Since I have been using them in my setup since 2003, the Athlon XP processors have served me well, but with newer games coming out with much higher levels of detail, my older setup is really beginning to show it's age with highly CPU and shader intensive games like F.E.A.R. and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are simply not an enjoyable experience as the games of Christmas' past (Doom 3, Half-Life 2 run like buttah). And with all the choices out in hardware now with all the new things out on the horizion like shader model 4.0 and the eventual implementation of multi-core support being the norm in games, plus being on a very limited budget, making a choice on what upgrade path to take has never been so daunting to me, simply because I can't afford to drop down another $600 - $1k mere months after I have already done so. This is the beef of the hardware I already have:
AMD Athlon XP Thouroughbred B 2166MHz (2700+)
ePox 8KRAI+ (KT880, dual channel DDR)
1GB DDR400 @ PC2700 Kingston 2.5-3-3-4
ATi Radeon X1600 Pro 256MB AGP 8X (to replace that fried 9800 Pro 256)
While a few newer games like Prey run at a playable rate at 1024x768 with FSAA off + 8x Anisotropy at highest detail across the board (usually around 30fps with lows in the mid teens) this is the exception, since it is still a shader model 2.0 game. With F.E.A.R. and Need For Speed: Most Wanted I have to turn most everything down to medium to low to achieve the same result. And Oblivion runs like a turd over ice in the dead of winter if anything is turned up above low or medium detail. It's time to upgrade once again, and I've put it off long enough. And now, I put the question to U guys. Keep in mind though I'm trying to keep this under $600 if not less for the CPU, video card, AND motherboard. I'm just another "minimum" wage working stiff that has to pay rent like everyone else, but happens to have a real expensive pasttime.
As it stands, I am currently split between getting a single core processor (AMD Athlon 64 3800+ Venice, 2.4GHz 512K L2, Socket 939) or the dual core (X2 4400+ Toledo, 2.2GHz 1MBx2 L2) or perhaps looking into an AM2 platform, but that will mean I will have to drop (lots) more money on DDR2. Right now it seems that rather than the X2 though in most games a similarily priced single core FX55 (the newer 90nm San Diego, not Clawhammer) simply gives it a whoopin', with the exeption of dual core enabled games (Quake 4, etc.) but even then the difference is marginal (10-15%) at best, and not really worth the performance losses in everything else. Keep in mind I'm trying to keep this under $600 if not less for the CPU, video card, AND motherboard.
As for the vid, I hear that the nVIDIA GeForce 7900GS is the best bang for the buck right now (at newegg.com they have one by ZOGIS, model Z079GS+D, thats overclocked to 475/1400 over stock for 200 smackers). The only complaint I have about this is the lack for FSAA when using HDR, but from what I've seen on my X1600 is it's too slow to be practical anyway (but then again with only 12.6GB/s bandwidth...) but it's a minor gripe. And the X1900GT is well over $60 more.
Motherboard? I'm not looking to build an SLI system, because I simply don't have the money for it (plus I hear Vista won't work with SLI because of how the OS is written, the other card will not be utilized) so I found a good MSI built nForce 4 board for $65 on newegg (K8N Neo4-F) and I have never had any problems with their boards in the past. And it's cheap!
This is what I am currently considering on buying here within the next month or so, so if anyone has a better idea on what to get let me know! I look forward to that input so I'll fire it up and wait for your replies...
(plus I hear Vista won't work with SLI because of how the OS is written, the other card will not be utilized)
Well - thats kind of true. The Vista Beta 2 doesnt run SLI at the moment. Beta1 did SLI (with the right video driver). It's more of a driver issue than a hardware/software issue.
You can safely expect Vista to run SLI and CrossFire when the consumer versions is available in the spring. The enterprise edition (available sooner) might have limited SLI or Crossfire support but thats not a priority for that version. Not that it's an issue in your budget range.
-> IMO the AM2 route is the best option because it has the best future upgrade options. If you need a budget stretcher just get 1GB RAM for now (1x1GB stick) and let it run in single channel mode till you have enough to get the 2nd stick for dual channel mode.
I must admit the Core 2 Duo is very tempting, but won't it take a hit only using DDR400 instead of DDR2-667 or even DDR2-533?
I believe Anandtech.com did a comparison a month or two ago. According to the article, there was very little performance degradation between DDR 400 and DDR2 533. It was somewhere between 3% - 6%, not bad in my opinion if it saves you the cost of buying DDR2 RAM.
As an alternative to the ECS mobo I recommended, there is the ASRock 775Dual-VSTA Socket T (LGA 775) VIA PT880 PRO ATX for $62 (including shipping). The only bad thing about it is that the PCI-e slot runs at x4, not x16. Current PCI-e video cards have not maxed out the PCI-e slot yet (not even close), but were you to get faster card than the X1900GT, then you might hit a bottleneck. But that's just my guess.