Friday, March 13, 2009

Stalking the FPS monster, part 2

As I mentioned, a friend of mine (Nibuca) asked me for help with her new computer.  I built her last computer on a shoestring budget. Her goal at the time: a computer that would let her play WoW, but not necessarily at max settings. She had recently started to play WoW, and with its modest system requirements, combined with a few recycled parts, we were able to get her a system that would run the game just fine.
  • Athlon 64 2.2GHz Socket 939 single-core processor
  • socket 939 nForce4 motherboard
  • GeForce 7600GT 256MB video card
  • 1GB DDR 400
That was early 2006; nothing great, but enough for a casual player to run around on her lowbie toons.  Flash forward to 2008 - she's the addon-queen of the guild, playing a top DPS raider, and occasionally trying to FRAPS our guild runs.  The modest system she started with is no where near enough. Her frustration begins to mount, as mine had, when our 25 man raids were becoming the norm of our guild activities. Single digit FPS before the fights got started.

Argh, new computer, now!
I enjoy researching hardware (and because it is proximally related to my day job), I offered to make system recommendations for her. Her requirements:
  1. Run World of Warcraft in all its graphics glory. It's a pretty game; she wants to see it.
  2. Run Fraps to record in-game movies.
  3. Multi-box-able (run more than one instance of the WoW client).
  4. Completely playable framerates in 25 man raids (and not too bad in Dalaran).
  5. Plenty of ram
  6. Dual monitor support.
  7. Not have the sides fall off. 
Unlike my situation, her new computer will be a complete new system.  Even the case will be replaced (see last requirement, above). Short version, what I've recommended she get:
  • AM2+/AM2 AMD 790FX motherboard
  • Phenom II X4 920 2.8GHz quad-core CPU
  • 8gb DDR2 1100 ram
  • Radeon HD 4850X2 2GB
As for why... (the long version)
World of Warcraft has updated their recomended system requirements to be:
  • Dual-core processor, such as the Intel Pentium D or AMD Athlon 64 X2
  • 1024 MB RAM (Vista - 2048 MB of RAM)
  • 3D graphics processor with Vertex and Pixel Shader capability with 128 MB VRAM, such as an ATI Radeon X1600 or NVIDIA GeForce 7600 GT class card or better
  • Two-button scroll-wheel mouse
And that's it.  Not much to go on, since that's what I've already got on my machine, and it clearly isn't enough.  Okay, I know Fraps is a resource hog; maybe it will give me a better way to narrow down what to spec for:
  • Requires DirectX 9.0c. 
  • Requires an Intel Pentium 3, Pentium 4, Pentium D, or AMD Athlon, Duron, Sempron, or Opteron processor. 
  • Captures fastest with an nVidia GeForce or ATI Radeon graphics card. 
Except for the specific version of DirectX, that's so vague and specific-free as to be utterly useless.  Alrighty, dual boxing/multi-boxing.  That's a subject more open for variation (and more likely to have folks proud of their systems and willing to share details).  Indeed, the friendly folks at did provide more to go on, but if you go to their page where people have listed out the specs of their machines, you'll see that some very modest machines have been used for multi-boxing.

And at this meandering maw of uncertitude, Nibuca sent me a link to machines she was seeing at Doghouse Systems.  I clicked over to see what they had and was elated that they gave performance numbers for World of Warcraft.  There's some great techie analysis sites out there ( and are high on my list).  Tom's Hardware, in particular, will analyze the holy crap out of the components they test. Unfortunately for me, World of Warcraft isn't a "system killer" application, so it doesn't merit a position on their testing platform.  WoW is supposed to be fairly easy on the hardware... which doesn't help much for the folks who buy utmost top-of-the-line rigs only to have them falter as they try to run around Dalaran.

Blending the set-ups available at Doghouse Systems with the comments from user reviews of individual components at, I was getting closer to having a recommendation to send to Nibuca. The goal: more processing power then their entry-level system, more graphics oomph than their middle system, and keeping the price down to something in keeping with a value/performance ethos. Then I stumbled on to something that would have made my life a little easier: a Phenom II System Buyer's Guide from  But if I'd started there, I wouldn't have searched the hundreds of NewEgg user comments for their WoW performance mentions.

Why AMD?
Yes, currently, the Intel Core i7 is the fastest CPU out there. It is also the most expensive. As of mid-March 2009, the cheapest of that line is just under $300 and quickly goes up to $1000. That's a lot of dollars for bragging rights. Thankfully, my system building skipped the lackluster generation that was Phenom. We're looking at very well performing Phenom II CPUs at attractive price points. The latest reviews speak fondly of these CPUs doing well for a number of reasons (cost of CPU, performance, overclockability, overall system affordability).

Why the 920? Everyone else is recommending the 940 BE...
The Phenom II X4 920 2.8GHz is one step down from the fastest available. The 940 is 3.0GHz, the "BE" distinction refers to "black edition" meaning it is lacking some of the restrictions that generally impede overclocking. Part of the $40 extra cost for the 940 is that implied overclockability. Nibuca is not so much about the hardware, so paying more for that feature set isn't worth it.

Why the Radeon HD 4850X2?
The 4870 is indeed faster, but the 4850 offers a lot of performance for a lower price tag. Translating that to the x2 models (2 GPUs on one card), the 4850 version is over $100 cheaper. I'm wanting to stretch a medium-sized budget to get the most computer muscle I can.  There's plenty of comments out there from people claiming great framerates with just a single 4850, but Nibuca is wanting to multi-box and a separate GPU to handle that extra window/monitor seems like a good bolstering of the graphical needs.

Why go with the AM2+ and DDR2 version? AM3 with DDR3 is faster...
And more expensive.  The AM3 motherboards are just coming available, and DDR3 ram is significantly more expensive for the time being.  One of the goals was to have a machine with oodles of ram.  Oodles of ram isn't within the budget if we went with DDR3.  As for faster, enh...  The articles on both Tom's Hardware and AnandTech showed that an AM3 Phenom II with DDR3 ram had slightly better energy efficiency, but the performance compared to the AM2+ Phenom II with DDR2 ram showed "little if any differences."

The above choices lead to a few other things worth mentioning.
  1. The video card is a bit of an energy-sucking monster. We needed to make sure an approved power supply was in the mix to keep up with it.  A 750 watt Corsair came highly recommended.
  2. Oodles of ram (meaning anything more than 3gb) requires an operating system that can access it.  This meant making sure to get the 64-bit version of Vista.
  3. Cooling. A dual GPU card is going to generate a goodly bit of heat. While she won't be pushing the CPU beyond its stock speeds (and therefore shouldn't need an after-market CPU cooler), getting a bit more airflow in the computer case is probably a good thing.  Preferring something that doesn't approach the high speed whine of jet engines, I copied the solution I used on my current setup and pointed her at cases with LARGE side fans.  The 250mm fans push a goodly amount of air but do so at a far more genial volume.
  4. There's a bit of "buck passing" when it comes to how much ram the CPU/motherboard can deal with.  The motherboard manufacturers say "our board can use up to 16gb ram, but your AMD cpu will only listen to one ram slot per channel (dual channels, ergo, two ram chips)" and AMD says "it's the motherboard that is keeping you from using your ram at its best speed."  The megasize ram chips (4gb) are expensive and I'm not clear on their relevant availability, so how to get more ram available?  On this point, I'm largely taking it on faith from AnandTech's system builder guide.  Their comments on the matter made me re-read the little asterisked caveat about ram slots/speed.  The motherboard manufacturers say "Due to AM3/AM2+ CPU limitation, only one DDR2 1066 DIMM is supported per channel. When four DDR2 1066 DIMMs are installed, all DIMMs run at 800Mhz frequency by default for system stability."   Ah-ha!  It isn't that more chips of ram won't be read, they'll have their default speed lowered.  Anandtech's guide says, "Yes, that's what they default to, but with quality ram and a quality motherboard, you can manually override this."  So I chickened out and recommended following their recommendation to.the.letter.  And when the system gets put together, their guide will be followed.
So that's the strategy we're following to slay her FPS monster.  The parts have been ordered and should arrive next week.  I'll follow up with what kind of performance her new system gets.

All of this has made me more cognizant of my displeasure with the framerates I'm getting.  Its only occasionally unplayable. For a good laugh, I maxed everything and turned shadow details back on, then ran around Dalaran; after the screen started moving again, it'd get up to 6.8 fps -- sometimes as high as 9 if there weren't many people in my field of view.  I'm currently looking into what sorts of upgrades I can wrangle.

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