Behind The Curve, What Should I Do?

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We got this question:

I’ve been waiting over 2 years for ATI and NVIDIA to make improvements to their cards so I could invest in one of them. Of course, I’m interested in FPS but I like the idea that these new offerings are miles ahead in picture quality, which I want.

I’m afraid that my present system is going to be woefully slow for the newer ATI and NVIDIA cards.

I’m an INTEL man and I would ask if you can answer what is the minimum INTEL CPU speed to use on say the ATI 9800 in a 800×600 or 1024×768 environment? My present system uses a Celeron 1.1 OC to 1.4 MHZ.

If you think I’d be wasting my time with such a slow system, can you recommend an up-to-date system for me?

A Quick and Dirty Test

This is a good question to answer publicly if for no other reason than to alert people to a quick-and-dirty resource for answering these types of questions.

About a month ago, Tom’s Hardware benchmarked a ton of CPUs going back to ancient days, using the latest video cards.

If you study the chart a bit, and look at how Intel processors of the same class did, you’ll see that a high-end video card will do very roughly half as well as the same card placed in a high-end system.

So even with the quick and dirty test, it’s obvious that a high-end video card would be largely wasted in this person’s current system. If anything, since this person wants to turn on all the eyecandy, the performance difference is likely to be if anything greater.

Since he said he wanted the eyecandy, there’s no point in persuading him to buy a much cheaper video card.

Buying With Time In Mind

This person is obviously not buying computer equipment all the time. Since he doesn’t have a social relationship with the FedEx or UPS delivery man, it would be best to try to build as much longevity into any new system as possible.

He clearly identifies himself as an Intel man, and since I don’t see any compelling reason to persuade him otherwise (and, as you’ll see, the same would be so if he had said AMD), I won’t.

Given all this, the recommendation is pretty easy. Given that the next generation of motherboards will be out beginning next month, since they will support at least the earlier versions of Prescott, and since Intel will pretty much stick to these mobos for at least a year, this person’s Intel solution should be either a Springdale or Canterwood motherboard.

The CPU to buy with it is still a bit up in the air. When the Canterwoods show up, so will the 200MHz HT PIVs. We don’t know yet how much better they’ll do than their 133MHz older brothers. We do know that overclocking them will be probably be a lot trickier than their older brothers.

My suspicion is the bleeding edge folks will go 200MHz/Canterwoods, while those not-so-willing to throw money at challenges will go 133MHz/Springdales, but that remains to be seen.

However, since neither the processors nor mobos are out yet, and because Springdales will be out a month later than Canterwoods, there will be time to figure out which type of CPU is more suitable.

Ergo, our advice is:

We think it would be wise to upgrade your system if you get an advanced video card like the Radeon 9800. However, now is not the time to upgrade.

In the long run,
you would be better off with either a Springdale or Canterwood based motherboard. In either case, you will have the benefits of dual DDR, eventually be able to upgrade to a Prescott processor, and get native SATA support.
These motherboards should be the Intel standard for about a year. The Canterwoods should be available in about a month, and the cheaper Springdales in about two.

At this point, we won’t recommend a CPU because we don’t know whether the 200MHz hyper-threaded CPUs will be appreciably better than the 133MHz. By the time the motherboards come out, though, multiple VID CPUs should be commonplace, and should offer good to excellent overclockability with little effort.

By waiting, you should also get the benefit of a somewhat lower price on the Radeon 9800, and perhaps have a better idea as to how well the NV35 should do.

We think May/June should be the time when you buy, and you should check back then to see what specific combination would be best for you.

A Faked Letter

Since we don’t want the AMD people to feel left out (and since there are probably a lot more people in the audience on the AMD side of this equation), we’ll just make up an equivalent letter on the AMD side.

I have a Thunderbird processor and a KT133A mobo, and while I want to upgrade the video card, too, I have the same worries as the Intel guy above. I bleed green, though, so don’t pimp Intel at me. What should I do? (Make it cheap.)

Again, we look at the numbers from the Tom’s Hardware charts, and while the case for an upgrade is a bit less compelling than with the Celeron, it’s not a bad idea to do that either to go with a hot video card.

If he doesn’t mind buying another socket A system, and he’ll overclock, the answer’s pretty simple.

Buy a 2100+ TBredB, nForce2, and high-speed RAM, when inclined. It’s cheap now, won’t get too much cheaper later, and (provided you overclock) it will give you 90-95% of the performance you’ll get from waiting months and months. Buy a Barton as the Last Socket A Processor next year, when or if inclined and they become cheap.

If the person doesn’t like the idea of another socket A system, then things get rough. One may be able to buy an Opteron single-CPU processor as early as late April, but the CPU and Sledgehammer mobo (which probably won’t be compatible with later Athlon64s) it will cost an arm and a leg. Based on the expected speed grades, it’s hard to see how it would be appreciably better than a socket A solution (at least in 32-bit) until at least the fall.

Athlon 64s are supposed to be out in September, but we (and based on earlier surveys, most of you) think it would be a better move to wait until the .09 micron generation arrives in 2004 to change platforms.

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