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This is the very bottom of what we'd consider upgrading
When it was released almost three years ago, Dell’s Precision 370 (a business-class workstation version of the Dimension) was state of the art with its PCI Express and DDR2 RAM. Today, the box is an ancient hunk of junk that wouldn’t fetch $150 on Craigslist.
The Precision 370 features a 3.8GHz Pentium 4 proc, 1GB of DDR2 ECC, a FireGL V3100 graphics card, an 80GB SATA hard drive, and a combo DVD burner. Our initial plan was to replace the single-core Pentium 4 with a Core 2 or even a Pentium D, but the board uses an Intel 925X chipset, which doesn’t support any dual-core procs. There was one processor upgrade option left, however: The 3.8GHz Pentium 4 in the Precision is a 1MB L2 Prescott. Intel later released a Pentium 4 670, which was pretty much a 3.8GHz P4 but with 2MB of L2 cache.
Another seemingly easy upgrade is also complicated by the machine’s workstation roots. The Precision 370 uses ECC DDR2 DIMMs. That RAM is more difficult to find and typically carries a slight price premium.
Given all of this motherboard’s negatives, we thought about replacing it outright, but this is a Dell, and like many large OEM rigs, this machine sports a proprietary design. There’s no way in hell you’re going to drop a standard ATX motherboard into this case.
The weakest link in the Precision is the FireGL V3100 graphics card. This 128MB frame-buffer card with a four-pixel pipeline is just about unusable. The card’s best attribute is that it’s PCI Express. Overall, this machine is borderline recycle-bin material, but the support for PCI Express and DDR2 convinced us to give it the old upgrade try.
In its current configuration, it is absolutely useless for gaming and is a mediocre machine for video and photo editing. A new $500 box (see sidebar below) beats it up and down. But let’s see what kind of performance improvements our upgrades can muster.
Before we started, we established a minimum basis for comparison. After all, if you spend $500 on an upgrade, will you really be getting better performance than what a new budget PC with a warranty offers? To establish our low bar, we looked at the $500 configs of several large OEMs and built a comparable baseline machine to see how well our upgrade boxes would perform against a brand-new, inexpensive PC. Turns out, you can get a surprisingly good machine for five Bennies—we’re talking a dual-core 1.8GHz Pentium E2160, with 2GB of DDR2, a 250GB hard drive, an Intel Q33-chipset motherboard, and even an 8500 GT–class card. That’s good eats for the price and a good platform for future upgrades. Later on, you can go quad core with either a 65nm or 45nm Intel CPU and drop in a faster GPU.
This baseline config should serve as a guide for deciding whether an upgrade is worthwhile, and if so, how much is reasonable to spend. If you don’t think your upgraded machine can outperform this configuration, it’s time to start fresh.