Sunday, 22 July 2012

Financially Friendly PC Gaming

Financially Friendly PC Gaming

PC Gaming is generally regarded as one of the most expensive video-game based hobbies you can have, at least compared to a console because of the fact that the current consoles are generally far cheaper at this point in time and guaranteed to work. However, PC gaming doesn't have to be the expensive venture it's made out to be. Here's a guide to cost effective PC gaming.

Getting your old PC to game better

Most people have an older PC of some description lying around, and while it may not be an amazing PC, you could probably still get it to play a few games without issues. There are several ways you could peak your old computers potential, and they are listed below.

  • Disabling startup processes
Startup processes can severely dent your games performance because they take up unnecessary CPU cycles and additional RAM - which with the relatively large OS (at least to an older PCs) overhead could be a deal breaker. There are plenty of guides to disabling your unneeded startup processes, but the easiest way of doing it would be pushing the Windows key and R and entering 'msconfig' to the dialog, and then finding your way over the 'Startup' tab and unticking those that you know you don't need (although I strongly advise against unticking things if you don't know what they are/do), clicking apply and rebooting.

You'll find that your startup times are improved a fair bit in the vast majority of cases, and you'll also find that your aging computer has a few more CPU cycles and a little more RAM to dedicate to your gaming, and that could be the difference between playable and unplayable on a particularly low end PC.
  • Disabling Aero on Windows Vista/7
 Aero is the default theme on Windows Vista, 7 and 8. A theme is basically the 'style' of the operating system, and in this case, it's how the taskbar and windows look. Of course, Aero is pretty good looking with it's fancy 'glass' effects that make every translucent, but in reality, behind all the prettiness, all it's doing is eating your graphics cards VRAM, and if you're on a particularly low end PC, where the card has, say, 512mb or less of dedicated graphics memory, the luxury of Aero is going to eat into the gaming potential - particularly the textures and models, side of gaming.

By turning off Aero on the newer Windows OS's, your older PC may find itself a little more willing to play games adequately because of the additional VRAM, and if you have to play at low texture settings already, turning off Aero may mean you can push the textures up from 'Low' to 'Medium' with very little performance loss.

You can turn Aero off by clicking the 'Start' button, typing 'Themes' and selecting 'Change the Theme' and scrolling down until you reach either Windows 7 Basic or Windows Classic, both will have similar effects on your VRAM. Simply click the theme, and you could see a vast improvement in some games if your graphics card lacks the memory.

  •  Game Booster
Game Booster is an application that runs, detects processes and services that are running that are not required while gaming, and freeing up even more RAM and CPU cycles for the game to use instead - again, for some older computers, this could be a godsend for the performance of games on older machines. Sadly, the free version of this excellent application is being discontinued, but I'm sure the free version will remain around on the internet for those who wish to find it.

  • Disk Defrag
As time goes on, your disk will become more and more 'fragmented'. This essentially means that the data will be scattered around your disk, forcing the hard disks 'arm' to have to move more to actually get to the data, which can decrease performance when there's lots of files in use - and one of those circumstances are when a game is being loaded, or when a game with texture, level or sound streaming is being played. The act of 'streaming' in a game engine means that the parts are loaded progressively as the player advances towards them or when a trigger is set to load them. Loading these parts sometimes has the game engine 'wait' while they're loading, which with a fragmented harddrive could result in some hardcore stuttering, which you want to avoid. Or even if not, extremely slow load times.

While Windows does come with a built in Disk Defragmenting tool, it's not exactly regarded as amazing, and there are plenty of tools that do it better. My favourite is 'Auslogics Disk Defrag' (I'm a sucker for all of their applications, they're just well designed) Which you can download here.

Once your in, it's pretty simplistic, click the 'Defrag' button or the 'Defrag and Optimise' button (takes longer, but improves more) and wait for it to do its stuff. Please don't turn your PC off in the middle of this though, that'll pose a danger to your hard drive.

  • Update your Drivers
 Drivers are the pieces of software that tell the operating system how to do certain things with your hardware, and how to do them well. For example, the graphics card driver tells the computer the best way to display your PC, and the best way to render games and the like efficiently. With every graphics card driver (and the graphics ones are the ones you should absolutely update), things are made more efficient and optimized, and you definitely want that if your computer is lagging behind in performance - every little helps. Unfortunately, Intel rarely update their chipsets, and the drivers they ship with are generally the drivers they get, but both AMD and Nvidia are relatively good at supporting all of their hardware.

Updating your PC to run better

You've got to be careful when updating your PC, because updating the wrong part isn't actually going to make your computer run any better in the field where it struggles. If there is a common part which is always lowest amongst all on-PC applications, we call that a 'bottleneck' - a part which is limiting the other components of the computer from doing their job to their full potential. Think of it as a school where all the other students are kept back until the slowest learner of the class has caught up.

Now there's no surefire way of determining the bottleneck, but unless you're throwing a very CPU intensive game like ARMA 2 or to some degree the Frostbite engine games (Battlefield), you're most likely going to find that your bottleneck is set firmly on the graphics card, but if your CPU is an old Pentium 4 (read: Pentium 4, not Pentium Dual Core or Pentium G-series) or Athlon 64 (Not Athlon II) you may find that you're devling into the area of having to upgrade most things, and at time of writing, your best bang for buck is currently with the Intel i-series processors, so scroll down to the building a new PC part, and keep the Motherboard, CPU and RAM - and then cross off hardware that you already have to reduce cost!

Or if you just want an explanation and suggestions, keep reading!
  • Graphics Card
In most cases, the graphics card being upgraded usually yields the most increased in-game performance for the least cost, since the CPU is very rarely a bottleneck, and you'd have to be sporting a rather old CPU to have that be the issue - and if that's the case, you should look into building a new machine anyway (see next section).

As for graphics cards, decent graphics cards that run on most any computer, without extensive power supplies and loads of money being thrown at them are the lower end AMD cards. Anything above the 6450 should be capable of withstanding the vast majority of gaming efforts - and the 6570 has been known to run on 230W power supplies running games at medium and 720p resolution, while not exactly recommended, it has been proved possible.

The best bang-for-your-buck cards that are relatively cheap are all AMD cards, because Nvidia seems to always have a premium for the glory of the name, and perhaps the slightly better drivers (not that the AMD drivers are ever that much worse).

The recommended card for price-to-performance ratio is the 6670, which comes in at about £50 for the GDDR3 version or £60 for the GDDR5 version, of which the latter is much more worth the money, but the 6570 is also a viable graphics card for the very cheap. From that point upwards, power supplies need more heftiness. The 6770 is a very popular card for gaming, but requires an additional PCI-E connector, something that many pre-built PCs power supplies may not feature, limiting you to the 6670.

Also, if your computer is very old, you may find that you're going to have an AGP slot for your graphics card, not a PCI-E x16 slot, however, if this is the case, I'm sorry - but there's no reasonable upgrade apart from maybe some of the AMD 4000 series AGP chips, as AGP is obsolete and has been for quite some time. Again, if you don't have a PCI-E x16, scroll down to the building a new PC part.
  • CPU
You may find that you need to upgrade your CPU, but zero else. At the time of writing, the best solution to your CPU woes would be to buy a cheapish 1155-socket motherboard, preferably from a good brand like ASUS, Asrock, MSI or Gigabyte (avoid Biostar like the plague, regardless of the price - they didn't earn the name Deathstars for nothing), and an i3 2120 or 2100. If you have a little more money, you could even get yourself an i5 2400 or 2500k, although these will cost a little bit more.

The Ivy Bridge series of processors is out at the moment, but the performance difference isn't all that much different to the Sandy Bridge, and they cost a fair bit more money, so it's not really viable to purchase one at this moment in time- and besides, the H61 boards from ASUS and Asrock are confirmed Ivy Bridge compatible if you want to up the ante later. You'll need to grab yourself some DDR3 RAM with this too, if you haven't already.

  • RAM
RAM really won't make much of a difference unless you have very little of it, and by that I mean less than a gigabyte. Less than a gigabyte of RAM however is unlikely to be DDR3, the current standard of RAM - but much more likely to be DDR2 or DDR or SDRAM, which are either not in circulation any longer, or are very expensive. This means that you'll either be paying out the ass for RAM, or you could just pick up a new motherboard, CPU and RAM - or a new PC as detailed in the next section.

Regardless, RAM isn't going to make all that much difference to performance unless you have a severe abundance of it.

  • Everything else
 As for everything else, the vast majority of other parts will not give you any additional performance, apart from maybe grabbing a speedier hard drive (7200RPM is now the standard, whereas 5400RPM was the previous standard). However, CPU and Graphics Card are the most likely to cause a big performance difference.

Building a new PC

The PC gaming landscape is littered with elitists, people that demand no less than 60fps on the games uppermost settings spread across three 1080p monitors, and they will recommend to others systems capable of that, even when the users in question don't actually need that. So here's a tasty list of parts that will assemble into a kickass gaming PC (without monitor) for just under £430, even with OS. All parts are from eBuyer. If you're from Americaland, you'll find that all of these parts (or at least similar, maybe not identically named) parts are available from Newegg, a fantastically cheap hardware retailer with great policies. I'm only partially jealous because Newegg always works out cheaper than eBuyer, but I can't get my parts imported from the US, so hats off to you.

If you're somewhere that's not America and not the UK, Amazon has a version of their site in nearly every country and language, and they sell hardware too, so you can check up these parts there.

Part Model Link Price
Motherboard Asrock H61M Link £40.60
CPU Intel Core i3 2120 Link £89.90
RAM Kingston 4GB 1333MHz Link £17.99
Hard Drive 500GB Seagate Barracuda Link £52.98
GPU MSI 6770 1GB GDDR5 Link £77.28
Case Coolermaster Elite 342 mATX Link £27.03
PSU Antec VP 550w Link £50.38
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium w/ SP1 Link £69.98

That's a total of only £426.04, and it includes practically everything you need to get gaming, apart from the mouse and keyboard, which if you don't already have lying around, you can snag a combo for a fiver at any decent tech retailer. If you needed something really cheap, you could quite snugly change the i3 2120 out for a Pentium G840 and the 6770 for a 6670 and you've still got a pretty decent gaming PC.

Part Model Link Price
Motherboard Asrock H61M Link £40.60
CPU Intel Pentium G840 Link £54.72
RAM Kingston 4GB 1333MHz Link £17.99
Hard Drive 500GB Seagate Barracuda Link £52.98
GPU MSI 6670 1GB DDR3 Link £50.21
Case Coolermaster Elite 342 mATX Link £27.03
PSU Antec VP 550w Link £50.38
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium w/ SP1 Link £69.98

This is the same build, but the i3 2120 has been swapped out for a Pentium G840, and the 6770 for the lesser 6670 - it also costs £363.83 instead of £426.04. It's still a reasonable build, but you should shell out that tiny bit extra for the first build as the performance difference would be more noticeable than the price difference.

There are tons of tutorials on how to put together a PC on YouTube, and always read the manual of your motherboard, because it usually has detailed diagrams to show you what to do - and remember, building the PC you'll be gaming on is the best way of getting into PC gaming on the cheap - and if you're updating from an older build, you might find that you've got a variety of parts that you can reuse to drop that cost even more.


Well I've told you how to optimise your current PC, how to know what to upgrade in the PC that you have right now, and a good selection of parts to purchase to get top notch performance on the cheap-scale of things, so good luck, and I hope you found this useful!

1 comment:

  1. As a subscriber of an Australian broadband service provider, I now that cheap gaming PCs is not important as long as the specs are good.