Upgrading a 2005 dream PC
Dell’s XPS line of systems had always caught my attention, that and the Alienware Area51s/Auroras of the time had eye catching designs that stood out from the rest. I wanted an older gaming system purely for the games that were released in the era of Windows XP, from 2001 – 2006. Whilst most of these games can be maxed out on many modern systems, sadly compatibility issues are starting to occur when playing these old titles, and as Microsoft continue to update Windows 10, these issue’s are starting to become more apparent.
So I figured why not buy an older high end system and modernize it. By modernize I meant installing additions like an SSD and a USB3 card to make the system ore convenient to use whilst still keeping the original core hardware.
The Operating System
Windows XP Professional
The default choice for a machine of this era and type, for the best compatibility
Windows XP Professional 64bit Edition
Yep, there was a 64bit version of Windows XP, two in fact. The system is capable of running 64bit code thanks to the Pentium 4, and the system can detect all 4GB of its ram. I did install this to use as the main operating system, but found out some games ran into compatibility issues with the 64 bit kernel.
I have considered this, for a dual booting purpose only. Reason being this is one of the last machines to support Windows 98, or at least have native drivers for it. In theory you could create the ultimate Windows 98 gaming PC with these specifications without breaking compatibility.
In reality, Windows 98 was on its deathbed at this time, whilst software does support it, its only basic support that the game actually starts up so that it ‘runs’, there are numerous performance issues just from the operating system itself, and many games are missing certain graphical effects. And the fact 98 was notoriously unstable compared to XP.
The drivers also have the same story, with the NVidia drivers being notoriously unoptimized. The NVidia card for example has the latest XP driver being released in 2012, compared to the Windows 98 driver being released in 2005, that 7 years of driver optimizations and progress being missed out on.
In reality if you are buying a high end pc in 2005, its incredibly unlikely you would be running Windows 98 in it, and manufactures knew that.
Or GNU/Linux if that’s more your thing, I’ve also contemplated dual booting a Linux based operating system on it from that era. Something like Ubuntu 8.04 or Red Hat purely to see what it’s like. And maybe get some old GNU/Linux games going…
Processor – Intel Pentium 4
Pentium 4’s weren’t my first choice of CPU back then. Truth be told they were very hot boys and had a tendency to overheat if they were not properly cooled. Dell made sure that wouldn’t happen with this monster of a heatsink with two 120mm fans.
For some reason Dell are allergic to AMD, something that still rings true today. Most of their systems use Intel chips with only a small amount of models supporting AMD chips. This is despite the fact that AMD chips of the era ran cooler and consumed less power, Dell insisted on using Pentium 4’s on small form factor PC’s like the OptiPlex SX270.
Graphics – NVidia GT 6800 Ultra
GPU’s were very competitive around this era, what with the Xbox 360 and PS3 being due to launch. Whilst the 6800 is a generation behind the RSX used in the PS3, it’s ideal for maxing out games from the 2001-2006 era
Memory – 4GB DDR2
4GB seems a bit overkill for a system like this. Considering Dell would have shipped a 32bit operating system on it, limiting it to only 3.2GB. I guess the previous owner must had upgraded it to 64bit Vista at some point.
Looking at the SPD data in CPU-Z it seems the system left the factory with 2Gb of RAM, with the remainder being added later. I’ll probably take the excess RAM out at some point and install it in another machine, since it’s never going to be needed with Windows XP, unless I decide to run some 15 year old CAD programs on it
Sound Card: Creative Audigy
Dedicated soundcards are uncommon today, with most motherboard having onboard Realtek or Conexant audio. Still Dell shipped the system with the Creative Audigy as the sole sound card on the system, no onboard audio here. This was the last era that supported EAX effects in games that this soundcard supported.
Maxing out: Upgrades
USB3 PCI Express Card
USB3 didn’t exist when Windows XP was released, and even USB2 was still in its draft stage before it started appearing on motherboard in late 2002, however many manufacturers have provided drivers for Windows XP for both 32 and 64bit editions. Having a USB3 interface will come useful when it comes to connecting external hard disks. This card also has a front panel connector which I will use with the Akasa Front panel USB3 bay.
A must for any modern PC, and although there were not common back when this system was released, I had no problems installing it (a 2.5 to 3.5 adaptor is recommended) and it was detected by the BIOS and Windows XP setup. One issue is that dell insist you use these green drive brackets to mount the drive, the idea is that it’s supposed to be a tooless design so that the drive can be pulled out of the slot.
In practice the clips ended up breaking since they had become brittle, and I was unable to screw in the SSD bracket since Dell designed the drive bay for it to be used with the clips so for now the drive is just resting on top of the hard drive.
This is a SATA 3 capable PCI Express card which would have been necessary for the SSD upgrade, since the onboard SATA can only support up to SATA. Whilst SATA standards are backwards compatible, it would have meant the SSD would have been bottlenecked by the onboard interface. A bonus is this card provides an eSATA port
Wifi – Broadcom
This was already installed by the previous user, or it may have been a optional factory upgrade installed by Dell. This is quite old and only support 802.11g protocol, which was standard in 2005. It also supports WPA2 and it capable of connecting to my BT Smart Hub. However I will be using the onboard Ethernet for when I connect it to the network, because Windows XP is no longer supported its not a good idea to have it connected to the internet.
Akasa Front panel USB3
Adds two front panel USB ports and also serves as a 2.5 inch bracket to mount floppy drives or memory card readers. I might add a memory card bay to it at a later date.
Pulled from an old HP machine. The system has a spare drive bay and I had this drive laying around so why not?
One of the main disadvantages of pre built Dell Systems is they tend to deviate from ATX standards, and the power supply unit used here is one example. First issue is the design, a standard ATX power supply cannot be used as a replacement unless the case is modified
Windows XP predates mainstream SSD support, and as a result does not implement TRIM. Windows did not support this until Windows 7. One advised workaround was to under partition the SSD, say to about 90%. Whilst you do loose storage capacity, since our games are stored on the hard drive this is not so much an issue.
This system came out during the capacitor plague, where many substandard capacitors were used that had a tendency to leak much earlier than usual. Also given that this system was on the extreme end of the power draw spectrum,
Plenty of games from this era were released on Stream, and up until 2019 you could install the client on Windows XP. However Steam dropped support for the operating system due to the Chromium Embedded Framework no longer offering support for XP either. This meant that future steam update’s would no longer be provided to Windows XP users, and sooner or later they would no longer be able to access their accounts via Steam, preventing the ability for them to play games. There are workaround’s to this that allow the client to run, but you are unable to access the Steam Store or the community features. Also I can’t imagine Valve’s being happy that modified clients are being used to access the Steam service.
Really you are better off sticking with the retail DVD or CD releases, or with GOG where games do not come with DRM and can be played without the reliance of a client.
I have to admit, the main thing fuelling this was nostalgia. having memories of booting into Windows XP brought back moments when we would sign into MSN messenger and MySpace using Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox with several toolbars installed. Sadly these service are no longer available as they was, with MSN Messenger being discontinued in favour of Skype. From a gaming standpoint, whilst it has no issues maxing out games from 2001- 2004, stuff released from 2005 (eg Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, Driver Parallel Lines) onwards has a tendency to stress the hardware out, and I found myself having to downgrade the resolution in order to boost the framerate, which had me considering why not just play these games on a modern rig that can max these game out easily.
I suppose the main saving grace is compatibility, with these Pentium 4 (and Athlon) systems being the epitome of backwards compatibility. For this one in particular Dell provides drivers for Windows 98/ME, XP, and Vista, allowing you to theoretically triple boot the system for maximum compatibility without any concern with drivers. Any newer and drivers and compatibility with 98/ME becomes an issue, and anything older will have issue with Vista or 7 support
Whilst I haven’t played any game on it from 2007 onwards, I suppose you could get away with it providing you play at a lower resolution, although you might as well get a Core 2 Duo system with a GeForce 8 series or a Radeon HD200 series GPU