|Duh Voodoo Man's Best-Bang-for-the-Buck PC Guide
|HOW TO BUILD & TWEAK YOUR OWN SCREAMIN' MACHINE CHEAP!!
LAST UPDATE: 3/21/05
RIGHT UP FRONT-- OK, let's get a couple of things clear at the get-go:
- If you try any of the techniques described in the following article, you do so AT YOUR OWN RISK. I cannot be held responsible for problems, should they occur. Also, be aware that practices like overclocking a CPU and changing voltage settings on a motherboard, while posing little risk when done carefully, fall outside of virtually any manufacturer's warranty coverage. Consider yourself warned.
- This article is primarily aimed at novice system builders & overclockers, and covers only the basic techniques. Hardcore overclockers use substantially more involved techniques, including complicated memory timing adjustments, hardware modifications, and sophisticated cooling techniques. None of that stuff is covered here, so if you're looking for that kind of information, you can stop reading right now.
NEED BIG HORSEPOWER ON A SMALL BUDGET??
An ongoing problem for PC enthusiasts on a limited budget is trying to squeeze every drop of performance out of their system investment. While some are lucky enough to have the financial means to drop $2000 or more (sometimes MUCH more) on a new PC every couple of years, most of us are either unable or unwilling to do that. Often, this "need for speed" is driven by the intention to use the PC for 3D gaming. Without a doubt, gaming is the most prevalent "high demand" mode of PC use, and the most common reason behind system upgrading. The CPU, motherboard, memory and video subsystem are all stressed substantially by the latest 3D games, and it takes a well-balanced system to handle them smoothly. So the challenge is to come up with a PC to achieve that balance without laying down the big bucks. Wouldn't it be great if you could put together a machine that would perform on a par with all but the hottest new PC's for $625 or so? Something that would run somewhere around 18,000 on 3DMark2001, approach 6,000 on 3DMark03, and break 240fps on the UT2003 Flyby? Well, amazingly, you can....
MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU....
The nForce2, that is. As far as I'm concerned, if you're looking for substantial PC horsepower at a budget price, systems based upon the Nvidia nForce2 chipset and the AMD Athlon XP processor family are without peer. Don't get me wrong--I'm no "blind-to-the-truth" Intel hater. Far from it. I just think that if you want the most performance for the dollar, the nForce2/Athlon XP combo is without doubt the best way to go as I write this article in April 2004. There are a number of reasons why I feel so strongly that this is true:
- VALUE: Prices on mid-range Athlon XP processors and nForce2 motherboards are significantly lower than performance-equivalent P4 systems.
- MATURITY: The nForce2 chipset has been around for a while now, and the technology is well developed and refined.
- PERFORMANCE & FEATURES: In addition to being fast and stable, nForce2 motherboards incorporate a number of very desireable features, including dual-memory mode, AGP/PCI bus decoupling from the FSB, onboard sound and LAN, and more. They are widely acknowledged as the motherboards of choice with current Athlon XP systems, particularly boards with the latest "Ultra 400" chipsets.
- SELECTION: A wide variety of nForce2 motherboards are available, with virtually all the "big names" offering one or more models. These range from basic boards in the $50 - $60 range up to "loaded" models with many extra features and capabilities for up to $150. A word of caution--there are versions of the nForce2 that come with integrated graphics (a.k.a. "IGP") that you'll definitely want to stay away from for a gaming machine. The limited graphics power of these chipsets may be adequate for net surfing, e-mail and solitaire, but won't cut it for serious 3D gaming.
- OVERCLOCKABILITY: Not sure that's actually a word, but it describes the Athlon XP/nForce2 combo perfectly. Many of the nForce2 motherboards offer an extensive array of adjustable overclocking parameters, including frequencies, multipliers, voltages, memory timings, etc. Since the mobile Athlon XP processors come with adjustable clock multipliers, this gives a lot of added flexibility to optimize overclocked system performance. Also, by their nature--they are essentially "cherry-picked" processors that will reach high clockspeeds at low voltage settings for laptop use--the mobile Athlon XP's are EXCELLENT overclockers. With a bit of extra core voltage, these CPU's consistently reach 2400MHz clockspeeds and higher. THIS IS A MAJOR FACTOR IN DETERMINING THEIR "BANG FOR THE BUCK" STATUS!
That last item brings up an absolutely critical point! If you're not willing to overclock the CPU in one of these systems, you can save yourself some time and stop reading this article right now. Overclocking is a cornerstone of this "best bang for the buck" strategy, because it allows high-end performance to be obtained from a very modestly priced processor. Certainly, you can achieve this level of performance without overclocking, but you'll have to pay a bit more for a more powerful CPU. And, IMO, you won't have NEARLY as much fun doing it! But, admittedly, overclocking isn't everybody's cup of tea, so if that approach makes you uncomfortable, check out THIS PAGE for an attractively priced alternative.
PICKIN' & CHOOSIN' PARTS
So let's get down to the nitty gritty. I stated above that a very fast system could be put together for about $625, and that was no exageration. Just one point of clarification--I'm talking about the "box" itself, not external components like a monitor, speakers, mouse, keyboard, etc. So if you are literally building a complete system starting with nothing, the cost will definitely be higher, depending upon your choice of these externals. But my guess is that the majority of you reading this probably are looking to upgrade, rather than starting from scratch, and very likely have these components already.
So let's talk specifics. Here's the basic list of components I had in mind for that $625 figure. The items are shown along with a representative price available at my favorite online reseller, NewEgg.com, plus some explanation of their selection:
COMPONENT PRICE RATIONALE Mobile Athlon XP 2500+ processor $85 Unlocked clock multiplier and terrific overclocking potential for a great price. "Plain vanilla" nForce2 motherboard $55 Plenty of overclocking flexibility, but without extras like firewire and SATA RAID. 2x256MB low latency PC3200 DDR-RAM $73 Two sticks of RAM allow use of “dual channel mode” for additional memory bandwidth. Low latency boosts performance. 512MB should be plenty for most users. Good quality CPU heatsink/fan $29 Overclocking generates additional heat, so a good HSF is important here. Antec case with fan & 350W power supply $76 Nice case design with many convenience features; Athlon systems need a fair amount of power 80GB 7200rpm hard drive w/ 8MB cache $40 80GB should be plenty roomy unless you're into lots of music or video files; the 8MB cache boosts performance somewhat. A 2nd drive for additional storage is always an option. Geforce 6600GT video card $189 Best current choice for big 3D performance without breaking the bank. Combo CD/RW-DVD drive (52x32x52x16) $37 Lots of flexibility with this multifunctional drive. Some may prefer a 2nd optical drive, particularly for faster copying of CD's. A DVD burner will run you more, obviously. Floppy drive $10 Old fashioned, but still useful. I still find myself using a boot floppy occasionally! Second case fan (120mm) $17 Good case air circulation helps keep the temperatures down. BOTTOM LINE $611 A COMPLETE "BOX" WITH GREAT PERFORMANCE POTENTIAL FOR < $625!
No, I didn't forget the sound and network cards--keep in mind that those are integrated onto the nForce2 motherboard. The onboard sound even supports 6 channels! So, as promised, the total for these components comes in under the $625 mark, with the bottom line price for the above list at $611. Also, let me stress that none of the above components are cheap crapola, either. Sure, it's possible to cut some corners and get the price down even farther, but I wouldn't recommend it. At some point, you get what you pay for.
By the same token, you can certainly spend more by going with higher priced components with additional features, or by including additional components, like a second hard drive or optical drive. I'll leave those individual choices to the reader. But the point is that it's possible to put together a very respectable system, including a high-performance 3D video card, and come in under that $625 figure I stated originally. I intentionally left most of the brand names off the list, and it may be possible to find several different versions of a given component priced within a couple of bucks of each other. If you absolutely need to know the specific components I priced out, shoot me an e-mail and I can provide that info.
A note for you "non-gamers" who may be reading through this article: You can save a significant chunk of change by substituting a more modest video card for the Geforce 6600GT that is shown above. If 3D gaming ain't your thing, there's no reason to spend almost $200 on a hot 3D card. Instead, look into a good general purpose video card like the Radeon 9250 or the Geforce FX 5200. You should be able to find one in the $50 range without much trouble, and maybe even less, if you come across a good rebate deal. That would reduce your "best bang" system price tag to $475 or less!
PUTTIN' IT ALL TOGETHER....
Obviously, once you've purchased all this stuff, the next step is building the PC. Some of you reading this have probably built a PC or two before, or have enough experience with various upgrades that you're ready to "step up" to a full system assembly. I won't go into that process here. For those of you who need some technical support to undertake this task, there are plenty of good resources available on the web. A couple of good ones include the "how-to" guides available at Tom's Hardware, Hardware Central, and PCMech.com. And there are many more, in case none of these strike your fancy.
If you've never built a PC before, I'd encourage you to give it a try, as long as you're reasonably PC-savvy. It's not hard at all, as long as you can read and follow directions! Plus, it's enjoyable, a great learning experience, and pushing that power button and having the PC actually work when you're all done is a source of considerable personal satisfaction. And even if you're not comfortable with the undertaking, my guess is that you probably have a knowledgeable friend or relative who could handle the job for you. Or, better yet, WITH you.
So let's assume your new "box" is all built, you've installed your operating system, and you've given the system a preliminary shakedown to confirm that everything is fully functional. Now it's time to PUT THE SPURS TO THAT BAD BOY!!