Do budget PC upgrades provide bang for buck?

Motherboard and CPU upgrades

The Intel rig

The motherboard and CPU upgrade path on the Intel system is a far simpler affair than the AMD socket nightmare. Intel has been running DDR2 on its chipsets for far longer than the Texan company, and the LGA775 socket too has been around for long enough that our old 650i motherboard is more than capable of running the 65nm Core 2 Quads.

There is, however, always the problem of bottlenecks in the system. Were we to simply upgrade the processor alone the benefits would be pretty negligible. As good as the X1900XTX was in its day this has now become as much of a limiting factor in our rig as the slow processor. Upgrading to a 2.6GHz Core 2 Duo will net us an extra few frames per second in most games, while pushing the boat out and slotting in a low-end quad chip gives us hardly anything extra on top of that.

By coupling the CPU upgrade with even a halfway decent GPU, like the bargain-basement 9600GT, though, and we instantly see a massive performance hike over the 2GHz dual-core with the same graphics card. Although the first generation PCI Express slot will still limit any higher spec GPUs you try and throw at it. We've found the performance space between the faster dual-core and the quad is far less.

Performance is better in game, but we're only talking the difference of a few frames, not the 10fps jump that we saw going up in clockspeed on the dual-core side. Where you will see the most difference is in multimedia applications and simply playing back HD content.

What you have to ask yourself is: are you an out and out gamer or do you need your PC to perform in other, more productive tasks? If you're the productive sort then a quad chip is the way to roll.

The AMD rig

It was around this point that we made a rather enlightening discovery. Upon removing the sticks of memory from our computer, we found that we had, in fact, been running on DDR RAM for the past six months. Not DDR2. Not even DDR3. But plain old, ageing DDR memory. Still, the fact that we managed to get 50 frames per second out of GRID says a lot about hardware that's supposedly-obsolete.

The next step, then, was to upgrade the motherboard and processor. We ditched the Athlon 64 X2 4800+ processor, in favour of the beefier socket AM2+ 7750 Black Edition (£65). During this process, we also installed 4GB DDR2 memory into the new AM2 motherboard. The grand total of this kind of upgrade would be about £150, but that's excluding the graphics card.

We benched a low, reasonable graphics card and high-performance one to see how the rig balanced out. With our low-end Nvidia 7900GT installed, there turned out to be absolutely no benefit in doing the upgrade.

Frame rates were identical to the original rig's, apart from World in Conflict, which bizarrely enough dropped a frame. So if you're going to invest £100 in the above gubbins, you'll also need to drop the cash for a semi-decent graphics card at the same time.There's no one shot solution here it would seem..

The 9600GT proved to be a fair match for the setup. The benchmarks we got weren't exactly through the roof, but World in Conflict comfortably gained a few frames per second. GRID barely changed at all, but remained eminently playable. And it's a good idea to bear in mind that we were testing Far Cry 2 in Ultra settings – which will stretch any graphics card.

Adding a GTX260 to the mix resulted in even better scores, however. Far Cry 2's performance doubled in both resolutions, and GRID zoomed past any previous scores. If you've got a semi-decent graphics card and you're on a budget, our advice would be to upgrade everything else first, then wait for cards like the GTX260 to drop a little in price before snapping them up.

The next step up is akin to putting money laxatives in your wallet for about four years. We added a Phenom 810 processor (£150), an Asus motherboard (£180) and two gigabytes of GeIL DDR3 ram (£50), which brings us to £380 of silicon goodness.

It's at this point that you have to toss a coin between upgrading your PC's innards, or buying a whole new chunk of PC, such as one of CyberPower's similarly-specced rigs. Naturally, we did experience the best frame rates with this setup, but it comes at quite a price. Even the 7900GT experienced a boost, and when coupled with the 9600GT the advantage was massively noticeable.

The GTX260 offered the best performance, but at this point you're looking at spending almost £600 on components – and that's excluding a case which you may well need if you're planning to upgrade to one of Nvidia's latest space hogs.


First published in PC Format Issue 225

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