20 Mar 2011

Blueprint for a Next-Gen MMO Machine

This post is part two in my series on the Next-Gen MMO Machine. The first part is about salvaging and keeping your existing good stuff, while the part on getting the latest accessories is still to come!

Once I’ve worked out what I’m going to keep and what’s going to get trashed or donated to someone else, it’s time to work out the budget. I always find it pretty important to keep a hard cap on the amount you’re going to spend. It’s easy to persuade yourself into spending a little extra for things here and there, and before you know it your build costs double. If you’re going to buy off the shelf the same thing applies – be ruthless and discard systems that are over budget by 10%.

Don’t forget hidden costs as well – have you factored in taxes like VAT or sales tax? What about shipping costs? There’s even import duy to consider if you’re having something shipped from a seller overseas. You might want to carve your budget up and set aside a chunk of money for all these unexpected things.

The Sweet Spots

It always feels like computer tech is made up of a series of sweet spots – certain key pieces of hardware that represent fantastic performance for their price. Your budget and configuration will control which sweet spots you can hit and the overall performance of your system.

Pricing up your system takes a bit of knowing the markets. The cost of pre-built off the shelf systems tends not to fluctuate too much, only really changing when major new technology is released. Component retailers on the other hand tend to run weekly changing promotions, meaning that your build cost can vary by as much as 15% depending on what you buy and when you buy it.

What are these sweet spots that I keep on going on about? They tend to vary as time goes by, so the list I’m going to share is only relevant at this moment. New products are released all the time and tech review sites are constantly testing the performance of new kit, so this list is likely to change over time. There’s no substitute for doing your own research, especially when it’s your own money you’re putting down!

Starting off with processors, the Intel Core i5 2500K is currently a very good choice. The new Sandybridge range of processors represent great value for money, with the K range being easy to overclock if you want to squeeze out extra performance. Pair it up with a B3 revision Sandybridge motherboard as earlier versions have a few known issues.

Moving on to graphics cards, I’d suggest one featuring the NVidia GTX460 as a fairly solid option. If you want to save a few coins you can find ones with 768MB of on-board memory, but most tend to come with 1GB these days. Having one of these will allow you to run most of the newer MMOs at the higher end of the graphics range, including all those shadow, water reflection and fancy spell effects. Performance will vary from one manufacturer to another, so make sure you read reviews and performance comparisons before you buy.

System RAM is another easy one to solve, with 4GB being the typical benchmark for Windows 7 machines. Make sure that it’s suitable for the motherbaord and processor (those buying off the shelf don’t need to worry about this). A good brand will help you when you want to overclock, so I’d suggest doing some research before you buy.

If you’re building your own machine then make sure you factor in a decent brand power supply unit. For the gear above, you’ll be looking at the 500w mark. If you’re going to add further hard drives then you’ll want to bump this up to around 650w. Also make sure to include a copy of Windows 7 if you can’t reuse your old one.

Other than that the case, DVD drives and any fancy lighting are pretty much up to personal preference. Those buying off the shelf are pretty much stuck with what they get, but for the custom builders there’s a huge range to choose from. Small and svelte or a cavernous colossus, it’s all down to what you want and how much budget you have left.

Pushing the Boat Out

If you find yourself with money left over after hitting everything on the checklist then you might want to consider reaching for some performance boosts. After all, you want to put all that cash to work for you!

A solid state drive could really improve boot times and overall performance, especially if you use it for your operating system and applications limited by drive performance (of which WoW is certainly one). From a cost per GB perspective SSD’s are expensive and reliability remains broadly theoretical rather than evidence-based. That being the case an additional mechanical HDD for your lesser used games, programs and file storage is a good compliment to any machine with an SSD main drive. Typically 60GB SSD’s are large enough for Windows, Office 2010 a number of large games (such as WoW). Those seeking to to take advantage of an SSD for video editing may want to look at larger capacities.

Bumping system RAM up to 8GB can be a cheap performance boost, especially if you’re planning on running FRAPS or other video capture alongside your games. It’s also useful if you have more than one WoW account and want to have both running at the same time.

Swapping out the graphics card for an NVidia GTX 560 Ti can also be a performance booster. The standard versions offer an incremental boost, but the pre-overclocked ones with higher quality cooling solutions are great value. There are lots of places doing comparison charts so look carefully to make sure you get the best value. Also remember that a meatier graphics card will need a better PSU, so keep the overall build in mind.

Although many motherboards come with built in sound, a separate sound card can be a cheap way of boosting performance by taking some of the load off your processor. These cards don’t have to be expensive, and can provide great quality audio if your PC doubles up as a general entertainment hub. Throwing in a Blu-Ray drive might also be something to consider if you use your PC to watch movies.

Getting the Goods

Performing a major PC upgrade or purchase is a significant investment and in this day and age it’s pretty crucial to make sure your money stretches as far as possible. There’s no substitute for solid research, so expect to pick up a few magazines and watch a few websites for a while before you part with your hard-earned cash. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice either, either to caution you against buying a lemon or to reinforce your decisions about what you’re planning.

This is part two of my Next-Gen MMO PC guide. The previous one looked at what you could salvage from your existing setup, while my next one will look at those great accessories that you might want to replace. As always if you’ve got any questions, feedback or thoughts of your own then please add them in the comments.

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