Of all the PCs I have built, my personal favourite is what I call the TrashTop v2. This computer came to be from the actions of a very dedicated fan who I meet every year during Gamescom, Europe's biggest game conference.
This fan has a hobby of rescuing PC components from scrapyards in Germany and he shares some his spoils with me every time we encounter. At some point, I started going over the small pile of components that resulted from this friendship and wondered what would be the best PC I could build.
The result was the following:
CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200
RAM: 8 GB of DDR2
GPU: GTX 570
Which has a referential price of about €160 and is able to play a large number of modern games with acceptable performance.
And while the results are impressive given the price, the decade-old CPU was the main limiting point of this setup. I started looking at upgrades while maintaining a comparable referential price.
The Mighty Xeon
Xeon is Intel's brand for non-consumer workstation and server CPUs. They tend to have extra features not common in consumer brands such as extra cores, support for more RAM or a larger cache. They also tend to be significantly more costly than comparable consumer CPUs.
However, as time passed plenty of companies change their server and workstation CPU for newer models and a large number of Xeons enter the used market, thus becoming a cheap alternative for budget-conscious gamers.
There is an additional layer of complexity to consider for the 775 socket. Xeon CPUs and motherboards used the 771 socket during this generation to differentiate from the consumer line. However, modding a 771 CPU so it works on a 775 socket only requires an adapter that changes 2 pins and drilling two small holes on the sides of the CPU (or removing some security tabs on the motherboard, whatever sounds the least nerve-wracking). There is plenty of documentation online on how to do this procedure.
This might not be necessary, thanks to something interesting happening on world biggest market for electronics and components.
A quick search through Chinese e-commerce website Aliexpress shows a variety of listings for 771 Xeons that have been pre-modded for 775 sockets.
From what I could find out online there seems to be a large market for salvaging Xeons from very old servers/workstations in Asia, modding them and reselling them online. I settled for a Xeon x5460, a Harpertown quadcore running at 3.16 GHz.
This modded CPU came to a total of less than €15 including shipping from China.
For comparison that is only €2 than the price of the Intel 2 Quad on eBay and that runs at a much lower 2.33 GHz.
Before installing the CPU there one more obstacle to tackle, modding the BIOS of the motherboard to add Xeon support.
Modding the BIOS
A CPUs microcode is sort of to a CPU's firmware. It is stored on the motherboard's BIOS and since 775 motherboards were never intended for 771 Xeons their BIOS does not include any microcode for them. This could potentially bring stability issues and errors with missing instructions.
Thankfully, modding a BIOS to include Xeon microcode is a fairly straightforward process. Here is the specific guide I followed.
3 things were needed: the latest BIOS for this motherboard (released on 2009), the microcode for both 771 and 775 CPUs and a program called cbrom195.exe that allows changing the microcode in the BIOS.
Once done, I flashed the BIOS with a tool called @BIOS. The tool included with the official BIOS only supports 32-bit windows and the internal flashing tool from the BIOS itself is so old that only supports reading from a floppy disk.
Once the BIOS was flashed and the CPU installed I decided to change the cooler for a Cooler Master TX3 that I found locally for 8 euros. Our Xeon has a TDP 120 W and maximum temperature of 63°C so adequate cooling is needed.
Let's get Gaming
Lighter games, like Counter Strike Global Offensive, run perfectly on 1080 and the lowest settings. How will it do with the heavier contenders?
On the Intel 2 Quad, this computer was able to play Overwatch at around 45 FPS before the CPU bottleneck would cause occasional short freezes. By comparison, the Xeon is able to deliver over 60 fps consistently over the course of a match. Pretty impressive!
One game that I was unable to test on the previous CPU was Player Unknown's Battleground. While the 1.0 release of the game greatly improved performance, the Intel 2 Quad would cause the game to freeze constantly making it impossible to play.
The Xeon is more than enough for the game. After going through the inevitable slowdowns that happen after jumping out of the plane, the game settles for around 35-45 fps, limited by the GTX 560 GPU and its 1 GB of VRAM.
Destiny 2 is another interesting test. Thanks to its internal resolution scaler the game can easily be made to work on low-end GPUs (as low as a modern IntelHD) but usually needs an Intel i3-3250 3.5GHz, Intel Pentium G4560 3.5GHz, or an AMD FX-4350 4.2 GHz.
Our Xeon + GTX 560 combo on 720p (and some extra performance tweaks) does very well, with solid 60 fps on some of the lighter sections and very brief drops to around 40 on heavier combat.
Can it run Crysis?
Given this encouraging results, I could not continue before giving the legendary Crysis 3 a run to try and answer this question.
On the lowest settings and a resolution of 1080 the game managed to provide over 60 fps during a short test, limited by the GTX 560. The Xeon could keep up with the game without much issue.
Next, Witcher 3 is game that is usually used to test GPUs since its massive world can put even high-end devices through its paces... as long as the CPU is able enough to get the game started. Once again the Xeon delivers, with the game having at least 30 fps on 1080 (with a GPU bottleneck) and closer to 30-40 on the 720p with some drops when the game needs to load.
Finally, I once again ran the GTA V benchmark, which provided over 60 fps in most sections until reaching the chase scene at the end, where the limited VRAM (1 GB) of the GPU and the slow DDR2 RAM dropped FPS to about 30-40 fps. Still pretty usable.
Not everything is good
And yet, using modded decade old CPUs has its limits.
Star Wars Battlefront 2, from 2017, uses the newest version of the Frostbite engine, which tends to have higher-than-average CPU requirements.
On our Xeon, the game immediately overwhelms all cores of the CPU, causing a ton of micro stuttering that makes the game unplayable.
What is next?
Both the Xeon and Gigabyte motherboard used supports Overclocking. Should we increase the clock on the CPU until performance is acceptable?
The Xeon has a Tcase temperature of 63°C and during my test of Battlefront 2, under full load, the CPU reached 67°C, so it is obvious that we are going to need a better cooling solution if we want to go any further.
But that will have to wait for another time!