PC Upgrade: $500, $1000, $1500


"Phil":http://nvidia.com has come to visit us and was asking about upgrading his computer. Here is what he owns that is 2002 vintage:
| Component | Replace or not? |
| Athlon XP 2000+ | An older part, 2x performance increase possible |
| PNY nVidia 4600 Video Card | Direct 8.1 only, should replace |
| Mitsubishi CRT 21" | Still best for gaming |
| 512MB PC2700 memory | Can get to PC4000 with overclocking now |
| Soyo Dragon Black Platinum MB | Replace as CPU is changing |
| 60GB disk | Can use for data, get new system disk |
| Sony DRW-510 DVD Writer | Fine for now |
So what to get if you had $500 to upgrade the machine. First question is of course, what are you going to do with it?
He like to play games and also to the regular Internet stuff, so what should he do?
Here is what I would do to get a more balanced system. First, I don't think just getting a faster CPU will help particularly much with games.
"Adrian's Rojak Pot":http://www.rojakpot.com/default.aspx?location=3&var1=88&var2=0 has a great comparison of old cards. Video performance since 2002 has essentially increased by 10x while CPU performance is perhaps 3x faster. His Athlon 2000+ is probalby running at 1.4GHz in reality and an overclocked Athlon 64 3200+ will be running at 2.6GHz in comparison his 4600 card vs. a late model nVidia GT probably has a frame rate difference in modern games of 10 assuming his 4600 could even run Doom 3 or Far Cry. Many of the modern games will only run on DirectX 9 hardware.
So there is a tradeoff right now between best price/performance and the lowest price. A $500 upgrade is really about getting the lowest price and trading off quite a bit of performance to hit that price point.
h3. $500 Budget upgrade
To get the right budget upgrade, first thing you need to do is to stack rank the components in importance and spend appropriately. Here it is for a gamer:
# Graphics card. The biggest variable given ATI is a product "transition":http://www.anandtech.com/video/showdoc.aspx?i=2299&p=8 and availability is tight. Get an nVidia 6600GT at about "$229":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=4927855/blsrt=1. There is an AGP and a PCI Express version, but for the budget, the AGP is fine for a low end upgrade.
# Disk. IMHO, the biggets performance increase is in the disk. Getting a two spindle system dramatically increases performance. Since this about being quiet as well, the Western Digital WD800JD is just "$65":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=561899. It is pretty fast running at 7200 RPM (vs. 5400RPM). Because NTFS fragments like crazy with the big files, he should have the 80GB WD as the system disk and only put Windows and applications on it. Then for use his old 60GB drive for temporary files, and things that change alot. On my machines, this increase actual performance by up to 2x.
# Processor. The Athlons are essentially obsolete, but with budget Athlon 64s coming on strong, for about "$135":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=2938440/blsrt=1, you can get an Athlon 64 2800+. This would be a socket 754 as the motherboards are cheaper (see below). Make sure to get an ADA2800AXBOX as this is the latest Newcastle with the right stepping. This is also the retail box, so it comes with a cooler and a 1 year warranty (OEM versions only have a 90 day warranty).
# Motherboard. There are quite a few low cost Socket 754 motherboards now. For instance, I have the Chaintech VNF-250 nForce3 that costs about "$75":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=2644523/blsrt=1. This doesn't have Firewire though but does overclock decently. If you want the absolutely best overclocking board, get the "DFI LANParty UT nF3 250Gb":http://anandtech.com/mb/showdoc.aspx?i=2206&p=13 for "$107":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=4335859/blsrt=1, so it puts you out of your price range, but a worthy upgrade.
# Memory. Right now the Samsung based PC3200 CL2 memory is the fastest and lowest cost. 512MB is two sticks at for the "
Corsair 3200XL":http://www.anandtech.com/memory/showdoc.aspx?i=2145 at about "$134":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=3536679/blsrt=1.
Total is $638 so we are a little overbudget. To get precisely to $500, I would probably cut the memory and give up on overclocking as a result. This will cut performance by about 30%, but it will still be way faster because of the graphics card.
h3. $1000 upgrade is the best price/performance
With a $1000 budget, this increase moves you into the sweet spot of super high performance at modest prices. An upgrade like this looks like this with a bit of future proofing:
# Graphics. Moving up to a 6600GT as before. In this case, move to PCI Express for the future at "$195":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=4605894/blsrt=1 With the SLI below, he can get another 6600 later on and double performance. Alternatively, if SLI is too exotic, then a 6800GT on AGP at "$330":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=3648305/blsrt=1 with just 128MB instead of 256MB is a great budget choice. Only issue that's come up is the PureVideo decoding hardware support for HD movies only works on 6600GTs. That's not that big an issue IMHO since I don't think there will be much movie watching on this machine. If you must have PCI Express, then a 6600 GT for PCI Express is cheaper at "$195":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=4927887/blsrt=1, but you have to get a more expensive motherboard.
# Motherboard. Well, if you can wait, the hot boards are the new SLI boards like the "Gigabyte":http://www.anandtech.com/mb/showdoc.aspx?i=2285. ASUS, Gigabyte and MSI all have them. THey should be about $180 but right now are hard to get and cost $250 or so. If you can't wait, I'd get a good socket 939 motherboard with AGP as PCIExpress doesn't really help single graphics performance. In a "shootout":http://www.anandtech.com/mb/showdoc.aspx?i=2128&p=19 and "later":http://www.anandtech.com/mb/showdoc.aspx?i=2257&p=13 reviews, the "MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum":http://www.anandtech.com/mb/showdoc.aspx?i=2128&p=19 at "$135":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=3625539/blsrt=1 had incredible overclocking. So, get the MSI K8N Neo2 if you can't wait or do the SLI/PCI Express is you can.
# CPU. I'd move to the AMD Athon 64 3200+ at "$207":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=4605951. This has a multiplier of up to 10x so you can achieve overclock speeds 2.6GHz which is the maximum of the current processors.
# Disk. I'd go to the Western Digital "WD740GB":http://www.storagereview.com/articles/200401/20040126WD740GD_1.html disk for "$180":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=1733497/blsrt=1. This is a screamer drive that will be the system disk that is the fasted yet for desktops. The current 60GB drive if fine for general storage and temporaries, but put all read-only Windows and applications on the Western Digital and you'll be very happy.
# Memory. Most applications really love 1GB, so getting two sticks of so either the Corsair TWINX 3200XL or the Geil Ultra X are fine. Both are about "$275":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=4446853/blsrt=1
Total cost is $1,127 so again a little over budget. If I were to really get down to $1,000, I'd probably drop down to a cheaper hard drive, say the Seagate 7200.7 200GB at "$120":http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=2583792/search=7200.7 is a fine drive with a five year warranty. And also drop to the Athlon 2800+ at $135. The 2800+ probably means giving up about 10% of performance since it will probably just go to 2.4GHz on overclock rather than 2.6GHz.
h3. $1500 upgrade
This is where you get into the luxury items. It is the $1000 upgrade above plus:
# Power Supply. The biggest source of instability and the easiest way to get more overclock is a bigger supply. I like the Seasonic Tornado 460 at $99 because it is very quite, but any supply from Enermax, OCZ or other higher end brands will do.
# Another disk. Get another modern disk. The $200 Maxstor DiamondMax 10 300GB is really great for data.
# Upgrade the graphics card. Going to the 6800GT adds about $200 more cost, but will double performance. Since SLI requires matched cards, this means that when you go to SLI, wow, performance really rises.