If you find yourself computing on a budget, it is often nice to attempt a little upgrade to keep up with the times. My girlfriend uses a second-hand Hewlett Packard D530 Small Form Factor desktop PC which we got from ebay a few years ago for about £50. The Pentium 4 2.8Ghz runs hot and taxes its fan enough to sound like an aircraft taking off once you want to play a game – but you can browse the web and office it up as well as any low end device today. You really need to have a dedicated graphics card, but you can easily pick something suitable up for less than £5 (we use a PCI Radeon 9250). What really takes it’s toll on this older system though is modern video decoding i.e. h264/AVDC/mp4 and shadermodel/directx/opengl compatibility in games. Let me share my experience with trying to find a cheap graphics card (less than £15) to bring this system up to spec.
The D530 SFF is able to be upgraded with either PCI (not PCI-Express) or AGP Graphics cards. The AGP card must also be “low-profile” to fit in the case and you have to use a single half-height bracket to fit in the back of the case. As long as you find a low-profile AGP card, it doesn’t matter what type of bracket it has. You can buy whatever bracket type you need for around £2.50 on ebay and then easily swap the bracket yourself.
The card I settled on getting was an ASUS Radeon AH3450 with 512MB of DDR2 on-board RAM and DVI, HDMI and VGA outputs. It also requires an additional molex power connection so you may need to get a y-splitter if you don’t have a free connection. I had to get a separate half-height bracket as the one included requires two slots at the back of the case, the D530 only has one. The only single half-height bracket that will work is a dvi/hdmi one, unfortunately because the monitor is VGA we will need to use a DVI to VGA adapter to be able to get everything connected. You could also fit the VGA port to a suitable full-height bracket and fit it in a free PCI slot.
The Radeon 3450 isn’t a particularly fast card but it provides an appropriate band aid to a Pentium 4 DDR-333 based machine.
- It is relatively low on power requirements and heat output – we need to cram the GPU in to a small case and rely on a 185W PSU to get us through
- It features DirectX 10.1, Shader Model 4.1 and OpenGL 2.0 support – There are many newer games that do not need a lot work from your computer, but they do often rely on newer libraries. The 9250 PCI card we were using before had many games that couldn’t be played with Shader Model 1.4 OpenGL 1.1 and DirectX 8 support.
You wont be able to play Battlefield or Modern Warfare or Crysis but you will be able to download games from Gamehouse or wherever and watch Youtube , Twitch or 4oD without a problem.
The HIS 4350 seems to be the only low profile AGP card that is more powerful. It’s more expensive at around £30-40 and harder to come by. It will give you OpenGL 3.1, features superior GDDR2 RAM and will give you twice the GFLOPS. It’s hard to justify that price for the performance you will get (although £15 for the 3450 is still relatively expensive – you can pick up an 8800gtx for £30 these days). Other than that there doesn’t seem to be anything worth getting, I couldn’t find any better than geforce2 or Radeon 9550 and neither compares with the 3450. I would love to hear of any other options you have found though.
If you have less than 1GB of RAM in your machine it is probably worth purchasing some more RAM. There are 4 slots in the D530 so you can easily supplement what is included to make the most of your money. I wouldn’t recommend spending more than £10 on RAM for this machine although it can support up to 4GB of DDR400 CL2 ram if you intend on going for Windows 7. I wouldn’t recommend any less than 2GB for Windows 7. You have 4 slots so you have a lot of flexibility. We currently have 1.5GB with 2x 512MB and 2x 256MB DIMMs. You will probably have to pay a premium for CL2 RAM and take note that the Pentium 4 2.8Ghz we have in our D530 can only use DDR-333 speed, so getting DDR-400 is pointless. If you start to spend too much on RAM you should consider replacing the motherboard, CPU and RAM instead (which may lead you to replace the entire base unit, although this isn’t necessarily the best route as SFF units are hard to come by at the right price/performance). You don’t want to pay a premium for top-of-the-line equipment that is severely outdated.
These will take you to the manufacturers page for each graphics card. If you want to buy them, the best price will be on ebay.