Enter Anandtech's System Buyers' Guide last month. I've built three systems now, and none of them involved me really canvasing every mobo out there. I usually rely on a combo of Anandtech, friends' input, and Newegg reviews. This time, though I have an older discrete video card (MSI's overclocked GeForce 8500 GT with 256MB of VRAM), I went ahead and got the budget board Anandtech recommended, which comes with ATI Radeon HD 4250 integrated video. I also bought the AMD Athlon II X4 640 Propus 3.0GHz they suggested and upgraded the Crucial RAM they had listed to something that looked like it was legitimately paired for dual channel use. The rest (case, power supply, hard drive, optical drive, and, of course, Vista) is all recycled from my last box.
I was suspicious that I'd wasted $10-15 on integrated video, but figured it was worth $10 of my time to go with Anand after I tried to find another board that was cheaper without. Nothing without integrated video in this price range absolutely jumped out at me from Asus or Gigabyte, which were the two brands that seemed to have the best reviews, or MSI, which I've used in a previous build and was suggested here by Anand. There was one with two PCI-E slots for SLI, but it had some northbridge compromises that seemed questionable, and the chances that I buy two video cards down the road is pretty slim. Chalk up the extra cash to not knowing enough about mobos, I figured, and got Anand's suggested budget MSI board.
But after playing with the new mobo and old card a while -- I finally finished up GTA:SA and messed around with GTA:IV some more -- I started wondering how today's integrated video matches up with three and a half year-old budget gaming discrete cards.
So here are the results. With Doom 3 with randomly selected video settings I felt were best, the 4250 integrated chip gave me 17.5 fps. With the 8500 GT, I got 139.4. I must have pooched some display setting, as I did edit the config file by hand to get widescreen on my monitor, but you get the idea (and I didn't feel like pulling the GT again). The 8500 killed the 4250. In GTA:IV's benchmark test, I got the following.
|Integrated 4250||Discrete 8500 GT|
That seems pretty telling. Though the GT seems to be plenty for Doom 3, it's pushing it in GTA:IV. To play with eye candy, I need a new video card. With the integrated video, though, I'm barely playing at all and the processor is downright bored -- 40% of the processor has anything to do. With the 8500, the processor's at least working a little at 77%. Once again, the GT is doing loads better than the new integrated chip.
I'll give WoW a shot tonight when I reactivate. Cat seems to be just enough of a push that it might give the 8500 a quick test. The GT looked great in Nagrand when I first bought it, but I didn't play much with it in WotLK, and basically stuck with the MacBook. I just hope I'm not dying for one of the $250 cards WoW Insider's giving away (a deal at $190 at Newegg right now though a reliable model will run you $210) once I do fire things back up.
Regardless, the real lesson is that hardware can make the game. For GTA:IV, the improvement is a clear one. GTA:SA looked great, but IV requires a multi-core processor, and these four cores plus the 8500 have proven a big step up over the MacBook (though I was too stupid to run a benchmark before blasting the Boot Camp partition). Here's to hoping I'm pleasantly surprised tonight.
And the secondary lesson is that integrated video still sux0rz. Almost anything discrete is a step up. If you're stuck on a box with integrated video, go to Newegg or, heck, eBay and grab whatever you want, and enjoy Azeroth anew.
And though I enjoy the relatively inexpensive nature of building, upgrading, and recycling towers, I did briefly consider Alienware's m11x during its Black Friday sale for $599. I think that version, however, had an even less powerful processor than the Core 2 Duo offered at $799 now, and I didn't bite in part because I already have a decently powered MacBook.
Regardless, the m11x has the NVIDIA 335M with a Gig of VRAM across the line. The size looks good and battery life for normal work, when you switch the 335M off, is pretty good. If I was considering a laptop purchase and played WoW, I would wait for the next hardware bump and then grab this laptop ASAP.