How to Recognize a Fast Gaming PC (How not to be Duped)

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As you know with all PCs there are various components involved in their construction. Of course the PCs speed depends on most of these components. One obvious component is the CPU (Central Processing Unit), however this is where most people get duped into buying a computer with a fast Clock Speed without considering the specifications of other components or ignoring the performance balance of components. The speed of the computer doesn't just depend on the CPU alone; it also depends on the Motherboard and the memory or RAM (Random Access Memory). Below is a brief talk about each component and how they can affect each other in relation to their performance.

1) CPU

It is clear that the CPU is one of the most essential components. However it is not just the Clock Speed of the CPU that plays a role in its performance. A CPU of 2.66GHz will be faster than a CPU of 2.4 GHz if they are of the same model. One very important aspect of the CPU is the amount of cache it contains. Cache is temporary memory storage for the CPU where it will store tasks that build up as it processes other tasks. The larger the cache the more tasks can be built up. Most old single core CPUs, such as the Pentium 4, have a fairly small cache as there is only one processor core to deal with all the tasks. More recent CPUs such as Dual-Core and Quad-Core's require larger Cache as there are more cores that could calculate more tasks. The most Cache a current Socket 775 CPU has is 12 MBs, which believe it or not is quite a bit. However there is a snag. Most applications and games have not been coded to use more that 1 CPU core at a time meaning that half of this Cache could go to waste as the 12 MBs is not a single pool of memory but roughly 6 MBs per 2 cores (Quad-Core example). Only recent applications such as Adobe Suite 4 and games such as Far Cry 2 have been coded to take advantage of Multi-Core CPUs. This boosts performance of these applications considerably, which is why Far Cry 2 runs more efficiently in comparison to Crysis on Multi-Core processors. Sadly many computer sellers on eBay tend to claim that for example a Quad-Core processor with a Clock Speed of 2.4 GHz runs at 9.6 GHz. The reasoning behind this is that each core of a Multi-Core CPU runs at this Clock Speed hence when added together gives you 9.6 GHz. However, this is a falsification because most applications and games are not coded to use all cores simultaneously. People who make such claims either want to exaggerate the Clock Speed or lack sufficient knowledge to understand this. In Either case these claims are not to be trusted. If you still have doubts about these claims refer to the Intel or AMD websites and see if the creators of these CPUs make similar claims or use them to market their CPUs. If you are looking to purchase a PC for general purposes then a cheap Dual-Core may suffice and with newer applications being coded to use more than 1 core, the performance will increase. However a gaming PC can use a cheap Dual-Core as long as there are other components that complement it and either improve or do not limit its performance, this is when we get to the Motherboard.

2) Motherboard

The Motherboard is the basis of any PC. For a gaming PC it is extremely important as it could either limit or complement other components and have a dramatic effect on overall performance. Let’s take the cheapest Dual-Core CPU at the moment and put it into a cheap Motherboard. You may not get a 100% of the speed from the CPU as you hoped. This is because the Motherboard has a limited FSB (Front Side Bus) frequency. The FSB is the speed that the data can transfer between the CPU and the Motherboards chipset (usually the Northbridge and Southbridge); it is basically the speed at which the CPU can address all the other hardware in your PC. Both a CPU and Motherboard have FSB frequencies for example, if you have a CPU capable of 1600 MHz FSB and a Motherboard capable of only 1200 MHz then this will limit the overall performance of your CPU. However, if you have a CPU with a smaller FSB than the Motherboard then the Motherboard will not limit the CPU, in fact you could upgrade your CPU in the future to one with a higher FSB. Finally it is not only just the FSB that can limit the CPU and overall performance of a PC, but also the quality and model of the chipset; Northbridge (NB) and Southbridge (SB). Let’s look at a budget gaming rig as an example. This PC uses an Intel E2200 2.2 GHz however it uses the Biostar TPower i45 Motherboard which is one of the more recent P45 Motherboards. This Motherboard will not limit the CPU in any way; in fact the Motherboard is capable of sustaining much faster CPUs. The Biostar is an excellent Motherboard, it may be more expensive than other Motherboards but we chose it because it will not limit the CPU and it gives the customer future upgrade options. The Motherboard is one of the reasons that our budget rig is slightly more expensive than other budget systems, but for those people who want quality components on a limited budget it is perfect. The Biostar also has the ability to over-clock the CPUs superbly.

3) Memory RAM

The RAM is another vital component that needs to be given consideration. RAM comes in various models and speeds; DDR2 and DDR3 (more recently), and speeds any where from 667 MHz to 1866 MHz for the more recent DDR3 modules. The RAM is used to store data that may be transferred between the CPU/Hard-Drive (HD)/Graphics Card/Sound Card etc. The FSB also relates to the RAM because data will be transferred from the CPU to the NB and then to the RAM which may then be transferred to the SB and then the HD or graphics card. The faster the RAM you buy the faster the data from the RAM can be transferred to the chipset and then the rest of the hardware. However there is another snag here. Let’s say we bought some DDR2 1600 MHz RAM, which is quite fast, but we teamed it up with the E2200 we mentioned earlier. This means that the FSB of the E2200 and the RAM will not match up, the RAM would be capable of a much faster FSB than the CPU. This would not limit the CPU in any way; however the RAM would not reach its full potential. If you teamed up this RAM with a faster Quad-Core, let’s say one of the extreme editions, then the CPU and RAM could work at higher synchronised speeds.

4) Hard Drive (HD)

The HD does not relate to these types of speeds as such apart from the fact that it needs to communicate with the SB in order to transfer data to the RAM and the CPU. The SB is also responsible for transferring data from the DVD drives and graphics card. The speed of a HD is limited by the transfer rate of the SB however this is not usually a problem because the data transfer rate of a HD is much lower than that of the CPU and RAM. So when it comes to a traditional HD you have to watch out for the Revolutions Per Minute (RPM). Most HDs have a 7200 RPM while faster HDs have a 10000 RPM. Guess what? There is another snag here, sometimes a 7200 RPM can be faster than a 10000 RPM HD. Let’s look at the Western Digital (WD) Raptor X 150 GBs which has a 10000 RPM, and was the fastest traditional HD for a quite a while, and the Samsung Spinpoint F1 1TB. It was shown in a labs test by Custom PC magazine[1] that the Samsung had the fastest average read speed than any other HD on the market at the time. It was also much faster than the WD Raptor X in read and write speed tests:

Hard Drive                                   Read (Avg. STR)           Write (Avg. STR)
WD Raptor X 150gb                     75.1 MB/s                     66 MB/s
Samsung Spinpoint F1 750 GBs   76.9 MB/s                    72.2 MB/s
Samsung Spinpoint F1 1 TB         96.9 MB/s                    78 MB/s

As you can see both Samsung Spinpoint F1 drives are faster than the 10000rpm Raptor. So be aware that RPM is not everything when looking at HDs. WD released another Raptor branded HD called the VelociRaptor which is the fastest traditional HD available with read speeds of 106.2 MB/s and write of 97.8 MB/s[2], however this drive is 2.5” instead of the usual 3.5”. It comes in a 3.5” heatsink caddy which also suppresses sound. Having said that CPC added that in image editing and game loading it is not faster than the Samsung Spinpoint F1 series. Of course there is a whole different type of HD now, the Solid State Disk (SSD) which have the potential of being even faster, however certain brands such as OCZ have over-exaggerated their read and write speeds as proved in CPC lab tests. The fastest SSD at the moment is the Intel X-25m 80GBs.

5) Graphics Card (GPU)

When I have mentioned GPU it means Graphics Processing Unit which is in the graphics card itself. Now, there are a plethora of graphics cards available which can make it very hard to choose the best performer. The graphics card also relies on the SB to transfer data to other components but is rarely limited by this chipset unless you have an ancient Motherboard. So how do you know if the graphics card you want is the fastest? Well unfortunately it is difficult to tell unless you test and benchmark all the various types of card. Again manufactures will highlight their clock and memory speed and some manufacturers even pre-overclock the GPU, memory and various interfaces on the card to make it faster, however as with all overclocking this does lead to extra heat generation and so if you are to buy a computer with a powerful card it is worth looking at the type of case. Does the case provide enough cooling to cool all of your components? Nowadays graphic cards' temperatures rise to a very high degree and are becoming very large in size. The stock coolers supplied with these graphic cards are sometime not enough for long periods of game-play, resulting in system crashes. This is why the computer case is very important especially if the system and the graphics cards are over-clocked. It is always best to choose the best cases for air-cooling over-clocked components. Also recently in a Custom PC labs test of cases the Antec 900 and 1200 won the “CPC Approved” and “Premium Grade” awards. Our favourite 3 cases are from Antec including the Antec 300 for our budget system which has cooling similar to that of the Antec 900. We also use the 900 and 1200 for the mid and high end systems respectively. Good cooling of the computer components increases efficiency, performance and longevity. The fastest graphics card at the time of writing is the ATI Radeon 4870x2. However nVidia have just released the GTX 285 and 295 which have yet to be tested compared to the ATI card.

6) Conclusion

When you are looking to buy a pre-built PC keep all of this in mind. If you are looking to buy a gaming PC than these points are even more important. Always take into careful consideration the type of components that are used, not just the CPU, but also the Motherboard and RAM as these three components are paramount in the overall performance of the system. Make sure that the model of the CPU either matches the chipset in terms of performance or is a later model which will not limit it. Always enquire what brand, model and specification the Motherboard and RAM if this information is not provided.

Our opinion is to give detailed specifications of each component and when our website goes live, we will include even more information about each component and its performance in relation to other components. We believe in giving you all the information that you need to make a well-informed decision based on knowledge and your budget. We choose all our components with the idea in mind of how best they will perform with each other, not just at manufacturer settings, but also when we have over-clocked the CPU and RAM to get the maximum possible performance. With us you are not only paying for quality components, but the knowledge that has been put into the assembly of these components to allow them to perform at their peak. At the time of writing our budget system is available and soon our mid and high range systems will be available.

We hope this article have been useful, do not hesitate to ask us any questions you have, we try our best to reply with all our knowledge. Our next article will focus on the unethical marketing strategies that some traders employ.

M. O’keefe and A. Kalashy
22/01/09

P.S. Please vote YES for this guide if it has been useful to you, thanks!

[1] Custom PC (2008) “Issue 56”
[2] Custom PC (2008) “Issue 59” Page 55

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