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I've got a younger brother who’s got a old Acer Aspire T310 desktop with a Pentium 4 2.8ghz CPU and 2GB RAM that’s now beginning to show it age a bit, especially when he plays some of his games.

He’s tried to improve the gaming performance by buying himself a 1GB AGP graphics card which has helped with some of the less demanding games (e.g. Warcraft 3), but now the CPU is really bottlenecking his other, more demanding, games (e.g. Dragon Age Origins) sometimes to the point where it's unplayable.

Now, I’ve done some research and his existing motherboard will NOT support a newer CPU other than another Pentium 4. So I was wondering, is there any way he could get a better CPU (something in the Core 2 Duo or even Core Duo range?) + motherboard that could be “dropped” into his existing system, so that he won’t have to replace his hard drive (which is a PATA drive), DVD Drive and (if possible) the new Graphics card he bought only 3 weeks ago?

Can anybody recommend a good strategy for upgrading older systems besides just replacing the system?

I've spoken to my brother and he's decided to save up and buy himself a new system instead of trying to upgrade his current one.

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Bear in mind this is likely to be closed as a shopping reccomendation, which is off-topic as per the FaQ. Also bear in mind that changing the motherboard will require Windows to be re-activated, as well as cause problems with drivers. It would probably be easier to drop the new motherboard in, then wipe and re-install Windows. – tombull89 Aug 4 '11 at 17:39
I edited out the "shopping recommendation", IMO, this is a vaild question, since this situation (piece-wise upgrade of older systems) is very common. There are plenty of pcs that are perfectly good at something, even if it's not the something you wnat or need at the time. – Joe Internet Aug 4 '11 at 17:49
Your brother has made a wise decision here. You will spend more money in the long run if you constantly make little upgrades. It's better to just buy a new system every 3-5 years (depending on your budget, of course). – Breakthrough Aug 10 '11 at 17:05
up vote 1 down vote accepted

The best you can hope for with your current RAM and graphics card is a Pentium D. This is basically two Pentium 4 CPUs stuck together on the same chip to make a dual core processor, with no optimizations for things like cache sharing that modern multi-core chips use to great success. The resulting processor runs hot, devours power, and actually isn't all that fast.

With a bit of shopping, you should be able to get a new Core i3 (sandybridge), motherboard, 4GB RAM, and a 1TB SATA hard drive that will make his current system go running for it mother. The only trick is finding a motherboard that will support a pata cd drive. Keep your current case and optical drive, and if your existing OEM Windows XP install won't activate normally online you should be able to use the phone option.

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You can not get a Sandy Bridge chipset with AGP (it's not part of the Intel specification anymore), and IIRC, I didn't see PATA listed in there either when I looked at the datasheet. – Breakthrough Aug 10 '11 at 17:04
@Breakthrough: I'm pretty sure that PATA is gone from Intel's southbridge chipsets. I think it was gone with the ICH 9 series. – afrazier Aug 10 '11 at 17:36
@afrazier good call. I have an ICH9 series mobo with PATA support, but that bypasses the whole Intel thing (it uses a different physical chipset), and is really lower in performance. Although I suppose a manufacturer could include support on ICH10 series, I have yet to see it, and I don't think we will (no point including legacy technology in new products). – Breakthrough Aug 10 '11 at 17:38
@Breakthrough - sandybridge has onboard video that will smoke most any AGP card made. You also don't have to buy the board from intel - I run a sandybridge i5 with a pata cd drive via an asus mobo. – Joel Coehoorn Aug 11 '11 at 1:57

In short: Not very readily.

There's going to be a lot of forces working against you in this endeavor.

  • Very few post-Pentium 4 motherboards have AGP slots. You're almost certainly not going to be buying anything new, and if it is, it'll be a niche product. It'll be expensive, because not many people need that kind of legacy equipment in new hardware. So you'll need to replace the graphics card.
  • The RAM on the current system will probably be DDR-1. Most C2D boards used DDR-2. So now you're replacing the RAM too.
  • The PSU will probably not be able to handle the increased load from a newer CPU, never mind the video card. So now you need a new one of those.

By the time you're done with those, you're on track to replacing almost the entire system. At which point it's probably easier (and cheaper) to just get a new system. It's really hard to beat an inexpensive Dell when it comes to price. Just source any possible upgrades from 3rd party vendors -- Dell's markups on things like larger HDs, RAM, or video cards are often outrageous.

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Of course. You can just replace the old mainboard with another one. You'll need to check if

  • The power consumption of the new mainboard is low enough that you don't need a new PSU and
  • The new board must provide all connectors that the existing hardware needs -- e.g. an IDE port, AGP slot and so on

However, I would seriously consider upgrading the entire system. Compared to current hard drives or even SSDs, hard drives from the Pentium 4 era are incredibly slow. They are, in fact, what will slow your "desktop experience" down the most.

I'd suggest you try the next-cheapest improvement, namely inserting the fastest Hyperthreading P4 your board will accept, first. These can be had very cheaply from online second-hand sources. If that does not help, invest in entirely new hardware, and sell the graphics card. It will be more expensive, but the performance gains (and energy cost savings) will far outweigh that.

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A P4 with HT isn't going to be enough of an improvement to be worthwhile -- early HT implementations just didn't provide enough all around boost, and had performance degradations in too many cases. If the motherboard can accept it, a dual core P4 may be a worthwhile upgrade, but the PSU becomes a concern. – afrazier Aug 4 '11 at 17:47

He can upgrade his system, but he might need to buy more than bargained for. Having done this recently, I needed to buy a new motherboard, processor, cpu cooler, case, powersupply, and video card.

The motherboard I needed, and it needed a new processor. I tried to use the old cpu cooler, but it was an OEM configuration that didn't fit the new board. I could have gotten a less expensive case, but decided to get something nice. The power supply was mandatory, since the new motherboard required a newer supply. The mobo had on-board video, but I decided after a while to add a card, which needed to be PCI Express.

From my old system (mobo died) I was able to salvage my hard drive, DVD drive, and memory.

So, he can do this, but it will cost him some money. It may be better to buy a complete system, but if he really wants a decent gaming system, building one will give him more options.

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One potential problem is the Acer case may be proprietary in its layout and an aftermarket board may not install very easy if at all, front panel connectors can also be proprietary and will not connect to the new motherboard.

Study long before you buy parts that may not fit that case.

Most of the time is is better to harvest what you can from that old PC and buy a new case and motherboard, etc. There are some good deals on bare bones kits out there.

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