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Hardware FAQ

Lately there have been a lot of people asking a lot of questions regarding potential hardware upgrades. Since I have gotten tired of repeatedly answering all of these questions, I've put together a FAQ to hopefully handle most of these situations in the future! This FAQ is geared mostly towards anyone who is planning on overclocking their hardware.

$Revision: 1.2 $ - $Date: 2003/12/08 17:18:29 $
RAM
Q) What RAM do I need?

This is one of the questions that comes up most often, and is also one of the hardest questions to answer. The RAM landscape has changed significantly over the last few years, and with that change a lot of confusion has come. The answer to this question depends almost entirely on what hardware you have or are going to be running. We'll break it down into the AMD and Intel camps to make things as clear as possible.

One thing that needs to be explained prior to jumping into the Intel/AMD recommendations is RAM timings. RAM timings are settings in BIOS that effect how fast RAM can return the information that is requested. Without getting into the technical details, the "looser" the RAM timings, the slower the RAM is. This is an important note to remember while reading through the FAQ. Real world performance is negligble(1%-3%),and not noticeable in the games you will be playing, but it is worth noting.

INTEL

On the Intel front there's a couple of possibilities. The current CPU field ranges from the P4 2.4c all the way up to the p4 3.2EE. And with each CPU there will be different RAM considerations. Starting at the 2.4c you have a few options depending on what you want to do with your hardware. The current Intel chipsets(the 865 and 875) support DDR400 memory in what is called Dual Channel mode. The FSB is set to 200mhz, and the memory is "quad pumped" to put the memory bus at 800mhz. In laymans terms, this means that the memory is DDR(dual data rate), so it's usually 200mhz x 2. Since the memory runs in Dual Channel mode, it again is multipled by 2. This puts the memory at the 800mhz FSB.

Intel CPU speed is set based on the clock multipler(this multipler is 12 in the case of the 2.4c). The multipler is then "multipled" by the FSB speed to give you the CPU speed. In the case of the 2.4c, 12(multipler) x 200(FSB) = 2400mhz. Current motherboards from vendors such as Asus and Abit allow you to change your FSB in the BIOS. Given the equation earlier, you can see that by increasing the FSB you will also increase your CPU speed. For example, almost all of the 2.4c CPUs hit the 3ghz speed without difficulty. To get this speed, you simply inrcrease the FSB setting in your BIOS to 250. 12x250=3000mhz. The problem with this scenario is that your DDR400 memory would now be running at DDR500. There isn't a DDR400 chip available that can do those speeds, but that is where the motherboard manufactuers stepped in. These comapnies(Asus and Abit for example) allow you to run the RAM at a different FSB speed than the CPU(this is called asynchrous operation). By enabling a setting in your BIOS, you can set your RAM to run at 200FSB, and your CPU to run at a 250FSB. This would allow you to run at 3ghz cpu, and 800mhz FSB for the RAM. The only pitfall with this configuration is some RAM chips on the market can not run stable in this configuration. The other option you have is purchasing DDR500 RAM. This RAM will run natively at 250FSB, giving you a 1000mhz FSB to RAM, and also setting your CPU at 3ghz. The issue with DDR500 RAM is that, the higher the clock setting, the "looser" the RAM timings have to be in order to run stable. By running DDR500, your system will not have to run asyncronously, so any DDR500 chip should work fine for hitting the 3ghz mark. You're major choice is if you want to run async or not. Given DDR400 prices are cheaper than DDR500 a lot of people go with the DDR400 memory on the 2.4c.

As the base CPU speeds goes up, the odds of hitting the 250FSB speed starts to go down. For example, a 2.6c has a multipler of 13. If you run a 250mhz FSB you would put the cpu at 3250mhz. The "limit" of the average Northwood(codename for the .13 micron P4) CPU on air cooling is around 3.2ghz. By running over this, you have a chance that you will not have a successful overclock. In this case, you would be better off going with very low latency pc3500(DDR 433) or pc3700(DDR 466) memory. This would allow you to overclock to around a 217(pc3500)-233mhz(pc3700) FSB setting you between 2818 and 3029mhz.

When you get to the 2.8c, your options are greatly limited. The chances of hitting 250FSB on a 2.8c with air cooling are extremely low. Even using pc3700 with CPU will not gaurentee a stable overclock. In the case of the 2.8c, I would recommend very low latency pc3500. This would set your cpu 3038mhz.

When you reach the top of the Intel ladder(3.0c and 3.2c/3.2EE) you only really have one choice for RAM, and that is low latency pc3200(DDR400). Since these CPUs are already near the theortetical "limit", you will not be able to squeeze much more out of them.

AMD

Fortunately for the AMD users out there, the RAM answer is extremely simple. Go with the lowest latency RAM designed for your CPU. Low latency RAM is available in speeds from PC2100 to PC3500. Your AMD CPU should fall into one of the cateorgies in that range.

DISK
Q) What disk drive should I get?

For the most part, hard drives aren't much different these days. At this point in time, I would recommend you avoid Serial ATA drives, as the price is higher than Parallel ATA drives without any performance increase. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but for most people this will be the case. My suggestion to you is to find something with 8MB of cache that is within the price range you want to spend and buy it.

VIDEO
Q) Which video card should I get?

Not only is an important question, its also a fun one since it usually results in a heated debate! We'll give you our thoughts for each major video card player and let you sort it out in the end. At this point in time there are 2 major players in the video card market, Nvidia and ATI. Both companies make high performance parts that the gamer of today demands.

NVIDIA

Nvidia has been making quality aftermarket video cards for quite a few years now and their current offering is no different. Nvidia's current lineup offers something for every shopper, from the budget market to the gaming enthusiast. Their entry level part is the Geforce FX 5200. This card is fairly inexpensive, but unfortunately that's where the good news ends. The bad news with this card is that it's performance isn't much better than the Geforce 4(Nvidia's last generation part), and in some cases the 5200 is actually outperformed by the Geforce 4. With Geforce 4 prices hovering around 40-60 dollars, it would be very hard to recommend a Geforce FX 5200.

The next card in the Nvidia lineup is the Geforce FX 5600. This card is the midlevel offering from Nvidia, which means that not only is the performance midlevel, but so is the price. This card plays the current generation of games(Quake3, Unreal Tournament, Enemy Territory, etc) extremly well, with high frame rates and excellent visual quality. This card also natively supports DirectX 9 games(Halflife2 for example), however the DirectX 9 implementation is lack luster and will not play DirectX9 games at the high resolutions most gamers are used to(1024x768x32 or higher). If you're content with playing at 800x600(or less, depending on other factors like your CPU, graphics options, etc) or you're into todays games and your current video card isn't cutting it this card would make an excellent upgrade path. This card is available in different memory and clock configurations from different vendors. While we can't cover all of the card possibilities here, generally in the Nvidia line the Ultra editions will be faster and/or have more memory.

The final card in the Nvidia lineup is the Geoforce FX 5900/5950. While there are actually 2 cards here, we're going to put them together since they're basically the same card with minor differences(clock speed being the only real difference). The 5900 is the big daddy of the Nvidia lineup. It sports the fastest clock speeds available(across all hardware vendors). This card is fast, has excellent visual quality, and can not only play the current lineup of games, but the future ones as well. There are a few negative points for the 5900 that we'll go over. The first negative is the price. This behemoth can run you up to $500 dollars, but lower end models can be had for around $250. Another pitfall with this card is the DirectX 9 implementation. Like it's little brother the 5600, the 5900 has a less than perfect DirectX9 implementation. Due to this imperfect setup the 5900 is second to none in today's games, however in future games(Halflife 2) the 5900 falls behind some competitor's offerings. One last issue with the 5900 is the fact that the card takes up 2 card slots. While this is not much of an issue these days, it is worth mentioning. This card is available in different memory and clock configurations from different vendors. While we can't cover all of the card possibilities here, generally the Ultra editions will be faster and/or have more memory.

For the linux users in the community, it is worth noting that the Nvidia installation for linux is extremely straight forward and works almost perfect everytime. While the drivers are not under the GPL, atleast you don't have to pull your hair out to get them installed!

ATI

ATI does not offer an entry level card in their lineup. While there are many ATI cards still available for the entry level(Radeon 9000, 9200, etc), these cards are not new technology and suffer the same pitfalls as the Geforce FX 5200. With that in mind, we will jump right to the ATI midlevel cards.

ATI's midlevel card is the Radeon 9600. The Radeon 9600 plays current games without difficulty and with perfect visual quality. The Radeon 9600 is also fully DirectX9 compliant, so it will run the future games(Halflife 2 for example) without problem. The DirectX9 implementation on the Radeon series of cards is extremely robust and well designed, so even though this is a midlevel card, you will be able to play DirectX9 games without incident. While you may not be able to play Halflife 2 at 1600x1200 on these cards, their price and their performance put them in a good position. An excellent card for the gamer on a budget. This card is available in different memory and clock configurations from different vendors. While we can't cover all of the card possibilities here, in the ATI line of cards generally the Pro editions will be faster and/or have more memory than the standard edition.

The high end of the ATI spectrum is the Radeon 9800. This card is the flagship product for ATI and as such it's performance is second to none. The 9800 can play the current generation of games with no problems, even at resolutions of up to 1600x1200. The 9800 is also DirectX9 compliant and will have no problem playing the future DirectX9 games(Halflife 2 for example). Owners of this card can expect to play Halflife 2 or Doom3 at high resolutions with all the graphics options turned on, no small feat given the graphics quality of those titles. The visual quality on the 9800 is also exceptional, something ATI prides themselves on. There is one negative with the 9800 however. The price on the Radeon can range from 300 to 500 dollars, depending on the brand and other options. This is a little steep for the average gamer, but if you have to have the best card out there, this is the one for you.

It is worth a mention that there is a version of the 9800 called the 9800XT. This card is clocked faster than any other ATI card, and also comes with built in overclocking. Depending on the temperature of the card, the drivers will adjust the clock speeds. While this is a very cool feature, the price for the XT is a bit prohibative at this time to be able to recommend it. If money is not a big issue, the 9800pro is an excellent video card choice, for today and tomorrow's games. As with the other cards covered here, different vendors are offering different configurations of the 9800. In most cases the Pro edition will offer higher clock speeds and/or additional memory.