So, it looks like we've answered the question we set out to explore: an aging dual-core CPU is no longer enough to run the newest games, but even an old Athlon X2 4200+ can remain a viable gaming option when it's overclocked a little. Don't donate that AGP PC just yet, because with an inexpensive CPU, a little tweaking, and an upgraded graphics card, you might have a nice gaming rig for your buddy to use when you invite him or her over for a LAN party.
Exactly what upgraded graphics card are we talking about? The fastest AGP card we've tested is ATI's Radeon HD 3850, and you can get them for under $100. Unfortunately, the AGP flavor of the Radeon HD 4670--an even newer board based on a modern GPU--was released after this review was written. We know that the PCIe version of the Radeon HD 4670 is slightly faster than the Radeon HD 3850, and slightly slower than the Radeon HD 3870, so we can make some educated guesses as to it's relative performance. Since the PCIe version of the Radeon HD 4650 performs similarly to the AGP version of the same card, we can safely assume that the new AGP Radeon HD 4670 will perform closely to the Radeon HD 3850--perhaps even a little faster in most situations, and perhaps a little slower in others.
With the new AGP Radeon HD 4670 as low as $115, and the Radeon HD 3850 as low as $95, which do we recommend? Assuming these cards perform similarly, we'd choose the cheaper one, as we think the CPU bottleneck from the older AGP systems is going to limit both of these cards. However, the availability of Radeon HD 4000-series cards on the AGP bus is a telltale indication that the AGP Radeon HD 3850 is in the process of being phased out. Also, keep in mind that the AGP-based Radeon HD 4670 will likely drop in price over time, as there is a price premium associated with new products.
So, what about the Radeon HD 4650 we tested here? As our benchmarks showed, it's a fine upgrade from an older card like the Radeon X700 and similarly-performing boards (GeForce 6600 GT and Radeon 9800 XT). Having said that, the AGP Radeon HD 4650 is new and still suffering from out-of-the-gate higher pricing. At $80 to $90, it costs almost as much as the Radeon HD 3850. When things settle down and the price gets closer to where the PCIe Radeon HD 4650 rests, the AGP Radeon HD 4650 will be a better buy. It's also likely that future Catalyst drivers may support these cards, and perhaps even enable desirable overclocking functionality.
Regardless, it is nice to see that even as AGP systems fade into the horizon, they are being supported with more modern graphics cards. Clearly, there is enough of a market to warrant bringing these products to market. However, at the same time, the powers that be seem to have decided that it isn't worth putting the fastest GPUs on AGP-based cards.
What we’ve seen indicates that, in a couple of years, games will require CPU speeds faster than what an older chip can deliver, even when overclocked. Thus, we can't help but think that we have already passed the pinnacle of AGP gaming with the Radeon HD 3850. Accelerated Graphics Port, you've been good to us, and you continue to provide reasonable mainstream performance, but I can't shake the feeling that I might not be reviewing you again...
Thanks for all the good times. I will remember you fondly.