Can Your Old Athlon 64 Still Game?

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.

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  • Schip
    FIRST POST!!! Nice Article though. I knew my brother would soon be doomed with his P4 2.8c ;)
  • Anonymous
    "AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200 + dual-core, which has a 2.2 GHz Manchester architecture with 512 MB L2 cache per core."
    oau! that's a lot of cache :D
  • neiroatopelcc
    I haven't read the actual article yet, but I bet the simple answer is no!
    I've got a backup gaming rig at home that barely cuts it. An x2 1.9ghz (oc'ed to 2.4) with an 8800gtx and 3gb memory. That rig struggles at 1280x1024 in some situations, and it can only be attributed to the cpu really.
  • bf2gameplaya
    2.8GHz Opteron 185 (up from 2.6GHz) with 2x1MB L2 cache is the ultimate s939 CPU....blows these weak benchmarks away.

    Who would have thought DDR would have such durability? There's something to be said for CAS2!
  • cangelini
    Surprisingly, you can actually do fairly well. Of course, it depends on the app...
  • neiroatopelcc
    But your opteron cpu still limits the modern graphics cards.
    Two years back I bought my 8800gtx, and realized it wouldn't come to its full potential in my opteron 170 (@ 2.7). A friend with another gtx paired with an e6400 chip (@ 3ghz) scored a full 30% higher in 3dmark than I, and it showed in games. Even in wow where you'd expect a casio calculator would deliver enough graphics power.

    In short - ye ddr still work if you've got enthusiast parts, but that can't negate the effect a faster cpu would give. At least at decent resolutions (22" wide)
  • dirtmountain
    This is a great article! It will give me something to show when i'm talking to people about a new system or just a GPU/PSU upgrade. Great job by Henningsen.
  • NoIncentive
    I'm still using a P4 3.0 @ 3.4 with 1 GB DDR 400 and an nVidia 6800GT...

    I'm building a new computer next week.
  • randomizer
    I can echo the findings in Crysis. It didn't matter what settings I ran with a 3700 Sandy and an X1950 pro, the framerate was almost the same (albeit low 20s because the card is slower). Added an E6600 to the mix and my framerate tripled at lower settings.

    It would have been interesting to see how a 3000+ Clawhammer (C0 stepping) would do in Crysis. Single-channel memory, poor overclocking capabilities... FAIL!
  • ravenware
    bf2gameplaya2.8GHz Opteron 185 (up from 2.6GHz) with 2x1MB L2 cache is the ultimate s939 CPU....blows these weak benchmarks away.Who would have thought DDR would have such durability? There's something to be said for CAS2!

    Thia ia true about the DDR. I recall an article on toms right after the release of the AM2 socket which tested identical dual core processors against their 939 counterparts; the tests showed little to no performance gains.

    Great article, their has been some discussion about this in the forums as well.

    I currently own a 939 4200+ x2 that's paired with a 7800GT; and this article shows what I thought to be accurate about the AMD64 chips. Their not as fast as some of the C2D's but they still kick ass.

    Good job pointing out the single core factor in newer games too. As soon as the crysis demo was released I upgraded my San Diego core to a dual core and noticed the difference in crysis immediately.

    This article gives me further confidence in my decision to hold on upgrading my system. I want to hold out for Windows7 D3D11 and more money to build an ape sh** machine :D

    Nice article!!
  • giovanni86
    Good article, enjoyed it very much considering i run a AMD Athlon 3500+ venice core and have a XFX 9800GTX. Runs great, but big battles are very choppy and any high demanding game like COD4 and CRYSIS i have to suffer by not being able to max out settings. I almost blamed the GPU but i knew sooner then later i had to upgrade to a newer system then just opting in a newer GPU. I had a 6600GT which did great for the time being but it showed its age this past year. Great article!
  • groo
    I figured my 3600+ brisbane was realy holding me back, even when
    OC'd. when I got my 4850. looks like, for the most part it isn't because I like lots of eye candy.

    I still plan on upgrading soon :)
  • neiroatopelcc
    get 4 gigs memory instead of 3. If you're lucky the quadchannel memory will make its way into a future amd cpu and 3gb is pointles with hte current pricing on ddr2 anyway. Get 2x2gb and upgrade with 2x2gb more if you want. 2009 you may want to go get a 64bit windows 7 to match your hardware anyway :)
  • mohdwahidi
    thanks for the great article. this sure saves me a lot of money. i have AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ with HD4850. I can get to play Racedriver:GRID in Ultra setting. Reading your articles makes me think to upgrade it to 6000+.
  • da bahstid
    I'm impressed to see that the single core athlon didn't completely crash and burn anywhere. Just for kicks it would have been funny to see it try to drive a 4870X2. I can definitely tell it weighs down my 6400+X2 even at 3.45GHz. Entertainment value aside, this is one of the more objectively conducted articles I've seen here recently, and I actually like seeing some of these oddball scenarios getting played out. I can second the finding that an Athlon X2 at 2.4GHz as a ballpark minimum for driving an 8800/9800 or 4800 series card. Fortunately most X2s can overclock to around 3+GHz...other hardware allowing.
  • chill_king
    Interesting article. I find it amazing that its almost 2009 and i can still play the likes of stalker clear sky fairly well on my 939 asus a8n-sli motherboard that was released early 2005 with an aging 4200+ x2.

    I've always avoided upgrades just for the sake of so called "future proofing" and so have been trying to get the most out of my 4200+ X2 which i've overclocked from 2.2 to 2.8ghz (rock solid stable).

    Currently getting Getting 10500 in 3dmark06 and can handle most games to date at 1280 x 1024 bar crysis / warhead. I have 2 8800gt's in SLI so no GPU limitation there (i know its overkill but got them to use with my next rig).

    However, got my copy of farcry 2 today which i expect to be the nail in the coffin for my 939. With the likes of deadspace and fallout 3 still to play im looking at an e8400 to give my 8800gt's something to chew on.
  • neiroatopelcc
    Come to think of it my previous statement is not nessecarily right. I mean the first one. While and amd x2 does poorly in reallife compared to synthetic benches, my dad plays supreme commander on his old p4 2.4 (northwood) with 2gb pc3200 and a 7600gs card. Surely not at 1680x1050, but still quite well. So I suppose it depends on the games played. But for any game I'd be playing, my secondary pc really just isn't fast enough. Even the 3 raptors in stripe mode feel .... slow

    ps. can someone explain why half the time I can't post comments? I'm posting from an xp in vmware atm as the host os can't anymore. For now anyway.
  • feraltoad
    What a great article! I can see this as really being useful for those still hanging on and trying 2 decide what 2 do about upgrades.
  • feraltoad
    What a great article! I can see this as really being useful for those still hanging on and trying 2 decide what 2 do about upgrades.
  • Chuck Norris
    Haha, I could have used this article about a week ago! But, better late than never, as they say.

    I have a nearly 4 year old Dimension 8400 from Dell with a Pentium 4 @ 3.2GHz HT. I heard plenty of people say that getting a "good" video card for such a system would be a waste as the single core processor would bottleneck, but I opened up my 9600GT today (birthday gift!) and it's amazing (compared to my 7900GS I purchased 2 years ago). I have no doubt that upgrading to a nice C2Q would improve my performance even more but I am very happy so far.

    If you have an aging computer, don't hesitate to upgrade a component or two to keep you going until you can buy a new system, but do shoot for the best price for performance. (Pre-overclocked 9600GT for $80 from newegg after ($20) rebate and free shipping--superb!)