Top Upgrades For The Cash-Strapped PC Gamer

pc_thing.jpgWe're a great deal savvier than we used to be about PC hardware. No longer are the insides of a computer scary - merely dark and, depending on how neat you are, dusty. Sure, you might scratch yourself on a sharp piece of metal, or procure a burn from a toasty heatsink, but any gamer who's owned a system longer than five years has earned his licence to fly solo in the bowels of his silicon beast.

Titles such as Crysis have raised awareness of Direct3D 10, while Supreme Commander proved that dual and quad core processors have a place in the motherboard of the average gamer.

It's a shame then that it's become progressively harder to identify which graphics cards or processors are better, thanks to the irrelevancy of megahertz and esoteric product names packed with hyperbole. Is an Intel E6600 better than a Q6600, because E comes first in the alphabet? Shouldn't a GeForce 9600GT be faster than an 8800GT by the difference of 800 "whatevers" in its name? The answer would be "no" in both cases.

I recently made a few purchases for my brother, whose AMD-based system finally decided that being a working PC wasn't hip any more. As part of the process, I had to put together a few parts that would serve him for the next few years, but wouldn't leave him scrounging his pocket lint for food money.

Anyway, hit the jump for my recommendations.Note: For this guide, I'm going to assume no overclocking (running components faster than they're rated for), and a preference for future-proofing.

CPU Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 3GHz Cheapest price: $199 Paired with: GA-X38-DS4 ($216, Crossfire), EVGA 750i ($241, SLI) or GA-P31-DS3 ($86, single card).

It's difficult to find single core CPU these days. But then, why would you want one? The benefits of a dual core processor for games and day-to-day tasks are hard to ignore. Even World of Warcraft, arguably the most popular game played today with minimal hardware demands, was recently optimised for multi-core processors.

The E8400 provides a good compromise between price and performance. For $200, you get 3GHz, two cores and a 45nm architecture. In simple terms, it runs cool and fast. By comparison the next CPU up, the E8500, is $100 more, yet provides only a few frames per second extra in most benchmarks.

Alternatives Intel Core 2 Duo E4600: You should only pick this up if you really have no money to spend on hardware. At its cheapest, it retails for around $125, but, at 2.4GHz and with only 2MB of cache, it's not going to future-proof your PC at all. At best, it'll run current games decently, when paired with a powerful graphics card.

Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600: If two cores are not enough, you could always go with four. Intel's Q6600 is not only cheap at $200, but it'll make rendering videos and encoding audio a breeze - if you're into that sort of thing. It's getting long in the tooth these days, with the Q9300 looking to take its place as the discount quad core chip. Overclockers, make sure you get the SLACR or G0-stepping, as it runs cooler than the B3.

Why no AMD processors?: Before you say it, no, I'm not an Intel fan boy. The Q6600 CPU I run in my current machine is the first Intel chip I've had. Ever. Before that, it was Athlon all the way. Sadly, while AMD has improved its position with its latest round of Phenom CPUs, it still has some ground to cover before it can compete with Intel on both price and performance. I'd recommend keeping your ear to the ground if you're particularly keen on AMD.

A note on motherboards: If you don't plan to overclock or use dual-graphics cards, then you don't need to speed more than $100 on a motherboard. However, if you do plan to run things hotter or have an SLI/Crossfire setup, you'll have to spend around $200 - you cannot go past quality parts.

Video card AMD Radeon HD 4850 Cheapest price: $212

AMD came out of nowhere with the 4000-series - in particular, the Radeon 4850. In both Call of Duty 4 and Bioshock the 4850 stays close to the high-end cards. Its price fluctuates greatly from store to store, but the intelligent buyer should be able to scoop one up for less than $230. It's successfully displaced NVIDIA's 8800GT as the price/performance king, and looks to stay there until NVIDIA can retaliate.

Alternatives NVIDIA GeForce 9600GT: At $140, the 9600 is a powerful little card for gamers with modest demands. It competes well with NVIDIA's 8800, and if titles such as Crysis and Assassin's Creed don't see regular play on your PC, then it'll do fine. Just don't expect it to cope with shader-heavy releases - basically, any game coming out in the next 12 months.

If you have a piece of hardware you'd like to recommend, post about it here!


Comments

    It looks like the link you gave for the ATI HD4850 refers to a NVIDIA 8800GT which is prices at the $188.35.

    The cheepest price for a HD4850 would be at Online Computer for $209. http://www.onlinecomputer.com.au/index.php?cPath=54_57

    www.staticice.com.au and www.pricespy.com.au is your friend.

    @Baeen: Actually, StaticIce is what I used to get the prices. Just looks like I mixed the links up. All fixed now.

    Good choices there, Logan. However, I have to say that those are somewhat no-brainers in terms of value for money.

    What did you do for RAM? Did you go high quality 2gb, or the cheap 4gb bundles that are everywhere at the moment?

    @tsengan: No-brainers for some, but not others! Like I said, they were choices I made for my brother who, while an avid PC gamer, wouldn't know the first thing about buying a new CPU or video card. I also think many are unaware how far AMD has come with its video cards in recent months.

    For RAM, I think 2GB is still the best bet. If you don't plan on overclocking, go with something like Corsair's Value series. That way you can be confident the RAM will be quality and inexpensive, without the risk you take with brands like A-Data.

    A really good tip that a lot of people tend to neglect when they're building systems is to get a high-efficiency power supply. A good one will reduce the actual power consumption by minimising wastage, slightly reduce the amount of heat and noise produced by your silicon behemoth, smooth out spikes and drops in power, and as a result increase the life of the components in the system. Our power where we are is very prone to surges, dropouts and brownouts. I used to have a bog-standard Antec PSU and the slightest voltage drop would offline the machine. My current machine using an efficient Seasonic PSU just shrugs that off - it takes at least a few seconds of complete power loss to knock it out. Nice to have, especially if you don't have a UPS.

    @Logan: What? Not everyone reads Kotaku/Tomshardware/Anand/Gizmodo/etc every day? I'm shocked. Shocked I say.
    One question - what's the total budget? Is it a whole system overhaul (case/PSU etc)

    @tsengan: Amazing, I know. ;)

    Getting a quality PSU is definitely good advice. As long as it's around $100 and 500W, you should be right.

    As for budget, I didn't really set one for this. I just selected the parts that provide the best performance for the price. However, you can get the meat of a good PC for ~$500, including a CPU, motherboard, PSU, case and video card.

    The reason I focused on CPU and GPU is because they impact performance the most and are probably the most confusing parts to buy. RAM can have an influence, but it's easy to find the cheapest 1GB "Value" sticks of Corsair/OCZ/Geil/etc and just whack them in. Very hard to recommend one over another.

    I just put some money down for a new 8800GT and I used Shopbot.com.au to compare prices from a range of Aussie online stores. There's some great prices out there!

    FYI, the Gigabyte EX38-DS4 Mobo is indeed crossfire compatible, but it is NOT Sli compatible. Just because it has 2 x16 PCIE slots, doesn't mean it is Sli supported.

    @fairplay: Good point: I've added an EVGA 750i as the SLI option.

    I just got the Intel E7200. It's a new Wolfdale based chip that easily overclocks to 3.8 ghz, and it's only $130. With my 8899 gts 512 and 4 gb of ram it runs AOC maxed at over 50 fps. (usually over 80fps)

    An identical system to what I'm looking at upgrading to. It was going to contain a 8880GT, but with ATI dropping the 4850 at a very attractive price point I think my transition to the 'dark side' of PC hardware will be complete (Also using my first Intel CPU after having many AMD systems previously).

    Yeah, The last 2 systems i had where AMD but i am going Intel this time round, i pretty much got what u put.... E8400, 4GB DDR2 800, 550 psu and a cheep asrock mobo, I have an 8800GT already ( got as soon as it came out). A good thing to look for when buying new computer parts is Benchmarks. Google the Part with benchmark added to the end of it and see how it stands up against other models. Shoppingsquare.com and Megabuy.com are goI ordered mod sites. y stuff on Thursday and It was send out saturday and monday.

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