Monday, May 07, 2007

Hmmm... should I bother upgrading...

Well... my main desktop PC has set relatively unmolested by upgrades (excepting a parts replacement or two) since I bought it back in 2003. I've upgraded my monitor to a top of the line 19" NEC LCD, but I havent really messed with the core PC hardware.

Thing is, it hasn't particularly needed it. It's an Athlon XP 3200+, with a gig of DDR RAM (it had 2 gigs, but one of the sticks fried for some reason so I put the other stick in something else and tossed 2x512 in there), an ATI all-in-wonder 9700 pro, 2x DVD writers, and 2x 500gb 8mb cache ATA133 hard drives.

For everything but the most intense games, it's still just fine.

Now, I'm planning on buying a new godbox some time later this year or early next; when the new quad core Athlons and the first generation or REAL quad core pentiums settle down price wise (they're both schedule to come out in September or so). Dual quads with 4gb of the fastest ram available sounds about right (and yes, I can actually use that many cores for some things; especially when I'm booting into linux).

I'm also planning on giving my in laws my old PC..., and buying Mel and the girls a new one...

'cept with the price of barebones PCs these days, I can toss something perfectly acceptable to my father in law for $300-$400.

Amazing what the market has done isn't it? Since they haven't been able to make PCS very much faster the last few years, but no-one has repealed Moores law; the price of respectable computers has dropped dramatically.

So anyway, I'm starting to think about instead of giving my father in law the old PC, just upgrading it, and keeping it. I'm just trying to decide whether to bother or not.

Half the reasoning behind this by the way is because I don't feel like completely reinstalling the box... unfortunately it kinda needs it; since I haven't done it in 2.5 years.

Anyway, it is the last of the generation of motherboards before pci-E video cards so it's AGP, and it's DDR only, no DDR 2. Also it's a socket A motherboard, with the fastest socket A processor in it; so if I want to upgrade the proc it means upgrading the mobo.

That said, the last generation of ATI AGP cards tops out with the x1950, and you can pick one of the AGP versions up for $150 (the PCIe are more expensive, but much faster), and a decent TV tuner card for $100.

That pretty much multiplies the graphics horsepower by a factor of 4.

My motherboard supports up to 4gb of ram (the max winblows can use anyway) ; and these days 2x 2 gig sticks can be had for under $200.

My I/O performance is just fine; I'm not worried about the drives performance being a generation behind, and a TB is plenty of space for this computer. The only big things I'm doing on it are storing the occasional video rip (all in wonder card is there for a reason), and as a cd-image and backup store.

Honestly, I need to set up an external TB array to act as a backup and filing systems for all our PCs. I used to run a backup and file server; but since we moved here I haven't bothered, because I simplified down to two laptops and the desktop (I have about 9 computers I just don't use the other ones anymore). One of the laptops runs Linux as a dumb net terminal and the other is a work owned machine, so I don't do backups on either one any more

Ok, so $450 maxes my RAM and video card, and leaves me with the fastest single core 32 bit athlon.

Honestly, that's not a bad deal. Even buying my in laws the bare bones deal I was going to get for Mel and the kids ($300 plus abother $150 for bits and bobs), I think I'd come out ahead on money. The only thing is, this computer is a dead end... All of the components are superseded by the next generation of technology, so there's no upgrade overhead.

If I were to BUILD the equivalent box, but on new tech, where would I be and what would it cost me?

Let's start with a baseline, of $450 to upgrade the old box, and $450 to buy a new barebones box for the inlaws; thus $900 total.

Well, I still think Athlon offers better value for the money in the midrange and low end; even though Pentium has had the performance crown since they introduced their last generation of dual cores. So lets stick with Athlon.

At this point, you wouldn't even think of building anything new without dual core, so we're talking Athlon X2, and it makes sense to go with something more futureproof, so that means Socket AM2.

The sweet spot for AM2 procs today is the Athlon 64 X2 4800+ (at 2.5ghz); running about $130.

Now, the AM2 is supported by both several chipsets, but I'm partial to the nForce 500 series. A decent nForce 550 motherboard (the 500 series are without integrated video) can be had for as little as $60, but there are at least a dozen options in the $80 price range. The much better nForce 570 sweetspots right at $100; and there are at least a dozen options there as well.

2x 2 gig ddr2 800 sticks from a reasonable brand will run you just over $200; actually a little less than the non-ddr sticks for the current mobo.

2x 500gb 16mb cache Sata II drives will run you $120 each for any of the major brands, $240 total.

A dual layer DVD burner is about $50, with a second DVD player; probably $40 but lets round the both of them up to $100.

A decent case with a respectable powersupply can be had for $80

That's $750, without video; which I'm saving for last because it's the most complicated question.

The video card market right now (and for the last two years), is just a mess. There are so many infinitesimal differences between products within the same segment, and a half dozen segments within each line...

One would have thought that reducing the major players in the market down to just nVidia and ATI/AMD (if you haven't been paying attention AMD bought ATI last year) a few years back would have simplified things.

One would have been wrong in this thought.

Right now, you can buy mainstream graphics cards at every price point from $60 all the way up to $900; for a single card. Even more insane, the top end cards are all designed to be used in a paired configuration.

Hell, the extreme setup today is two graphic processors on a single card, ganged together with another daughter card; both connected to the motherboard through a single slot, with another identical setup in the slot right next to it. Combined the boards have 8 graphics processors, and as much as 4gb of memory; and cost over $2000.

For those of us back on planet earth; this ridiculous top end proliferation, though confusing, has had some great side benefits; in that even the lower mid range cards today are great performers.

The real problem though, is figuring out the sweet spot.

For nVidia cards, the best deal seems to be the GeForce 7900 or 7950, both of which can be had for between $200 and $250 depending on exact configuration. For $300 you can get into the low end of the 8800 lineup; but I don't think that's either necessary or a good value.

The ATI picture is a little tougher to bring into focus; mostly because there are a huge number of configuration options from a dozen vendors (not that the nVidia options are much simpler, they are just all closer together on price and features).

Right now, I think the sweet spot seems to be the Radeon x1900 or x1950, non "crossfire" versions. They are the fastest single GPU cards that ATI has to offer, and are available in configurations from $180, all the way up to $300 from various vendors. More money gets you a higher clock, more and faster memory, and a better heat sink.

In this case, I think the ATI offering is a better deal; and besides, it keeps your video card and your processor from the same vendor (though with a chipset from their direct competitor nVidia... funny how that works out).

The funny thing though? For either vendor, if you only spend $150 on their "mainstream" cards, you'll still get great performance.

Anyway, lets assume $250 on a slight bump down from the top end X1950; and call it a day.

That's $1000, about a hundred more than buying a bottom of the line barebones system for my in laws, and upgrading my existing computer (another $100 if I want another TV card).

Now, for that grand, what do I get?

Well, honestly, that's about 4 times the computer that upgrading would get me...

There is one other option; I could keep my case, power supply, hard drives, and optical drives; and upgrade the existing pc using the other components I mention here; then stick my old components in a cheap new case, and add DVD and hard drive.

So, the box, DVD, and hard drive; plus bits and bobs to make the whole thing usable with my old hardware; would run something like $250.

Then, replacing my motherboard, processor, and memory, and keeping the case, hard drives, and optical drives, would run me about $700.

$950... saving me maybe $50 over building the whole thing as new, and that's keeping my old hard drives (which are fine, but slower and of an older technology base). Probably not worth it.

So I guess it is worth it to buy new, and I really shouldn't bother upgrading... but damnit I don't feel like wiping my old box, and installing everything on the new one...

Now just wait 'til you see the agonizing I'mna go through when I go to build my god box... I'm still not sure if I'm going to say "Screw it all, I'm buying a damn Mac".