Platforms and Purchases

Got this note overnight. Some people seem puzzled as to why I keep mentioning PCI Express, so maybe I’ll should explain in a bit more detail.

I think your analysis from a hardware standpoint is pretty good. A lot of us are waiting on the PCI express bandwagon for fear of obsolescence.

But I think there may be some flaws in your analysis, whether they be large or small is a consideration I’ll leave for you.

A lot of us have been waiting . . . for the ‘right time’ to make the video card plunge. To hopefully get in when a good card can be had for a price that does not break our meager banks. I’m speaking to anyone in our audience using something earlier than current-generation parts. Hell I’m 30 and a professional and I still can’t go tooling around for a top-end video card.

So here I sit, with an aging Socket A system using an Athlon XP 2000+ and a 64 MB GF3, probably not atypical of the gaming enthusiast-on-a-budget trying to get the most life out of what they’ve got. Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory plays just fine, thank you very much, and if that was the only game out between now and PCI Express, most of us would be happy like clams.

But it’s not, is it?

So advice seems to be to wait for PCI Express if at all possible, but I think you’re going to find for a lot of us that it’s just not going to be possible for three reasons:

1. When I switch to a PCI Express motherboard, it seems likely that there are going to be additional expenses above and beyond the board. Will the first PCI Express boards take my Socket A CPU? Would I even want one that did at that point, or will I also be upgrading my CPU? My RAM? Usually a big motherboard switch means more, sometimes a lot more, expense than just the board. So now the recommendation is not just to wait, but that at the same time I’m going to upgrade my video card? Maybe I’ll wait longer after that, to space things out. BUt that means until at least mid-next-year, or longer, I’ll still be running my GF3. How many of us will find that acceptable?

2. The first generation of any part, generally, sucks. That should be the second or third universal rule of Overclockers.com. I don’t know what the other ones are, a sort of Ten Commandments of Overclockers.com, but that one should definitely be in the top three. I guarantee that when the first generation of PCI Express video cards come out, you (and by that I mean personally, you, Ed) will write an article about how we should all hold on to our last-generation AGP cards because PCI Express just isn’t ready yet and the hardware and drivers are all plagued with bugs, not the least of which is that ATI and NVidia will probably spring new chips on us as well for the occasion so we’ll have crappy drivers, crappy hardware, and PCI Express that won’t be ‘ready’ yet for prime time.

3. The games we will be playing this Christmas will need more than what most of us have to look the way the developers intended. Believe it or not, there will be games out this Christmas that will require more processing power, more RAM, or more features in hardware than what most of us are carrying in order to play the way they should, or the way we’ll want. And by ‘want’ I don’t mean ‘wish’, but rather a practical benchmark by which we decide whether it’s time to look for a little more power somewhere.

So what are we supposed to do? My advice to gamers is the following: Save your birthday money, save your holiday cash gifts, save up your allowance and when the next big game you really have to have comes out this fall or winter–and for almost all of us I think there is going to be one by Christmas–and buy the best of what you can afford, and figure that’s the card you’re going to use when PCI Express first comes out. For better or for worse, I don’t think there is going to be more waiting for any of us caught behind the current generation of cards.

The reason why I’ve been stressing the emergence of PCI Express recently is not because PCI Express is going to be stunningly wonderful in and of itself. It’s because it is part of a new generation of motherboards.

The motherboards that will be released next year will make a jump we haven’t seen since the jump from Pentium-style to Pentium II style mobos back in 1998. We’re going from an AGP, DDR, PATA, PCI motherboard system to a PCI Express, DDR2, SATA environment.

This not only makes most current equipment fairly useless in future generations; it also reduces the length of time competitive replacements for the older generation motherboards will be available.

The reality is the next serious upgrade after mid-2004 is going to be a whopper for everyone, and it’s unavoidable. (There may be some transitional mobos initially, but they won’t last long.) New video card, new RAM, most likely by then SATA drives, besides the CPU and mobo.

If you want to take your sweet time about taking that next jump, I’m actually rather inclined to agree with you. Next June, I probably will be saying precisely what this gentlemen predicts I’ll be saying about PCI Express. 🙂

This is why I’ve been recommending buying now. The machines available a year from now won’t be considerably faster than what you can affordably get and easily overclock today. It will probably take two years for that to happen. Buy now, and get some good use out of the machine before you end up replacing most of it next go-round.

The only exception to the “current stuff is capable and quite affordable” is the video card area.

This gentleman is essentially saying, “I have a GF3; I can’t wait that long.” That’s quite understandable, but understand that any video card you buy will only be as good for as long as you own that platform. New platform, obsoleted video card.

Past surveys have indicated that people like to hang on to video cards for a few years, moving it to new CPU/mobos. A lot of people like to buy computer upgrades one piece at a time.

This really isn’t going to be an option. If you’re thinking, “Well, I’ll buy a real hot, expensive video card today, and move it into my next computer system, you are likely in for a very unpleasant surprise when you do.

Will there be transitional AGP/PCI Express mobos in 2004? Probably, but dual-capable systems in the past have tended not to work very well. Will video card makers make both AGP and PCI Express version of the latest hot card? Maybe for a while, but again, history says, “Not for very long.”

This is you need to look ahead and plan a little before you buy. Otherwise, you get blindsided, and end up spending more of your hard-earned money than you ought to because you didn’t look before you leaped.

Why You Should Look Before You Leap

When I say such things, I usually get a few letters from people who get personally offended and say in essence, “How dare you tell me the way I buy equipment isn’t good?”

I’m reminded of one forum post I saw a while back. The gist of the message was “I bought a socket 423 system. Then socket 478 came out just after I bought it. Those #$#%%^@#, I’ll never buy from them again.”

This is what happens when you don’t look before you leap. That’s why I say such things.

If the budget-conscious decide, “OK, I need a new video card, and since I want to get at least two years out of it, I won’t change the platform for another two years,” that’s good. If someone else says, “I really need a new video card now, but I also need a new system in a year. I’d better spend less and buy a video card that will be good enough for the next year, then I’ll buy a new system and replace it all,” that’s good, too.

It’s certainly a lot better than saying today or tomorrow “OMG, I need a hot video card.” then a year later, “OMG, I have to have a new platform . . . . WTF, there’s no slot for my video card!!! Those #$#%%^@#!!!!”

No, they’re not #$#%%^@#, you’re a dumb . . . well, if your brain charges a toll of several hundred dollars before it lets something new in, maybe you ought to consider turning it into a freeway. 🙂

I mean really, if experience is the best teacher, why don’t we throw kids off short buildings to teach them that jumping off tall ones isn’t a good idea.

What we’re out to do here is encourage good buying habits (which, btw, is good for any major purchase), and that requires looking ahead and planning. We can’t give a single piece of advice that will fit everyone, but we can give you good advice on how to go about what’s right for your particular set of circumstances.

Hammer: Over and Above…

Hammer: Over and Above

Looking and planning ahead is also a big reason why I’m very skeptical about the average reader buying the first-generation of Athlon 64/FX systems. They at least look to have future compatibility problems over and above the ones mentioned above.

1) Will the memory controller in Athlon 64/FXs work with DDR2? Don’t know, probably not.

2) Will socket 940 mobos work with future socket 939 processors? Don’t know, current indications are they won’t.

3) Will socket 754 have a long life, or will it be supplanted by socket 939? Don’t know, tend to doubt it, but I wouldn’t even take my word one way or the other for it. In any event, see item 1) above.

To me, these platforms look like nine-month wonders, which given the amount of money AMD expects you to lay out for them, isn’t going to be too good for a lot of people. If I’m wrong, AMD is perfectly free to say so, and I’ll be more than happy about it.

If these issues do not bother you, as long as you’re informed about them, fine by me.

But if these things do bother you, you ought to know for sure before you buy. This is one area where it is foolish to “think positive.”

If you don’t know for sure from the company itself, don’t buy, and if someone tells you, “Don’t worry about it,” ask him, “Will you buy me a new CPU/mobo if you’re wrong?”

Yes, there’s a similiar situation with Prescotts. Socket 478 is on its way out, but that’s the difference between Intel and AMD. We know socket 478 is on its way out, so we can plan accordingly. Twelve months from now, Intel will make a big leap and have socket 755 AND all the PCI Express/DDR2 etc. mobo, with a socket 755 Prescott standing in until Tejas arrives. How well it will work is anyone’s guess, and the more prudnet or budget conscious may want to wait until Tejas or beyond, but at least we know it’s going to be a big break, and know well ahead of time.

(Hint, hint, this is a big reason why corporations buy Intel. Yes, yes, I know Intel isn’t perfect when it comes to this, but they are better about it. This kind of secrecy hurts AMD in the long-run; it doesn’t help it.)

There’s nothing wrong with the answer “No” when it comes to looking ahead and planning. What is wrong is not providing the answer to those who need to know when they need to know it.

Discussion

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  1. I don't think the AGP slot will go away for a few years IMHO. There's still too much demand for them in desktops and workstations. If someone wants the top-end next year maybe they will have to go PCI-Express but they'll still keep making AGP for a while. As long as people who have capable workstions want to upgrade their gaphics card, they will be only too happy to sell them a pro AGP card for $$$ or $$$$. They still sell PCI cards and only got rid of ISA cards after AGP was out for awhile.
    I will adopt the PCI-Express eventually but not until a few years from now when I can afford an entire platform upgrade or win the lotto sooner.
    Bring on the new but don't expect me to jump aboard until the first few couple of generations have been out.
    BTW where are all the PCI-Express mother boards and graphics cards?
    PCI Express is a very hazy and therefore safe subject to write about - which is why we see a lot of mention about it here. Just like Prescott. Only a few outlines available to the public, and they both have the vague promise of being high performing and new.
    But they're not out, and we'd rather not hear incessantly about something that may debut on a few high-end boards (the same boards will also have AGP, i'm betting) sometime next year.
    1 yes. so that agp is cheeper (hope)
    2 no ill just upgarde to some bartons at first then in about 18 mounths i will see how much it would cost to go dual opteron (or intel but i feal/suspect xeon will be too much.). by that stage we will have mature software and hardware to merit a new board, 2xcpu, graphix cards, memory and disk substem.
    3 agp pro will hang around for longer than agp but i think that agp will be around for at least the first 6 mounths. otherwise manufatures will be alienating a section of the market.
    4 i use a radion 1 vivo (64meg) and it will not be the last graphix card that i will buy before pci express. even if i do get a new one now it would not be junk because this system will be kept running for a long time yet as a server and for other gamers (dual cpu host game and play on it too).
    5 they are wise comments to people how do not need a new card because they allready have a fast enought one. But people like myself are on the edge of playibility in meny games. there are some ut2k3 leavels that are not playable (<30 fps) at 800x600 16 colour and normal details. more amaziung games will posibably be beond my card and the whole point of the new game is the eye candy. otherwise i would be happy with HL and show no interest in HL2.
    for me i wont be wasting the cash as the card would not have been destined for the next system any way. also it makes my life more enjoyable now. my only problem is do i wait for pci express or do i get a agp card now? i cant afford a whole new system.
    1) Are you waiting for PCI express ?... If so why ?
    Nope.
    2) Are you going to buy a first generation PCI Express, DDR2, SATA environment or wait untill a later generation ?
    Depends on the pricing and whether I have to upgrade my cpu and memory as well.
    3) Will video card makers make both AGP and PCI Express version of the latest hot card? and if so how long do you think it will be before AGP is abandoned completely ?
    I'm pretty sure they will, won't cost them that much more and any additional costs will jsut go towards a larger price tag.
    4) How often do you upgrade your graphics card, what card do you use now.?.. Do you consider that this will be your last card before changing to a PCI express platform ?
    I usually get a new card every year or so, but because I have a 9700p all in wonder and don't game much anymore, I might push that to 18 months or even 2 years. So it's likely I'll probably go with a entirely new system at PCI Express time (if... see #2).
    5) What are your opinions of Eds comments, the article and PCI express ?
    Upgrade as needed.
    PCI-X is much like SATA. It's a technology that will be readily accepted, but it's not going to be embraced immediately. People "want it" but can't necessarily justify it.
    Besides, how hard is it to make an AGP adapter? Not very - I'd imagine. The largest benefit to be derived from PCI-X is an increase in bandwidth. That's all well and good but video cards and the games that utilize them are changing. The demand on raw memory bandwidth is diminishing as developers throw more and more shaders in a scene. (Think GPU power.)
    Will there come a time when we'll "need" PCI-X video cards? Absolutely. Is that time rapidly approaching? No. Just like anything new it will start from the top and work its way down. Consumers will still have options.
    1) No, my system will last me a while. I don't need to have to newest stuff.
    2) I probably won't upgrade till a later version.
    3) Yes, I think they will, PCI video cards are still available (even if they arent the high end cards) and AGP has been out for close to 5 years.
    4) I upgrade every 1-2 years or whenever I feel my games aren't running well. I feel that my 8500 can last me another 6-12 months.
    If I find a game that doesn't run well and I can get a good card (9700np or better) for 150$ or less then yes I would upgrade another AGP card before my system.
    5) Good article as usual.
    5)
    4)
    1.) No, I really don't think the support, as far as hardware and software/drivers go, is where it needs to be. I envision PCI Express 2.0, like USB 2.0 will come later on and be a better product.
    2.)No, and wait.
    3.)To me, it would seem really costly and in a way pointless to produce two cards running two different types of interface, think PCI cards vs. AGP cards. Yes, the performance might be better with PCI-X, but it doesn't seem cost effiecent for some technophile who just built/bought a $4000 rig to scrap his machine just to get an extra .3 frames in HL2 on a technology that hasn't been mass produced yet.
    4.)When ever I feel it's worth it, and when my budget allows. Use a Radeon 8500LE and a 9500Pro right now, but plan on getting a 9800pro (even if it's out of date) by Christmas. Going to give my 8500LE to my sister so she can have her own computer. :)
    5.) Article was nicely written, but the comments about saving every dime you have just to get the newest and "bestest" thing doesn't sit well with me. I keep thinking of all those people who bought a P4 423 chip only to have it be outdated 2 weeks later by a newer design.
    1. Waiting, yes. But only to see what it does to the market. It's been talked about for so long, it should be waited for to see if it actually lives up to it's promises.
    2. Nope. I highly doubt I'll make ANY hardware upgrade within the next year. I rarely upgrade components, and the only reason I have a new 9500 is because I accidently killed my 8500 (which I was perfectly happy with)
    3. Definatly. Think about it like SATA. Even with mobo manufacturers making boards that nativally work with SATA, HD manufacturers still provide SATA and IDE versions of their drives. And if they don't, they have an adaptor to make them work. PCI Express will probably be like that for some time. Able to buy your card in either version, and possibly even an adaptor (not sure).
    4. My current video card is a 9500np (modded of course :D). On average, I expect myself to buy a new video card once per two or three years. I wouldn't have a 9500 in fact if I hadn't killed my older 8500. That card would have lasted me at least one more year before I felt I was not getting acceptable framerates.
    5. Do you own thing, but I'll be happy sitting on the healed-edge of technology :D
    1) No, I'm not waiting.
    2) Not a chance. I'm not a heavy gamer so I can't justify the cost, which I assume will be extravagant. If the Express technology takes hold and doesn't turn into a nightmare come true, then eventually, I will end up with one.
    3)Until PCI Express becomes dominant in the home-based PC, video card makers will continue to produce AGP cards. It wouldn't make good business sense to cut off the life blood from AGP sales and rely soley on PCI Express, when that platform will only be sparsely populating the computer industry for its first 12-18 months.
    4) I have a habbit of holding onto things long after they are outdated. My theory is, if it works for what I need, why buy another one. Case in point: my current video card is a VooDoo 3 3000 AGP. It still works. But, my system is getting old and I am replacing the entire rig. I expect to get 2-3 years out of the new machine. I'm not building just one new machine though. I am actually building at least three, though one at a time.
    5) I like the article, but the hype over a system that is not yet released, appears to me to be making a mountain out of a molehill. Let's see what happens when it hit's the store shelves, or in my case, Neweggs warehouse.
    1) Are you waiting for PCI express ?... If so why ?
    Not really.
    Ed hit what I think is the most important point, that PCI-X is part of a group of fundamental hardware upgrades that are going to hit at about the same time. By itself I don't see the PCI-X bus as anything to get excited over. But combined with DDR2, second-generation SATA drives and a new generation of processors it will be the most compelling reason to upgrade in some time.
    But when to upgrade?
    2) Are you going to buy a first generation PCI Express, DDR2, SATA environment or wait untill a later generation ?
    Right now the answer is no. You have to believe the prices are going to be high and stay high for most of 2004, and the first generation of hardware is going to be quickly eclipsed by evolution releases.
    But I think there is the possibility that these improvements together will generate the most substantial performance increase we've seen in years. If that happens it will take a lot of willpower to stay on the sidelines.
    My upgrades have been application driven for the last few years. I expect to keep my 2.6C/IC-7G setup at least until mid-2005. But I'm less certain about that schedule for this system than I've been in a long time.
    3) Will video card makers make both AGP and PCI Express version of the latest hot card? and if so how long do you think it will be before AGP is abandoned completely ?
    I think the shift from AGP to PCI-X is going to happen quickly for the top tier video cards. The first series of cards following the rollout of PCI-X (second generation NV40 and R400?) will be available in both formats, but I expect that to be the last time you can buy a FX5900/9800 Pro equivilant for an AGP system. I don't see a long-term market for new $350+ video cards on the old bus. If you're going to buy one of those cards, I think its a strong bet that you'll also move to the new platform sometime in 2004, too.
    I think you'll be able to get a mid-level (FX5600/9600 Pro) AGP card for a while longer, maybe through 2005. But AGP will be an option for low-level cards for the forseeable future. The installed base of PC's with AGP slots is too large to be ignored, and I expect a lot of chipset makers to continue using AGP on their low-price motherboards.
    4) How often do you upgrade your graphics card, what card do you use now.?.. Do you consider that this will be your last card before changing to a PCI express platform ?
    I've upgraded every couple of years. I look more for value than outright performance, so I tend to buy late in the chipsets lifecycle and look for overclocking potential.
    My current card is a Radeon 9500 Pro. Before that it was a Voodoo 5/5500. If it's my last AGP card depends on how the entire next-gen platform performs and what happens with the NV40 and R400. If I can cherry pick a new card that will let me jump a resolution setting on games, and if PCI-X/DDR2/Prescott-Hammer systems are more hype than heat, I'll ride this setup until I absolutely have to upgrade.
    We also haven't talked about Microsoft Longhorn, which will be a huge factor as these systems get nearer.
    5) What are your opinions of Eds comments, the article and PCI express ?
    Good writing and reasoning, as usual. I think its curious that we are seeing much less anticipation and fanboy hype over PCI-X than we did for SATA last year. (Not complaining, I just think it's funny.)
    I think there is just too much up in the air to have a good feel for what any specific upgrade is going to do. 2004 is going to be an interesting year.
    BHD