June 2000 CPU Buying/Upgrade Guide: Part I: General Principles

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I’m writing this to gather together in one place all the information I’ve mentioned in earlier articles, and update where needed.

Parts II and III will talk about specific equipment and what to keep an eye on.

However, I think it’s a good idea to first look at the general picture, whether you should or shouldn’t update and what you can expect for your money.

Ambivalency abounds

A long time ago, like last year, buying a new CPU/motherboard used to be simple. 🙂

If you didn’t mind spending money, you bought a PII. If you did mind, you bought a Celeron. In either case, you bought a BX board. If you were committed to AMD for some reason, you bought a K6-X and a super 7 board.

Now it’s not so easy.

On the Intel side, you have two types of Coppermines to confuse you, different steppings with much different potentials floating around simultaneously, and the Celerons aren’t quite as good.

The motherboard situation is a mess, especially if you overclock. Either your BX boards fights it out with your components to see who’s boss, or you go with a fairly funky Via board. With Solano, it’s beginning to look like we’re going from two lousy choices to three.

On the AMD side, AMD has caught up with the Athlon, but it’s been practically Motherboard of the Month and processors haven’t been much better. Overclockers have to play with Golden Fingers and esoteric software because their motherboard may say “133,” but they sure don’t run at 133.

Things will settle down a bit for a couple months, but fall brings the real Memory Wars, along with the processors associated with each side.

So what’s a poor overclocker to do?

I get a lot of letters asking me whether or not to buy and what. (I also get letters telling me to stop doing that.) I wish there were an ideal situation for everyone, but there isn’t.

Different people have different circumstances. Different people have different levels of patience.

My general views on buying computer equipment are:

  • There are better and worse times to buy computer equipment. You tend to spend too much money and not get an optimal product early in the development cycle; you get a shorter useful life if you wait towards the end.
  • Cost/benefit is a big factor for me. If you have to spend $500 for a 25% improvement, but $120 for a 15% improvement, I’m very inclined to spend the $120.
  • Buying a computer should not be an impulse buy. These are not toasters. You should plan and study a bit before buying one. If you don’t, you are likely to not get what you really wanted.
  • Ask before you buy, not the other way around. The worst part of what I do is telling people who ask that their newly purchased equipment won’t do what they want. I hate telling them that, and they hate hearing it even more. That’s why I sound like a nanny at times.
  • There is a lot of hyping going on, and everyone gets swept up in it one time or another. I see my job as countering the hype, so you don’t get disappointed when you don’t get what you had been led to believe.
  • I find price pretty important, but time is also. In most cases, there comes a point where waiting a few months longer is only going to save you $20-30, and it usually isn’t worth the $20-30 you save for the time you go without the upgrade.
  • Your circumstances can make my observations inapplicable. In that case, they aren’t for you. For instance, if you are earning $100 or more an hour doing computationally intense work where 10% more speed means you can do close to 10% more work; the cost of the computer equipment is practically irrelevant.

  • What I say are general guidelines, not exact rules. Don’t take them personally unless I put your name on them.:) Take whatever is good for you from them to make your own decisions.

Upgrades: How Much Pain, How Much Gain?

Each of you have different computers bought at different periods of time for different needs and desires. You all have your own upgrade clock. The person who has a 200MMX system is in a different boat than someone with a Celeron 550.

Each of you have your own expectations as to what improvement you expect from a computer purchase or upgrade. If you expect an immediately noticeable change in everything you do with a computer, it usually takes two-three years for computers to advance far enough for you to get that impression. If you need that kind of improvement to justify your purchase, don’t upgrade yearly, you’re going to get disappointed.

If, on the other hand, you are satisfied with less than a stellar improvement, then it makes sense for you to upgrade more often. If all you want is an increase of 10fps, you can get that fairly often (though you should ask yourself if that 10fps is really going to make a difference).

Let’s go back to those 200 and 550Mhz systems.

The guy with the 200MMX is going to see an immediately noticeable change if he buys a computer that he gets to run at 800Mhz or better. If he’s doing any kind of work or gaming he takes seriously; he’s going to see a real change, so he is a prime candidate for an upgrade.

The case with the guy with the Celeron 550 is not so clear cut. If he upgrades to an 800 or 900Mhz system; he’s not going to see anywhere near that kind of improvement. He may not notice any in a lot of the things he does. If noticing a big change is important to him, then he probably shouldn’t lay out a whole lot of money to do so.

I’ve seen a lot of people buy a PIII. Then they try to run at 133Mhz or better. Then they find the memory doesn’t work, or the video card, or the motherboard. Or some combination of the three. So they find themselves spending a lot more money than they initially planned to justify the earlier purchases for a general improvement of maybe 25%-30. That’s about what you’ll get in general going from that Celeron 550 to a PIII 800

Maybe they would have been better off leaving the system alone and spending money on something else in their life, or save up for a major upgrade next year. Maybe they would be better off buying a Celeron II to extend the life of the current system for a bit. They’d get a bit less performance for a lot less investment, and again use or save the money.

If spending money that way doesn’t personally bother you, good. My message isn’t for you, but only for those it might bother.

New boxes: What Do You Need?

When people ask me about the kind of computer they should buy or build, I rarely hear initially what should be the first question you should ask (or ask yourself):

What are you going to use it for?

The answer to that question alone can answer everything else.

I have a friend who wants a new computer. Until recently, his processing needs were modest, so I was going to go with some older equipment that met those needs.

Then he told me his flight instructor thought it would be a good idea to supplement his flying lessons with some flight-simulation.

I took a look at some websites dedicated to that, and almost dropped dead seeing the kind of firepower needed to get frame rates up to what would be considered lousy by Quake timedemo standards.

So now we’re looking at overclocking a PIII 650/700 to 900-1000Mhz, lots of RAM and good 3-D video rather than a PII 400 and 128Mb and decent, older 2-D video.

One little change; entirely different setup.

You have a college student who needs to write term papers and hit the Internet, you don’t need much at all. If that college student likes to play genocide generators, now you do.

One little change; entirely different setup.

But I Want A 1Ghz Computer!!!

Why?

You may have a legitimate reason like my friend. Or you may not.

Let me ask you this: Wouldn’t a 980Mhz computer be just as good? If your answer is “No,” then you don’t want a fast computer, you want a status symbol.

A computer is a lousy status symbol. Even the most expensive computer is cheap compared to a Mercedes or a mansion. The average member of the female sex will be less than awed and would much rather you spent money on much better things, like her. Computers get outclassed very quickly, and the geeks who would be the most impressed in the first place will be the first to know when something faster comes out, anyway.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a fast computer, and if you can get one fairly cheaply, great. Just don’t spend a lot of money on a fleeting ego boost.:)

Next, a look at Intel’s processors.

Email Ed


Note: I’m indicating what is very likely to work for people. A few will do better, a few worse. If you did better, good for you, but that doesn’t mean everyone else will. I know there are people out there with older Coppermines that are running wonderfully with BX boards at 155Mhz, but everyone can’t count on that.

Celeron

This is pretty simple. If you have a good BX board setup, you should buy a Celeron if either 1) you don’t want to spend a lot of money on an upgrade; 2) you’d rather spend your money on a
major upgrade towards the end of this year or early next; or 3) not have to go through all the booby traps of Coppermine upgrading. The performance isn’t as close to the Coppermine as the initial Celeron’s was to the PII, but it’s not that awful, and if it’s a choice between that or buying a Coppermine and memory, most would probably be better off with the Celeron.

If you are building a new system, particularly a back-to-schooler, you should take a very long look at the Duron. I’ll talk about that in the next section.

Coppermine

We’ve now reached an optimal time to buy a Coppermine. The cB0 stepping will usually get you to over 900Mhz, and may get you close to or just over 1Ghz with good air-cooling.

Here is a chart to tell you what you should be looking for:

100Mhz Processors

FC-PGA Processors    
S Spec Speed Retail/OEM
SL3XU 600E OEM
SL45U 600E Retail
SL3XV 650 OEM
SL45W 650 Retail
SL3XX 700 OEM
SL45Y 700 Retail
SECC2 Processors    
SL43E 600E OEM
SL44Y 600E Retail
SL3XK 650 OEM
SL452 650 Retail
SL453 700 OEM
SL454 700 Retail

An S-Spec is a code which indicates a particular type of processor. If you buy a retail model, the sspec is found at the very end of the product code found on the box. In all cases, it is printed on the CPU.

However, this is not an optimal time to find the right Coppermine.

The problem we face now is that there are still plenty of the older cA2 stepping Coppermines being sold out there. They were still being made until late April. This doesn’t matter too much if all you are looking for is 800Mhz, the older chips should be able to do that.

However, if you plan on buying a 650 or 700 expecting to get around 900Mhz or better out of it, it’s probably the difference between success and failure because if you get an older chip, you probably won’t get 900Mhz out of it.

No, you can’t just order a cB0 chip from any retailer. Very few Internet resellers are specifically selling cB0 processor. PC Nut PC Nut so far is the only one that states such on Pricewatch. Proton Computers is another. There’s a couple others, but they are
either brand new, or have had a lot of negative feedback at Reseller Ratings. If I’m not comfortable buying from them, I can hardly recommend you do.

Yes, you can go to the local store and visually inspect the processor to guarantee you’ll get what you want. Yes, you’ll pay more than you would from an Internet reseller.

If you call an Internet reseller who doesn’t specifically sell cB0 processors, no, the salesperson will probably not know what you are talking about.

In most cases, the reseller ships out of a warehouse, so, no, the salesperson couldn’t check the CPU for you even if he or she wanted to.

Yes, salespeople lie to get a sale.

Unless you get it in writing from the company that you are being sold a cB0 chip, if you don’t get one, it’s probably tough luck. There’s no record of any salesperson’s promise, and they sold and delivered the processor they promised. You’ll probably have to pay shipping and a restocking fee just to play Russian Roulette again.

Yes, this is a hassle, but how much of a hassle is it being stuck with a processor that won’t run as fast as you want if you don’t protect yourself?

E or EB?

If you want to overclock, you buy the E because you can overclock a lot more with the E than you can with the EB

Let’s show why the E is a better choice for overclocking:

The speed you’ll get from either CPU is easy to figure (if not asterisked, assume success rate at that speed is 80% or better, presuming proper equipment along with the CPU):

Processor Multiplier Mhz at 133Mhz FSB Mhz at 140Mhz FSB Mhz at 150Mhz FSB
600E 6 800 840** 900**
600EB 4.5 600 630 675
650E 6.5 867** 910** 975***
667EB 5 667 700 750
700E 7 933** 980*** 1050****
733EB 5.5 733 770 825
800EB 6 800 840 900
866EB 6.5 866 910 975***