New Hard Disks
Sold State Drives
One of the new types of drives out are the SSD, Solid State Drive. The typical hard drive has a spinning disk. SSD’s don’t spin, nothing moves. That means they do not have to wait for the disk to move to get the data needed. SSD’s can be read much faster. The wait to read is like 0.1ms. Hard drives have a wait to read of 5 to 10ms. Once reading they can suck lots of data per second.
Writing data to SSD’s is way slower in inexpensive drives. SSD’s with good write performance are expensive. I see several SSD’s at US$120 to $175 for 120 GB. For the same price I can get 2 or 3 Terabyte drives of the standard spinning disk type.
In general since standard spinning disk drives use built-in ram caches and smart caching algorithms the performance to price ratio, is really good for them and not so much for SSD’s.
SSD drives are much better for reading lots of static data. So, a game that comes off a DVD or is fully downloaded, like Blue Mars on the PC is, they are great. They are not so great for SL as everyting is downloading and being written to the disk.
Hard disks are as fast as we know how to make them. They are also getting cheaper. I recently bought a new 2 terabyte Western Digital for US$85.
You can find the best performing drives at HardDriveBemchmark.net. They also have a price/performance comparison chart. Lookup your drive in the charts. They include SSD’s in the mix.
If your drive is in the bottom of a chart, you can get a bit better performance by upgrading. The new drive will likely have little effect on FPS rates. But, it should reduce the time to rez an area a bit. The system has to get textures into the cache on the hard drive and from it into graphics memory. Hard Drives are a low priority upgrade for one wanting better FPS.
What is an Adequate SL Computer
A new desktop computer with a Quad Core i5 with 4 gigabytes of ram and an nVidia GTX 470 or 560 video card with a gigabyte of video ram makes for a decent unit. You can get by with way less.
A new computer with a 6 Core i7 with 8+ gigabytes of ram and an nVidia GTX 570 or 580 is about as good as it can get.
It is possible to run Second Life with much less than either of these. Several people are happy with older computers and others with i3’s. Using Firestorm I get up to 45 FPS with my Duel Core2 and 560.
Upgrading to 4 to 8 gigabytes of ram will help everything that runs on your computer. It is reasonably cheap, US$50 to $100 per stick.
If you have a duel core CPU, an upgrade to a quad core or better will make for more improvement than an upgraded video card.
Video cards less capable than the 8800/9800 cards will provide a performance increase. How much depends on your other components, which all the preceding is about. Upgrading from 200, 300, and 400 series cards to 500 series cards provide little, if any, improvement.
My GTS 8800 benches at 860 on the VideoCradsBenchmark.net test and my GTX 560Ti tests at 2,970. That is 3.4 times faster. However, in Second Life I did not suddenly jump from 20-25 FPS to 70-86 FPS. Trying to use all the same viewer settings when I was getting 10 to 15 FPS with the 8800 and SLV 3.2.4 I get 20 to 35 FPS with the 560. That is about 2.3 times faster. The point is; the result is not easy to know as doubling or tripling the speed in one computing does not translate to a doubling or tripling of frame rates.
With the 8800 turning on Ultra, AO, and Lighting & Shadows would drag me down to 4 to 10 FPS. With the 560 there is less of a performance hit, 25 down to 15-20. Also, turning on FRAPS has almost no effect with the 560. I took a noticeable hit with the 8800. It is hard to predict the results you’ll get.
Laptop vs Desktop
Laptops are difficult and expensive to upgrade. Desktops are… well… desktops.
Look at any high end video card (above image). Even my 8800 card is more than twice as thick as most laptops and by itself weights more than some laptops. It just isn’t possible to place that power inside a laptop. The 470 for a desktop and the 470M for a laptop have very different performance specs.
The laptops have limited space, power, and cooling. To operate within a laptop the GPU runs slower to save power and reduce heating. Also, cards designed for laptops are optimized for video over 3D game rendering. So, in gaming the GPU in a laptop is always slower than the same GPU in a desktop.
So, the trade off is in portability verses performance.
Summing It Up
Selecting a new computer and upgrading an existing one are both complex decision processes. I’ve laid out the decision criteria. Building a path through it for every possible scenario is too complex. One has to start looking at their computer and find the bottle necks. Upgrade the bottlenecks for the most bang for your buck.
With new computers you want to know if you are buying a computer skinned down to the bone or if it has some meat on it. If it has some meat, you will probably be able to upgrade it at least once during its life. Also, the more capable the computer is when purchased, the longer it can provide good performance as software advances.