GeekTech: Building a Future-Proof PC

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It happens to us all: You put together your latest home-built PC masterpiece and before you've even downloaded your first Windows XP patch, some new technology comes along, or the price of an existing one drops, and you find yourself wishing you'd waited just another few days, weeks, or months.

Bummer.

But let's face it, if you always waited for the next big thing, you'd never get around to building that new system. There's always something newer, faster, and better on the way. That doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to a PC that's old before its time, however. With a little planning, you can build a great system today that still has legs tomorrow. The key: Pick the right motherboard.

Every component you buy for a new PC is important, but when it comes to future upgradeability the motherboard is the most important of all. That's because the motherboard has to play nice with all of those other components--everything from your CPU to your memory to your graphics card and so on. Motherboards may not be the sexiest component in the box, but if you buy a cheap one today, it could end up costing you more tomorrow.

Processor Prognostication

Both Advanced Micro Devices and Intel offer performance enhancing dual-core processors, but (as regular readers of this column probably know) right now they're still a little too pricey for my taste. The smart thing to do today is to build a single-core system with an eye toward upgrading later.

Athlon 64 X2

If you're an AMD fan, the equation is fairly simple: Avoid the less expensive motherboards with the single-channel 754-pin Athlon 64 and Sempron processor socket, and stick with 939-pin socket boards that support Athlon 64 and Athlon FX chips. Not only do these boards offer dual-channel memory support, but the vast majority of them support AMD's dual-core Athlon 64 X2 right out of the box--and the boards that don't should work after a bios update.

Intel fans face a slightly more complicated choice. That's because right now only motherboards based on Intel's 945 and 955 chip sets support the chip giant's dual-core Pentium EE or Pentium D processors. Boards using earlier Intel chip sets (including fairly recent vintage Pentium 4-compatible products) won't support the dual-core chips, nor will current versions from companies such as NVidia. The simple answer would seem to be "buy an Intel motherboard," but that can lead to another limitation (more on that in a minute).

Pick PCI Express

Today you can still find plenty of late-model motherboards that use Accelerated Graphics Port for graphics. You might be tempted to save a few bucks by buying one of these boards: In addition to being well priced, they let you squeeze some more life out of your existing graphics card. But don't do it; buy a motherboard that supports PCI Express graphics.

There are numerous reasons to make the move to PCI Express. First, it offers dramatically faster throughput than AGP. It's true that many of today's graphics cards don't utilize all that bandwidth, but future cards could (and likely will). Second, graphics chip and board vendors now concentrate their product releases on PCI Express first and AGP second. That means you'll not only have to wait for new graphics technologies to trickle down to mainstream, moderately priced graphics boards, but you'll also have to wait for the PCI Express people to get theirs first.

The third reason to move to PCI Express: NVidia's Scalable Link Interface. Currently available only on high-end NVidia-based motherboards with two graphics card slots, SLI lets you run two identical SLI-enabled NVidia video cards at once--and the results can be impressive. Super-duper power users with tons of disposable cash like to build systems with two high-end cards, two 7800 GTXs, say. But for the rest of us, it makes sense to buy a nice midrange card now, and then--six months down the line when card prices drop--add the second card for a nice graphics boost.

This, however, brings up the limitation I mentioned earlier about choosing an Intel motherboard: Intel's chip sets don't support SLI. Unfortunately, it seems Intel fans must make a choice between dual-core compatibility and SLI support.

Memory Mojo

The old adage about computer memory still stands: Buy as much as you can afford. But just be sure that you can afford at least 1GB. Also, if your motherboard supports a dual-channel processor, make sure that you're using two sticks, placed in the appropriate slots. You can spend extra money on high-speed, low-latency RAM, but chances are you won't see much of a performance increase.

If you can afford it, you might consider stocking your new system with 2GB of memory right out of the gate. After all, you can never have too much, and you might need it when that shiny new space-hogging Windows Vista operating system arrives in 2006. Plus, if you can reach 2GB using two DIMMs, then you won't have to worry about the memory downclocking or system stability issues that some people encounter when they try to populate a motherboard's third and fourth memory slots.

Follow all these tips, and your next PC should be in pretty good shape for the future. Note that hedge word, should.

The fact is, even as I type this, the onward march of technology continues. For example, rumor has it that sometime in early 2006 AMD will move its processors to a brand-new socket--one that will support DDR2 memory, but won't support your current processor. Intel will also move to a new socket down the road, but that's likely a bit further out. And any day now ATI will get around to launching Crossfire, its response to NVidia's dual-card technology, which could lead you to either love or hate a prior commitment to SLI.

Of course, you can always wait for these new technologies to arrive. But at some point, you just have to dive in. And besides, two or three years from now you'll need an excuse to build a brand-new system, right?

Tom Mainelli is currently looking for an excuse to build a brand-new system. If you have a suggestion, or want to share some upgrade tips of your own, please drop him a line.
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