Starcraft II: On the Cheap

We'll tell you how to get Starcraft II running well without stealing all your pennies.

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Starcraft II runs well on a lot of computers, but performance really depends on a few key factors. We'll go over the basic points in this article to help you figure out what you might need to upgrade to get the game to run optimally.

We tested the game with a saved game that had over 170 Marines marching to and fro across a map. This proved to be much more intensive than many decent sized battles. While you might not see such a scenario play out in a single player mission too often, it's more than likely to occur when you have a 4v4 online, where each player can output hundreds of units apiece.

CPUs

The bare minimum CPU required to run the game is a 2.6GHz Pentium 4, and like other games before it, that's like saying all you need is a pair of legs to run a marathon. We found quicker Core 2 CPUs to be more than adequate to play the game, with only the occasional slowdown when under heavy load. Quad core CPUs didn't help out all, which means that brute MHz is key. Switching up to the Core i7, we found that Starcraft stretches its legs if given the room. But as we mentioned, the number of cores doesn't matter; you can easily get a quick Core i5 or Core i3 as a substitute with minimal performance degradation. Our AMD Phenom test bed was acting up; thus, we have no performance numbers for it, but the same basic trend should hold there as well. If you have an AMD platform, opt for brute speed over more cores.

Takeaway:

• Single core Pentium 4s do not hack it.
• A dual core CPU is enough.
• Opt for brute MHz instead of more cores.

We recommend stopping at the $125 Core i3 540. It'll get you running briskly without coming close to breaking the bank. For extra juice, jump up to a Core i5 with Turbo Boost.

System Setup:
Intel Core i7-870, Intel Core i3-530, Intel Core i7 965, Intel DX58S0, Intel DP55KG, 4 and 6GB DDR3, 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows 7 64-bit. Graphics Drivers: Catalyst 10.7, Forceware 258.96.

Video Cards

Starcraft II doesn't need much of a GPU to run well, but it does have a bare minimum threshold you need to get over. Midrange GeForce 8 series cards and equivalent Radeon HD 2000 series should get you going with medium-quality settings at moderate resolutions. For ultra-quality settings and a resolution of 1680x0150 and higher, a minor upgrade is in order. Our GeForce 9800 GTX+ took us all the way up to 1920x1200 with ultra-quality settings. It's currently a $135 video card. Alternatively, you can grab the Radeon HD 5770 for marginally more money. After that, you better have a powerful CPU to push the video card if you want to see gains.

Takeaway:

• Upgrade from old cards--Radeon 9000, X1xx, HD 2000 series/GeForce 6, 7 and 8 series.

Spend no more than $150 to get ultra-quality settings and resolutions as high as 1920x1200. A GeForce 9800 GTX+ or Radeon HD 5770 will be more than enough to run the game.

System Setup:
Intel i7-870, Intel DP55KG, 4GB DDR3, 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows 7 64-bit. Graphics Drivers: Catalyst 10.7, Forceware 258.96.

Settings

Unless you have old hardware you can probably move the settings on up to high or ultra and walk away. The performance gap between ultra and high is quite large, dropping down a notch is worth it for the extra frames.

Graphic Presets

Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4
Ultra High Medium Low

System Setup:
Intel i7-870, Intel DP55KG, 4GB DDR3, 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows 7 64-bit. Graphics Card: GeForce 9800 GTX+, Forceware 258.96.

Monitors

It's rare for us to mention monitors in an upgrade guide, but with Starcraft II, visible screen space is important. It is easier to respond to what you can see onscreen. We went through all the various resolution types to determine which aspect ratio provided the most viewable onscreen area. The screenshots are arranged in order from most viewable area to least. The basic trend we found was this: The wider the screen, the better.

You don't need to run out and buy a monitor with a wider aspect ratio to take advantage of wider resolutions. A simple change to the graphics settings, in the driver's control panel and game settings, should allow you to run lower but wider resolutions. If you're not averse to stretched images, you don't even have to bother changing the driver settings.

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16:9 16:10 4:3 5:4

The table below summarizes some of the more popular screen resolutions and their corresponding aspect ratios.

Aspect Ratio Resolutions
16:9 1280x720 1360x768 1600x900 1920x1080
16:10 1280x800 1440x900 1680x1050 1920x1200
4:3 1024x768 1280x960 1600x1200  
5:4 1280x1024      

Takeaway:

• Wider monitors give you more visible screen real estate.
• Grab a 16:9 aspect ratio monitor to get the widest possible screen natively.
• Or stick with your existing monitor and use 16:9 resolutions with black bars.

The Big Picture

A small system capable of playing Starcraft II at high resolutions and maximum settings will cost less than $600. If you're upgrading from existing parts, the outlay will be even less than that amount.

Full System:

• Intel Core i3 540 - $125
• Socket 1156 Motherboard - $90
• Radeon HD 5770 - $150 or GeForce 9800 GTX+ - $135
• 4GB DDR3 RAM - $85
• 500GB Hard Drive - $50
• Case + Power Supply - $50

Total - $550

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