General: Hardware Recommendations for Railworks 3

If you've got a question or a problem, THIS is the place to look FIRST as there may well already be an answer. Failing that, it may well provide you with direction as to the next steps to help answer your question or solve your problem! If you think a question should be added (and even better, you have the answer!) then contact someone in the FAQ Editors group.

Moderator: Moderators

Locked
User avatar
Kromaatikse
For Quality & Playability
Posts: 2733
Joined: Fri Jun 12, 2009 5:39 pm
Location: Helsinki

General: Hardware Recommendations for Railworks 3

Post by Kromaatikse »

This article attempts to address several questions at once:

1) Will my current PC, or one I'm considering to buy, run Railworks 3 properly?

2) Is my performance normal for my hardware, or should I be able to do better?

3) If I'm not happy with my current performance, what should I upgrade to make it better, and how much will it cost?

These are all questions which RSC spectacularly failed to answer adequately before release, but which really matter to real players. Consequently a lot of people have turned out confused and angry when they didn't get the performance they were expecting.

Note that the question "How do I get the best performance from my current hardware" is addressed elsewhere: http://forums.uktrainsim.com/viewtopic. ... 9&t=118677


Benchmarks

To make my job that much easier, I'm going to refer to benchmarks and specifications, rather than specific articles of hardware, as much as possible. There are three aspects of performance that matter a lot to Railworks:

a) CPU - for which a couple of fast cores are more important than having lots of them. Clock speed isn't everything - a newer architecture is just as good as a clock speed increase.

b) Graphics Shaders - which allow the new, more complex effects in the TSX engine. Most cards currently on sale have enough of this, but beware that the bargain bin may contain older, less capable models.

c) VRAM Bandwidth - which is used mostly by the new shadow system. Most high-end cards from the past few years have enough of this. Current mid-range cards are also adequate, but older mid-range and current low-end cards are likely to struggle.

Let's start with the easiest benchmarks to run and understand. Note that while running benchmarks, all other computer activity should be stopped - close your Web browser (but download the installers and write down the instructions first), shut down the Steam Client, and *definitely* shut down BOINC. You know who you are.


Windows Experience Index

If you are running Windows XP, skip ahead to the next section - you cannot run the WEI benchmark, which is built into Windows Vista and 7. (Yes, it is stupid - you can only find out how well you can run the version of Windows you're already running, not the next version. Par for the course.)

Launch your Control Panel from the Start menu, open the Action Center, and click "View performance information". Hit "Refresh Now" or whatever similar link is available. Wait a few minutes for it to finish, then look at the *detailed* numbers, ignoring the big colourful one it presents to you.

The "Processor" number depends on the speed of your CPU. A number less than 5.9 here suggests that you might need a CPU upgrade to run the more intensive routes available for Railworks. Less than 5.0 suggests you need a CPU upgrade for even the more normal ones. Railworks seems to be able to absorb any amount of CPU power in certain situations, so the higher a number you have here, the better.

The "Memory" number depends on the speed and quantity of the RAM attached to your CPU. A number less than 5.5 here is a distinct liability. If your CPU scores noticeably higher than your RAM, consider getting more RAM (certainly if you have less than 4GB) or optimising it's performance in your computer's BIOS - but ask for expert help if you are at all unsure about the latter, since most computers set up your RAM reasonably well as a matter of course.

The "Graphics" and "Gaming graphics" numbers refer to your graphics card. Less than 5.9 in *either* of these scores means that you will likely struggle to run Railworks 3's new graphics - although you should still be able to run the older graphics by turning TSX off. A score above 7.0 in both of these means that you should be able to use most or all of the new graphics features at high quality - but see the other two benchmarks for potential caveats. WEI isn't really much of a game benchmark, just a rough guide.

The "Primary hard disk" number doesn't matter so much to Railworks. If Windows is installed on a traditional mechanical hard disk, you will probably see 5.8 or 5.9 here. What is important to Railworks is that it's files are defragmented, so if you haven't run Disk Defragmenter since the upgrade was installed, now is a good time to do so. (Steam's own defragmenter doesn't work on Railworks because it doesn't directly manage the files involved.)

The big number that Windows highlights for you is the lowest of the five scores. If you have a fairly new and good computer but with a mechanical disk, the disk score will normally be the lowest.

If your CPU, RAM and Graphics scores are *all* lower than they should be according to the above guide, it is probably best not to upgrade one part at a time, but to replace the entire machine. After describing the other benchmarks, I'll highlight a number of different methods of upgrading, some of which are quite inexpensive.


CPU-Z and GPU-Z

These are simple and highly technical tools to find out very basic information about your hardware's capabilities - which is quite often left out of marketing information even though it really matters. Don't be afraid of the technicalities - I'll point out the right parts to look for.

I used an old machine I set up for testing as the example for these screenshots - this is capable of running most routes with all of the major TSX features enabled, but not at the highest settings. It also struggles very badly with WCML-N. So the numbers you see in these screenshots should considered as minimum requirements for a good Railworks PC.

CPU-Z download: http://www.cpuid.com/downloads/cpu-z/1.58-setup-en.exe
GPU-Z download: http://www.techpowerup.com/downloads/20 ... 0.5.5.html

Note that when setting up CPU-Z, it will prompt you to install a browser toolbar (ugh!). Just deselect the "I agree to Ask.com's terms" box and that'll be turned off. Obnoxious pile of... ahem.
FAQ_CPU-Z_1.gif
The very first piece of information is the name of the CPU. Give an expert that name, and he will immediately either know what it is, or be able to look it up easily.

The "Package" helps you determine whether you can just replace the CPU with a better one for the same socket, or whether you have to change the motherboard as well. In this case my old Opteron 185 is already the fastest CPU available for Socket 939, so 18 months ago I built a new machine entirely. Note that small differences in socket name can matter a lot - Sockets 1156 and 1155 are totally incompatible with each other, for example.

The "Technology" indicates how small the transistors are, and thus roughly how new the design is - smaller numbers are better here. Currently new hardware is being built at about 30 nm, so this Opteron is clearly quite old already.

Highlighted in red is the clock speed of a single CPU core. Some CPUs deliberately run at a lower clock speed when not being used very much, so the number you see here might not actually be correct. If it is very low, eg. 1000 or 800 MHz, then try starting a YouTube video (or starting Railworks in windowed mode) so that the CPU is in use, and see if CPU-Z picks up a new speed.

The Cache section indicates the size of the very fast on-chip memory which is used to reduce dependence on real memory accesses. In this case we have a 1024KB cache attached to each of the two cores, which is a fairly good specification, especially for the age of this machine. Some CPUs have a Level 3 cache as well as Level 2 caches, if so read off that number instead. If there is no Level 2 cache, then you have a bit of a problem!

Then we have the numbers of cores and threads. Here we have two cores, which is enough. There is one thread per core - most Intel CPUs have two threads per core, which they call Hyperthreading. Larger numbers are fine, but note that they might have been provided at the expense of clock speed, which is more important to Railworks.
FAQ_CPU-Z_2.gif
Moving to the SPD page, we get some information about the memory installed. In particular we see that it is currently running at 200MHz, and the maximum specified speed is 200MHz, so it is already correctly set up.
FAQ_GPU_Z.gif
Once again we can see the name and the technology level of this card straight away, and even a release date. This is a high-end card from several years ago, and has withstood the test of time surprisingly well. The technology level shows it to be just slightly newer than the CPU.

The DirectX Support field shows that it support DX10 and Shader Model 4.0. As long as your card supports Shader Model 3.0 or better, you should be able to run Railworks 3 with at least the basic graphics.

The Memory Size here is 512MB. Less than that might be painful - at least turning down the texture detail may be necessary. Most new cards have at least 1024MB, even the cheap ones.

You'll notice that I haven't bothered to highlight the pixel or texel fillrate fields. They matter, but are better covered by the WEI and 3DMark benchmarks, and are less important than...

Highlighted in red, because it is very important, is the Memory Bandwidth field. I believe this is what permits this card to run so well despite it's age. Here is a rough calculation to see how much Bandwidth you need to see here, in order to turn on the new shadows in TSX:

Code: Select all

Bandwidth (GB/s) = (Screen Width * Screen Height (in pixels) * 25) / 1,000,000
This also means that you might be able to get enough bandwidth by running at a lower resolution - this is easiest to arrange if you have an old CRT based monitor.

There are still a lot of low-end cards on the market with memory bandwidth equal to or lower than this old stalwart. You really do get what you pay for here.

At the bottom you can also see that SLI is disabled (because there is only one graphics card), and that PhysX acceleration is supported. Railworks does not properly use either of these features, so I have not highlighted them.


3DMark '06

Finally, we have the well-known benchmark from a Finnish company called Futuremark. I've chosen the five-year-old version since it uses rendering techniques roughly similar to the ones Railworks uses, whereas the newer ones use more advanced techniques which would not be representative. 3DMark has always been a bit ahead of the curve, and Railworks has always been a bit behind it.

Get it from here: http://downloads.guru3d.com/downloadget ... f548ac91b4

Running this should be straightforward - there aren't any options to configure on the free version. Watch the demo if you like - the smoothness (or otherwise) of that is a fairly good predictor for how well Railworks will behave. The real meat is when you run the benchmark proper, though. Once finished, hit the big orange button to see the results in your Web browser.

After dismissing the advert in the middle of the screen (sigh), scroll down to see the "Overall" and "CPU" lines of the detailed result. Here are some sample results to compare your machine to:

Intel Atom D510 with ION graphics: 2632 overall, 880 CPU. (This machine is *way* too slow for Railworks 3, due to the extremely weak CPU.)

Opteron 185 with Radeon X1650 Pro: 1907 overall, 1886 CPU. (This machine runs Railworks 2 fine except for some heavy routes, and should also be fine in Railworks 3 without TSX.)

Opteron 185 with 8800GT: 8940 overall, 1878 CPU. (With the same CPU performance, but much better graphics, Railworks 3 with TSX runs quite well with careful setup.)

AMD Fusion A8 3850 with internal Radeon 6550D: 7095 overall, 4113 CPU. (The graphics are not far behind the 8800GT, and the CPU is much better. I'll come back to this one later.)

AMD Fusion A8 3850 with Radeon 5750: 13945 overall, 4172 CPU. (Same CPU, better graphics. This one runs even demanding routes with TSX, with some care.)

AMD Phenom II X4 955 with Radeon 5870: 17757 overall, 4574 CPU. (This is my main PC. Aside from some remaining performance problems on specific routes, which still show up on extremely powerful PCs, this is the dog's whatsits. But I still can't turn on SSAA.)

There might also be a graph indicating where your system lies in comparison to "similar" systems. Don't be surprised if you seem to be at the low end of the bulge in the graph - "similar" also counts overclocked versions of the same system. Just make sure you're no more than a few percent below the norm. If there's a very large difference, especially in the CPU score, and especially if you are testing a laptop, then you might be running into thermal throttling problems.

Upgrade recommendations to follow...
The key to knowledge is not to rely on others to teach you it.
User avatar
Kromaatikse
For Quality & Playability
Posts: 2733
Joined: Fri Jun 12, 2009 5:39 pm
Location: Helsinki

Hardware Upgrades: €300 budget

Post by Kromaatikse »

So, you want to upgrade, but you don't have a lot of money. In this post I'll show you some good upgrades which shouldn't break the bank - maximum €300 (£260, $400).

The first thing is to establish whether you need to upgrade your graphics, your CPU, or both - see the long article above for guidance. Top tip: if your motherboard has only an AGP port, it's time to upgrade both at once, since all good graphics cards now use PCI Express (PCIe). Also, if you have a laptop, you almost certainly won't be able to upgrade the graphics or CPU in it, so you will have to buy or build a whole new machine.

The second question is whether you can re-use your existing PSU, case, and other components for the upgrade. I'll mostly assume that you can, but you should seriously consider upgrading any PSU which doesn't meet "80 Plus" certification or which has a power rating under about 450W, or - obviously - which doesn't have the right power connectors for your new hardware.


Option 1: The Complete System Upgrade

For €300, it is possible to buy a complete system core - containing CPU, motherboard, graphics and RAM - which will adequately run Railworks 3 with TSX. There are some caveats: if you want to turn shadows on, you will only be able to run at 1280x720 or less, because the graphics in this system has to share the CPU's memory, and as I mentioned above, memory bandwidth is key. But with shadows off, you can run quite happily at 1920x1200, and there is a PCIe slot ready for a beefier graphics upgrade later on.

Here's how:

Motherboard: Anything with socket FM1 which will fit in your case and supports internal graphics output. Example: ASUS F1A75-M LE, €90, will fit in a MicroATX case (or a full ATX one). This particular board doesn't have an IDE port, so you will need either a USB or a SATA DVD drive to install Windows with. You may be able to find a board which has an IDE port.

CPU & Graphics: AMD Fusion-A8 3850. This is what AMD call an "APU", with roughly equal resources dedicated to CPU and graphics functions, all on a single efficient chip. The retail package includes a suitable heatsink. €136.

RAM: If you have had to upgrade to this, you will need new RAM - and since the graphics relies on it so heavily, it has to be good stuff. Look for 1600MHz capability (may be described as PC3-12800) in pairs of modules (or just buy two of the same single). I found a "Corsair XMS3 4GB Kit" for €32. Make sure to set the BIOS to use 1600MHz if it doesn't pick it automatically - it makes a real difference.

PSU: The power requirements of this upgrade are very low, and I was able to run it from a 350W PSU without a PEG connector. It is therefore very likely that your existing PSU will work.

Total Cost: €258 - so there's enough left in the budget to double the RAM if you want to. If so, I found the Corsair Vengeance 8GB PC3-12800 Kit for €49, saving €15 *and* keeping two RAM slots free.


Option 2: The Graphics Card

If you already have a good CPU, then a graphics upgrade makes more sense than a complete replacement. This is especially true if you have a newish Intel-based system but are still using the built-in graphics from it. I'm going to present several good options that fit within the budget - all you need is a long PCIe slot, a PEG connector or two on your PSU, and enough free length in your case to physically mount the thing - some of these are quite large.

Radeon HD 5770 or 6770: This is one for people on a tight budget, and the minimum reasonable requirement for running TSX with detailed shadows on. Price about €85, but varies a lot. The 5770 is the same as the 6770, but because it is *seen* as older, it may be available on the cheap.

Radeon HD 6790: This is roughly on par with the 5870 I use myself - slightly faster memory, slightly slower shaders. Price €127 - a real bargain.

Radeon HD 6950: This has a significant upgrade in terms of shading power, twice as much memory on board, and the same memory bandwidth as the 6790. Price €261.

GeForce GTX 560: For those who prefer the Nvidia camp, this is an excellent choice. The memory bandwidth is slightly down from the Radeons listed above, but a relative surplus of shader power doesn't go far amiss. Price €192.

GeForce GTX 550: And, for the budget minded, here is the Nvidia option. I found one in stock for €126, though most versions cost more. This one is relatively compact, so should have no difficulty fitting into a smallish case.

To support the above cards, you might well need a PSU upgrade, so factor that into your budget and check which PEG connectors your chosen card needs. Look for "80 Plus" certification as a mark of quality and efficiency. For any of the cards above, a 500W PSU should be adequate - my local retailer can order one in for €54, or they have one in stock for €70.


Option 3: The CPU & Motherboard

Suppose you have a decent graphics card already, but your CPU isn't keeping up. This can happen if you've built a system for mainstream games - a Core 2 Duo or Quad with a GTX 460 seems to be a fairly common combination. The good news is that your PSU will almost certainly support a newer system, since power requirements on the CPU side are staying fairly constant these days. The bad news is that unless you already have DDR3 memory, you'll have to replace that as well, and the extra cost of this somewhat limits your options within this budget. If you can stretch to it, seriously consider looking further down for the higher-budget options.

CPU: Intel Core i3 2120. This is a dual-core Sandy Bridge CPU with a fixed clock speed of 3.3 GHz. This gives you maximum single- and dual-threaded performance within this limited budget, at a cost of €149, including a suitable heatsink. You can upgrade this later if required.

Motherboard: This may be hard to find, but I found a Z68-based board for €99 - the ASRock Z68 Pro3. Z68 is a big deal - it allows the Smart Response Technology to cache the most frequently used contents of your hard disk on a small SSD, which you can add later when money allows. The cheapest sensible other options I could find (that is, with more than just two RAM slots) were already €90, which isn't enough of a difference to get a better CPU. In any case, you need an LGA1155 socket (not LGA1156!) for this CPU.

RAM: As mentioned above under Option 1, I found the Corsair Vengeance 8GB PC3-12800 Kit for €49.

Total Cost: €297 - so barely enough left for bus fare to take it all home. I believe it's worth it though.


Option 4: CPU & Motherboard, Budget Edition

For those of you with not even €300 to spend, here is an alternative for somewhat less money. This gets you a dual-core AMD based system with about the same clock speed, but not quite so much performance per clock, and without the possibility of SSD caching.

CPU: AMD Phenom II X2 555 BE - a dual-core 3.2GHz CPU with a nice big L3 cache. As a Black Edition CPU, it can relatively easily be overclocked - and it may even be possible to unlock the two disabled cores which are physically present. Price €89. Or, for €15 less, the AMD Athlon II X2 550 is also an option, with slightly less performance and lacking the Black Edition bonuses.

Motherboard: Asus M5A78L LE, a full ATX board with built-in PATA port for your existing DVD drive, €62. Alternatively, Asus M5A78L-M LX, a MicroATX board without PATA, €49. Both of these have AM3+ sockets.

RAM: Both of the Corsair kits previously mentioned will be fine for this system as well. Price €32 for 4GB or €49 for 8GB.

Total Cost: €165 for all the minimum options, or €200 exactly for all the better options.

Note that these systems could also be combined with the Radeon 6790 to make an inexpensive Complete System Upgrade, costing more than the Fusion-A8 system but having substantially more graphics performance. You will however need a considerably better PSU than the Fusion-A8 will run with, which might push up your total cost.
The key to knowledge is not to rely on others to teach you it.
User avatar
Kromaatikse
For Quality & Playability
Posts: 2733
Joined: Fri Jun 12, 2009 5:39 pm
Location: Helsinki

Hardware Upgrades: €500 (or so) budget

Post by Kromaatikse »

Continuing the series, here are some recommendations for those of you with a little more to spend - up to €500 (or £435, $680). Once again I'll cover replacing just the CPU, just the GPU, and both at once (in reverse order).

Option 1: The Complete System Upgrade

The easy way to put this together would be to combine the Core i3 based CPU upgrade from the €300 budget with the GTX 560 mentioned above. But let's see what we can get if we choose the Radeon 6790 instead, giving us a few extra tenners to spend on the CPU side.

CPU: Intel Core i5 2500K. This has the same 3.3GHz base clock as the Core i3, but will "turbo boost" to 3.7GHz if only one core is in use, and a little less far if two cores are used. For multithreaded work, such as video encoding or if Railworks eventually gets multithreading done properly, it has a full four cores instead of two. Finally, the multiplier is unlocked so if you feel like overclocking it, you can. Price: €214.

Motherboard: ASRock Z68 Pro3, €99. Or, if you would prefer to avoid a budget brand, try the Asus P8Z68-V at €155. Both of these are full-sized ATX boards.

Graphics: Radeon 6790, €127.

RAM: Corsair Vengeance 8GB PC3-12800 Kit, €49.

Total: €489 - comfortably within budget, and with a noticeable boost to the CPU which will help to deal with heavy routes. The total is €545 with the upgraded motherboard.

Notice that spending less than twice as much as is required for the Fusion-A8 system listed above gets you a considerably better system overall. It will also fit nicely with an upgraded graphics card later on. Note however that you will need a proper PSU to run this system, unlike the Fusion.


Option 2: Graphics Cards

If you're willing to spend more than €300 just on a graphics card, then you'll want to spend it on one with as much memory bandwidth as possible so that you can sensibly turn on SSAA, or use the card to drive multiple monitors, or display in stereoscopic vision. There is only one single-GPU card which offers substantially more bandwidth than the Radeon 6790, and that's the GTX 580, at the eye-watering price of €459.

At the slightly more sensible price of €330, you can get either a GTX 570 or a Radeon 6970. These both have slightly more bandwidth than the 6950, but the GTX 570 has less memory on board. Some versions of the 6970 are also extremely long, so will only fit in a very spacious case, although this does give them a very effective cooler.

At this level you will want a more powerful PSU to ensure that these high-end graphics cards are properly supplied. Some very good 600W PSUs are available for less than €100. Make absolutely certain of what PEG connectors you need before you buy, and once again look for that "80 Plus" certification.

Another option is to buy two identical cards from the €300 budget list, and run them together in SLI or Crossfire. However, so far Railworks hasn't behaved at all nicely with multiple GPUs, so I advise against this idea for the time being. (If somebody would like to experiment with different SLI profiles for me, since I don't have the right hardware for it myself, that would be helpful.)


Option 3: CPU & Motherboard

If you feel your graphics card is already entirely adequate, and want to go for maximum CPU performance at any cost, this spec list is for you.

CPU: Intel Core i7 2600K. This has a slightly higher base clock (3.4GHz) than the i5 mentioned earlier, and a slightly higher turbo clock (3.8GHz) as well. It's still a quad core, but you get a bigger L3 cache which will help performance slightly, and Hyperthreading which will help with all those videos you want to push to YouTube. This is also currently the CPU of choice for maximum overclocking, if you're interested in that sort of thing - but if so, why are you reading this? It's expensive though: €300.

Motherboard: The Asus P8Z68-V at €155 is a solid choice. The Core i7 is not meant for a budget board.

RAM: If you don't already have DDR3 on hand, the Corsair Vengeance 8GB PC3-12800 Kit is still a good choice for €49.

Total: €503 - or €14 less if you take the non-K version of the CPU, which disables the overclocking features but leaves everything else intact.

Make sure you have a good-quality PSU for running this system. A cheap PSU that comes with a case might have a high power rating on the label, but be unable to safely drive up to that rating - and if it blows, it might take expensive components with it. This actually happened to an acquaintance of mine back in my university days.


Option 4: Ready-Built PC

If you don't feel confident in opening the case yourself, it is possible to get a reasonable PC within this budget. These prices don't include keyboard, mouse or monitor, but do include case, PSU, optical and hard drives, and all other necessities.

Within the UK, Aria (http://www.aria.co.uk/) have a range of build-to-order PCs which is regularly updated. Their current Railworks-ready offerings (at the time of writing) within a £500 budget are:

Gladiator Punisher Pro: For £400, you get an AMD Fusion-A8 3850 and 4GB RAM. As noted above, this is able to run TSX but without detailed shadows.

Gladiator Ibis Deluxe: For £450, you get a Core-i3 2100, a Radeon HD 6770, and 4GB RAM. As noted above, this is able to run TSX with detailed shadows, on routes and scenarios that are not particularly heavy.

They can also customise an order, so you should be able to upgrade the Ibis to, say, a Radeon HD 6790 and 8GB RAM without breaking the bank too badly.


As an aside, you'll notice that I haven't put any laptop suggestions in these budgets. That's because, quite simply, it is extremely hard to find a laptop with a proper GPU at these prices - and a proper GPU is most definitely needed to run Railworks at it's best.
The key to knowledge is not to rely on others to teach you it.
User avatar
Kromaatikse
For Quality & Playability
Posts: 2733
Joined: Fri Jun 12, 2009 5:39 pm
Location: Helsinki

Hardware Upgrades: Laptops

Post by Kromaatikse »

Laptops are tricky beasts - once bought, you usually can't upgrade them except in the RAM or hard drive departments. A laptop with decent graphics performance also tends to be relatively expensive compared to an equivalent desktop. The best deals are, moreover, probably not found at a generic computer store such as you would get components for a desktop upgrade from. My local retailer has a laptop with a lowly GT540M for €700 - and that's the cheapest model with a separate graphics chip at all.

So unless you really do need to take Railworks with you on the move, a desktop system is definitely better value for money. But if a laptop is what you really want or need, here are some concrete recommendations to help you decide. Your choice will depend heavily on your budget and what your local or national retailers have to offer.

At the bargain basement end of the market, you might be able to get away with an AMD Fusion-A8 based model - if you can find one. A4 and A6 models seem to be more common, but they are less capable. Good luck finding one with 1600MHz RAM as recommended for the desktop version though - and at the more common 1066MHz the bandwidth will be crippled. Expect to run with TSX on but shadows off. Try to get one with a smaller, lower-resolution screen, as that will require less horsepower to update and less battery power to keep alight. Above all, make sure both RAM channels are equally populated.

Otherwise, the very first thing to look for is whether it has a discrete graphics processor, and if not you need to move on to the next model. Based on having at least 50GB/s of memory bandwidth in order to run with TSX shadows on, you'll be looking for a model with GDDR5 memory - some Radeon 6500M versions have this, and the GTX 555M (not the 550M!) also fits the description. Moving upmarket a bit, the Radeon 6800M or the GTX 560M are good choices without straying too far into "extreme gamer" territory, while the Radeon 6900M and GTX 570M are substantial upgrades froom that level as well.

Once you have a shortlist of machines with suitable graphics acceleration, look for a good CPU to drive it. Currently most high-performance laptops come with an Intel Core i5 or i7, but there is often a choice between a dual-core CPU with a higher clock speed or a quad-core one with a lower speed. At the moment Railworks benefits from a high single-core clock speed, so read and compare the "Max Turbo Boost" clock speed. Also make sure you're getting a Sandy Bridge based CPU, which will have a four-digit model number starting with 2.

I also recommend checking the quality of the screen - an awful lot of laptops come with a generic TN panel which is downright terrible. The usual glossy style of panel will leave you staring at your own reflection rather than what the computer is displaying - I always get a matte panel if I can. A laptop advertising an IPS panel will look much better in use - especially from off-angles - than the usual TN panel.
The key to knowledge is not to rely on others to teach you it.
User avatar
Kromaatikse
For Quality & Playability
Posts: 2733
Joined: Fri Jun 12, 2009 5:39 pm
Location: Helsinki

Notes on more recent hardware...

Post by Kromaatikse »

AMD have now released their "Bulldozer" CPU - aka. AMD FX. Unfortunately the gaming performance (and anything with a low thread count) of this CPU is not very good, so I am still recommending either Phenom II or Core iX-2xxx CPUs depending on your budget. AMD graphics cards remain excellent value for money.

For those wanting a pre-built PC with more power than the options given above, Aria have the Gladiator Hellspawn for £900. This gives you a factory-overclocked Core-i5 2500K, 8GB RAM and a GTX 560.
The key to knowledge is not to rely on others to teach you it.
User avatar
Kromaatikse
For Quality & Playability
Posts: 2733
Joined: Fri Jun 12, 2009 5:39 pm
Location: Helsinki

Distinguishing "New" from "High End"

Post by Kromaatikse »

A common (and extremely sleazy) tactic among computer salesmen is to describe any "new" graphics card as "high end" - or, for that matter, having *any* graphics card at all as being a "high end" feature. Here is a very rough guide to detecting this tactic, and avoiding the trap of buying the wrong computer.

Step 0: Don't be suckered by special offers. A free scanner or printer won't make Railworks run any better - and it really means less in the budget for building the actual computer. Also beware of £400 specials, laptops under £1000, and all-in-one or "compact" computers. It is very difficult to build a gaming computer within those lmitations, and most manufacturers or retailers don't have the expertise to do so.

Step 1: Ask to see the detailed specifications. They should ideally be on a notice beside the display computer, or (if shopping online) one or two clicks away. If you can't get hold of these, do not buy.

Step 2: Look for the graphics card model number. This will, for a new computer on the shelf today, read as one of three things:
  • Intel HD xxxx Graphics (or, sometimes, "Intel Express Graphics")
  • Radeon xxxx
  • GeForce (or GT or GTX) xxx
Step 3: Determine for yourself whether it is high-end. First clue: "Intel HD Graphics" is not sufficient - not even close - and "Express" is even worse.

Second clue: for a Radeon or GeForce, look at the second digit of the model number (the xxxx or xxx as above). A 6, 7, 8 or 9 is good news - the higher the better of course. A 5 is marginal (the GTX 555M is just about acceptable in a laptop, and the Radeon 6550D is part of the Fusion APU recommended as a basic upgrade above). If a salesman has been recommending a 4 or less for a gaming machine, take your business elsewhere.

For example, a GeForce GTX 560 is a good card. So is a GTX 460. A GTX 540, however, is not - even though it's a bigger number than the 460, the lower second digit gives it away as a cut-down model. The bigger first digit only indicates that it is newer - which isn't enough to make up the difference.

Step 4: Look up the model number online. This also gives you a good excuse to try actually using the machine, if you are in the shop with it. Simply put the whole model number - including any trailing "D" or "M" or whatever - into Google, and pick up the first link that comes from amd.com or nvidia.com. You will probably have to follow another link or two in order to find detailed technical specifications. What you're looking for is the memory bandwidth in GB/sec - it will probably be buried in a whole lot of irrelevant stuff, but it's worth finding. Compare this to the calculation for VRAM Bandwidth in the first part of this FAQ. This is a sanity check to make sure that model-number standards haven't slipped since this FAQ was written.

Step 5: Try to find out the rating and certification of the PSU. A good graphics card requires a good PSU to keep it fed and happy. A good PSU is also usually an efficient one.

If the PSU is of low power or does not have "80 Plus" certfication, this is a clear sign that the manufacturer of the computer has cut corners to fit it into a budget. You will want to upgrade your computer later - perhaps years hence, if it's a good computer now - and at that point a poor PSU can be a major stumbling block. In fact, if the PSU is really bad, it can cause problems from Day 1.

Most likely a PSU with at least "80 Plus Bronze" certification will be advertised reasonably well on the computer's specs - so if it isn't, start asking questions.

The PSU rating may or may not be advertised - if it is available, and is less than 400W, this is almost certainly not enough to run a good graphics card reliably - again, start asking questions. However, even if the power rating is not listed, the "80 Plus" certification is a good sign that the manufacturer has paid attention to the necessary details.

Step 6: Look at the CPU specifcation. This is again just a sanity check - the exact CPU model is really not nearly so important as the graphics card. At the moment, an Intel Core-i3, i5, or i7 with a four-digit model number is the choice article, with AMD Phenom II or Athlon II CPUs being good alternatives if you are on a budget.

For an extreme budget machine, you might end up with an AMD Fusion-A series "APU", which has the CPU and graphics hardware all in one chip. This is perfectly acceptable, as long as the PSU and expansion slots are up to spec to allow a proper graphics card to be added later. In this case, you should also ask what speed the RAM is set to - 1600MHz DDR3 is the standard to meet here, and any less than that will result in crippled performance. Because the GPU is squashed in with the CPU, it must use the main RAM as VRAM, so this counts as your VRAM Bandwidth. If you can get 1866MHz RAM, so much the better.

The higher the second digit in your graphics card, the higher your CPU should be in the ranking to match. (NB: for laptop models, look for QM at the end of the model number - this will be slower for Railworks, which is not heavily threaded enough for quad-core, than one without.)

Watch out however for an "AMD FX" CPU, which might be described as "Bulldozer" - these are not good gaming CPUs at all, being designed for servers and workstations, so you should ask for a Phenom II in preference.
The key to knowledge is not to rely on others to teach you it.
Locked

Return to “[RW] Frequently Asked Questions”