Upgrading an Old PC on the Cheap

My kids have an old Compaq Evo desktop computer we got them that they use mostly for playing games. Oddly enough, they do more “gaming” than I do, so it makes sense that they need a semi-modern computer in order to play all the cool games that are available for kids. Right now their computer consists of a Pentium IV Northwood Core 2.0Ghz Processor, 1GB of PC133 RAM made from 4 random sticks, and an ASUS GeForce 4 MX440-based graphics card. It’s running Windows 2000 and for the most part is a decent machine. It took some work to get the fan noise under control, the noise was like a freaking 747, but after connecting all the fans to the PSU’s 5V line instead of the 12V line, it is tolerable now. However, the recent pack of games they received for Christmas just would not play worth a darn. The frame rates were irritatingly slow and the sound stuttered at every word. It’s so sad, and it’s about time they get an upgrade, so they can play their games the way they were meant to be played, with normal sound and flicker-free frame rates.

I’ve been shopping for computer hardware for a while now for my own computer, picking out the best motherboard and graphics card combo to go with my new Core 2 Dual CPU, and so far we’re looking at over $1k, just for an upgrade, which means keeping the case, the HDD, the CD/DVD burner, etc. But for the kids, they don’t need top-of-the-line gear, just something better than what they’ve got. It’s easy to pick the best, latest, newest hardware, it’s more challenging to pick the older hardware, the hardware that people aren’t buying as much of any more, the hardware that doesn’t get talked about anymore. But that’s what I need to do, and I need to do it for cheap.

For starters I need to pick a new CPU. So what’s better than a Intel’s Northwood core Pentium 4 2.0GHz processor? How about, just about anything else? My first choice is to go AMD, because up until C2D, AMD was walking all over Intel in performance, cost and power consumption. The formula is still true when comparing AMD against any of Intel’s older cores. I can can vouch for AMD as well since my HTPC/Media PC is running an old Athlon XP 2800+ and if I didn’t know any better I’d say it’s equally as fast or faster than my Intel P4 Prescott core running at 3.6Ghz. Booting into Windows takes half the time, for starters, with the AMD chip. In addition, every game we try and play on the old 2.0GHz P4 that chokes, plays flawlessly on the XP 2800+ machine in the living room. But I don’t need the kids playing their games on our 50″ HDTV (although they really like it). They need their own computer that works.

So I hopped on over the Newegg.com and clicked Processors->AMD->Desktop and sorted by lowest price. For a mere $45 you can get an Athlon 64 3000+ Venice core OEM CPU (no heatsink/fan), which would knock the pants off either of my other two computers, and probably my main computer too. The prices go up from there depending on what kind of performance you want you can pay just about anything your budget can afford. There’s some cost savings to buying an OEM chip (which doesn’t have a heatsink) over the retail chip, but it’s only about $10, much more than the cost of even the worst aftermarket heatsink/fan combo. Most people will toss the stock cooler for something more exotic anyway, especially if any kind of overclocking is to be involved, but in my case I think we’ll keep the stock cooler and run the chip at the stock clock speeds. So with that, the least expensive retail AMD chip I can get would be the Athlon 64 3200+ Venice 2.0GHz for only $59. Looks good, so I added to the cart. There was a combo deal with the CPU, so I got an ASUS CD-ROM drive for $5. I haven’t seen those much cheaper, and the drive in the computer has been having some issues.

Now onto picking the motherboard, this is the tough part, the decision here can ultimately make or break how easy and smooth the install goes and how reliable the overall system is. For the most part any motherboard should do, we don’t need extreme performance and a ton of fancy features. In fact the least expensive socket 939 mobo should do the trick. Only caveat is it needs have a Micro ATX form factor to fit into the existing case or when I decide to upgrade the case, I want it to be as small as possible and be mATX-ready. Also most Micro ATX boards have built-in graphics, and I’m hoping to get away without a dedicated card to bring the cost of the total upgrade down as much as possible. Besides, adding on a graphics card later on is easy to do. So I select AMD mobos with a 939 socket and sort by lowest price. A total of 7 motherboards fall under $59 (the same price as the CPU) so now all I have to do is pick the best one whether that be the highest rated the most reviewed or just the one that people complain about the least.

I’m partial to ASUS boards, even though my latest build was a dud, my P5P800 is still running strong and for the most part ASUS make great boards. Only this time I couldn’t convince myself that any of these boards were any good, based on the reviews. That’s when an open-box mobo caught my eye – the BIOSTAR TForce6100-939. Retail on that board as of this writing is $79, more than my budget for this upgrade, but the reviews this board has received were through the roof. Almost no complaints from nearly everyone whose bought one. And the open-box discount was a mere $32. I spent more than that the last time I went out to eat. $32 is a drop in the bucket, and if it turns out that the board really does have issues, which landed it on the open-box truck, then I can return it and pick up something else. But it certainly can’t hurt to try it out. So, I added it to the cart.

Last thing I need for this upgrade is RAM for the new mobo. I jumped over to Biostar’s web site to see if they’ve got any recommended RAM, since sometimes motherboards can be sensitive to the subtle yet different specs/performance from different mfg’s of RAM. Kingston shows up as one the recommended which is good because I’ve got 1G of Kingston RAM in my current machine and haven’t had any problems, and I can get 2×512 for $52. Only $2 more than the cheapest PC3200 DDR400 RAM available. I’ll gladly pay the $2 more if its on Biostar’s approved list. Stability issues due to incompatibility of RAM can be a nightmare to troubleshoot. So might an open-box mobo…we’ll have to cross our fingers on that one. But 512MB should be enough, I don’t see a need to go to 1G for this phase of the upgrade.

And so we’re done, and the grand total for the upgrade comes to $148 before shipping for the mobo, CPU, RAM and a CD-ROM drive. Which means for now we’ll be keeping the case, PSU, HDD, OS, 19″ monitor, CD-burner, keyboard and mouse, and I’ve got a PCI NIC card and Sound card that I can use if needed. So there’s room for more upgrades down the road, including the option to go to dual care, since the motherboard supports it. This machine may even warrant the Vista Ready seal of approval (well it might need more RAM and a dedicated graphics card) but for now the machine will still be running Windows 2000.

So with that I’ll try and write up how the upgrade goes and how the new PC performs when everything arrives, which should be before the weekend. Gotta love Newegg!

Athlon 64 3200+ Venice 2.0GHz CPU
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BIOSTAR TForce6100-939 Motherboard
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About Dan

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