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The Rest of Your Computer

Although the video card is the most esthetic component to your computer, the rest of your system needs to be competitive. It would not do any good if you have the fastest graphics card in your computer, but you were still using an old 486 processor and had 8MB of RAM.

Safety First!

Whenever you are working on your own computer, be sure to follow the safety precautions found in your computer owner's manual. You should also follow the instructions for any of the components you are adding to you system. If you don't feel comfortable working on your own system, there are many service centers where you can take your computer to have changes made to your system.

To optimize your computer, you need to match each component with the others for the best performance of your system. To do this, you need to look at your computer components and compare them to what you want to do and what you are willing to live with. Some people like to be on the cutting edge of technology, while others like to be safe and use proven technology. In fact, some people like to be on what they call the "bleeding edge" of technology—a little ahead of the cutting edge. The disadvantage is if that particular technology doesn't work out or doesn't become a standard, you might need to replace the hardware for future games.

I prefer to be somewhere in between the cutting edge and proven technology. But let's face it, when it comes to computer hardware, it never stays the same. What is standard today will change a few months from now.

Memory

Let's take a look at memory. This technology is always changing. It started with literal chips, then moved to modules, and then 30-pin boards that you could add to your system board. Now there are several variations and varieties of memory types that go with specific system boards. Each system board has specific requirements for the memory that is needed. You'll need to consult your system's manual for the specifications on the memory that you need.

The bottom line is that the system board sets the requirements for the memory that is installed. If you are looking at a new computer, my advice is to get all the memory you think that you will need at he time of purchase, because adding it later might prove difficult.

Since most games run under one of the Windows environments, most of these games require a minimum of 32MB of RAM. These same games prefer 64MB of RAM to perform their best. Spending that little extra in the beginning will save you frustration in the end.

CPU

The CPU is the key component of your computer system. You have many choices available today to pick from for the CPU. There are Pentiums, Pentium IIs, Pentium IIIs, and Celerons of the Intel family, and from the AMD family there are the K-6, K-7, and Athlon. The speeds of these processors can range from 300 to 750 Megahertz. You can look at Table 3.1 to get a better comparison.

Table 3.1—Processor Speeds

Processor

Available Speeds

Intel Processors

 

Celeron

400, 433, 466, 500

Pentium II

333, 400, 450

Pentium III

450, 500, 550, 600, 650, 700

AMD Processors

 

K6-2

350, 380, 400, 450, 500, 533

K6-3

400

Athlon

500, 550, 600, 650, 700, 750


If you are looking for a bargain, the reports show that the Celeron processor outperforms the Pentium II processors for gaming. However, I've found that this is not always the case. You might find that the AMD processor has the performance and the price to meet to your liking.

If you are up for a challenge and don't mind the risk of blowing a component, you can try something called over-clocking the processor. This action is not for the faint of heart, as it can cause damage to you computer and require replacement. I don't advocate over-clocking, as it can decrease the life of your computer. Basically, to over-clock the processor, you adjust the settings on the system board to increase the effective speed of the processor. Doing this will increase the operating temperature of the computer, and you might need to add cooling fans to the computer to keep the temperature down. Many Web pages can give more details on over-clocking, if you're really interested.

Just as an example of the risk over-clocking poses, consider a story in a Web page I came across. Some hardcore gamers took an old 25Mhz 486 processor and over-clocked the processor to more than 125Mhz—five times its original speed. They then played Quake, which would have been impossible at the original speed, for seven minutes before the processor crashed—just to see if it could be done.

Overall, when looking for a processor, use a processor that meets or exceeds the requirements of the applications and games you plan to use. The optimum requirements today will be the minimum requirements tomorrow. Maybe not literally, but you get the idea.

Motherboard

Motherboards are the glue to your system. They are the single most critical component to your system. All devices in your computer interact through the motherboard. Motherboards, also known as mainboards or system boards, can also be the hardest component to pick out. If you are buying a preconfigured system, such as an HP or Compaq, you won't have much to worry about, because this component has already been picked out for you. But if you happen to have the ability to custom make or have your system custom-made, you will want to carefully choose your motherboard.

When I am selecting the components to a new system that I am putting together for myself, I start with the processor that I want to use, then choose the motherboard to optimize and enhance the processor that I just chose. I have to do some research to find out what all the new techno-talk is all about, then I can start to set some feature priorities.

I choose the processor first because each processor type has a different connection or socket type to the system board. This narrows the number of boards available. The second variable is the chipset. The chipset controls the flow of information between the components of the computer system. There are a number of manufacturers that make chipsets as well as motherboards. The trick is getting the right combination to optimize your system.

The diagram in Figure 3.3 is a good example of how a motherboard interacts as a system. This diagram appears at Tom's Hardware (http://www.tomshardware.com), where you can find out about some of the new computer technology as it's being released. (Guess I'm letting you in on my little secret. I'm really not that smart—I just know how to read.)

Figure 3.3 Here's a functional diagram of a motherboard, found at Tom's Hardware Web site.

After you have picked out the processor and the chipset, you are down to only a few boards. Then all you have left is to choose if you want integrated sound, video, network, or SCSI controller—that is, to have those components built into the motherboard as opposed to installed later into card slots. I would recommend not having integrated components on the motherboard if you want to customize a computer. However, if I had to pick something to be integrated, it would be the network card. All the others I would install separately.

Sound Card

Here is an area that often takes a back seat on computers. Granted, visual effects of the graphic components are impressive and have progressed by leaps and bounds. Sound technology has also made many improvements. Three-dimensional sound is now the big thing, with speakers and a subwoofer. I will confess that the sound is impressive. However, most computers, while they have a sound card as a standard component, don't feature the best or latest technology.

The whole game experience is to give you the illusion that you are in the middle of the experience. If you want the best in sound, you might need to upgrade your sound card and perhaps your speakers. For the ultimate in interactive experience, there's even something called a game chair (http://www.imeron.com/products/products_LX.html) that has speakers built in for an increased illusion—and vibration when you take a hit or perform a rough landing.

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