Most Tech Tips have focused on the business side of computer hardware, but all work and no play...
In this Tech Tip, we will look at some important considerations to make when selecting hardware for use in a computer that may need to work hard, but will need to play even harder. Today's fast-paced video games demand a lot of computing power and ‘good' systems even a few years old just won't cut it. Buying the video game is the easy part, but making sure you have a system that can handle it is where things may get more complicated.
Far Cry is a popular action game from UbiSoft that is a perfect example of the demands placed on computers to make them run well. Their "System Requirements" page lists the minimum specifications needed to play the game, as well as recommended specifications that will allow the game to run smoothly and look half decent. From the information provided on that page, it is clear that a computer from a few years ago may be able to play the game, but to really enjoy the game, you may need to buy more than just the game software.
The core system components obviously play a major role in game play. As is the case with computer performance in general, faster and bigger are what you want in processors, memory, and hard drives to enhance the gaming experience. According to the Far Cry specifications, a processor with a speed greater than 2 GHz and 512MB or more of memory are recommended. These system specifications may not be cutting edge, but they may be greater than those of many personal computers. Far Cry is just one example of many modern games requiring similar resources, and the average system just might not be up to the task.
Hardcore gamers (with the appropriate budget) might not flinch at dropping a few hundred dollars on new components hoping to squeeze just a bit more performance out of their system. The technology advances so quickly that an endless cycle of upgrades is possible if you feel the need to keep up. For the sake of this article, we will assume that some of the core components in your system are there for at least the foreseeable future, and that they are at least modern enough to consider for use with video games.
Video is no doubt the most important aspect to enjoying a video game. There may be many components behind the scene making sure that a crisp, clear image is provided for smooth game play, but all we care about is what is shown on the screen.
The first thing to consider here is the graphics card. Taking a look back at the recommended specifications for Far Cry, it can be seen that you'll want a fast graphics processor backed by 128MB (or more) of video memory. Systems using onboard video, or a PCI based video card, may do fine in desktop applications, but game play may be less than enjoyable. It used to be that 128MB of memory was a big deal, but now it is a fairly common base offering. High-end cards with 256MB or 512MB are readily available, even though some may argue that 128MB on a card with a fast processor may be enough.
PCI Express video cards are the latest and greatest, and for those with motherboards that support PCIe, the extra bandwidth coupled with a high-end graphics processor will provide the best performance. Systems supporting SLI can take things to the extreme by harnessing the processing power of a pair of matching PCIe graphics cards for use on one display.
AGP cards still dominate in terms of popularity, and most chipsets found in the PCIe format will also be found in AGP format. The performance of AGP cards with the same high-end chipset as a PCIe card can be expected to be less, but still more than adequate for smooth game play. Taking a look at one manufacturer's website shows that both a PCIe and AGP version of an nVidia GeForce 6600GT are available with 128MB of memory. The 6600GT PCIe card, such as this one at Geeks.com, is currently quite popular with game players, as it offers excellent performance at a price that isn't too outrageous.
Let's not forget the monitor. All the graphics processing power in the world is worthless without somewhere to see it. CRT monitors still dominate in terms of popularity for game players, but LCDs are making great strides.
The main issue to consider with LCDs is response time, which is a figure that should be provided in the list of specifications. Presented in terms of milliseconds ("ms"), lower values are preferable as it indicates how quickly the image is updated. In fast-paced games, "ghosting" may occur on slower monitors due to the action being faster than the monitor can keep up with. Comparing this 17" TFT LCD from SVA to this one from Princeton , shows that among other things, an extra $25 provides a response time of 16ms on the Princeton versus 25ms on the SVA. The criteria for acceptability may be subjective and relative to the game being played, the person playing it, and other system settings, but some may argue that LCDs with a response time of 16ms or less are best suited for game play. As the technology advances, LCD monitors with response times in the single digits are starting to show up, such as the 19" Viewsonic VX924 with a response time of 4ms.
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