by Len "Viking1" Hjalmarson
Article Type: How-To
Article Date: July 30, 2001
Life is SweetBack when I started gaming in the late eighties, a RAM upgrade cost me $400. Of course, that was a whopping 4MB module.
Lately memory prices have been falling faster than Dot Com stock. Coupled with GHz CPUs in the $100 range, life is good for gamers.
Way back in the last millennium, virtual pilots had only one upgrade path: a new mainboard and CPU. Then an engineer somewhere had a brilliant idea: Why not offload the CPU with a dedicated graphics processor? The idea came to life and inspired companies like Rendition and 3dfx. When I plugged in my first 3dfx Voodoo board running EF2000 back in 1995 I could see that the next five years were going to bring some serious changes to computer gaming.
The hardware evolution has accelerated, until the workload carried by a modern graphics board eclipses the work done by 1 GHz CPUs. Replacing your aging 8MB board with a current 32 or 64MB GeForce 2 board is a little like adding four more cylinders and a turbo to your Honda!
This can make upgrade decisions challenging, but for the system builderÖlife is sweet. Budget $200 for video $150 for CPU, $150 for mainboard, and $150 for memory. This outlay will get you 1.33 GHz, A GeForce 2 Pro, and 512MB of DDRAM 266. Faced with my overclocked 800 MHz Thunderbird and PCI 133 SDRAM, it was time to make the plunge.
|ASUS A7A Mainboard |
Decisions, DecisionsFor some, upgrading from an 800 MHz system will seem ridiculous. But the advantage of upgrading while your old gear is still usable is that you can recoup about two thirds of the cost of new gear by selling the old.
Furthermore, moving from 800 to 1.33 is no small change. The horsepower gain of more than 50% is well worth the additional cost. If you happen to have a smaller amount of memory, say 256MB, the additional gain of doubling your memory will surprise you. There is little comparison to an 800 MHz system with 256 MB to a 1.33 MHz system with 512 MB. Moving from SDRAM to DDRAM gives an additional 15% boost in memory performance.
Going beyond an upgrade to building a new system, itís become relatively easy to choose a new mainboard. I tend to alternate between ASUS and Abit, but Gigabyte is making some very nice hardware also.
For the upgrade market, ASUS makes a mainboard that will use either PCI 133 or DDRAM. This is a nice way to salvage your old memory if you donít have an easy trade-in source. I decided to go with the ASUS A7A266 so I could make the memory change later.
Bus speeds from 100-166MHz are available in 1MHz increments on the ASUS mainboard, allowing overclocking flexibility. Since the ALi MAGiK 1 chipset features an asynchronous bus, you can run your memory bus at 133MHz while your system bus is running at 100MHz. CPU voltages up to 1.85V are present in 0.025V increments.
|AMD Athlon CPU |
In the CPU market, Intel has been losing ground to AMD. In simple terms, the most bang for the buck resides in the Athlon Thunderbird line. I picked up a 1.33 GHz CPU for a mere $140. The Thunderbird is an improved Athlon, considerably more powerful (and all the new CPUs use some copper interconnects). The Thunderbird overclocks nicely, with some users getting up to 1.5 GHz.
Trying to decide between NVIDIA's GeForce 2 Pro and the GeForce 3 wasnít hard at all. The GeForce 2 Pro can be found for around $200 US. The GeForce 3 is double that. If you have the extra cash invest in the future and go for the GF3. For this upgrade article Iíll stay below the curve with a GF2 Pro. I havenít tested the ATI Radeon line, but until their new DX8 compatible silicon arrives I canít think of a good reason to switch from NVIDIA anyway.
As for sound hardware, my choices were between the SB Live X-Gamer and the Hercules Game Theatre XP. In the end I went with the X-Gamer since it was cheaper, and I didnít need the extra hardware. Previously I have run the Turtle Beach Santa Cruz, but Iíve had some compatibility issues under WIN ME so it was time for a change.
Enter the MillenniumMicrosoft has its own Millennium celebration, with the release of a brand new OS. WINDOWS MILLENNIUM Edition, or WIN ME for short, is a natural evolution of WINDOWS 98. There arenít really that many changes, but the few that are obvious are welcome. Iíve been running this OS for almost a year now and Iíve found it reliable and fast.
|WIN ME system restore |
Handy for hardware and software tweakers, WIN ME sports a System Restore Utility. I use System Restore to create an image of system essentials (including the Registry) prior to updating video drivers or installing a new test utility. If I wind up with problems, I run Restore to go back to the pre-installation state. This utility has already saved my buns a couple of times.
The next obvious improvement is raw boot up speed. I went from an 80 second boot time on my Abit KT-7 under WIN98 to about 45 seconds under WIN ME on the same system. There are numerous other changes from WIN98, but most are insignificant.
Storage is becoming a concern for any simulation fan these days. More and more games are arriving on multiple CDs. Microsoftís Train Simulation asked for 1.5 GB for a full installation!
The hard drive I chose is Maxtorís new DiamondMax Plus 60 (30 GB). This drive uses DualWave processor technology to offload the CPU, and sports a 2MB buffer of 100MHz SDRAM. Naturally, itís ATA 100, and for $110 itís a bargain.
Putting it All TogetherThe last item to select is the cooling unit for the CPU. If you plan to overclock, you simply canít give this area too much consideration. An Athlon Thunderbird at 1 GHz draws around 80 watts to a small piece of silicon; thatís a lot of heat and you have to draw it away from the CPU.
I had heard good things about the Golden Orb cooler by Thermaltake, but my results were very mediocre. Perhaps because of its unusual appearance, the Golden Orb had a good reputation. Its cooling efficiency is weak, however, equivalent to the GlobalWIN FOP32.
|ATTech CM25 |
A better cooler is the Alpha PAL6035 and the ATTech CM25. The ATTech was a relatively cheap solution at $24.
Surprisingly, Thermaltake's Chrome Orb moves 22 cubic feet of air per minute over its veins at 5500 RPM, and the ATTech moves only 20 cfm at 5200 RPM. The ATTech unit is also quite small.
The difference is in material. Copper is a significantly better heat conductor than aluminum, and the difference shows in heat dissipation. At idle, the ATTech reduced the temperature of my overclocked Thunderbird (at 1.35 MHz) from 32C to 28C! Under load the difference was a full 3C cooler. Note, however, that you do need good case ventilation to achieve these temperatures.
OCZ has come up with some more recent coolers which are performing beyond the ATTech (For a recent article comparing cooling solutions check out this article or go directly to the OCZ site.
You also need some good conductivity between the cooler and the CPU. Previously I've used a compound supplied by 1COOLPC, but after studying the matter I discovered Arctic Silver. This compound is about 80% silver powder, and silver is a superior conductor even to copper! It's expensive at about $6 US per tube, and you can get it at Cooler Guys.
Overclocking the ThunderbirdIf you intend to overclock by changing the CPU multiplayer, you are going to have to unlock your CPU. This wonít be an issue for those who purchase the ASUS mainboard, since there is no way to manually change the multiplier on this board.
This doesnít matter since I was able to achieve the speed I wanted with the bus increase. Instead of running my CPU at 10x133 I run it at 10x142 = 1420 MHz. If you purchase an Abit board, however, then the multiplier can be adjusted and you have options like 10.5x133. I can tell you how to unlock your CPU with a lead pencil.
|Bridging the gap |
In order to change the multiplier on your Thunderbird or Duron, you'll need to connect the bridges on the CPU at L1. A good "B" lead pencil will do the trick. Just stroke the pencil across the bridges you see on the top of your CPU, and voila!
Once I had all the components assembled, I booted with a WIN ME diskette and then engaged FDISK. I did the standard partitioning and formatting routine, then rebooted with the diskette.
Next, I installed the VIA Hardware Monitor from the CD that came with the mainboard. That way I could monitor CPU and system temperature as I ran various configurations. 10x141 gives me a warm CPU under load, but a cool one while running WIN ME.
Game TestingTo check out combat simulation compatibility, I ran a suite of my favorite sims on the new platform.
The games I tested:
- B17 Flying Fortress
- Battle of Britain
- Falcon 4.0
- IL-2 (beta)
- Total Air War
- WWII Fighters
|Total Air War |
These games all ran flawlessly. Iíve never had games load so fast or fly so smoothly. ďWhat do you expect on a 1.4 GHz system?Ē Exactly. This is the way it should be. But not every fast CPU results in a system running smoothly or with stability. For a fast and stable system, components must be of high quality and the system well-balanced and properly tweaked.
Now, some of you are going to be wondering about the KYRO II option, as seen in Videologicís new VividXS or Hercules new board. I havenít had my hands on these products, but I am hearing good things. The dollar/horsepower value is excellent, but if you donít mind spending an extra $50, GF2 Pro is the way to go. The raw horsepower of the GF2 chip is greater than that of the KYRO II. When KYRO III arrives this fall things could get interesting.
With memory prices at an all time low, there is no reason to go with less than 512MB of system memory. You may have read somewhere than WIN98 or WIN ME wonít use more than 128 or 256 MB of system memory. This is only half the story.
While your Microsoft OS wonít use more than 256MB, the games you run will very happily use more memory. Try running WW2 Online on 256 MB, and then go to 512 MB. IL-2 Sturmovik runs better on 512MB than on 256MB, and also looks better. You can expect memory requirements for games to continue to increase.
ConclusionItís a fantastic time for upgrading, with costs lower than ever before. Weíve never seen so much horsepower/dollar value. If only we had 36Ē wraparound displays to match this glorious hardware!
The items not covered by this upgrade article include sound hardware and controller hardware. If you are budgeting for a single stick, you should make it force feedback. Around $65 is going to get you what you need.
If you are budgeting for a complete HOTAS, CH Products and Saitek are the only game in town at the moment. ThrustMaster will release their HOTAS Cougar this fall.
Everyone is making speakers and surround sound systems these days. Check out some good reviews if you are in the market for a new sound system.
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