Upgrading for Second Life

With the coming of Server Side Appearance (SSA – baking) those using older viewers are going to have to update or suffer never seeing an avatar render again. For many the challenge will be their computer not being able to run recent viewers. The hardware is just too old. But, there are inexpensive ways to upgrade to a computer so it will handle the newest viewers.

ASUS Z87

ASUS Z87 Motherboard

Minimum Hardware

Minimum is this case is a very nebulous term. If you read  Gwyneth Llewelyn’s blog you’ll know she gets by with some really minimal hardware. I think that would drive me nuts. But, I also use the computer for graphics intense work. So, in most ways it is a matter of personal choice and priorities.

I get by with a 6 year old motherboard, Core2 Quad, and a newer nVidia GTX560. So, I feel pretty good. But, I am upgrading to take advantage of the new Adobe CC, which requires at least Windows 7, which was news to me. So, a new hard drive, Win 7, and may be another upgrade to the CPU and memory.

I can probably do all that for US$200. With that upgrade my computer will likely last me another year.

But what is the least hardware one can get by with?

CPU

Well the CPU has to have SSE2 (Streaming SIMD Extensions 2 – Intel SIMD = Single Instruction, Multiple Data). That is a geeky thing that has to do with how graphics information is handled by the CPU. You can find out whether your CPU handles the newer SSE flavors using CPU-Z, a free program.

Also, you can tell by whether or not you can run a viewer that renders mesh. If you can, then you at least have an SSE2 capable CPU. If you are Intel based that means you at least have a Pentium 4, a year 2000 release CPU.  That pretty much means you can run the newer viewers. How fast they will perform is a different issue.

Video

Even many old video cards can render mesh. The problem is whether the video card can handle Deferred Shading, in SL we call it deferred rendering and in Viewer Preferences the label is Advanced Lighting Model. (Me->Preferences->Graphics) If you can enable the feature, your card likely handles it. That means you have the minimum hardware necessary to run the newer viewers.

In 2004 video cards with deferred shading capability began to appear. By 2008 most cards had the ability. By 2010 it was ubiquitous. So much so that it is no longer even mentioned in the card’s specs. You’ll have to try and enable the feature to see if it works.

The Rest

All the rest of the hardware is about performance. If you have a CPU and Video Card that can handle SSE2 and the Advanced Lighting Model (deferred shading/rendering) you are probably new viewer ready.

Performance

How well you computer runs Second Life is another challenge. The CPU, Video, Memory, Hard Drive, and Motherboard all contribute to how well the SL Viewer will perform. You can find the minimum system requirements here: Second Life System Requirements.

CPU

Older computers running  Pentium 4 CPU’s are definitely in need of an upgrade. Depending on the age of the computer the motherboard may or may not handle a newer CPU. Low end LGA-775 CPU’s go for as little as US$11.

The confusing part is the Pentium 4 series used 3 different sockets; 423, 478, and LGA-775. The LGA-775 came into use about 2005. This is the same socket used by Intel’s CORE2 CPU’s, which go for as little as $20. This means you may be able to upgrade to a CORE2 Quad, which is a pretty good CPU and cheap. The high end CORE2’s can go for as much as $300. But, wait for a better deal.

Use CPU-Z to find out the socket used with your motherboard. If you have a board with a LGA-775 socket you have an easy upgrade path. CPU-Z will also give you your motherboards ID/model.  Use that to Google the max CPU and CPU speed your board can handle.

Video Cards

The minimum video card to use with SL is an nVidia 6600. I’ve seen those offered on eBay starting for as little as $1.00. The nVidia GTX9800 card are good and go for as low as $40.

CPU Recommendations

Getting beyond the bare minimum, let’s take a look at what is available.

Tom’s Hardware has a review of the newest CPU’s published June 18, 2013. That is about the best information you are going to get. They reviewed CPU’s with gamers in mind. While Second Life™ is not considered a game by residents, the computer cannot tell the difference. So, this review is right on for our use.

CPU’s

I’m an Intel kid. But, the review includes AMD. You’ll see the AMD’s just cannot keep up with the iCore Intel processors. But, dollar for dollar the AMD’s are a good deal.

The CPU socket in the motherboard determines what CPU can be used. The newer sockets are the LGA-1155, and LGA-1156, which carry the Ivy Bridge chips. The newer LGA-1366, and LGA-2011 use the recently released Haswell chips. With the release of the Haswell chips the used iCore chips are starting to show up at discount prices.

The best price/performance deal seems to be the Core i5.

Video Cards

The nVidia 700 series cards are out. This will drive prices down on the 600, 500, 400, 300, 200, and 9000 series cards. I am seeing nVidia GTX550’s offered for $50 with most selling for $100.

People using 200 series cards are reporting good performance.

Summary

Upgrades do not have to be expensive. So, they should be in reach of most.

But, with 45+ million Americans now living below the poverty level and 50%+ of the US population in poverty per the US Census Bureau’s Supplementary Poverty Measure (2010 census data), not everyone is going to be able to afford a couple of hundred dollars to upgrade.

8 thoughts on “Upgrading for Second Life

  1. >The newer LGA-1366, and LGA-2011 use the recently released Haswell chips.

    1366 is a pretty old socked for Core-I CPUs of the first generation. The Haswell ones use socket 1150 (yes, less pins than the previous ones)

  2. About the videocard, you shouldn’t say “deferred shading capability” as indicator for checking see if they can support it by running it on SL to begin with. You just need to check if the videocard support OpenGL 3.3 and up. OpenGL is the most importance part for Second Life to handle things like Deferred Rendering.

    Glad you already mentioned SSE2 requirement for CPU. 🙂

  3. I really likve Intel over AMD as well as nVIDIA. But if I have to recommend someone a PC for SL saving some bucks, definitely is worth to go for an AMD good APU. You save a lot of money with a good APU, having a more than decent CPU (SL doesnt requires so much CPU at all, never goes beyond of 20% on my i7) and an integrated mid range GPU.
    Plus AMD motherboards are like 3 times cheaper than Intel ones having somes for less than 50$. Combining that with a pair of 4GB ram modules for less than 50$ and a mid range 650W PSU, you have a good PC to run SL with advanced lighting. You will be able to turn ON shadows and DOF if you want even if the speed will not be so smooth but the price for all that machine is REALLY pretty cheap. You will not need a CPU upgrade in several years and you can always add a new graphic card nvidia or even AMD to do Crossfire with the integrated one.

    Again, I rather recommend an i5 4th generation with a good nvidia GPU like a 670 or 760 if you can afford it. But really that low budget PC that I described above is pretty good and really cheap with possiblity to upgrade later.

    • Nice and much appreciated insight in terms of using an APU for SL.
      Just how many computers are going to run on that large 650w power supply? A high quality PSU with 400w at max would still bore itself to tears in powering that setup, even if you plan to add an extra GPU at a later date.
      Emphasis on high quality, not the “my 780watts PSU only costs 20 bucks!” junk.

      • ASUS and some others provide tools for sizing PS when upgrading GPU cards. Good quality PS are a smart investment. But, horse power in the form of continuous watts delivered is important.

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