Being that I just got a new PC – entirely thanks to you, gentle readers – let’s talk hardware that will run Second Life well. That is, kit that will work smoothly and not turn into a slide-show even if you crank everything up.
I’m not going to exhaustively compare hardware, I’ll just tell you what I know works.
Firstly, the processor. Definitely a Lynnfield processor or better. I’d personally recommend the i7-870 2.93GHz for a number of reasons, cost-vs-performance being right up there near the top. It’s got four cores (which look like 8 with hyper-threading) that automatically go faster if you’re not using all of them. Most particularly, though, the CPU has some dedicated silicon that exists solely to shovel data to your graphics card. Expect to pay about US$290 or so for one of these.
That brings us to the graphics card. This Lynnfield processor gets reduced data throughput to dual-graphics-card (SLI) setups, so just don’t bother with two. Your graphics card of choice, on a budget, is the nVidia GTS 450. That’ll outperform every ATI board made prior to 2010, and almost all of the ones made after. The sweet spot for this board is a resolution of 1680×1050 or below, and it will drive two monitors very happily. Expect to pay US$100-130 for that card.
Pick a motherboard that supports these (the Lynnfield is an LGA1156 socket). I have the Gigabyte GA-H55M-UD2H (revision 1.3), and load it with RAM (make sure you get a motherboard that takes lots). That motherboard will set you back around US$90
I cannot stress that enough. Get yourself a 64bit Operating System (Windows 7 Home Premium will do the job nicely) and get 16GB of DDR3 RAM onto that board. That RAM will make your system breeze along even with dozens of hungry programs.
Finish the whole lot off with a decent cooler, a power-supply, a 7200RPM hard-drive and some sort of box to put it all in.
Now, we’re going to do something with all that RAM. If you’ve already got lots, you can try this at home.
Go to Dataram, and download their free RAMdisk software. It works with 64bit Windows, unlike many.
Create a RAMdisk of the maximum size for the free edition (that’s 4092MB), and select unformatted. Set it to save to disk on shutdown, and restore at startup. That’ll clip four gigabytes of RAM off your usable total, but you’ll hardly notice it.
Now, format that RAMdisk in the usual way to get yourself an NTFS partition. Make a folder on that, and call it (for example) Second Life Cache. Start your viewer, go to preferences, set the cache location to the new one and crank it up to the maximum size of 1GB, and restart your viewer. The Viewer might actually stutter a little here and there because it doesn’t like getting data too fast, but you’ll find that agreeably minor.
Access to cached objects and textures should be super-fast and Second Life won’t be hammering at your hard-drives all the time. If that works well for you, consider going back to Dataram and buying the full version of their RAMdisk software.
[EDIT: There's some strong support for reducing the total RAM by half and spending that money on a Solid State Drive (SSD) to boost boot and access times considerably. This sounds like a good idea, but I have no personal experience with the configuration, and cannot provide a useful comparison between the two options.]
On the default Second Life graphics settings, you can hit around 100fps or so, so feel free to crank the settings up until you find the best settings for you. With everything maxed out, you’ll still be firmly getting double-digits. As a bonus, it should run pretty much everything else extremely well, also.
* No, I don’t offer technical support – life is too short. Take these suggestions or leave them. If you need help, ask a friend or someone at your local computer store.