Tight Budget Box

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First steps in building a budget, high performance PC — Default

Preview

I’ve always felt there was a group of readers neglected by the majority of hardware sites. The budget articles I’ve seen really don’t reflect the needs of the group I’ve recieved my response from.

For several months now I’ve been looking for components that would fit this criteria:

  • The motherboard would have to support both SDR and DDR ram;
  • The board would also have to support XP processors for some ability to upgrade in the future;
  • There would have to be BIOS performance enhancements, including Vcore, multiplier, and 1 MHz FSB steps;
  • The video card would have to provide playable frame rates with most of today’s games;

  • The CPU would have to be 1 GHz without performance enhancements.

CPU

I chose the 1 GHz Duron Morgan. It is really an MP, only with a smaller L2 cache. There is a significant improvement in performance over the Duron Spitfire. With its ceramic packaging, it is easily unlocked with a pencil or conductive paint. It can compete with a 1 GHz Athlon in some benchmarks, runs cooler, and is about half the cost – under $40 US OEM, retail with heatsink – around $50 US.

If I can believe what I read, the AHLCA K will do 1.3 GHz at default Vcore. The problem is finding a reseller who will sort through them for you. I’m going to try and find one locally.

Video Card

I chose the Visiontek XTASY 5632 32Mb GTS-V. If you had a stack of GTS cards, this one would be at the bottom. It is the lowest of the lowlies with a core clock of core 175 mem 143/286.

Now your probably wondering why I would pick this over a 64Mb MX 400, which is in a similar price range. True the MX does have a higher core/mem clock and more memory. So what does this lowly GTS have the MX doesn’t? Quad rendering pipelines. The MX has only two.

The quad rendering pipelines give the GTS the ability to handle more eye candy at higher resolutions. You can get one (OEM) for under $50 US.

Motherboard

I got a new board with an older chipset. The Shuttle AK32L (about $60 US) was released a short time ago. This is a redesign of the original AK32. The BIOS includes Vcore, multiplier, and 1 MHz FSB steps.
To understand why I picked this board, I’ll have to give you a little history.

When the KT266 was first released, there was only about five or six percent increase in performance over the KT133A. DDR memory was sky high in price, and one hardware site called the KT133A the DDR killer.

Shuttle did a redesign of the AK31 and, with the performance BIOS, it became the fastest KT266 board at the time. The redesigned AK32L will give close to the KT266A performance with the ability to use SDR RAM. Better than fifty percent of the replies I received wanted to recycle SDR RAM.

Remember this is a “Tight Budget Box”.

I wanted to find a KT266A board with the ability to use DDR/SDR RAM. I did find a few but they did not have the performance enhancements in BIOS and were not available in all areas.

The Basic Box

In this part we’ll start with the basic box using SDR/DDR RAM. A number of benchmarks will be taken to establish a baseline. The baseline is necessary to show how much improvement we can get with performance enhancements.

The manual is written for the first time DIYer. If you follow the steps you should have no problem assembling the hardware.

Mobo

Other than the Motherboard and Video card I recycled whatever old parts I had laying around. All the parts are around two years or older.

  • The HSF is a Cooler Master DP5-6H51 and the fan turns about 4,800 RPM. I used Radio Shack thermal paste.

  • The SDRAM is 128 MB Kingston Value CAS 3. It is the absolute worst stick I have. It will not work with SPD. I have to manually change it in BIOS to CAS 3 or it will not work. DDR is 256Mb Crucial CAS 2.5.

  • The Generic CD Rom is a 52X.

  • The floppy is from an old 386 OEM machine.

  • The hard drive is a Western Digital 20 GB 5400 rpm ATA100.

  • The Case is Generic with a 250w power supply. It’s enough to run the 1 GHz Duron at an OC of 1.2 GHz, along with a reasonable amount of hardware. Cost: under $40 US.

Case

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Default AKA John R. Abaray

Disclaimer:

I do not work for anyone or get paid for anything I write. The cost for this project will paid for out of my own pocket. Everything I write in articles or say in emails is Public Domain for the reader to do with as they wish.

If you have just one case fan, run it at the back of the case on exhaust. The case front bottom fan does very little to aid in cooling. I taped the holes at the back of the case so air would be drawn through from the front.

I used and old test of mine to determine what works best. If you take the side of the case off and the CPU temp goes down, you have work to do. If the temp stays even or goes up, you’re doing a good job. With just one 32 cfm Sunon fan, the CPU temp went down 1 degree C with the side on and holes taped in the back. I have to admit – I was surprised. I thought I would be lucky if I just went up 1 degree C.

Baseline Benchmarks

You can’t tell where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. With the default settings in BIOS, I’m going to take three benchmarks.

The first will be SiSoft Sandra 2002 memory. An increase in memory gives an increase in performance. The interesting part is it doesn’t always work out the way you think it might.

I’m also going to use a classic benchmark: Quake timedemo 1. An increase in FPS means your doing something right.

3DMark is a great benchmark for determing how your games will run. Since I’m using a DX7 video card, I’ll be using 3DMark 2000.

MEM

Going from SDR CAS 3 to DDR CAS 2.5 shows a thirty percent increase. This doesn’t mean we’ll get a thirty percent increase in all applications. You might find a dramatic increase in one application and hardly see an improvement in another.

Quake

This is an example of what I’m talking about. We barely get a five percent increase in FPS going from SDR to DDR. However, we’ll take six FPS and as you will see it all adds up.

3DMark

Here again, we pick up a little over one hundred fifty points. And again, we’ll take whatever we can get.

While these benchmarks may be nothing to get excited about, you might be surprised with what we get at the end. Now that we have our baseline, in the next part we’ll do some tweaks to see what we can get.

Default AKA John R. Abaray

Disclaimer:

I do not work for anyone or get paid for anything I write. The cost for this project will paid for out of my own pocket. Everything I write in articles or say in emails is Public Domain for the reader to do with as they wish.

Tweak Time

Now that we have our somewhat dismal baseline benchmarks, we’ll see what we can do to improve them. The AK32 has a simple BIOS but there are a few tweaks we can do to enhance performance.

First the usual disclaimer:

The Author assumes no responsibility for any problems you encounter. You try these at your own risk.

However, this time I’m going to add something:

The Author has made every effort to ensure these performance enhancements will give stable operation.

In other words, these are not the MAX I could get. All motherboards and CPUs are not created equal. With a maxed out board, some users will do a bit better or worse. I maxed the system out and then backed off, plus a bit more, to ensure stable operation. How far you might want to push it is up to you.

Data Corruption

When tweaking, it’s entirely possible you will get a lockup – CRASH. When this happens, there are times when some data will get scattered around your hard drive. It’s also possible there will be times when some files might get corrupted and you will have to reinstall your OS (sigh).

You don’t get something for nothing.

Always start with a minimum of hardware and software – nothing in the PCI slots. SiSoft Sandra and 3DMark is all you need in the way of software to determine where you are going. After you have found where the system is stable, you can install other hardware cards and software.

Defrag

I read a post in a forum, “I overclocked my CPU and it crashed when running 3DMark. Now I can’t get 3DMark to run at all.”

This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Sometimes a simple defrag will cure the problem. Other times you may have to reinstall the software. I alway defrag after every lockup. If the data is OK, the defrag will take just a few seconds (if you use a static swap file like 200min 200 max). I can look at the details when defraging and tell how bad the problem is by the patterns.

Frag

Frag

These are two examples of what corrupted data looks like. If you see the big spaces with diagonal lines, chances are you’re in trouble. These are screen shots where I deliberately used settings I knew would screw things up. I’ve been wanting to get these screen shots for some time now and this project gave me an excuse.

And yes – I did have to format and reinstall.

BIOS Tweaks

I am just going to cover the AK32L BIOS tweaks for performance. However, if you want to learn about BIOS there is an excellent BIOS Guide by Adrian Wong HERE.

Another excellent BIOS Guide, as well as excellent information on SDR & DDR RAM by Michael Schuette, can be found at his site HERE.

I’ve done this in steps so you can see the effects of the tweaks on benchmarks, not only with SDR & DDR, but with a locked and unlocked CPU.

Advanced BIOS Features

When you boot up and hit the delete key, this is the second page of the BIOS.

As we go down the list you will see “CPU L2 Cache ECC Checking” Disable.

This will give us a boost in memory. Any increase in memory scores is an increase in performance.

As we scroll down further you will see “Video BIOS Shadow” Disable.

This is kind of a throwback to the days when games were played in DOS. I used it on my old P75. All it does now is waste RAM.

Advanced Chipset Features

The first item on the list is “DRAM Clock/Drive Control”.

The first thing we do is “Manual” Enable.

This will give us a choice of 2 or 3 for SDR RAM. The label on the RAM will tell you if it’s CL2 or CL3.

With DDR RAM, it will be 2.5 or 2.0 and it should be on the label also. There will also be an option with DDR “Dram Command Rate”. Set it on 2T to keep out of trouble until you get a feel for what you have. The 1T command can cause hard drive corruption at high FSB speeds.

One more thing to do here: “Bank Interleave”. Set it on 4 bank for another increase in memory scores.

The next item on the page is “AGP & P2P Bridge Control”.

AGP Aperture Size (MB): Set it to 128M even if you don’t have the RAM to support it. It still can be of benefit and give you a couple of FPS increase.

AGP Mode: Set it to 4X; if you have an old video card, you will have to set it to a lesser value.

AGP Fast Write: Enable. This can give you a little increase, or possibly a big increase, or in some cases cause a problem. I have never had any problems with this option but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
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Disclaimer:

I do not work for anyone or get paid for anything I write. The cost for this project will paid for out of my own pocket. Everything I write in articles or say in emails is Public Domain for the reader to do with as they wish.

Default AKA John R. Abaray

Frequency/Voltage Control

CPU Vcore Select: Although it shows up to +.275, it will not go over 1.85 Vcore. However, there is a simple mod we can do which will be covered in a later article.

CPU Clock: This is where we can run the RAM in synchronous mode. We’ll just give it a little boost to 110 which will have the locked Duron running at 1.1 GHz.

Benchmark Time

Now is when we see what the tweaks have done for us by comparing them to our baseline benchmarks. First we’ll look at SDR:

MEM

We see a little better than 100 points in SDR. Now what did the tweaks do for our Quake FPS:

Quake

Our tweaks got us another 18 FPS. There’s more to come when we tweak the Video card and unlock the CPU.

3DM

A nice increase of over 400 3DMarks. We’re just getting started.

The same benchmarks with DDR:

DDR MEM

DDR Q

You’ll notice as we go up in CPU and FSB speed DDR starts to give us greater gains compared to SDR in the scores.

DDR 3DM

Time for a Break

The weekend is almost here and I’m going to take a few days off. It’s party time. The next article in the series will be:

A short piece on the effects of unlocking the CPU.

Then we’re going to see how much damage we can do with the Video card.

This will be followed by the Deluxe version (upgrades) with a few mods.

Finally the AMD vs. Intel Tight Budget Box Shootout.{mospagebreak}

Disclaimer:

I do not work for anyone or get paid for anything I write. The cost for this project will paid for out of my own pocket. Everything I write in articles or say in emails is Public Domain for the reader to do with as they wish.

Default AKA John R. Abaray

An Excursion into FSB Land

The next step is to unlock the CPU so we can lower the mutiplier and raise the FSB. This will give us a very nice increase in our benchmark scores.

With FSB overclocking alone, your FSB speed is limited by the highest Mhz your CPU can do. The ability to lower the multiplier makes a big difference because higher FSB speeds = higher performance.

For example, if our CPU will do 1.2 Ghz with just FSB overclocking (120 FSB x 10 multiplier), by lowering the multiplier, we can use 150 x 8 for 1.2 Ghz. The end result is a nice increase in performance, as we shall see.

For information on this you have to look no further than the Overclockers.com archives HERE for a pencil unlock and some information on painting the bridges. For a good defogger paint guide, go HERE. For more information on the bridges and XP CPUs, go HERE.

The Duron Morgan has five L1 bridges whereas the old Spitfire has four. However, the game is the same – connect the dots.

I wanted to see if I could make SDR a bit more competitive with DDR. With a multiplier of 8 and an FSB speed of 150, I ran the benchmarks. Sandra was OK as well as Quake, but it locked up with 3DMark. The PC133 Kingston value RAM didn’t want to go there. An FSB speed of 145 was the best I could do stable.

I had a few sticks of Corsair PC150 laying around, so I stuck one in and had no problem running 150 FSB stable. With the Vcore at 1.85, the Duron was running at 1.2 Ghz stable – even with a wimpy HSF.

This is what I got:

MEM

You’ll notice in SDR we don’t get a big increase in memory score, but that doesn’t mean we’re not getting any benefit from the higher FSB.

Quake

A very nice increase over baseline. When we tweak the Video card it will get even better.

3DM

We broke 7,000 3DMarks. We’re starting to get close to the end but we’re not finished yet.

Now for DDR:

MEM

Now we see a huge increase in memory score over baseline. Our performance enhanced Tight Budget Box is now becoming competitive with newer boards and CPUs running at higher speeds.

Quake

Even giving away Mhz and FSB speed, DDR is still ahead. It may not be much, but in the end DDR will pull away.

3DM

In the next part we’re going to see what we can do with the Video card. I might show you a new trick or two.
{mospagebreak}

Disclaimer:

I do not work for anyone or get paid for anything I write. The cost for this project will paid for out of my own pocket. Everything I write in articles or say in emails is Public Domain for the reader to do with as they wish.

Default AKA John R. Abaray

A word about Nvidia drivers first. There can be compatibility problems. One hardware software combination may work great with a given driver and with another hardware software combination, cause nothing but problems.

A good example is 23.11 which worked great for some and completely hosed others. It’s a trial and error thing which can have some very nice rewards for a little work.

I’m using 21.85 which seems to work fine with our GTS and WIN98SE. Some of the newer drivers don’t work well with this combination.

We are also going to need the Coolbits registry hack, which you can find at the 3DChipset site under utilities and also 21.85 among other drivers HERE.

All you have to do is double click this little registry entry:

Vid

Click Yes.

Vid1

Click OK and we are in business.

Vid2

Now we have a new hardware option:

Vid3

Check the Allow clock frequency adjustments box and you’ll be asked to restart – now we can Overclock the Video card.

The GTS-V defaults are core/mem 175/286. You’ll notice I have the sliders all the way over and there is a limit to how high we can go. While it is doubtful the GTS-V can get there, with another video card you may find yourself limited.

You can download an Overclock program or there is a little trick you can do to up the slider limits – The Krusty to Bart registry hack. Some of you may know it, but I’m sure there are a lot more who don’t. This is something I found a while back at XBit Labs.

Run regedit and then enter in find “Krusty“. This is what will come up:

Vid4

Take the value in Krusty and use modify to change the value in Bart to the same value as Krusty.

Below is what we get:

Vid5

If this still isn’t high enough for you, the value in Krusty will be changed and you can just do it over again for another increase.

There is one more thing we can do to squeeze out more performance in Direct 3D. By selecting Best performance

Vid6

we can get a nice increase in our 3DMark score. I didn’t see much difference in image quality but I’m not a Hardcore Gamer either.

I was running the GTS at a core/mem clock of 220/333 but maxing out all the settings with Quake; when I would exit the game, I got the illegal operation message. This is a sign I’m operating the system on the edge. I backed the GTS off to a core/mem clock of 210/320. With SDR, I lowered the FSB to 148 and there was no more problem.

This is with Quake normal settings:

Vid7

We have very playable frame rates in 800×600 and 1024×768.

There is a considerable increase from Best Image to Best Performance:

Vid8

You can decide which you like best. The score is high enough either way for most, if not all, Direct 3D games.

This is about as far as I can go with SDR. The only option left is better CPU cooling and a Vcore mod to Overclock the Duron a bit more. This will be in the next article with other mods in the Deluxe Version.

DDR can be improved with better RAM and this will also be done in the next article along with other upgrades.
{mospagebreak}

Disclaimer:

I do not work for anyone or get paid for anything I write. The cost for this project will paid for out of my own pocket. Everything I write in articles or say in emails is Public Domain for the reader to do with as they wish.

Default AKA John R. Abaray

I wanted this to be a reasonable and if possible useful comparison. A 1 Ghz Celeron against a 1 Ghz Duron at default speeds and maxed out. There would also have to be some matching of hardware to keep the benchmarks from being skewed to much one way or another.

If I used the DDR capabilities of the AMD board I’m sure someone would cry foul. So it’s SDR against SDR.

After exchanging several emails with Deez aka Zak Roussel, I was convinced it would be as good as it could get. He was using a GF3 Ti200 and I had a GF3 Ti200 I could use. I was also able to get the same RAM. He was also using a modified BIOS and a voltage mod. It was obvious Deez was an Advanced User and if there were a way to get an extra Mhz or FPS, he would have found it.

The relevant system data:

Component

Intel

AMD

CPU

Celeron 1 Ghz

Duron Morgan 1 Ghz

CPU Type

Retail SL5ZF

OEM AHHAA

MOBO

Asus TUSL 2C

AK32V2.1

SDRAM

1 stick 256MB Crucial PC133 Cas 2

1 stick 256MB Crucial PC133 Cas 2

Video

Aopen GF3 Ti200 NV28.32 Drivers

Leadtek GF3 Ti200 NV28.32 Drivers

PSU

Antec 300W

Antec 300W

Now for the benchmarks. Deez did not have the option of running PC133 at 1 Ghz. While I do have this option, I ran it at PC100 for a better comparison. However, I have also included the results with PC133 at 1 Ghz.

Bench 1

Bench 2

As you can see the Duron has a bit of an edge in PC100. The ability to use the Ram at PC133 while at 1 Ghz shows a very significant increase. In the next benchmark you can really see the effects of the increased memory scores.

Bench 3

Bench 4

Quake lives in memory and the end result of the higher memory scores is higher FPS.

Bench 5

A slight edge for AMD at PC100 and again the ability to operate PC133 at 1 Ghz shows a significant increase.

Deez included an extra benchmark and it proved to be a significant one.

Bench 6

The Aopen overcomes the AMD board advantage and pulls ahead when overclocked to 240/540.

This amused me a bit ’cause I was going to get an Aopen TI 200. Some of the Leadtek cards were supposed to have 3.8ns ram and I thought I had ordered one. The victim of misleading advertising, I was shipped a different model. Yes, I also get screwed on occasion.

Now for the maxed out benchmarks. Using the older Duron AHHAA the best I could do was around 1.25 Ghz stable. Deez was able to do 1.45 Ghz with the Celeron. I thought about getting one of the newer AHLCA Durons cause they can also do over 1.4 Ghz. The original theme of the basic box was to recycle whatever hardware I had laying around. I decided to go with what I had, giving up 200 Mhz.

Bench 7

The AMD box jumps ahead in memory and you can see the benefits in next benchmark:

Bench 8

Now for the final benchmark – 3DMark 2001se.

Bench 9

Memory isn’t everything and here you can see the extra Mhz and a better video card edges out the AMD box.

There will be one more article in the series with some mods for the budget box.
{mospagebreak}

Disclaimer:

I do not work for anyone or get paid for anything I write. The cost for this project will paid for out of my own pocket. Everything I write in articles or say in emails is Public Domain for the reader to do with as they wish.

Default AKA John R. Abaray

Budget Box Mods

There are two performance mods worth doing: The first is the Vcore mod. In the past I’ve found at times a small amount of Vcore (.03 or.04) can make the difference in stability. It isn’t always necessary to up the Vcore in .1 or .2 increments.

VMod

I prefer to solder but this can be done with a micrograbber – Details HERE

The other mod is active cooling on the northbridge. Below is a backside pic of the passive cooler that came with the board. While the double sided tape does transfer heat, active cooling enabled me to get up to 160FSB with an ambient room temp of 22C. Previously the best I could do stable was 150.

Chip

There are a number of chip coolers on the market; however, in keeping with the original Budget Box theme, I recycled some old parts I had laying around.

I took a passive heatsink from an old defunct video card and attached it with Arctic Silver epoxy. The fan is from an old hard drive cooler.

Fan

This is the last article in the Budget Box. I’ve been using it for surfing and gaming every day for several weeks and found no quirks or issues with my hardware/software combination.

I really enjoyed doing the series as it was a lot of fun and the board did better than I originally thought would.

Default AKA John R. Abaray

Disclaimer:

I do not work for anyone or get paid for anything I write. The cost for this project will paid for out of my own pocket. Everything I write in articles or say in emails is Public Domain for the reader to do with as they wish.

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