Section 5.2. Hardware Design Criteria


5.2. Hardware Design Criteria

With the functional requirements determined, the next step was to establish design criteria for the gaming PC hardware. Here are the relative priorities we assigned for the gaming PC.

DESIGN PRIORITIES

Price

Reliability

Size

Noise level

Expandability

Processor performance

Video performance

Disk capacity/performance



Here's the breakdown:


Price

Price is moderately important for this system. Our goal is to spend as little as possible above the cost of a general purpose system to create a system that's suitable for gaming. Reasonable gaming performance is now available for not much more than mainstream performance, so we'll keep a close eye on the prices of the processor, video adapter, and other components. We'll use only top-notch components in this system, particularly those that most affect gaming performance, but we'll use integrated components when they're capable of doing the job.


Reliability

Reliability is very important for this system, and we're willing to spend a bit extra to make the system as reliable as possible within reason. That means, for example, using a premium power supply and premium memory, and using cool-running components wherever possible.


Size

Size is relatively unimportant. Ultimately, what matters is that the gaming PC be easy to move from one location to another, and that it be large enough to facilitate ventilation and cooling.


Noise level

Noise level is very important. Although this system will go on the road with us periodically, it will spend most of its time at home. Quiet operation is a nonissue at a LAN party, but critical for residential use. We won't use radical quiet PC techniques like water cooling or added insulation, but we will use the quietest mainstream components available. To some extent, the goal of having a quiet system is at odds with portability. For example, it's impossible to use elastic suspension to mount the hard drives in a portable system.


Expandability

Expandability is relatively unimportant relative to other factors. We may upgrade our gaming PC from time to time, but those upgrades are likely to be things like a faster processor or video adapter, a high-capacity optical drive (if Blu-Ray or HD-DVD ever becomes affordable), larger hard drives, or more memory. Any of those upgrades simply replaces a component already installed or uses an otherwise vacant bay or slot. The one exception is dual video adapters. We decided not to use dual video adapters initially, but we also decided to choose an SLI motherboard (one with dual video slots) to leave that option open for the future.


Processor performance

In one sense, processor performance is very important to any gaming PC. Even with a fast video adapter, most games play poorly on a system with a slow processor. Fortunately, Intel's July 2006 introduction of their new Core 2 Duo processor family and AMD's dramatic price cuts on their Athlon 64 X2 dual-core processors have pretty much rendered the issue of processor horsepower moot. In the new world order, very fast processors now sell for mainstream prices, and the fastest (and most expensive) models are no longer needed even for extreme gaming. Unless your budget is unlimited, there's no longer any point to spending more than $175 to $250 for a processor, particularly if you are willing to overclock less expensive processors, as many gamers are.


Video performance

Again, although video performance is very important for a gaming PC, even midrange video adapters are now fast enough to deal with all but the most demanding 3D games played at high resolutions with all the eye candy enabled. A current $200 video adapter is faster than last year's $600 model, and even a $100 model compares favorably with the top-of-the-line model from 18 months prior. Video adapter makers have been on a 6-month refresh schedule for years. In general the current Better model matches the Best model from six months previous, and the current Good model matches the Best year-old model. What all that means is that most gamers will be happy with a $100 video adapter and delighted with a $200 model. Once again, the price of performance has fallen dramatically, and only the most devoted gamers will find it worth spending more than $200 to $250 on a video adapter.


Disk capacity/performance

We assigned moderate importance to this factor because our friends who are serious gamers tell us that drive performance matters in gaming, both for hard drives and optical drives. So, apparently, does disk capacity, as many serious gamers copy entire CDs and DVDs to their hard drives for faster access while gaming. Accordingly, we'll aim for fast performance from our hard drives and optical drives, and high disk capacity. All keeping within a reasonable budget, of course.

TECH HELP
SLI and CrossFire

nVIDIA developed SLI (Scalable Link Interface) to allow two video adapters to function as one. ATi soon followed with its similar but incompatible CrossFire system. (In dual mode, an SLI motherboard accepts only nVIDIA SLI-compatible video cards; a CrossFire motherboard accepts only ATi CrossFire-compatible video adapters. Either type of motherboard can use a single video adapter from either company.)

In theory, you can install two identical $150 video adapters in an SLI-compatible or CrossFire system and have noticeably higher video performance than a single $300 video adapter would provide.

In practice, the cost advantage is diminished by the need for a relatively expensive SLI motherboard and a high-wattage SLI-compliant power supply, and the performance gain is not always as great as expected. Unstable and buggy drivers have also been a problem for dual-adapter systems, although those problems have become less severe recently as ATi and nVIDIA continue to polish their dual-adapter drivers.

The real cost benefit with dual video adapters occurs only when you install two midrange or better adapters that cost enough to offset the extra $100 to $150 cost of building a dual-capable system. For example, installing two $200 adapters totals $400 for the adapters and, say, a $125 incremental cost for the SLI motherboard and power supply, for a total of $525. That combination may outperform a single $700 adapter. Similarly, dual adapters are useful when even the fastest single model isn't fast enough. Instead of using one $700 adapter, you use two. (Yes, some gamers are both rich and foolish enough to do this.)

For our Gaming PC, we decided to leave the door open for SLI, but not to implement it initially. We chose a top-of-the-line SLI-compatible motherboard, but installed just one video adapter (in our case, a year-old nVIDIA 6800 Ultra that was still fast enough to do the job for us.) That motherboard cost about $50 more than a comparable non-SLI motherboard, which we considered a reasonable insurance premium. Six months or a year from now, when it's time to replace the 6800 Ultra, we'll consider the options. It's quite possible that we'll decide to install two low-end or midrange adapters in SLI mode.





Building the Perfect PC
Building the Perfect PC, Second Edition
ISBN: 0596526865
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2006
Pages: 84

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