Beware the dreaded monitor cap
Your computer's level is ultimately capped by the monitor you are using. There is no reason to build a $2,000 computer if you are going to hook it up to a 17-inch monitor running a 1280x1024 resolution. To do so would cause a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of computer geeks suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. So before doing any of the upgrades below, make sure you are using a monitor capable of at least a 1680x1050 resolution.
Upgrading your CPU
Processors (aka CPUs) come in all kinds of sockets and speeds. Before you can upgrade your aging processor, you need to find out what socket it uses. You see, much like gnomish sprockets, processors can only fit in the socket they were designed for. To determine what processor you have installed and which socket it goes into, download and install a handy little program called CPU-Z. CPU-Z will list both your processor's name and its package (socket).
Now that we know the socket type of your current setup, which processor should you go with? There are single-core, dual-core, tri-core, quad-core and even hex-core processors! Multiple benchmark tests have revealed World of Warcraft mainly only uses two cores. However, if you like to keep a second monitor up so you can read WoW.com while gaming, or if you enjoy dual-boxing, it's best to go with a tri-core processor or better. If you're an Intel user, there are no tri-core options; you'll either need to go dual-core or quad-core. Make sure to select a processor that uses the same socket type as your current one!
Before clicking that "checkout" button, see if you are still using the factory heatsink that came with your processor. Factory heatsinks are easy to spot, because they all have Intel or AMD stickers on the fans. If you are still using the factory heatsink, be sure to add a nice aftermarket heatsink to your order. The extra $20 could allow your processor to run 20 to 30 percent cooler, allowing for some nice overclocking head room or extended processor life.
Memory is basically your processor's mount. Any and all commands from the processor must travel through the memory to get where they are going. The faster and more plentiful your memory is, the faster your computer will run.
If you are going to game, you need at least 4GB of memory. Memory is cheap right now, and there's simply no reason not to be at 4GB. Using the same CPU-Z program we used to find out info about the processor, we can determine what type of memory your system uses by clicking on the Memory tab. In the upper left will be Type and Size. Type will either be DDR2 or DDR3; be sure to write down which one your computer uses. If the size box lists anything smaller than 3.2GB, it is time to upgrade! If you are still on a 32-bit operating system, Windows may display that you only have 3.3GB of memory installed instead of 4GB. This is a limitation of 32-bit operating systems, and there is nothing wrong with your computer. However, going from 3GB of memory to 4GB will give you relatively small gains, so it may be best to stay at 3GB.
Don't run off to the store just yet. Just like hunter pets need a stable, memory requires available slots to put it in. Clicking on the SPD tab of CPU-Z will show you how many memory slots you have available and how many are currently in use. If all of your memory slots are full, then you will have to take some memory out to put the newer and larger stick of memory in. If you have two slots free, then you are already good to go.
Memory comes in pairs, usually referred to as dual-channel kits. If your computer uses DDR2, then you'll need to buy DDR-1066 (PC2 8500); if it uses DDR3, you'll need to buy DDR3-1600 (PC3 12800). Don't worry if the memory already in your system is slower than what you're purchasing. The new memory will automatically downclock itself to match the speed of the memory already in the computer.
Video cards are the upgrade most gamers think about first when someone mentions upgrading a computer. Having the most powerful processor in the world with 16GB of memory won't do you any good if you running it with a five-year-old video card. Video cards are perhaps the easiest components to upgrade, but they're also the upgrade that's goofed up the most often.
There are only three types of video cards in the world: PCI, AGP and PCI-Express (PCI-E). To find out which type of video card your computer supports, run CPU-Z one last time and go to the "Mainboard" tab. In the Graphic Interface section toward the bottom, it will tell you the version.
If your computer uses PCI, just sacrifice it to the WoW gods and tune in for my next article on how to build a cheap new computer. I'm not joking -- why are you still reading this? You are angering the WoW god Hogger!
If you computer uses AGP, you still have a few options available -- but not for long. Very few AGP cards are still being made, and nVidia fanboys are completely out of luck. Your only current good option for an AGP card is the 4600 series by ATI, preferably a 4650 or 4670 with 1GB of memory.
Now, if your computer uses PCI-Express, congratulations on having a computer that's less than six years old! Your video options are only limited by your power supply. If you are using a computer that came prebuilt for you from Dell, HP, etc., then it's best to stick to something safe like ATI's 5770 or nVidia's 250. Both the 5770 and the 250 can be purchased for around $130-$155, depending on the warranty and whether you can catch one on sale. Both cards support DirectX 9 and 10. The ATI 5770 also supports DirectX 11 and runs significantly faster, but either card should be able to run WoW at 1920x1080 resolution with all the eye candy on max.
With those three basic upgrades -- CPU, memory and video card -- your computer should be as ready for Cataclysm as you were after clearing ICC on your third alt. Tune in next week, when I cover building a new gaming machine for Cataclysm without breaking the bank.
Part 2: How to assemble a hot gaming rig for Cataclysm
Part 3: Building an epic-level computer
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