Simple Computer Upgrading Advice

As technology keeps moving forward and our wallets seemingly staying in the same place (or getting worse, sometimes), there are many ways to cheaply and easily upgrade your PC for the coming hot titles for PC gaming. One can go from budget gaming setup where you'll be able to play with a few bells and whistles enabled to high-end gaming where you can easily play nearly any game out there with everything turned on and at the highest resolution your monitor(s) can handle. I'm here to dispense some handy information and links in regards to upgrading in a fiscally responsible manner without sounding too condescending.



As we all know, WoW: Cataclysm is going introduce some new eye candy in its graphics engine and a lot of people are excited. The best thing is that you won't need a super high end system to get the new effects, they're just made better with a better system. However, if you're running on a computer with a built-in graphics chip (Intel, ATI, or Nvidia) that has shared memory, you're probably missing out on a lot of eye candy. This game is an absolutely beautiful game at times when you can turn everything up and see it. Did you know that you don't have to spend $200+ to get a good graphics card that you can run WoW fairly fast and not have to be stuck in low settings?

Now, to dispense with the info. I will be going over OEM computer setups (Dell, Compaq/HP, Gateway, etc.) as well as tips on building your own PC or upgrading your existing PC.

OEM Computers:

Many people have these as they’re fairly cheap and come with everything one needs with little to no hassle. Their specifications can range from low-end to high-end computing. These are great entry point PCs and are ripe for upgrading after a couple years. Most notably, many OEM computers tend to come with lackluster PSUs (Power Supply Units) ranging from 300 watts to 400 watts. For a system without a dedicated graphics card that might be okay but throwing in a dedicated graphics card, even a low-end one, you’ll probably want to bump up to at least 450-500 watts. Fortunately for you, computer components from top to bottom have a set of standards at which they must be built and conform to so that they can be inter-operable and interchangeable in nearly any system. This makes upgrading any computer fairly easy and sometimes exceedingly cheap, depending on age. Please keep reading on how you can possibly upgrade your pre-built computer.

Motherboard information:

Motherboards tend to come with a set of standard components on them depending on age of the board. Often you’ll see the following - 2-4 RAM slots, graphics card, 4 or more SATA connectors, one IDE connector, one floppy connector, 4-X USB connectors on the back, a CPU socket, 1-4 PCI-express x16 slot, 1 PCI-express 1x slot, a couple PCI slots, and a slew of other components. Some motherboards may only have DDR, DDR2, or DDR3 memory and the CPU socket will only work with certain types. Coming from a pre-built computer and it’s age, it could be very limited in its range of available upgrades (especially Intel boards). The sad fact is this – as components age they can become more expensive due to production being lowered or halted in favor of the new technology. Often, they are not backwards compatible. You can’t put DDR memory in a DDR2 slot or DDR2 memory in a DDR3 slot and expect them to work. CPU sockets can be less forgiving – AMD’s AM/AM2/AM2+/AM3 socket design is forward/backwards compatible to a degree whereas none of Intel’s LGA sockets are compatible with each other. Of course, read up on specifics to the components you plan on buying or simply asking questions here or any techies you know. Tom’s hardware has put up a very informative article on motherboards for beginners that is a very good read, should you feel interested.

http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/best-motherboard-guide,2546.html

Notable and preferred motherboard manufacturers – ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI, and BioStar. There are many, many motherboard manufacturers out there with offerings from low to high. I’ve personally found the above four to be exemplary in their build quality and their prices vs. features. I’ve been a long-time fan of ASUS’s hardware offerings from motherboards to monitors since they offer great quality products at very affordable prices.

PSU section:

Unfortunately, PSUs in system builds are often the part where people start getting really, really cheap and go for the cheapest, most off-brand PSU they can find. Because power is power, right? No, not exactly. Many of the cheapest PSUs (or even cheaper components in general) are made with lower quality materials that result in lesser power efficiency, stability, and output. Output is particularly where you want to look when shopping for a good PSU. All PSUs have a little label on the box that states its power output on the various connectors it has. Most everything is usually the same except the 12 volt rails, which are often used for the PCI-express power connectors. At least 15 amps on a single +12 volt rail will usually suffice. The more power, the better is the general consensus. Sometimes when looking at a PSU’s output specs it will have something like “+12V@60A” and you’ll need to look how many +12V rails it has (PCI-express connectors) and then divide the amps by that to get the single rail amperage. For some video cards, you’ll need more than one connector to give the card power. Thankfully, most cards come with a molex (4-pin flat connector) to PCI-express changer in the box. As a general baseline, I honestly wouldn’t use less than a 500W in a system for maximum power stability.

CPU section:

Many games are highly CPU intensive as opposed to graphics. If you have a great graphics card but a crappy CPU, you will see a huge performance bottleneck. There are many resources to finding the best CPU for your budget. Fortunately, Tom's Hardware puts out a monthly article for the best gaming CPUs for the money. It’s an easy to read article with price points, information, and anything you’d need to make a good decision on a new CPU that you can afford.

http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/best-gaming-cpu-core-i5-athlon-ii,2675.html (July 2010)

Dual-core vs. Quad/Six-core debate – dual-core CPUs can and are fairly cheap, this is a fact. It makes them very attractive from a price point. They tend to come in higher MHz/GHz than quad-cores, as well. Some can even be massively overclocked with little to no cooling problems. That has a lot of merit to it. However, they can easily get bogged down with modern applications. Many games, including WoW, are now multi-core sensitive and will gladly take advantage of your extra cores to boost performance. WoW, for example, will use up to three cores now and can even be set to use more through the use of the processAffinity cvar. The main draw of quad-cores comes in not in their MHz/GHz but in their multi-tasking ability. You can have a game/program use three of your cores and have a single core available for use to do other tasks without harming performance. To many, including myself, this is a boon as it allows faster transitioning from games/programs to others without slowing everything down to a crawl. I often listen to music or watch videos while playing WoW, for example. On a dual-core system my system’s performance could very well be lessened by either of those but on a quad-core system it isn’t affected.

Often, quad-core CPUs come in lower clock speeds (MHz/GHz) than dual-cores but it’s really like comparing apples and oranges. Clock speeds are no longer the single measure to consider when purchasing a CPU. The most important, in my opinion, is usually the L2/L3 cache sizes and FSB/HyperTransport speeds. Clock speeds are easily altered these days and cannot be compared when you’re comparing AMD processors and Intel processors as they use different math to calculate clock speeds. I personally prefer quad-cores for their multi-tasking abilities. Six cores, right now, seem to be a bit overkill unless your'e doing high-end video and 3D rendering where the programs will take advantage of your CPU.

Unlocked Multiplier/Black Edition CPUs - these processors offer an unlocked clock multiplier which enables an easier and safer way to overclock your CPU. They often cost more than the normal version of the very same CPU. Unless you plan on overclocking or you just like having all of the features, you shouldn't buy these to save money.

GPU section:

As stated above, games can be very CPU intensive. However, having a powerful GPU coupled with a powerful CPU only makes things even better on the eye candy bit. Many games are more optimized to run things on the GPU than the CPU. The better the graphics card, the better your performance in 3D games, so long as you have a good system behind the card. Graphics cards have recently been making cards that appeal to the high-end gamer/PC enthusiast market to the low-end casual gamer/PC user market. That has brought the price point of a lot of graphics cards down to very affordable prices, sometimes sub-$50 for a decent card! Tom’s hardware also does a monthly article for the best GPU for your buck that is very informative.

http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/gaming-radeon-hd-geforce-gtx,2676.html

Keeping your graphics card drivers updated is also a fairly smart thing to do as they can offer performance gains, bug fixes, crash fixes, and new technologies. See the helpful links section for support pages.

RAM section:

RAM is a very debatable topic as there can be a lot to making a decision when purchasing RAM, so here’s some general info.

DDR – depending on the age of your computer, it could very well have DDR or DDR2. Since DDR3 is in full swing now, the prices on DDR1 and DDR2 memory prices have gone up significantly higher than they were a year ago. DDR3 prices are falling at a fairly consistent rate.

When buying new RAM, you need to know what kind your motherboard can use as well as the speeds it will handle. There’s usually a PCXXXX number attached to a piece of memory or a clock rate (MHz). Making sure you don’t buy something too fast for your motherboard isn’t a huge deal as most motherboards will clock down RAM that’s too fast for it but you’re essentially wasting money doing so. Why pay for performance that you’re not going to get?

Timings/Latency – this is, usually, a set of four numbers (X-X-X-X) that determine the rate at which commands and data are run through your memory. Better memory usually has lower numbers. The number most people worry about is the CAS latency. The lower your CAS latency the faster commands are processed. Some boards can (rarely) have a problem with a CAS latency being too low.

Notable brands - OCZ, Corsair, Patriot, Kingston. Any of their memory lines are okay. Avoiding their "Value" lines is recommended but they are very attractive buys due to their price vs. feature.

Helpful links:

Put your component model or Support Tag in the fields on these pages. Support tags are usually found on front, top, side, or back of your PC or even the System window in Windows [Control Panel -> System]. You can find your system’s specifications and know what exactly you can easily upgrade without doing a complete overhaul.

Dell Support page - http://support.dell.com/
HP/Compaq Support page - http://h10025.www1.hp.com/ewfrf/wc/siteHome?lc=en&dlc=en&cc=us
Gateway Support page - http://support.gateway.com/support/default.aspx
Lenovo Support page - http://support.lenovo.com/select.html
eMachines Support page - http://support.emachines.com/em/driver/
Sony Support page- http://esupport.sony.com/perl/select-system.pl?PRODTYPE=1,24,26,66,9,70,5,72
ASUS Support page - http://support.asus.com/
NVIDIA drivers page – http://www.nvidia.com/Download/index.aspx?lang=en-us
AMD/ATI drivers page – http://game.amd.com/us-en/drivers_catalyst.aspx
Intel drivers page - http://downloadcenter.intel.com/default.aspx?iid=gg_support-EN_01+home_downloadctr

Purchasing sites:

http://www.newegg.com
http://www.newegg.ca
http://www.tigerdirect.com
http://www.pricewatch.com

I’m not overly familiar with international sites since I live in the U.S. so if anyone can give me some good sites that ship internationally and are reliable, I’d be glad to add them to the list.

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