Several weeks ago, my Server’s RAID array failed, and I was left with an expensive server with no data on it. And while I certainly could have began the process of rebuilding my collection of videos, music, and other files, I decided that this tabula rasa that presented itself to me was the perfect opportunity to change course.
So I sold my server on eBay. And before I did, I consolidated all of my higher-end components in it. You can check out the actual specifications here. I left myself an 8800GT, 2.4GHz Core2 Duo Celeron processor, and 3GB of DDR2 667 memory. (“Celeron” is a name that usually induces shudders in anyone familiar with computers. Heck, it’s almost a computer euphemism for “cheap”). The question I began to ask myself was: instead of focusing on what possible system can I build, what can I get by with and still have all the functionality I need?
As a computer hardware enthusiast, I can say from personal experience that computer parts upgrades can seem like an escalating arms race. For every new technology that comes out, there’s always a temptation to upgrade and get that edge on the existing technology. But with my experiences so far with Windows 7 and my experimental trial with Ubuntu (which I will conclude in a future post), I’ve learned that efficient operating systems can do a lot with very little in terms of hardware.
As I’ve explained before, I have a Dell Latitude E4300 laptop from my employer as a work computer. And we have a media center PC for watching DTV, movies, and for Mandy to play Left 4 Dead on. My “Mainframe” desktop computer used to be the most powerful system in the house, but with its current configuration, it is the least powerful (with the exception of the 8800GT graphics card in it). So when I sold my tricked-out Server, I asked myself what kind of desktop could I get away with using and still maintain the functionality I enjoyed with the quad-core, 4GB of RAM system I was used to using.
The answer: a fairly humble system. I put the Core2 Duo Celeron processor (originally intended for only file server duty) into Mainframe. It’s a cache-starved processor (as opposed to a regular Core2 Duo), but with two cores and a decent clockspeed of 2.4GHz, it manages to be usable. The 3GB of RAM is DDR2 667, which doesn’t quite provide the same level of overclockability as DDR2 800, but I was able to manually set the CPU multiplier and FSB without any stability issues.
The question: DOES IT BLEND??? Actually, the question was whether it was usable for the primary purpose of Mainframe: playing Left 4 Dead (and the upcoming Left 4 Dead 2). When I first put the anemic downgrades into Mainframe (which previously boasted a Core2 Quad and 4GB of DDR2 800), it automatically adjusted the CPU multiplier and FSB to compensate for the lower-clocked DDR2 667, leaving me with a dual-core 1.6GHz processor. I was able to play Left 4 Dead with some minor decreases in graphics. But the Left 4 Dead 2 Demo required me to turn everything down to the basics just the ensure smooth playback. Not good.
But once I manually set the CPU multiplier and FSB to 12 and 200 respectively (bringing the CPU clockspeed back to 2.4GHz), I was able to play the Left 4 Dead 2 Demo at close to highest settings with reasonable frame rates. And since that game is essentially the biggest challenge to my computer’s hardware, I don’t really need to worry about my new, “slimmed down” Mainframe being able to perform the functions I need it to be able to do.
So, with this pared-down version of a main desktop computer, I can gain some perspective on the marginal benefits of the latest-and-greatest in computer hardware. I’ve always known that the premiums that Intel and AMD charge for the highest clockspeed processors are never worth the extra money they charge. While 3.0GHz sounds like a big increase over 2.6GHz, in actual usage the benefit is relatively minor.
So, I’m now starting to appreciate the minor differences between a 2.4GHz Core2 Quad with plenty of cache and a 2.4GHz Core2 Duo Celeron with limited cache. For Folding@Home and benchmarking, the Core2 Quad would completely dominate a cheap Core2 Duo Celeron. But for average desktop usage and some casual gaming, the difference is negligible. About the only component that isn’t lower-tier is the graphics card, but it’s over a year old now and a couple generations behind the latest-and-greatest – and yet still provides a respectable gaming experience.
My quad-core behemoth has been replaced with a low-end Celeron. But you know what? I can hardly tell . . .