Build your dream machine

Whether you're evading a MiG-29 over the Korean peninsula or ambushing a coworker in a subterranean labyrinth, one rule applies: victory belongs to the swift. So no matter how quick your reactions or how clever your strategy, playing games on a slow PC puts you at a severe disadvantage.

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to speed up your PC's gaming performance, even if you're stuck with an older CPU. For many PCs bought in the last few years, adding a faster processor - or buying a new system - isn't necessary. Many current games run comfortably on systems with PII or Celeron processors - if you add the right upgrades to your system.

Often the biggest bottleneck in gaming performance is the graphics card. The hottest new games - especially those that use 3D graphics - require graphics cards with 2D and 3D graphics capability and gobs of on-board memory - at least 32MB. If your PC has an AGP slot, get an AGP card. If it doesn't, don't worry: many graphics cards come in both AGP and PCI versions. We chose the $690 AGP-based ASUS AGP-V7700 Pure GeForce 2 GTS (www.achieva.com.au, (02) 9742 3288) for our project, though budget-conscious shoppers can find capable 2D/3D cards in the $150 to $300 range.

The second most important upgrade involves system RAM. It's easy to add, relatively inexpensive, and critical for running demanding games. Fast animation moves vast amounts of data. And data that isn't stored on your graphics card ends up in RAM. Before you buy extra RAM, however, check your system's documentation to determine the right type for your PC (see "Boosting RAM").

You'll also want a big hard drive. Some games let you copy large blocks of data - like scenery - from the CD-ROM to the hard drive, where your system can access it more quickly.

And if you're planning to play games online in head-to-head com-petition, a fast Net connection can give you a big edge over competitors shackled with slower links. A 56Kbps modem can do the job, but your best bet is high-speed cable or DSL. In many areas, both technologies are just a phone call and an Ethernet card away.

A first-rate gaming PC demands a top sound system. You can buy decent speakers and a subwoofer for under $120. But a 3D, four-channel sound system like the $470 Creative Labs/Cambridge SoundWorks FourPointSurround FPS2000 adds another dimension. If you decide to go with four-channel sound, make sure you have a sound card like Creative Labs' $170 Sound Blaster Live! Value Digital, which supports all four channels and positional 3D audio (www.australia.creative.com, (02) 9666 6100). And finally, when picking out a joystick, game pad, or other game controller, spend a little extra on a superior product like Microsoft's SideWinder Precision Pro joystick ($87) or SideWinder Game Pad Pro ($61). Either will last longer than a bargain-basement controller and provide superior game play (www.microsoft.com, 13 2058).

DSL/cable modem

Time: 1 hour

Expertise level: Beginner/advanced

Comment: Online gaming gains a new look and feel on a high-speed Internet connection.

Hard drive

Time: 1 hour

Expertise level: Intermediate

Comment: With many games taking up 400MB to 500MB of disk space, even a 10GB hard drive can quickly run out of space.

Graphics card

Time: 30 minutes

Expertise level: Intermediate

Comment: A good graphics card is the most important upgrade you can make for gaming performance.

TIP: Always check the card vendor's Web site for the most recent driver before installing the hardware.

Joystick/game pad

Time: 15 minutes

Expertise level: Beginner

Comment: If realism is the name of the game, the more you spend on a joystick, the better the experience.

TIP: Keyboards and game pads that use USB connectors eliminate having to swap connections to the game port on your sound card.

Sound card

Time: 15 minutes

Expertise level: Intermediate

Comment: Most of today's sound cards are adequate for gaming. If you aren't investing in four-channel, 3D speakers, save your money.

TIP: If your PC has an integrated audio chip instead of a sound card - as many Celeron systems do - make sure it can be disabled in the CMOS setup program. If it can't, you may not be able to add a new sound card.

Speakers

Time: 15 minutes

Expertise level: Beginner

Comment: Getting pelted with sounds from all directions makes an amazing gaming experience.

RAM

Time: 30 minutes

Expertise level: Intermediate

Comment: Adding RAM is a cost-effective way to improve your systems gaming and overall performance.

Product

Minimum requirement

CPU

Celeron-500

RAM

128MB

Hard disk

10GB

CD-ROM drive

40X CD-ROM

Graphics board

2D and 3D, 16MB

Sound card

Four channel sound, 3D support

Joystick, game pad

N/A

Internet connection

56Kbps

Speakers

Sub woofer and four satellites

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