The great upgrade: Tales from the ancient past


— 10:51 AM on July 14, 2010

Our current contest challenges readers to relate their first PC upgrade experiences for a chance to win a copy of Just Cause 2.  We already have quite a few good entries, and skimming through them caused me to think back to one of my first PC upgrades—and wouldn't you know, I wrote an article about it and posted it on the web.  With performance graphs!  The year was 1997.  I think.  Pentiums were all the rage, 3D acceleration was dawning, and I somehow had good things to say about the awful Quantum Bigfoot hard drive I'd picked up in an online auction. Just like 3dfx, I never quite finished what I'd promised, but it's a fun jog down memory lane, regardless.

MAY 19: THE FIRST STEPS

Now that my computer is alive again, I can tell you about what I've been doing and why I haven't been able to update this page. Having finished my big papers for the term, I took some time and upgraded my computer system. I started with a Gateway 2000 system with a 100Mhz Pentium and an STB Powergraph 64 video card. This was a decent setup, with 40Mb of RAM and plenty of nice cards, drives, etc., but it was a tad on the slow side. For one thing, around the time I bought my PC, Gateway decided that the advent of EDO memory meant they didn't need to include a level 2 cache in their systems. They have since repented, but my motherboard had no cache and no place to add one. Anyhow, for a number of good but very techno-nerd intensive reasons, I decided to see how much I could improve this system's performance. I snagged an STB Lightspeed 128 graphics card (with 2Mb of MDRAM) in an online auction for 38 bucks—no kidding. The thing delivers blisteringly fast video. Then I ordered a new motherboard, following the advice I found at Tom's Hardware Guide. The motherboard is an Abit IT5H, which has a 512K L2 cache, a Pentium-style processor socket and a so-very-nifty "soft menu" BIOS—in other words, it's a jumperless motherboard that can be tweaked to no end via software.

I replaced the video card and the motherboard, using the memory and processor from my previous motherboard to populate the new one. Then I strapped a heat sink with a fan on top of my processor's current heat sink for a cooling double-whammy. Now I've got it all up and running, with my system bus running at an atmospheric 75Mhz—faster than a new Pentium II system's bus—and my processor overclocked to 112.5Mhz. Preliminary benchmark results are available here: 

Test
P5-100Mhz, 66Mhz bus, 430FX, No L2 cache, STB Powergraph 64 video card
P5-112.5Mhz, 75Mhz bus, 430HX, 512K L2 cache, STB Lightspeed 128 video card
Performance gain
WinTune 97:      
Dhrystone MIPS (integer) 175 209 19.43%
Whetstone MFLOPS (floating point) 53 63 18.87%
Video speed MP/sec 13 31 138.46%
Create Window 0.00919 0.00484 47.33%
Scroll Text 9.19 2.15 76.61%
Draw lines/curves 8.16 5.22 36.03%
Draw filled objects 3.00 1.11 63.00%
Destroy window 0.02530 0.01050 58.50%
RAM read average Mb/sec 157 234 49.04%
RAM write average Mb/sec 84 95 13.10%
RAM copy average Mb/sec 49 70 42.86%
WinQuake Timedemo:      
demo1 320x200 frames/sec 23.1 33.7 45.89%
demo2 320x200 frames/sec 24.6 34.9 41.87%
demo1 640x480 frames/sec 9.4 13.8 46.81%
demo2 640x480 frames/sec 10.8 15.6 44.44%
       
Average performance increase     49.48%

The testing was by no means scientific, but the results do give some indication of the upgrade's effectiveness. The long and the short of it is that I spent under $200, including shipping and handling, and now my system runs about 45% faster in real-world conditions. Also, in the future, when I want to go even faster, I can buy a Pentium, Pentium MMX, AMD K6, or some other processor and replace my tired ol' P100. Adding a faster processor could conceivably increase performance over 100%, and it would be fairly cheap. This motherboard's system bus can run at 83Mhz, as well, so the potential performance gain with even a 166Mhz chip is pretty formidable.

The moral of the story? Well, for one thing, I'm much more of a tech freak than you probably thought. Beyond that, the important thing to know is that you don't have to spend a zillion bucks on a new PC every few years to keep up with the rest of the world. These things are modular and a lot of the parts can be reused. Finally, after this experience, I'll probably build a new PC before I buy one again. If you want something done right, do it yourself.

MAY 28: ADD DEPTH AND COLOR

I haven't dropped off the face of the planet, honest. I've been busy with Real Life and playing with my new toy, a Diamond Monster 3D card.

As you know from my last update, I've recently upgraded my computer. Fiddling with it has kept me from spending time on the web page here. After some twiddling with memory timing settings, I think I've got a very stable setup. Initially, overclocking my Pentium 100 to 112.5Mhz and running the system bus at 75Mhz (rather than the usual 60 or 66Mhz speeds) caused me some odd cold-boot problems. Programs would crash occasionally for about the first 3 minutes after I turned on the computer—not every time, but often enough to kinda scare me. I seem to have banished those problems, however, without having to clock my processor back to 100Mhz or the bus back to 66, by adjusting some BIOS settings. Everything's peachy now, and very fast.

The last item I want to tell you about is my new Diamond Monster 3D card, the crowning achievement of my little upgrade scheme. Based on the 3Dfx Voodoo chip set, this thing really is a monster. This card is intended solely for 3D acceleration, so it works in conjunction with a standard video card and just takes over when it's asked to generate 3D graphics.

PC video cards with 3D acceleration have become all the rage of late in the tech world, but few of the current cards provide a compelling 3D experience. They're just too slow to deliver the kind of fluid motion one would like. I'm here to tell you the 3Dfx-based cards are a glaring exception to that rule. These pups render around 2 million polygons per second. A Sony Playstation, until recently the best of the home game consoles, reportedly renders only 300,000 polygons per second, by contrast. But I could quote statistics to you all day long and you wouldn't begin to understand what this thing will do. You simply have to see it to believe it.

Quake, the biggest and baddest 3D game around, runs at a fluid 30-frames-per-second pace on the Monster 3D, even with my sad old P100 processor feeding it data. That is, Quake runs in fluid motion at high resolutions (up to 640x480) in over 65,000 colors, not just 256 colors like the software-only version of the game. The effect is stunning, almost cinematic, as one glides from room to room in an utterly convincing three-dimensional environment. Any one of the individual frames of animation from this game could easily pass for a scene like I used to render in a 3D ray-tracing program on my Amiga 3000 a few years back. Rendering a single complex scene (i.e., one frame of animation) could take around three hours on that computer. Things change.

3D is the next big step for desktop computers, and it's here now. A number of games, including MechWarrior 2 and Tomb Raider, support this card directly. Pod, an oh-so-hip racing game, makes my PC look like a Daytona USA arcade machine, only better. (I love racing games.) Other games use Microsoft's Direct 3D to access the 3Dfx Voodoo hardware, and that works fine, too. Word has it even Bill Gates has been giving Direct 3D demos with a Voodoo-equipped system.

You can get a 3Dfx Voodoo-based card with a full 4Mb of memory for about $150 now. Check out the excellent Operation 3.D.F.X. web site for all the newest developments and info on where to buy one of these things. If you don't want to buy one, you still owe it to yourself to find someplace where you can take a look at one running some 3D-accelerated applications, just so you can get a sense of what's possible now.

JULY 18: COMPARE AND CONTRAST

It's time for a late-night, insomnia-inspired update. I've been meaning to update the page for a while with comments on a whole load of tech-related things, but I've been too busy doing tech-related stuff to stop and write about it. Now that I can't sleep for thinking about it, I'll try to run through the list—or at least the highlights—of the interesting toys I've been testing.

First up on the list is a report on my ongoing system upgrade. A few weeks ago, I snagged a massive 4.3 gig Quantum hard drive in yet another online auction. My original 1 gig drive was getting terrifyingly crowded, even with compression running. The new Quantum has a killer peak transfer rate (16.6 Mb/sec) and supports direct-memory-access transfers at full speed. It's also a big drive—as in physical size, like Bill Clinton's gut—and Quantum claims, as a result, the thing will produce some very high sequential transfer rates. In other words, it reads big, one-shot files very quickly. Pulling streaming video off the drive, for instance, should be a breeze. On a more down-to-earth level, Netscape seems to load more quickly.

Overall, I really like the new drive. Two things about my experience with it stand out as pleasant surprises. First, this (enhanced IDE) drive works surprisingly well with my older (also enhanced IDE) Western Digital drive. No matter how I've configured them or what nasty, beta drivers I've installed, these two drives have always talked virtually flawlessly. That's a nice surprise, because I've heard horror stories from folks installing enhanced IDE drives from different manufacturers. The second unexpected little joy has been the fact that this new Quantum drive is almost whisper silent. My original hard drive grunches and t-t-t-t-t-t-talks to me every time it's accessed. Using the Quantum, my system now feels faster just because it doesn't sound like it's putting out so much effort to get something done. Much better.

Adding a new hard drive on my system allowed me to play with the next toy I want to say a bit about, Windows NT. Win NT version 4 now has Win95's clean, decent user interface, and NT is reportedly a much more advanced operating system under the surface. Assuming Microsoft gets NT right, I'd have every reason to switch to this snazzy new operating system. However, my verdict is stil out on this one. I've installed both NT and 95 on my computer, and I still boot into Win95 by default. I'd probably be more gung-ho about seriously trying to migrate to a new OS if I hadn't set up something like 10 new system and software configurations in the past month or so. I'm over-teched. For a while, at least, Win95 will remain my main OS.

Part of my tech exhaustion comes from having set up a new motherboard, two new graphics cards, and a new hard drive for my dad's PC over the July 4th weekend. That's right—I gave my dad's computer my patented Total System Upgrade. He's moved from a 90Mhz Pentium based on an ancient Intel chipset to a 100Mhz Pentium (just a bit overclocked) on an Abit motherboard like mine, a 128-bit graphics card, a Quantum 4.3 Gb hard drive, and a 3Dfx-based 3D graphics card. This upgrade turned out to be a rather big job for one weekend, all things considered, but his system is much improved.

To give you some idea how much improved it is, I can offer you a subjective comparison. His system is now just about identical to mine, with which I'm quite familiar, of course. In comparison to my home system, I offer my impressions of my brand-spanking new PC at work. This bad-boy Micron is a Pentium MMX machine with all the goodies (512K cache, Intel's latest TX chipset, and 32 megs SDRAM, for you fellow geeks). (Its arrival is another source of my tech exhaustion.) The first thing I did to it—before ever turning it on—was overclock the 166Mhz processor to 200. It worked like a charm, and I've never looked back.

The startling thing is not just how little subjective performance difference there is between my 100Mhz non-MMX Pentium machine at home and my 200Mhz MMX Pentium machine at work. The startling thing is that, for many day-to-day tasks, my 100Mhz home machine seems to have the better end of that difference. Why? My guess is that, for one thing, the graphics card I have here at home is quite a bit faster than the one on my PC at work. (My home graphics card is an STB Lightspeed 128 with special MDRAM memory. It's dangerously quick.) Also, Intel's older HX chipset is also probably a bit faster than the new TX chipset in certain, key ways. Finally, both 100 and 200Mhz systems run at a bus speed of 66Mhz. There are real limits to how much performance one can squeeze out of a computer by turning up only the main processor's clock speed.

For a final insult to the shiny (well, face it, it's flat beige), new 200Mhz MMX machine, I installed a couple of 3D games on both machines. The work PC has an S3 Virge/DX-based 2D/3D combo card; my home PC has a 3Dfx-based Monster 3D card. One of those games was Pod, a racer I've enjoyed quite a bit on my home PC. The demo version of it that came with my work PC supposedly uses both MMX and the Virge 3D card to enhance speed and visual quality. The version I run at home is tuned for the 3Dfx card. At home, Pod rivals anything I've seen in the arcades. The visuals are stunning and frame rates are high and smooth. At work, Pod just stinks. It's ugly and slow enough to be virtually unplayable. I had a similar experience with Psygnosis' Wipeout demo, which accesses both 3D cards via Microsoft's Direct3D.

Ted Whatshisname, CEO of Gateway 2000, recently verbally slapped Intel's marketing types by saying something tantamount to sacrilege in the computer industry: "Speed is not a feature." In a way, obviously, he was very right. The specific kinds of speed I get from my 100Mhz home PC matter much more to me than what I get from my 200Mhz MMX PC at work.

AUGUST ??: COMPLETE AND EVALUATE

Coming soon.

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