Turn your PC into a supercomputer – I

What, exactly, are supercomputers? The clue is in the name, really: they’re powerful computers capable of calculating many millions of floating operations per second (FLOPS) – essentially, they’re very, very fast.

While any array of powerful computers, such as a modern-day web server – which consists of several motherboards (the main circuit board of a computer) running in parallel – can be considered a supercomputer, generally the term is reserved for machines that dedicate their entire hardware to one complex task at any given time.

Take the NEC Earth Simulator in Japan, for example, which was created specifically for modelling weather problems associated with global warming. Or the world’s fastest computer, BlueGene/L at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US, which simulates the behaviour of biomolecular structures and protein folding. It’s capable of 600 trillion FLOPS (tera-FLOPS or TFLOPS), whereas, the six-year-old Earth Simulator is only capable of 36TFLOPS. BlueGene/L won’t hold the top spot for long, though. Supercomputers twice as powerful will be online soon.

Even though you might not realise it, your Windows Vista PC isn’t all that far removed from the world’s most powerful computers. A modern CPU is only capable of 30 million FLOPS (giga-FLOPS) – but supercomputers comprise large numbers of desktop components running in parallel for the greatest computational throughput. Here’s how to get closer to the supercomputer potential of your PC…

1. Go Quad-Core

A supercomputer is simply lots of standard CPUs running in unison, so add more CPUs by swapping a single or dual-core processor for a quad-core one. Underneath the big fan in the centre of your motherboard, a single clip holds the processor in place. It can easily be undone and a new chip slotted in.

The tricky part is making sure a new processor fits your motherboard. You can find this out by visiting the manufacturer’s website – you may need to upgrade the BIOS for the latest chips.

You won’t notice a huge difference in games, but switching between desktop applications or watching movies will be speedier.

FOUR IN ONE Inside the latest quad-core processors

2. Speed up your graphics card

If you want faster frame rates in games, you could try overclocking your graphics card – making it run faster than the manufacturer originally specified. The first thing to do is find out what sort of graphics card you’re running. You can do this by right-clicking on the desktop and selecting Personalize > Display Settings. You should see a pull-down menu that says something like ‘Generic PnP Monitor on…’ – the text that follows tells you what your graphics hardware is.

If you have an Intel graphics accelerator, then your best option is to upgrade the card completely (see number 8). If your graphics hardware says ‘GeForce’ or ‘Radeon’, then the chances are you can overclock your card using utilities built into the drivers.

If it’s a GeForce card (made by NVIDIA), go to www.nvidia.com/object/ntune and download the nTune software. AMD cards(marked Radeon) have a utility called Overdrive in the Control Panel – both of these allow you to overclock your hardware.

Now right-click on the desktop and select the NVIDIA or AMD Control Panel option, then go to the nTune or Overdrive tabs on the left. You can change the clock speeds of your graphics processor and memory core, but beware – the faster you go, the more chance there is that they’ll overheat and crash your system.

FAST GRAPHICS The utilities for tweaking graphics cards are very straightforward to follow

3. Fit more memory

Generally speaking, if you’ve got 1GB or less of system memory then the best way to speed up Windows Vista is to add more.

You can find out how much memory your PC has by going to Control Panel > System and Maintenance > Welcome Center. An overview of your hardware at the top of the window will include an amount of RAM (Random Access Memory). For the best performance in Windows Vista, you’ll need at least 2GB of RAM.

Adding RAM is easy – it comes in long sticks, which simply plug into the sockets beside your CPU on the motherboard. You must get the right kind of RAM for your motherboard though – most PCs use DDR2 – as the wrong kind won’t fit. Memory is rated by size (in GB) and speed (in MHz), and for the most benefit must be fitted in matched pairs (two sticks that are the same) in dual
channel slots on the motherboard.

The slot pairings are usually colour coded, so you should make sure you put identical memory in the two blue slots or the two
black slots, for example.

RAM IT UP Forums are a great way of finding out which sticks of RAM are compatible with your PC

4. Switch to hi-def

Whether it’s a web download or Blu-ray movie, decoding high-definition video requires a lot of processing power, and if you’re
getting choppy playback then your CPU is struggling.

Rather than replace your main processor, new AMD and NVIDIA graphics cards have built-in tools for taking the load off of the CPU during video playback. Look for either the GeForce 8xxx or Radeon HD ranges – the lower end cards sell for less than £50 and have the same hardware tweaks for decoding HD video as the most expensive. They won’t be great for playing games, but should turn your PC into a super media centre.

5. Improve your cooling

When computer parts get hot, they run more slowly. And conversely, the faster they run, the hotter they get. If you’re going to
be tweaking the clock speeds of your PC to speed it up, chances are you’ll need to improve the cooling inside your case. Even on a standard machine, you’d be surprised by how many crashes or lock-ups are due to undetected overheating.

The simplest way to improve cooling is to fit extra case fans. Quiet PC (www.quietpc.co.uk) has a selection of dampened fans that won’t cost much more than a tenner. These either clip on to or screw into spare spaces inside your case, or replace the fans
you have. Normal case fans are 8cm in diameter, but larger fans move more air around and can spin more slowly – if your case will
take them, consider upgrading to 12cm fans all round.

“The worst thing,” says Quiet PC’s Paul Lee, “is buying a shiny new CPU cooler only to find out that it doesn’t fit your motherboard. Here at Quiet PC we try to provide as much compatibility information as possible, and we’re only a phone call away.”

COLD BREEZE A new CPU cooler will probably need a lot of room, but can look funky while keeping your chips icy

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