Step One: Where's the Problem?

When you're faced with a machine that is generally satisfactory but isn't really keeping up with the latest software, what do you do?
Here's the situation. Our family PC is almost entirely used for watching movies, playing kid's games and a bit of web browsing. It's fine for most of this, but can't play our latest game - Rollercoaster Tycoon 3. It's also quite noisy, which is almost entirely due to the aging parallel IDE hard drives. The first step in the upgrade process is to identify which bits are out of date. In this case it's pretty obvious: the core of the machine. We have a Socket-A motherboard with a 1700+ Athlon processor and a 2x AGP graphics card, plus two parallel ATA drives. It has more than enough memory (680MB) but it's all single-speed DIMMs - running at 133MHz. There's plenty of room for speed-up here!

Choose your Architecture

Right now Socket-A is almost obsolete, and new parts are heavily discounted. This is a no-upgrade route if you'd want to boost it in a couple of years, so forget it. The new options are socket-754 and socket-939, both of which are well-supported at present in terms of motherboard choice and CPU options. However, socket-939 is the one that AMD will support in the longer term, specifically with dual-core CPUs.
Intel's socket-478 has gone the same way, replaced by socket-775. Both Celeron and Pentium-IV CPUs are manufactured in the new pinout, but Intel's roadmap isn't very clear.
So, AMD or Intel? Well, AMD has long been regarded as the more power for your pound, and it definitely has a much clearer roadmap right now.

Another aspect to the choice of architecture is graphics. AGP is still going full guns, but PCI-Express (or PCI-E for short, and NOT PCI-X) is now on the scene and is simply faster than AGP will ever be. It is not essential but will provide a predictable upgrade route for the next few years; it is clearly roadmapped for the next few years. Naturally, only the latest Intel and AMB boards feature PCI-E, so the choice is definitely narrowed down to Intel's socket-775 or AMD's socket-939 systems.

The Shopping List

  • Giga-byte K8NF-9 Motherboard This motherboard is clearly the cheapest 939 mobo with PCI-E support.
  • AMD Athlon-64 3000+ I could use a Sempron and save �50, but I might as well benefit from the extra cache and the 64-bit architecture. Not forgetting of course that Microsoft is offering a year's free trial of Windows XP-64 beta, so the OS is covered as well.
  • Corsair 2 x 256MB PC3200 memory Matching memory, please! Remember that PC3200 translates as 400MHz.
  • Giga-Byte X600-Pro graphics card based on the ATI Radeon X600-Pro chipset. It's only a extra tenner over the other cards listed below; I don't know why it's so cheap, but the specs seem right and it's won a few awards.
    Here are the ones I also considered:
    Connect 3D Radeon X300 128MB graphics Asus has a cheaper X300 card, but it only supports OpenGL 1.5 instead of the current 2.0. I don't know which, if any, applications use OpenGL, but for the sake of a tenner it's better to be safe than sorry. Both cards of course have hardware support DirectX 9. An interesting review of graphics cards, at XBit Labs focussed on the X300SE GPU (with a 64-bit memory bus) but benchmarked the Radeon X300, Radeon X600 Pro and GeForce PCX5750 as well. The review showed that there isn't much difference between the X300 and the 5750, and to be honest the GPU core frequency may be more influential; Connect 3D's X300 card runs at 400MHz, whereas the Power-Color X300 card runs at 325MHz; quite a difference, no?
    Okay, I've changed my mind again.
  • Barracuda 7200.7 80GB SATA-150 80GB hard drive This is regarded as the quietest budget drive. Don't pay any attention to the manufacturers' claims in this regard! Unfortunately the drive doesn't come with a power converter, so that must be purchased separately.

Installation and Commissioning

All of the components are standard PC gear, so there were no surprises in store. It's nice that AMD have improved their heatsink-securing mechanism from the 'push hard with a screwdriver straight at the motherboard' approach to a simple lever an catch. The heatsink/fan that comes with the 3000+ is a standard aluminium+plastic affair, but does the job with little noise. The PCI-E card is a doddle to locate and slot in; the securing pin on the motherboard seems to do very little, however. Just one other thing to note is that it was a real squeeze getting the RAM modules into their slots. It's Kingston ValueRAM (the Corsair product I ordered was out of stock), but I can't see anything amiss with either the RAM or the slots. Just a tight fit.

Damn small budgets! The Giga-byte graphics card I swung to at the last minute is fine, but the fan on it is extremely noisy. Wondering why the machine sounded like a big noisy thing, I stuck my ear in and momentarily stopped each fan (CPU, chipset, graphics) in turn with a finger. Sure enough, when I stopped the fan on the graphics card, I could hear myself think once more. Remember, this is the Giga-byte RX60P128D. Very noisy.

So how is the 64-bit version of XP? Well, the base installation went almost without a hitch. The only problem was that the PC wouldn't boot after the initial file-installation phase, which I put down to the on-board RAID being active; disabling the RAID in the BIOS and re-starting the XP install process got things on the right track.
Once I was at the desktop I noticed how sparse they've made it. There are no annoying icons for connect-to-Tiscali and the like, and the wallpaper is just a blue XP motif with the beta version inscribed in the corner. I then noticed that the LAN and sound (on the motherboard) wasn't enabled, and the graphics card was using a basic VGA driver. Sure enough, the XP CD didn't have quite the same array of drivers as its 32-bit sibling. And of course, the CDs supplied with the motherboard and graphics card didn't have 64-bit XP drivers. Fortunately, both ATI and Giga-byte have 64-bit versions of the drivers on their websites, so after an impromptu insertion of a vanilla LAN card and downloading of around 50MB of installation files from these kind manufacturers, I was able to get my hardware alive and kicking.
The lesson here is: Check your manufacturer has 64-bit drivers before you order the bits! I would guess that most manufacturers would be supplying 64-bit by now, but do check beforehand. Note also that I got the 64-bit graphics drivers from ATI, not Giga-byte; the card is manufactured by Giga-byte, and it has 32-bit drivers for the card on its website, but the chipset on the card is ATI, and they have 64-bit drivers on their website. I am sure that the suppliers will get their act together closer to the production release date for XP-64 but for now, be prepared to look around!
You might wonder why I should be worried about having the full drivers for the graphics card, since the generic drivers allow full resolution (up to 1280x1024) in true-colour. The answer is Direct-X 9, which the card supports but which cannot be used (or detected by applications that use it) without the proper drivers being installed.


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