The upgrade bug (or how you can control it)

Most people have the old adage stuck in their heads that “if it ain’t broke, don’t try fixin’ it!” There are many situations where this applies, and I tend to agree when it comes to things like cars, or housing alterations, or plastic surgery. Especially where plastic surgery and noses or breasts are concerned, but that’s a story for another time (perhaps on the forums, on a dark and stormy night). But when it comes to computers, geeks, gamers and power users just simply ignore this rule:

There is every reason to fix it!

Specifically, in the realm of upgrades, people get caught up in the thrill of getting new stuff when the old simply doesn’t cut the mustard in their opinion. I have a friend who seems to be quite happy with his Phenom Black Edition and his Nvidia GTS250, but he’s always looking for something more – he’s eyeing that quad-core over there, the gaming RAM in the nice-looking plastic wrap, or the GTX560 that just arrived in the shop. There’s simply no appeasing his appetite, and I suspect that’s a problem most PC enthusiasts have. Online blogs and magazines (no disrespect to Neo and his minions) always punt the latest stuff as the have-to-have kind of thing – if you don’t have it, you’re not part of the cutting edge, deserving of poor performance. LAN parties in particular have this kind of thing going as well, almost like a bug that goes around and gets stronger every year, and rAge demonstrates this in the photo gallery where the kind of hardware seen at the NAG LAN seems to climb year on year.

Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. If it weren’t for people like my friend, or many on the forums haunting the tech section, the industry wouldn’t have the kind of momentum it does now. The need to be on the bleeding edge of technology and the current trend has spurred manufacturers to innovate at every product refresh, bringing out beauties like the ASUS Maximus series, or the mod-friendly AMD Radeon HD6950. But when the upgrade bug bites, and bites hard, it’s difficult to make decisions with a clear head and spend within budget. So, how can we get this under control?

Lets look at base systems for a start. My personal PC at home (bought in February last year) features a AMD Athlon X2 240 at stock speeds, 2GB of DDR3-1333 RAM, an ECS 785G-based motherboard, a Radeon HD6870 1GB DDR5, a Huntkey 550w PSU, and some other odds and ends including a Cooler Master chassis and enough storage space. I chose AMD not only because I’m a fan of the company and what they try do for their customers, but also because of the potential upgrade paths available to me. Most system builders tend to concentrate on the CPU, or the graphics card, or the power supply. They simply fail to consider the importance of the motherboard’s longevity.

If you’re no stranger to the occasional upgrade, you’re familiar with the underlying problem of having a major upgrade – Windows, in most cases, has to be re-installed if you move to a new motherboard that’s functionally different from the one you have now. Moving from one motherboard generation to the next would result in a Windows installation completely uninterested in booting into the desktop. This is an unavoidable process, and one I’d preferably only like to repeat every three years.

When upgrading or buying a new PC, you’ve got to factor in the astonishing rate at which technology changes. LGA775 and X58 were lucky and survive even today, but Intel nowadays seems only interested in changing socket forms every 18 months or less and keeping up with that pace is only going to frustrate users in the long run. AMD, on the other hand, introduced socket AM3 in February 2009 – a good two years ago, with plans to extend that to 2012 or further. Its entire processor lineup is available to me should I choose to upgrade, so this was my logical decision. I currently don’t have any system lag, but if I do, it’s a simple matter of changing a few things in the following order:

1) Swapping out my Athlon for a Phenom quad-or-six core. My board supports 125w Phenom X6 chips, and I very much doubt I’ll need that kind of grunt yet, but it’s nice to know I can get to that level.
2) To improve system performance, I can simply add in more RAM, or swap out my modules for ones of better speed or available memory. My board can accommodate up to 32GB of memory, and I made sure that it would scale well with my needs for the next year and a half.
3) I can swap out my hard drive with an SSD, and get immediate benefits in loading times and application performance. I only have a 500GB system drive, and when the time comes to replace it, SSD storage will have dropped dramatically to the point where I can fit my 120GB installation onto something nice from Intel or Kingston.

But what about my graphics card, you may ask? Well, I’ve got an anemic dual-core mixed with my HD6870 – I’m hardly maxing it out as it is. In addition, dropping in a quad should get me a 50% performance boost, which is enough to tide me over until I completely replace the system. I also do not intend on replacing my BenQ T2200 LCD monitor anytime soon, so my resolution won’t change but I may scale down in-game settings to make Crysis 2 more playable. I currently am playing through Metro 2033 at full resolution, in DX10 with all settings on High and I’m getting great performance so far. Metro’s a tough cookie to handle, so I won’t have to replace my graphics card for some time.

No, you dont need to upgrade you fool.

So for the upgraders or new buyers out there, take note – there’s a few crucial things you need to decide on when you’re looking at your system.

1) Move to Windows 7 64-bit. It’s there, most products on the market have the drivers available, and it’ll utilize all the extra RAM you’ll be putting in over the years. I’m stuck on 32-bit for now, and it’s probably my biggest regret.
2) Make a carefully considered decision about your motherboard and chosen socket before you make your purchase. If the upgrade bug bites, make sure you have enough room to upgrade and bring your system up to date. A good motherboard should last you a year at least, with a maximum of three years on tap.
3) Your power supply will be working the hardest out of all your components during this time. Slight overkill is recommended when you’re going to be using your system for more than four hours a day, every day, for years.
4) Lastly, you can go a little overboard with your graphics card. People have always recommended that you buy the best you can afford, and that’s good advice. My GPU will most certainly outlast my CPU which I’ll be upgrading as productivity tasks take up more of my time spent on my desktop.

At the very least, pair your graphics purchase with the native resolution of your screen – it needs to work beautifully at one notch higher than what you’ve got now. My HD6870 runs decently at 2560 x 1600, and at HD resolution it flies. Will I need to upgrade it in less than a year’s time? Probably not.