By October 28, 2005

New System Review!

Nothing spurs a new hardware build like games. Alexa, Father, Bond, Cleopatra and I are all either playing, or have played, Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft. Wanting to see what the fuss was all about, Lady Jaye innocently asked, “can I see what the game is like?” Muha. MUHA. MUHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAAHA. Of course, dear. The first one is always free. She toyed around with character creation on my computer, moved around for a bit, finished some first level quests, and wanted to try the game for reals.

There was a problem with her trying the game out at a more in-depth level. Her current desktop was antiquated. There’s no way it would run WoW sufficiently (at least, by my standards) to play. And baby can’t have a low-rent gaming machine.

Lady Jaye needs a new machine? No problem. But hey, my current workstation could use a revision as well. Besides, it is a dual processor rig and is better suited at file serving than hammering goblins into paste. While we’re at it, why not buy two machines?

So here was my goal:

  • New processor
  • New motherboard
  • New video
  • New ram
  • New case and power supply

That’s it, we already had hard drives and optical drives — one CDR and one DVD drive.

I wanted to escape for less than $800 shipped out the door, for both systems. A tall order, given that the absolutely cutting-edge Intel and AMD processor product lines aren’t as cheap as they were the last time I built a machine.

Processor
The most important decision, and from which all other questions — motherboard type and size, ram type and capacity, and video interface type — would all be answered. Like I said, the AMD 939 chips were expensive, the least being $145 at NewEgg, and that would blow almost half of my budget already. So I had to look at the older, but still alive, 754 processor line from AMD. I purchased the Sempron 2600+ chip, a 64-bit processor running at 1.6GHz out of the box. I got the retail version, which provided a heat sink and fan that I would have to buy separately otherwise. Since I wasn’t overclocking, the stock HSF combo was fine for me. Cost: $64.

Motherboard
The motherboard is where all the other computer components get together to party. By themselves they may be impressive dancers, but they are ineffectual without the blinking lights and fog machines of the motherboard dance floor. These days, you can get a pretty damn fancy motherboard, with onboard 7.1 sound, networking, RAID, USB, and most importantly for my purchase — onboard video. I knew that buying an external video card would compromise my low-cost objective. The middle of the road current gen cards are between $130 and $250. The motherboard I selected had an advanced onboard video chipset made by major manufacturer NVIDIA. The 6100 is the first onboard video chipset that is DirectX 9 compatible and offers advanced texture rendering and vertex shaders. The 6100 shared system memory, which I knew would suck, but if I could escape without buying an external graphics card I would be set. I made sure my motherboard choice had the option to add an external video card just in case. I chose the ASRock K8NF4G-SATA2 motherboard, made by longtime mobo maker ASUS. Cost: $62

Ram
Next step: RAM. The K8NF4G-SATA2 took 168-pin DDR RAM. Very run of the mill. Because the Sempron runs an 800MHz dual channel RAM bus, I purchased the least expensive pair of 400MHz RAM I could find. Buffalo, a Japanese chip manufacturer, came through with a 2-pack of 512MB sticks for a total of 1GB of onboard memory. Cost: $80


Motherboard, RAM, and processor in their retail packaging.

Case and power supply
I have to admit, I’d been wanting to try out the ASPIRE X-QPACK miniATX case ever since bought her badass 939-based system earlier this year. She went with a full sized ATX case and motherboard, but I could afford to go tiny. The X-QPACK comes in a variety of colors, features a 420W BTX power supply for today’s modern boards, and is 9″ x 10.2″ x 14″ — much smaller than my current server case, which is almost two feet high. I bought an all black one for myself, and Lady Jaye got a silver faceplate. Cost: $80

Here’s a product shot from newegg.com:

Total cost per system (thus far), including shipping: $311.24 Not fucking bad.

Okay, so we have all the necessary pieces! I had the parts delivered while I was away on business. I tracked the packages from their respective warehouses, and is typical for newegg, they arrived early. Two days early, in fact. I flew back on the red eye, picked up Rosie, and then went to work building the new systems.

It was Lady Jaye’s first time building a new box, so here she is setting up the majority of her system:


Processor and HSF already installed, Lady Jaye puts in the two memory sticks.

With the necessary stuff installed on the motherboard, it was time to install it into the X-QPACK case.

Three thumbscrews hold on the U-shaped case shell:

Let me tell you, working in that fucking case is a pain in the ass if you have big hands. I put the second system together myself, and Lady Jaye did a far better job at navigating the inside of this case than I did. Here’s how cramped it is:

Running cables in that monster is TOUGH.


Plugging in the front-mounted USB and audio cables

Okay, so we put her all together without incident, and she ran just fine. But how did she perform for a $311 box?

The real world (of Warcraft)
I’m not going to mince words here. The performance of the onboard video FUCKING SUCKED. I logged into the orc capital city, and my framerate was in the single digits. It was like a flip book, and I was only able to navigate around town because I’d played the game for so long I knew where everything was. I thought something was wrong, so I updated the video drivers and all of the motherboard drivers from the manufacturers. My old comp, Janus, was much better than this machine, and she was filled with four year old technology. I turned down all the visual goodies, and still nothing.

I ran the Futuremark 3DMark 2001 SE suite, which is a free program that allows you to measure how good your computer is at handling 3D graphics. I chose the 2001 SE over more recent revisions because the 2001 is the last one to feature DirectX 8 tests — and Janus’ old-timey vid card was DirectX 8 only.

Higher numbers are better. In Janus’ case, much much better. Janus scored an 8241, while the new box scored a 3068. I couldn’t believe it. I knew the 754 processor wasn’t exactly cutting edge technology, but surely it wouldn’t result in over a 50% loss of 3D performance??

There was only one thing to do. Order video cards.

External Video Cards
I’d long been pricing NVIDIA GeForce 6600GT cards. They were in the sweet spot as far as NVIDIA’s 6xxx product line goes. They have since released a 7xxx series, but those cards are all $350+. The 6600GT was available for about $130 apiece through newegg.com. You may notice that I have now gone over my budget. We’ll get to that in a second. I paid for the cards to arrive overnight and crossed my fingers that the limitation was with the onboard video, and I hadn’t just screwed myself with $900 in hardware.

I put the cards in — which was such a pain in the ass due to the cramped case that I forgot to take pictures — and ran 3DMark again.

I was relieved. 13,410. Much better, especially considering that Janus cost me about $2000 to build four years ago. My WoW framerate went from 9 frames per second to up to 35 – 60 in some places, with every option turned on.

But there was another nagging problem. The front bezel of the cases were black, and my optical drives were WHITE. Blech! Also, Lady Jaye and I wanted to be able to easily get photos off of our two cameras, which use compact flash and SD cards. Plus there’s the whole memory stick format thanks to our PSPs. I put in another order at newegg.com (before the vid cards, actually) for two memory stick readers ($14 each) and a black BenQ dual layer DVD burner $37.99 plus 10 dual layer blanks $29.99. These incremental acquisitions were killing my budget.

So, let’s recap:
Would you like to play a game of chess?

  • Awesome case, it has an LED readout on the front for hard drive and CPU temperature, is smallish, and very quiet.
  • Once we worked the kinks/weak points out, good performance for the budget — especially if you don’t do any 3D gaming.
  • Solid upgrade to my aging dual processor machine and Lady Jaye’s ancient budget box.

How about tic-tac-toe?

  • Onboard video is an embarrassment. Why even bother with DirectX 9 support if the rendering power is so weak it can’t even play modern 3D games?
  • Final cost per unit was higher than I hoped: $455 for Lady Jaye’s machine and $523 for mine. However, it was still about half the price of a newer 939 system with almost identical specs.
  • The case’s small size was also it’s drawback: cramped working conditions, even with the slide-out motherboard tray. I dropped a screw during the install and thought I was going to HULK SMASH the thing into a billion pieces.
  • Flimsy U-shell on the cases — UPS jacked one of the shipping boxes pretty good and bent the top left corner of my case. I didn’t want to wait for a replacement, so I hammered the ding out (mostly) with a rubber mallet and called it a day.

New system upgrade, it’s hard to judge ye as a sum of your parts, but all in all I award thee:

Three and a half out of five STFU mugs!

If you want to ball on a budget, check this system out, although buying a new hard drive would bump this system up close to the 939 processor range. If you just need an upgrade to your emailer/Web/photo editing machine, then the onboard video version is a total steal for you at less than $350 shipped.

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1 Comment on "New System Review!"

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  1. drfaulken says:

    Ars Technica user chalex explains why the onboard video is DX9 compliant without being a 3D barn burner:

    I guess DX9 is just needed for Vista compatibility. That way, the chip is fast enough to accelerate the Windows UI, but not fast enough for games.