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Time to upgrade?

How to squeeze more power out of your dollars.

When your hottest first-person shooter more closely resembles a slow-motion replay than an action game, it’s definitely time to consider a PC upgrade. But deciding what components to replace, the order in which to replace them, the right time to make a purchase, and whether it’s worth it in the long run is easier said than done.

That’s where this column comes in. Designed to assist gamers in making wise choices regarding PC upgrades and tweaks, Ripped PC will discuss the pros and cons of stepping up to newer or alternative versions of such hardware as video cards, audio cards, processors, motherboards, cooling systems, and modified cases. And it will examine the different upgrade paths available as they pertain to cost, performance, and long-term value.

In this initial installment, I’ll address several related issues to help set the stage for the adventures in upgrading that lie ahead. In brief, we’re talking about whether to upgrade either the components or your whole system, and how to decide which components to upgrade.

Deciding on an appropriate upgrade path is usually based on more than the replacement of a single component. Several factors need to be considered.

First, if you only need to replace one or two components to bring your system up to snuff, whether to upgrade or not is a no-brainer. For instance, if you simply need some additional memory and a new video card, I’d say go for it. However, if your CPU is outdated and your motherboard won’t accept a current processor upgrade–or if you need more system memory, your video card’s too slow to run current games, and a better quality sound card is on your shopping list–it’s time to replace that aging, prehistoric hunk of silicon that once was a cutting-edge piece of gaming hardware.

How do you know if it’s time to purchase a new PC? A good indicator is the age of your system. Three years old or more is indicative of several generations in technological advancement these days. Moreover, if the cost to upgrade approaches half the purchase price of a new machine, it’s time to consider total replacement.

I also suggest looking at the recommended system requirements (not the minimum requirements) on the back of the box of several current games in your favorite genres. If the majority of your system’s components meet or exceed the recommended requirements, or come relatively close, an upgrade is a viable option. However, should they fall significantly below, it’s time to scrap your present rig and start from scratch. While you can get by with the minimum requirements, your gaming experience will be far less than enjoyable.

The operating system plays a significant part in the equation, as well. For example, Windows 98 and Windows Me run great with 256MB of RAM. That’s the “sweet spot” for those operating systems. Windows XP, on the other hand, will only perform its best if outfitted with at least 512MB of RAM. All of its slick visual features take a hefty toll on video cards, too. No self-respecting gamer should even consider a video card with less than 128MB of RAM.

Then there’s clock speed. Generally, the higher the better, but you may be able to get a cheaper processor and overclock it, or run it at a higher clock speed than the speed posted on the box. While it may be cheaper for the processor itself, you probably need to add cooling systems to a box containing an overclocked chip, lessening the savings. This illustrates the defining characteristic of any upgrade: price. Sure, you’d like to have the latest and greatest processor with a gigabyte of RAM, but you may need to get creative to make that work within your budget.

Let’s take CD-RW drives as another illustration. The fastest units on the market today are rated at 52x24x52x (write, rewrite, and read, respectively). Following the high-end route, I’d recommend a quality drive by Lite-On, Plextor, Sony, or another recognized player costing in the neighborhood of $50 and up. Electing a value-based approach, I’d suggest watching local papers for specials at electronics stores. For instance, a Verbatim 48x12x48x CD-RW drive was recently offered for $9.99 after rebates. That’s quite a price differential for a slight performance hit.

Another factor to consider is the technology curve. Normally, the ideal time to upgrade is shortly after a new generation of product debuts, especially when considering a new CPU or video card. Simply put, new technology drives prices down on existing hardware. Just don’t buy goods too many generations removed, especially where games are concerned. If the bucks are tight, buy one generation behind the curve on a video card and two generations behind on a CPU. Other components such as audio cards, motherboards, hard drives, and optical drives are not as critical. As for memory, you can never have too much. Stuffing 512MB to 1GB under the hood will do wonders for all applications, games included.

Component balance should be taken into account, as well. A fast CPU and video card will be bottlenecked with insufficient RAM on tap. Similarly, loads of RAM and a fast CPU can’t counteract a feeble video adapter. Nor can a powerful graphics card and an excess of memory compensate for an anemic CPU. A proper balance must be maintained among key parts.

Finally, if it’s time to replace an aging PC, you must decide if you’re a more adventurous sort, gifted with tools and capable of building your own game rig from scratch, or if you’re more gifted at flashing your credit card. If the latter, your best bet is to choose a company known for its expertise in building custom game systems, such as Alienware, Falcon Northwest, Hypersonic, or even Dell. If you need to make some compromises, make them wisely. Extra memory can be added later, and you can always get by with on-board audio and your old speakers for a time if it means the difference between upgrading those components now or choosing a better CPU or video card.

Should you elect the route of purchasing individual components to build a machine or upgrade your present one, use buying services like Price Watch or Price Grabber to assist in the process. However, make sure to read what others have to say about vendors before making your purchase. Take the shipping charges into consideration, too. While buying components from a single source may cost more per item, you could save significantly on the total shipping bill.

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