A dual-core processor makes an incredible difference in general computing and gaming.

- Two gigs of ram is incredibly cheap now. Don't get too mixed up in the jargon. Just about any new motherboard you buy will support DDR2 800 and that's where the price break is right now.

- Price per performance Nvidia 8600gt cards are where it's at (so I'm told - I'm still running two 7600gt cards in my SLI rig.)

Check this thread from yesterday.

And also the Ars System Guide looks good for you.
posted by wfrgms at 6:34 PM on February 11, 2008

Definitely more RAM. Get 2GB - it's too cheap not to.

Spore isn't supposed to be a very demanding game because the creatures are generated procedurally rather than from objects. If I'd venture a guess, I think all your other specs will be fine.

Order from and save yourself any headaches. eBay is so filled with scammers, it's ridiculous to even consider it.
posted by junesix at 6:36 PM on February 11, 2008

For $1000 you could build a pretty decent quad-core machine with 8GB ram and all that good stuff (64bit). If you want something a but cheaper, grab a Core2 Duo 6750 and 4GB of RAM, and optionally two hard drives in a RAID config.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:47 PM on February 11, 2008

A few more thoughts:

You're basically looking building a new core system with new motherboard, cpu, ram, and a video card. I'd say if your current video card was PCI-e then you could coast along for a while using that, but I think AGP slots are increasingly hard to find.

The question is, what do you want to spend? On a budget, AMD still has a good price per performance margin in their entry level dual core (AM2 socket) chips. Intel Core Duo 2 chips are the better performers, but you pay a little extra.

AMD has it's quad core chips out now, but off the top of my head I'm not sure what socket they support (in fact, I haven't read much about them other than their reception has been lackluster.) The goal should be to future proof your motherboard so you can run quad core cpus when they come out. The only reason I mention AMD here is because you can get into a cheap motherboard cpu combo that may support the quad core chips later on.

Tiger Direct emailed me with a Intel quad core, mobo, and 4gb of ram packaged deal the other day at $399. I'd almost go for that, but I'm kind of locked into this SLI thing at the moment and frankly I'm not at all bothered by my processor at the moment (well, that's a lie, I could always use an extra ghz.)

The only thing I'd suggest is to avoid going SLI because the mother boards are more expensive and you're basically looking at two-times the cost of upgrading your video card when the time comes. (Yeah you can run one in an sli setup, but then you've wasted money on an SLI board.) In fact the reason I'm still chugging along with my two 7600gts is because I can't justify buying into new 8600 or 8800 cards.
posted by wfrgms at 6:48 PM on February 11, 2008

RAM is the obvious quick fix. Other option is to buck up, save some cash and replace the board, but that will mean replacing everything else too. PCIe is your inevitable destination.
posted by furtive at 7:23 PM on February 11, 2008

More ram and a multi-core chip. That should solve all your problems. If it doesn't, then look at a newer video card.

I just built a dual-core 2.6ghz intel machine with an 8800 GTS and 2GB ram and it hasn't had trouble running anything so far.

Personally, I started with the monitor I wanted--the Dell 30" wide screen and worked backwards from there. Only two video card chips (one nvidia, one ati) can drive that monitor. That lead to the decision on the mother board and type of RAM.

As for processor, it's the worst place to put your money since it depreciates the fastest. But dual core is significant.
posted by jeffamaphone at 7:26 PM on February 11, 2008

Spore isn't supposed to be a very demanding game because the creatures are generated procedurally rather than from objects. If I'd venture a guess, I think all your other specs will be fine.

This actually goes against what I've heard, which is that it'll be a fairly taxing game. The fact that it's procedurally generated means that memory and CPU may be more important than they usually are, and really, they're already pretty damned important. What you need to do is upgrade your CPU.

I was where you are a few months ago. Basically, you've got a CPU that's really pretty out-of-date and the motherboard and all that stuff to go with it. What I did was start a whole new PC, because anything else you buy is not going to be good enough for your new PC when you buy it down the road. In my case, I had an AGP graphics card (new mobos don't support AGP), DDR333 RAM (for a new PC, you want something faster, and I think DDR2 RAM), and PATA optical and hard drives (you could use these with most newer mobos, AFAIK, but I didn't want to mostly for case organization reasons).

I ended up building a new machine with the following specs:
*ASUS M2A-VM for the motherboard
*Socket AM2 (I think...) AMD 64x2 at 2.5 GHz
*2 Gigs of RAM
*300 GB SATA drive
*Samsung optical drive

This ran me about $800. It runs TF2 (the main game I play) on moderate-high settings just fine. I might could have gotten it cheaper, but I went for convenience.

I'm not recommending that system, though, because that was about 6 months ago. Instead, I'm recommending you do what I did, and go check out Ars Technica's system guides. They outline 3 systems (budget, mid-tier, and high-end) and compare your options for each component.

Finally, I'd be cautious about buying anything specifically for Spore until there are at least system req.s. If you need\want a new PC anyway, go for it (I did!), but you don't want to spend a bunch of money, only to find out down the road that a) it's not coming out till next year anyway, when your hardware will be all outdated, or b) you're going to have to upgrade again when it does come out.
posted by !Jim at 7:31 PM on February 11, 2008

What monitor do you have? Specifically, what resolution are you wanting to run in? If you've got or are lusting after a 30" TFT, or are expecting to live in the land of 1024*768 for the next few years, it's handy to know.

I just upgraded from a 7950GT to an 8800GTS for running some of the heavier current games in 1600*1200, and maybe in future at 2560x1600. If I was still on my old 17" TFT I wouldn't have bothered.
posted by Freaky at 7:43 PM on February 11, 2008

You sound like me not too long ago. I went with one of the ASUS dual boards which supports both AGP and slow PCIe slot and went with a core duo 2 and used my old video card and RAM. It was cheap, but you better be comfortable with putting PCs together to pull this off. It sounds like this kind of thing might be out of your league. No offense, but what geeks dont tell you is the uncertainly of all the pins, the pain of mounting a heatsink without cracking the board, the first few bootups that dont take, etc.

If you want a cheap and easy way towards a decent gaming machine then just get yourself a dell with 2gigs of ram and a dual core processor. Spring for a 8800gts or even a cheap 7900gs and off you go. PC gaming is fairly mainstream and you only have to do homebrew if you absolutely want to.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:00 PM on February 11, 2008

My gaming PC is fairly new. I'm pretty happy with it, though it might need a processor bump now.
Motherboard: Asus P5N32-E SLI
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E6850 (3.0 GHz, FSB1333, 4 MB L2)
Ram: 2 x OCZ DDR2-800 Gold 2048MB w/ Heatpipe Cooling
Video Card: 2 x Asus GeForce 8800 Ultra 768MB
Sound Card: Creative X-Fi Extreme Gamer
Networking: Bigfoot Killer NIC M1
It has water-cooling and some other superfluous nonsense but it looks damn cool. :)
posted by travis vocino at 8:17 PM on February 11, 2008

Another point to consider: What case do you have? Depending on your budget and needs, it might be good to look at what's available now. Maybe you'd like something smaller, or quieter, or roomier, or with better cooling, or better looks, or a combination. This could also give you an opportunity to sell or reuse your older hardware more easily.

travis vocino: Killer NIC, 8800 Ultra, and a 3GHz C2D that "might need a processor bump"? You know, if you really have money to burn, dual socket systems and high end PCI-E/X cards do it better (£200 quad port PCI-X Intel GigE = "Professional", £180 Killer NIC = "roflcopters!")
posted by Freaky at 8:43 PM on February 11, 2008

Freaky: I agree. When you have money to burn, roflcopters add to the rofl though.
posted by travis vocino at 8:55 PM on February 11, 2008

I am unfamiliar with building a whole new computer from scratch. I had friends help me with the one I have now. If I where to save the hard drive from what I'm running now, would I have to reinstall my operating system?
posted by ZaneJ. at 9:11 PM on February 11, 2008

ZaneJ.: Generally it is good practice to do so but technically you wouldn't need to reinstall the OS. You would have a lot of cleaning up to do as far as updating drivers and whatnot though -- depending on how much of the machine was changed.
posted by travis vocino at 9:42 PM on February 11, 2008

Actually, I just remember the Vista system signature issues that might cause a problem with that, depending on how much of the system was replaced. I would plan on having to reinstall, yes.

Or get a Mac and just be happy :)
posted by travis vocino at 9:44 PM on February 11, 2008

Absolutely. You have to do a in-place repair install and build the HAL. No windows install is going to like a new motherboard in its place especially with a new CPU. There's no way to go from singe to dual-core without an in-place repair install either.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:46 PM on February 11, 2008

If you're committing to buying a new motherboard, cpu, video card, and ram you probably should just bite the bullet and buy a new hard as well. You can use your current drive as a back up. A fresh installation (for performance sake, I wouldn't mess with a repair install) of Windows will allow you to fully appreciate your new investment.

3.0 SATA drives are cheap and the performance is close enough that you should just pick one and forget about it.
posted by wfrgms at 10:42 PM on February 11, 2008

There's no way to go from singe to dual-core without an in-place repair install either.

That's not technically correct. I went from a single core amd athlon to an Intel duel core with a new motherboard a few months ago. Granted, Windows freaked out and I had to tweak manually the boot settings to make it work without a fresh install, but it can be done, even if it is not advisable.

To save on the processor, I would look into overclocking . I went with my e2140 processor which is stock 1.6 GHz and overclocks to 3 Ghz without breaking a sweat. It' not going to blow away any benchmarking records, but it sure does the job, especially for the price. The key is to get a decent processor cooling fan (which you can use on future upgrades) and a good motherboard which can both handle future processor upgrades and overclock the voltage and other settings automatically- all you have to do is change the multiplier and the motherboard does the rest. For this kind of stuff, I would suggest looking on Newegg and look at the high sellers to see what other people have to say. Look around long enough and you can get a general feel for a product's worth and capabilities.

For cheap hard drives, I'd go with OEMs as they're cheaper and a new motherboard comes with cables anyways. I got this sata II (3.0 Gb/s) 250gig for $55 4 months ago.

(all links are the a system I built a few months ago)
posted by jmd82 at 7:00 AM on February 12, 2008

The new HD is not a big problem, ZaneJ.

Once you get everything put together and Windows installed, etc, plug in your old HD and copy all your most precious files and whatnot over to the new one. When that's done, wipe the old drive and use it as a backup.
posted by notyou at 7:17 AM on February 12, 2008

That's not technically correct. I went from a single core amd athlon to an Intel duel core with a new motherboard a few months ago.

Really? That's interesting. Do both processors show up in the hardware manager? Do you see both in task manager? The last time I tried this I was able to get it to work but was only using one core.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:12 AM on February 12, 2008

Well jeez, after reading all this I wonder if it would be better (read: easier) to just buy a prefabed gaming machine from Alienware or some company similar. I don't have a copy the Windows disks to be able to do a fresh install, which means I'd have to ditch out even more cash. Any thoughts from anyone about those machines or other computer building companies specializing in making game machines?
posted by ZaneJ. at 11:37 AM on February 12, 2008

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