We Can Rebuild It

Nathan Edwards

So your store-bought PC is getting a little long in the tooth and its performance is showing signs of age. You might be tempted to just toss the machine and replace it with a newer model, especially when you see that more powerful OEM PCs can be had for as little as $500. But before you get on the horn to Dell, ask yourself this: What would a power user do (short of having built their own rig to begin with, naturally)? The answer: upgrade.

In many instances, you can achieve even greater performance gains with a $500 upgrade than you can from a new $500 machine. Even Dell’s proprietary builds can be retrofitted into better shape.

The skill is in knowing when it’s right to upgrade and how much upgrading is warranted. Too often, what begins as a simple upgrade can end up as a box full of regrets. Instead of achieving blistering performance, people often find that they’ve just thrown good money after bad hardware.

This brings us to the first rule of upgrading: Know your needs. Are you after higher frame rates and the ability to game at higher resolutions? You’ll need a new graphics card. Are you tired of waiting hours for your video editing to finish or the eternity it takes to edit your photos? A new CPU is in order.

After you’ve determined your goals, set a budget. Can you spend $200 or $2,000? Finally, the hardest question will be whether it makes sense to even perform an upgrade. This is the part that usually trips us all up. Folks are often compelled to upgrade old machines out of loyalty, as though that box of silicon, tin, and plastic was the starship Enterprise. The truth is that it’s just a bunch of commodity parts that you probably can’t sell on eBay for a quarter of what you originally paid.

So ask yourself, does it make sense to spend $250 on a 3.4GHz Socket 478 Pentium 4 for that old 2.6GHz P4 box? Do you really want to buy a $200 AGP card for your Athlon XP system? We’re not so sure.

Even worse, like plumbing and car repairs, oftentimes upgrades can cause you to replace more parts than you originally intended. Say you buy a hot, new AGP card for your Athlon XP 3000+ box. You’ll soon discover that the PSU in your vintage machine is underpowered. New PSU. Cha-ching. But now that swanky PSU doesn’t fit in your case. New case. Cha-ching. In the end, you just spent $500 for minimal performance gains.

Over the following pages, we’ll walk you through three real-world upgrade scenarios using three very different old off-the-shelf computers, so you can see first-hand our approach to bringing these rigs up to modern standards. Your upgrade needs won’t necessarily be the same, but by understanding how we made our decisions concerning what to upgrade, you’ll be more prepared to tackle the task yourself.

Next: Our first case study - the Dell P4

Case Study 1: Dell P4

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.

Sidebar: To Upgrade or Start Fresh?

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.

Next: Our Dell Upgrades

Our Dell Upgrades

Total Upgrade Cost: $369

We turned this turkey into a usable machine that would give us moderate gaming performance and handle most medium-intensity tasks. We concentrated our upgrades on graphics, RAM, and a drop-in hard drive for additional storage capabilities.

A $160 GeForce 9600 GT is several times faster than the ancient ATI FireGL V3100 that came with the Dell.

GPU

Since the 3.8GHz P4 CPU is still serviceable (albeit barely), our first upgrade target was the substandard FireGL V3100 graphics card. We looked at two contenders: Nvidia’s GeForce 9600 GT and the GeForce 8800 GT. Both feature 512MB frame buffers, but the 9600 GT sports the newer G94 core. The 8800 GT is faster at higher resolutions, but given the potential of a single-core Pentium 4, we felt it was more prudent to save our ducats for now. Still, putting in a $160 card takes us from a machine that’s worthless at gaming to one that can play most of today’s popular titles at normal resolutions. Even better, GPUs are in flux now. AMD and Nvidia are in a GPU price war, so expect the 9600 GT to be even cheaper by the time you read this.
Before the GPU upgrade, the Precision was about 75 percent slower than the $500 box in our Unreal Tournament 3 benchmark. After the upgrade, the Precision was 158 percent faster.

Instead of hunting down ECC RAM, we replaced the rig’s pair of 512MB DIMMS with a pair of 1GB DIMMs. Don’t mix ’n’ match ECC and non-ECC though.

RAM

With RAM as cheap as it is these days, it’s an obvious upgrade choice. It’s so cheap, in fact, we decided to ditch the two 512MB ECC DIMMs in the Precision and replace them with a pair of standard 1GB Corsair DDR2/667 modules for $40. Some people believe that ECC RAM slightly hinders performance, but we were more motivated by the performance benefits we’d gain by moving the machine from its 1GB of RAM to 2GB—the optimal amount for a 32-bit OS.

CPU

A $169 Seagate 750GB drive makes good upgrade sense, as it can be easily transplanted into a new machine.

As we mentioned earlier, the system’s 925X chipset prevented us from using dual-core processors, to say nothing of quads. The one option available is the 2MB L2 version of the Pentium 4 Prescott that Intel released near the end of that CPU’s run. The P4 670 can still be had if you search the nooks and crannies of the Internet, but once you find one, be prepared to shell out some bucks for it. The two sites we found that stocked the processor were charging $199 for it. Even the secondary market—that’s fancy speak for “used”—wanted $100 for a 3.8 P4. That just ain’t worth it. Doubling the L2 cache gets you, what, maybe a few percentage points of improvement in a few applications? It’s not worth the money or the hassle. The highest clocked single-core Pentium 4 is still a dog, but not dead meat on a stick, so we’re sticking with it. Our ProShow Producer test pegs the P4 at about 30 percent slower than the $500 rig’s 1.8GHz dual-core Pentium, while PCMark05 puts the P4 slightly ahead.

Hard Drive

You know things are bad when your iPod has more storage capacity than your computer. The 80GB drive in the Dell isn’t even big enough to be puny. To supplement our storage, we dropped in a $169 Seagate 750GB Barracuda drive for secondary storage. Hard drives (and to some extent optical drives) usually break the upgrading rules on spending because they’re easily transportable. Even if we paid $500 for two 1TB drives, we could easily move those to the next machine that we build.

BENCHMARKS
$500 PC Pre-Upgrade Post-Upgrade % Change
ProShow (sec)
2,528
3,606 3,606 0%
PCMark05 Overall
4,785
3,460 4,029 16%
PCMark05 CPU
4,635 4,805 4,806 0%
PCMark05 RAM
3,966 4,400 4,425 1%
PCMark05 GPU
3,750
1,653 10,390 529%
PCMark05 HDD
5,877 4,497 4,576 2%
U3 Omicron_Bot (fps) 18
5 46 838%

Next: CyberPower Core 2 Duo

Case Study 2: CyberPower Core 2 Duo

Can a PC have a midlife crisis? This one did. Watch it go from pudgy and out of shape to pimpin’!

Our CyberPower box is easily the most capable machine in this upgrade story. A circa 2006 rig, the CyberPower’s configuration is still quite powerful. At the heart of it is an Intel Core 2 Duo E6700. That’s a 2.66GHz dual core on a 1,066MHz front-side bus. The chip is riding in an Intel D975XBX Bad Axe board with 2GB of DDR2 and a 250GB hard drive for storage. In the GPU department, an ATI Radeon X1950 XTX runs the show.

But while these components are still quite serviceable, they’re far from what most power machines are running today. In fact, we’d say everything in the CyberPower would qualify as mediocre by present-day standards. The Intel 975X board, though, somewhat limits our upgrade options. Built for the Pentium D processor, the 975X— at least the revision here—works with most 65nm Core 2 CPUs but not the newer 45nm CPUs. The board also lacks official support for 1,333MHz front-side bus CPUs, but it will unofficially recognize and work with the Core 2 Extreme QX6850 CPU and other 1,333FSB 65nm parts.

Clearly, the weakest component here is the machine’s hard drive, which is sorely lacking in capacity. After that, it’s really a toss-up as to whether the Core 2 Duo E6700 or the Radeon X1950 XTX is more in need of replacement. In gaming, the X1950 XTX is long in the tooth but still quite capable of playing most modern games at 1280x1024 resolution. Push the resolution to fill a 24-inch or 30-inch flat panel, however, and the card runs out of steam with more punishing titles such as Crysis. The Core 2 Duo E6700 is one of the original Conroe chips launched almost two years ago. It has since been eclipsed by quad-core Conroes (and, of course, Penryn-based chips). Nonetheless, upgrading either of these components will give the machine a reasonable peppy boost in performance.

Next: Our CyberPower Upgrades

Our CyberPower Upgrades

Total Upgrade Cost: $920

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.

GPU


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.

CPU


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?

Hard Drive and Soundcard

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.

BENCHMARKS
$500 P Pre-Upgrade Post-Upgrade % Change
ProShow (sec)
2,528
1,594 1,176 36%
PCMark05 Overall
4,785 7,045 8,110 15%
PCMark05 CPU
4,635 6,819 7,734 13%
PCMark05 RAM
3,966 5,477 5,313 -3%
PCMark05 GPU
3,750 7,668 14,691
92%
PCMark05 HDD
5,877 5,280 5,228 -1%
U3 Omicron_Bot (fps) 18
61 105 72%


Upgrade Scenarios that Lack Clear Answers

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.

Next: The Alienware Athlon 64 3000+

Case Study 3: Alienware Athlon 64 3000+

Our upgrades put the spookiness back into this old Area 51 machine

We’re pretty sure that three years ago somebody uncrated this Alienware Area 51 PC and was amazed by the rig’s unearthly technology and out-of-this-world gaming performance. Today, it’s about as special as a bucket of mud.

That’s a sad comment on how far the Athlon 64 3000+ inside the Area 51 has fallen. Today, this Venice single-core Athlon 64 is probably best suited for web browsing and email. Don’t believe us? In our ProShow Producer benchmark, the lowly Pentium 4 created our photo slide show in about an hour. It took the A64 3000+ almost two hours!

The rig’s GPU, a GeForce 7900 GTX, is not the original videocard that came with the system, as the machine’s other parts are vintage 2005 and the 7900 GTX came out the following year.

The Area 51 is an interesting upgrade challenge. It’s the opposite of the Dell, which had a fairly serviceable CPU but a complete dog of a GPU. The Alienware has an almost useful GPU but a total dog of a CPU. The benchmark scores back this up. Against the new $500 rig, the poor Athlon 64 doesn’t stand a chance. The Alienware PC is able to redeem itself only in the gaming tests, in which even the ancient 7900 GTX outstrips the budget 8500 GT.

So here’s where it gets tricky. Our first instinct was to drop in a Socket 939 dual-core processor and a second GeForce 7900 GTX card. That gives you dual cores and SLI, man! But is that the right upgrade? Read on.

Next: Our Alienware Upgrades

Our Alienware Upgrades

Total Upgrade Cost: $1,197

Remember our third rule of upgrading: Does it make sense? With the Alienware Area 51, it does and it doesn’t.

CPU and Motherboard


It didn’t make fiscal sense to keep the Asus Socket 939 board, so we swapped it for an MSI nForce 750i SLI board.

Upgrading the CPU was job one on the Alienware box. At first we figured, heck, let’s just drop in a Socket 939 Athlon 64 X2 4800+ and call it a day. Then we looked at prices. On Pricewatch.com, the cheapest new 4800+ was $439. Even on eBay, 4800+ procs were moving for about $100. That’s for a used processor. Our second option was that little darling the Opteron 185. A 2.6GHz dual-core 939 CPU, this chip works perfectly fine as a stand-in Socket 939 Athlon 64 dual core. Prices for this chip, however, are closer to $280. If we got a paper route and saved our money, we’d be better off buying a $500 bargain PC instead of buying this proc. Even with the Opteron 185 or 4800+, the box would still be a chump next to the Pentium E2160 in the $500 machine.

That tipped the scales for us. The situation clearly called for a more thorough overhaul. Thanks to Alienware’s use of industry-standard ATX parts, an extreme makeover was not only possible but quite easy. We replaced the Athlon 64 3000+/Asus A8N32-SLI combination for a Core 2


Corsair Dominator modules are pricey but give us low latency and full EPP support for our nForce board.

Quad Q9300 and MSI P7N-SLI Platinum. Intel’s $300 Q9300 is based on the new Penryn core and is the class leader of cheap CPUs. The $175 MSI P7N-SLI Platinum mobo uses nVidia’s nForce 750i chipset and gives us the SLI option, as well. In a nutshell, we’re talking budget SLI with full quad-core Penryn support. We, of course, recycled the 2GB of DDR in the box, but it’s not like DDR2 is expensive today. In fact, it’s even cheaper than DDR.

Thanks to our CPU/mobo upgrade, we went from a slide-show encode that took almost two hours to one that took 21 minutes. That’s a performance increase of more than 400 percent.

GPU

Nvidia’s new GeForce 9800 GTX is the top single-core card in town today.

This one’s easy, right? Just drop the original GeForce 7900 GTX into the upgraded Alienware, buy a second 7900 GTX, and SLI the two, right? Wrong. First, almost no one sells the GeForce 7900 GTX anymore and those who have them want beaucoup bucks. Newegg, for example, had an open-box MSI GeForce 7900 GTX card available—for $300. On eBay, prices for the cards ranged from $300 to $350. Holy GPU, Batman! Computer components are supposed to get cheaper as time goes by, aren’t they? Not when you’re talking about high-end parts, apparently. Still, isn’t it better to pay for a second card rather than buy a single newer part? Not necessarily. Performance might be close in some situations, but generally, a single top-end modern card will outperform cards of an earlier generation, even if they run in SLI mode. What’s more, SLI 7900 GTX still doesn’t give you DX10. And from what we can tell, the drivers aren’t a priority either.

Thus, for this upgrade, we decided to remove the 7900 GTX card and replace it with a brand-spanking-new GeForce 9800 GTX. While the 9800 GTX costs $350, we could probably sell our used 7900 GTX for $250 and end up paying just $100 for the GPU upgrade.

The switch certainly pays off. We went from 38 frames per second in Unreal Tournament 3 to 101fps, or the equivalent of a 166 percent increase in frame rates. That’s at a standard 1280x1024 resolution, too. If we cranked the res up to 1920x1200, the gap between the 7900 GTX and 9800 GTX would be far wider, as the 7900 GTX would undoubtedly run out of steam while the 9800 GTX would keep sailing along.

Hard Drive and Soundcard

As with the CyberPower, we performed a couple upgrades on this rig mostly for livability. We added an F1 1TB Samsung hard drive to the machine as well as a Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer soundcard and called it a day.

BENCHMARKS
$500 PC Pre-Upgrade Post-Upgrade % Change
ProShow (sec)
2,528 6,745 1,297 420%
PCMark05 Overall
4,785 4,235 8,786 107%
PCMark05 CPU
4,635 2,643 8 ,060 205%
PCMark05 RAM
3,966 3,591
5,684 58%
PCMark05 GPU
3,750 7,731 14,830 92%
PCMark05 HDD
5,877 8,244 8,250 0%
U3 Omicron_Bot (fps) 18
38 101 166%


Some Upgrades are Just Plain Stupid

Tempting as it might be to upgrade, it’s not always prudent.

Pentium III: It’s dead, Jim. Really. It’s really, really, really dead. You could shoot a P3 onto the Genesis planet and the only possible result would be that you wasted a photon-torpedo casing. Just give up.

Athlon XP: Instead of throwing good money into an Athlon XP box, just send us the cash. At least then somebody would be happy when all is said and done.

Rambus: There’s a surprising number of Direct RDRAM boxes in service. If you have an RDRAM machine, don’t even bother cracking it open. Unless you can afford to spend a million bucks on memory, you’ll never see more than 1GB of RDRAM. RDRAM also limits you to a 533MHz FSB CPU, so there ain’t no way you’ll ever drop in that 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition.

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