Case In Point: Navigating The Upgrade Minefield - HotHardware

Case In Point: Navigating The Upgrade Minefield

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I used to say that if all products were free, or we all had unlimited budgets, making choices for building a system or upgrading an existing one would be easy. But today, that’s not the case. As I noted in my last column, the choices are often between similar, competing products, sometimes from the same manufacturer.

What you need to do is take a step back and look at what you’re doing.

  • Are you primarily a gamer? Then CPUs that are optimized for multithreading or extreme multitasking may not be that useful.
     
  • Write a lot of code? Do a lot of compiles and app builds? CPU performance is important, but so is storage performance.
     
  • Are you a digital video editor, user of 3D modeling apps or involved in digital photography? Multithreading performance is critical in those applications. Storage is also critical, both in terms of capacity and performance.
     
  • Do you use mostly mainstream office apps and live your digital life on the Internet? (Or maybe you build systems for family or friends for this purpose.) Then maybe a dual core CPU is good enough.
     
  • What’s your budget? Once you understand what you want to do with your system, you need to balance what you can afford with what you need to accomplish.
     
  • It’s well worth going through this exercise every couple of years, since interests and needs change over time.

 
 
Upgrading to a Core i7 CPU may require a new motherboard and memory

The issue of budget adds a layer of complexity on top of all the technology and product detail. At first blush, the Core i7 860 and the Core 2 Quad Q9650 are in the same price ballpark, for example. But if you already have Core 2 system, upgrading the CPU to a Q9650 may mean nothing more a simple BIOS update and dropping in the new CPU. But moving to the Core i7 860 means a new motherboard, probably memory too. Your $300 upgrade just went to $500. So figuring out how to fit in a budget can be a challenge.

Once you understand what you need, some choices become easier, though others can still cause analysis paralysis. Let’s run through the product options now.

 

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     This is a good article, and many of the points are very relevant. However; I am currently in this situation, I have a neighbor who wants a PC for photography work. I have several systems lined up on Newegg in wish lists. I am concerned about the sata 6 USB 3 issue, but not to a considerable level I guess. This means I would like to give him that ability from the build stage, but as the article pointed out it is not critical (I can add the in pci-X slots later if needed).

     The thing largely on these two components or capabilities for me on a system for photo work is SATA3. Having this on board specifically for this type of system seems to me a good idea. Plus adding a USB3 card to a PCI-x slot is ok, but when you’re talking about HD tech it is going to be around for probably at least the next 5 years. One issue I have with storage is SSD. Yes I know they are considerably faster, but I see it as a technology with a brick wall coming up rather soon (a year to a year and a half). This is because it has been stated by Intel when talking about their new mem tech, which would apply to these devices as well. When nand hit 22nm that about as far as it can go. Seeing as they just hit 32nm, and they run their research in the tick toc way I see two more upgrades for SSD and they will end because they cannot go any further.

     This is somewhat of an issue so I will most likely set his PC up with 3 hard drives in a raid 5 configuration. The next issue is this; CPU choice especially right now is hard. I could of course go with AM3 and 8 gigs of memory. For about a hundred more I can go for 1156, then for roughly the same price I can go with 1366 with 6 gigs of memory. I am thinking in most cases especially photo editing and media manipulation the 1366/920 is going to perform about the same as an 1156/860 with the memory differences.

     Then I also want to build a system with an upgrade path the dual channel and triple channel difference for me on the uses he requires seems to be a positive, the upgrade path for the two Intel chipsets seems to me to also be the most confusing on the 1156 side of things as it is supposed to accept the Sandy Bridge path. Then the 1366 is supposed to accept the Gulftown which I would think is the best path or socket for the future. Also as I look at the AMD side of things AM3 is supposed to accept Bulldozer as well automatically. So I can build him a great system today, but what will it's future be say 1.5-2 years down the road will I be able to drop in the next CPU, and which of those CPU's is the best choice? I am thinking 1366, but am stuck on this choice all three paths with all the same components (GPU, Ram, and HD throughput and storage amount) are within 100 bucks up or down. The AMD Phenom is of course the lowest prices with 8 gigs, the 1156/860 is next for about 75 more, and the 1366 is about a hundred more with the tri channel config’s at 6 gigs.

Which do I choose looking at the future for him and his usage pattern? I am really leaning toward 1366, but am quite unsure of the future between these 3 sockets!

 

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If you're setting this up for PhotoShop, you should rethink your HD configuration (3 HD in Raid 5):

HD1 -  Fastest drive for OS and programs ( 2 SSD in Raid 0)

HD2 - Scratch disk

HD3 - Storage, largest drive sets you can afford ( 2 in Raid 2 or 4 in Raid 10)

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Whoops, I meant 2 drives in Raid 1 for HD3

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Good read. The way I do it is to get the best that I can afford with the funds available. This is a far as I can go towards future proofing.

Future Proofing in today's world of technical advances is probably not possible anyway at the rate these advances keep occurring. You need an uninterrupted cash stream to keep up these days, or maybe find a way to get manufacturers to consistently send you new things to test out and review. (wink!)

So a look at the budget is first in the process for me, then I get the best I can by shopping around. It usually works out just fine. My older equipment works well for use in Linux Boxes too.

 

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Hey Neil, how's that new rig of yours doing? :)

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It's slicker than Snake Snot.

Like a Fire In a Match Factory!

It's profound!

It's smooth,...like Southern Comfort,.............

It's the best computer that I've ever had.

 

Thanks!

 

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Great article. It's true that at this point technology will just keep increasing exponentially. Having a system that can keep up with the latest tech will become increasingly more difficult. I think future proofing will be at its best right now, but come 10 years I believe that everyone will have a hard time keeping up. If anyone does decide to upgrade their computer, and they have an LGA 775 socket, I'd reccomend saving up some extra cash and upgrading to the LGA 1366 sockets instead. That's at least what I plan on doing. 

I think the best strategy to keeping your computer hardware up to date is saving some money every month and making a change at the critical level...to the point where you can begin saving again. It's a rinse and repeat sort of thing. 

 

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The bright side of this upgrade minefield is the constant innovation and competition unseen in areas such as the console market

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Thanks HKo45, I have thought about other implementations. However I also have a 1500 dollar budget, and I need a high end gpu display, keyboard, mouse, printer and everything else. So SSD is not a possibility. I have also thought about 2 in raid1 for OS and apps, with a large drive for storage. I think that a 3 500-1000 GB drives in raid 5 gives me better performance than raid1, and more safety in the functionality of raid5. If I do raid0 it is fast, but I don't want it to go out in 6-12 ad you know if you loose a raid0 array you have nothing left. I have definitely consider the jbod thing as well I just  think raid 5 with 3 drives gives me the best outcome. This computer is going to blow away anything he has ever used anyway. So the performance hit he takes with raid 5 will not be noticed anyways.

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For PhotoShop, your first priority is to get as much ram as you can get (4GB min). Yesterday, when running PhotoShop CS4 on my laptop (4GB), I got a message that it could not do a blend because I had insufficient ram. As you scale back your GPU (for budget's sake), just make sure it can run OpenGL. On the topic of disks: I like to put only my OS and all programs on the C drive (no data) because I can then use an image backup (Acronis) simply on that drive--at which point I care less about safety than speed. My data resides on another drive where I can use whatever backup process I want. In the case of my laptop, I have my data backed up both on an NAS drive and a usb drive. Right now I'm limited to a laptop (Dell Precision M6400 w/ 2 22" monitors) because I'm hoping to move soon so I'm planning to get my dream PhotoShop system after the move.

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