Gamers Have Plenty Of Upgrade Options
Before we get to performance testing, let’s take a quick look at some of the components in a gaming PC that will impact performance. In this article, we focus on systems that have a PCI Express slot, and therefore have an abundance of well-priced graphics card options available. The GPU is the most important and often underpowered system component for PC gaming. This is especially true if you purchased a pre-built system that might include an integrated graphics processor or a budget GPU not intended for any serious gaming. Often new system owners quickly discover their brand new machine is not very good for gaming due to a lack of graphics power.
The GeForce 8800 GS we chose for testing has been an amazing bargain in the United States. Re-branded as the 9600 GSO, these cards have recently retailed for as low as $50 after a mail-in rebate. It’s not as powerful as its bigger brother 8800 GT, but is far more powerful than the 8600 GT or the Radeon HD 2600 XT that used to occupy that same price range. Their low prices and capabilities make the 8800 GS and 9600 GSO good candidates for an older system that can handle a PCI Express 2.0 card. For those wanting even more GPU power, we also ran through our most demanding settings with another card that offers great value for the dollar, the AMD Radeon HD 4850.
However, the GPU is only part of the system requirements for enjoyable gaming. Faster hard drives can reduce load times. More memory means less pausing or stuttering from hard drive swapping. And, of course, a fast enough CPU to execute instructions and feed data to the graphics card is very important. We aim to find out if a single- or dual-core Athlon 64 has enough power to handle the latest games.
As far as the hard drive goes, there’s no real need to upgrade it unless you need more storage space, but it’s a good idea to keep it defragmented. On the memory side, 1 GB of RAM should be the minimum for Windows XP gaming, while 2 GB is better yet. Windows Vista owners should try to have at least 2 GB, if possible. Memory is in general very affordable now, so those with 1 GB or less should consider adding RAM to smooth out their game play.
CPU options come down to system compatibility and current availability. Many people have little upgrade options left in their system, and these gamers can use this article to see if it’s worth putting a new graphics card in their PC as is, or if it’s time to retire it and put the money towards a new system. For others, there may be processor upgrade options available, but are they a good place for the gamer to spend money? Will your system support dual-core CPUs? If so, are any available and are they reasonably priced? And are they fast enough to make a difference?
Those using Socket 754 motherboards are stuck with single-core processors, the fastest of which is a little slower than the single-core Athlon 64 we will use for this article. Our single-core CPU will represent the best performance you could hope to squeeze from your system. Socket 939 owners do have dual-core options, but they have long since been discontinued and are getting harder to find new. If you do find an affordable chip, most likely it’s a lower-clocked model like the one we have chosen for this article. Socket AM2 owners, on the other hand, have very affordable Athlon 64 X2 options available and are in a good position to upgrade their single-core or lower-clocked dual-core CPUs.
On the Intel side, Socket 478 owners are limited to single-core processors and are quickly seeing their systems barely meet the minimum specs as game boxes. LGA 775 owners need to be careful, as numerous dual-core options are available but support will vary depending on the specific motherboard and chipset. Regardless of the socket, if you consider a CPU upgrade, make sure to check with your motherboard/system manufacturer to see the list of supported CPUs.