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 $
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 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
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 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.