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As we’ve said, the upgrades here are borderline optional, as this machine is still very useful. But presented with an unexpected windfall of cash or permission from the family CFO, here’s how we’d bring this already capable machine up to modern specifications.
|At $350, the EVGA GeForce 9800 GTX is a hell of a deal and outperforms the original X1950 XTX card.|
The Radeon X1950 XTX was a competitive card in its day, with full HDCP support (albeit single-link only). Unfortunately, GPUs age far faster than most components in your PC. So our two-year-old GPU is akin to a three-year-old CPU or a four-year-old optical drive.
We thought about adding a second Radeon X1950 XTX to the machine but got cold sweats at the thought of trying to use the original permutation of CrossFire. Instead of the internal bridge that’s used in SLI and modern CrossFire setups, the old system uses a clumsy, unreliable dongle cable. Worse yet, we couldn’t just grab any two X1950 cards, one of the cards had to be an X1950 XTX “master card.” Well good luck, buddy. We looked around and couldn’t find any reputable establishments selling master cards. In the used market, people wanted $250 for them, so we opted to just remove the X1950 XTX and replace it with today’s top of the line.
Well, almost top of the line. For $350—or $100 more than what you’d have paid for a used X1950 XTX master card—we were able to get Nvidia’s new GeForce 9800 GTX card. The card supports dual-link HDCP, uses the new G92 core, and, fortunately, does not require the newer 8-pin/6-pin power connectors. That means we can continue to use the 600-watt Thermaltake in the machine. However, we encountered another unexpected twist. The longer 9800 GTX board just barely fit into the midtower CyberPower case. If it had been even a few millimeters tighter, we would have had to buy a whole new case too. So before you upgrade your GPU, make sure your case can accommodate it.
We achieved performance gains of 92 percent in PCMark GPU and 72 percent in UT3, our two GPU-centric benchmarks. Not too shabby. And that’s at normal resolutions. At 1920x1200 or 2560x1600, the 9800 GTX eats the X1950 XTX’s lunch, dinner, and midnight snack.
|Call us fools, but we still like good audio in games, which you get in spades from Creative Labs’s X-Fi XtremeGamer.|
The D975XBX motherboard isn’t actually certified for quad-core support, but it runs fine with a Conroe quad. We reached for Intel’s 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600 as a fairly inexpensive way to gain more performance. While tempting, making the jump to a $1,000 quad Core 2 Extreme seems, well, extreme for this box. Selling for $240 today and possibly even less by the time you read this, the Q6600 gives you the performance benefit of four cores. And in apps that scale with cores, such as most video encoders, a quad pays off. With something as simple as slide-show creation, we were able to cut a third of the time off the project’s encode. If a job typically takes three hours, what would you pay to have an extra hour for playing games instead of twiddling your thumbs in front of your dual-core box?
|Don’t believe you can use 1TB of hard drive space? Someone once said the same about 5MB of storage, buddy.|
A 250GB drive doesn’t cut the mustard anymore, so we dropped in the biggest, fastest drive around: Samsung’s F1 terabyte drive. It doesn’t hurt that the drive sells for as little as $250. Our second drop-in was a Creative Labs X-Fi XtremeGamer card. An $80 upgrade, this greatly improves the gaming audio experience on our machine.
|$500 P||Pre-Upgrade||Post-Upgrade||% Change|
|U3 Omicron_Bot (fps)||18||61||105||72%|
Lawyers like to say that hard cases make bad laws. The same logic applies to system upgrading—borderline configurations really challenge you to take a long, hard look at what to do with your machine. In two scenarios we’re really torn on whether or not to upgrade.
AGP: As a general rule, we feel that AGP isn’t just dead, it’s dead, buried, and has turned into fossil fuel. However, there are situations in which adding a $150 card will give a Pentium 4 or Athlon 64 AGP machine a short reprieve. Nvidia has pretty much called it quits on AGP, but AMD is planning on launching a new Radeon HD3850 with the old-school interface. If it’s priced right, the card should buy AGP Pentium 4 users and Athlon 64 machines another year of life. Still, you’ll have to really ponder whether this is a wise investment, as even a bottom-end Pentium dual-core system will spank either CPU.
SOCKET 478: The same upgrading trepidation applies to Socket 478. Beyond dropping in a little more RAM, you’re left with the prospect of chasing down an elusive Gallatin-core P4 Extreme Edition and then paying $400 for it, which seems unwise to us.