Originally Published: Saturday, 16 September 2000 Author: Brian Richardson
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Building A Better Gaming Machine

Brian smells what you're cooking ... and it smells like an invitation to layeth the smackdown on some punk. So what would Brian use in his on-line battle against your pile of pixels?

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Stocking Your Toolbox

So, you want to lay the smackdown on the armies of wannabes that will flock to your nearest Quake III Arena server? Do you wish to leave hordes of digitally-rendered avatars in a bloody heap as you frag your way to the winner's circle?

You better ditch that lame computer first ... and you better pick your parts carefully if you want Tux to help you waste the minions that seek to drop you like a bad dial-up connection. Time to make your hardware list and check it twice, for the sting of the rocket launcher is not nice ... LINUX Gaming is coming to your town.

Megahertz May Not Save You

Games don't just run on raw processor power ... but it does help. If you're going to build a gaming machine from the ground-up, you need to consider the following options: (a) Motherboard: AGP 4X, UDMA/66 or UDMA/100, plenty of PCI slots (b) Processor: 600+ MHz, on-die cache (Intel Pentium III or Celeron, AMD Athlon or Duron) (c) Case: well ventilated, 300W+ power supply (d) Video Card: AGP 4X, 32MB+ memory, good LINUX drivers (e) Hard Drive: UDMA/66 or UDMA/100, 7200+ RPM (f) Memory: 128MB+ of PC133 SDRAM (CAS 2) (g) CD-ROM: 40X or better (h) Mouse: good mouse with a scroll wheel (i) Network: Full Duplex 10/100 Network Card

Let's review each item so you, the gentle reader, have an idea what to shop for.

Motherboard & CPU

Processor speed is a big factor in modern game play, especially those nasty first-person shooters. Get at least a 600 MHz CPU to start with. Buy a motherboard that supports 1 GHz or better CPUs, so you can upgrade later (trust me, you'll want to upgrade later).

For the best upgrade path, get a motherboard that supports the Intel Socket370 "Flip Chip" (Pentium III & Celeron) or AMD Socket A (Athlon & Duron). Stay away from Slot 1 and Slot A processor motherboards, even if they're cheaper ... those processors are being discontinued.

Big note: don't skimp on the CPU fan! That $3 hunk of metal with the pinwheel on it will not cool your power hungry processor. Get a good ball bearing fan, usually $10-15. Use heat sink compound to insulate the space between the chip and the CPU (throw away that blue pad on the heat sink, it's not that good). The chipset you choose will also further your gaming experience.

The motherboard should support AGP 4X and have a UDMA/66 or UDMA/100 IDE hard disk controller. The two best chipsets to use are the Intel i815 (for PIII & Celeron) and the VIA KT-133 (Athlon & Duron). While I prefer AMD processors, the i815 is currently the only production chipset to use a UDMA/100 controller ... this does give it an edge over the VIA chipset if you're dead-set on using the latest hard drive technology.


Overlooked in system construction, the beige cage is a large factor in how well your system runs. Make sure your case has a good 300 Watt power supply. The latest processors and video cards will suck the average 250 Watt Taiwanese power supply dry, or cause brown-outs when you start to add components (brown-out == system freeze). Also look for a case with bays for extra fans ... you'll end up adding at least one case cooling fan.

Video Card

The video card is the centerpiece of a good gaming system. Get a video card with at least 32MB of memory that supports AGP 4X. Look for a video chipset vendor with a good reputation ... and provides LINUX drivers. You'll want to use Xfree 4.0.1 to get the best performance, so check on the status of drivers for X before spending your money on hardware.

If you're buying your system tomorrow, I would recommend getting an NVIDIA GeForceMX or GeForce2 card. There are dozens of vendors for these cards (name-brand and white-box), and most of these cards are pretty equal. A good 32MB GeForce2 card can be purchased for about $225. If you're strapped for cash, get a 'vanilla' GeForceMX (about $110) ... if you're spending somebody else's money, get a Hercules GeForce2 Ultra (about $500).

Hard Drive & CD-ROM

Don't underestimate the importance of a good hard disk. Where do you think those graphics textures and maps load from? Assuming you use IDE drives, look for a 7,200 RPM drive that supports UDMA/66 or UDMA/100. The RPM number tells you how fast the drive spindle rotates (faster is better). If you don't want to go for a motherboard with UDMA/100, don't worry ... UDMA/66 is more than adequate for gaming (plus there aren't many UDMA/100 hard drives right now, and most LINUX distros won't use UDMA/100 without adding some new modules).

Hard drives are very cheap right now, so go ahead and get something over 30 GB. Not only can you install tons of games, you'll have plenty of room for other LINUX applications. Plus you have lots of room in case you're setting up a dual-boot system. Most any CD-ROM over 40X is fine for gaming. Most games load from hard disk for performance reasons, so the CD-ROM is rarely used while fragging. But the average first-person shooter is over 400 MB, and you don't have all day to wait for the game to install.


Get ready to shove some RAM into your computer. Don't be cheap here! A good gaming system should have at least 128MB of PC133 SDRAM. If you can get it, purchase 'CAS 2' memory ... nay, demand 'CAS 2' memory. 'CAS' stands for 'column address select', and a lower number means the memory columns can be address faster.

Name brand memory (Samsung, Crucial, Micron) is only a few bucks more than the generic stuff, so this is an area where penny pinching may not pay off. If you have the money, go ahead and spring for 256MB of memory. The program doesn't really need it, but you can use it to increase the size of your 'AGP aperture' (system memory that can be used by your video card for storing textures). The aperture size can be changed in BIOS, and is best set as half of your memory size (128MB aperture for 256MB RAM, 64MB aperture for 128MB RAM). If you're thinking about RAMBUS for gaming ... don't. RAMBUS is expensive, only works on two Intel chipsets (the i820 & i840, which are designed for server/workstation), and not always faster than SDRAM.


Modem ... I don't think so. Go on-line gaming with a modem and your opponents will use your tattered corpse for a battle flag. The best fragging happens one of three ways ... Cable Modem, DSL and local network. All three require a network adapter. Go ahead and acquire a good 10/100 network card. Make sure it supports full-duplex (many cheap cards do not). Name brands like Linksys, Intel and 3Com can be had for under $50, and are well supported under any LINUX distribution. If you device to go to a gaming party, a good network card can give you the edge over the competition.


Yes, the mouse. Most any mouse will do ... or will it? Two things to consider here. First, stay away from cordless mice ... they don't always move very smoothly and the batteries go bad at the worst possible times. Second, get a mouse with a scroll wheel. The scroll wheel is a great gaming option. I use it for a weapon selector (to avoid firing the rocket launcher at point-blank range), while others use it for Quake III Arena's "zoom" option (reach out and bitch-slap someone).

Get Ready To Rumble

Armed with this information, you can now begin making your shopping list. Be sure to set a budget, since these toys range in price from 'reasonably priced' to 'you must be kidding'.

Read some reviews, check prices, and make space on your desk for that new Frag-O-Matic 9000. Brian smells what you're cooking ... and it smells like an invitation to layeth the smackdown on someone's punk ass. So what would Brian use in his on-line battle against your pile of pixels?

Stay tuned ... my dream system is currently on the drawing board.

If you ever see CrowbarMan in an UnrealTournament session, you're probably playing against Brian Richardson. While I'm not using the latest in computer technology, don't turn your back on me for too long ... that flak cannon will leave a mark.

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