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Case In Point: Navigating The Upgrade Minefield
Date: Nov 02, 2009
Author: Loyd Case
The Upgrade Minefield

Whenever I build a system, I always build it with one eye towards the future. I like to think that I’ll upgrade the system over time. Maybe I’ll swap in a new CPU, maybe a new graphics card, upgrade the RAM, etc. But these days, it’s not so easy.

I can’t remember a time when the upgrade picture has been so confusing. Just think of the situation as it exists today:

  • Intel has three different CPU sockets for desktop systems: LGA775, LGA1156, LGA1366.
  • AMD has a single socket strategy, but the older sockets are still prevalent. You can use newer CPUs in older AM2+ sockets, but you lose some power management features.
  • AMD has DirectX 11 graphics cards. Nvidia doesn’t.
  • Windows 7 is here, but whether or not you need an upgrade isn’t clear. Unlike Vista, the performance requirements aren’t so hefty.
  • It’s increasingly a 64-bit world, but if you want to move from a 32-bit OS to a 64-bit OS, you have to nuke your system and start over.
  • There’s no in-place upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7.
  • Wait for SATA 6gbps? USB 3?


Motherboards with USB 3.0 and SATA 6G Are Right Around The Corner

Trying to navigate the landscape of today’s CPU, motherboard, graphics and operating systems choices seems staggeringly complicated. It’s enough to give anyone a major headache. Or maybe curl up with a netbook and wait for the universe to become simpler. As if that will ever happen…

Today, I’ll take a look at the whole issue of upgrading a system, specifically regarding the technologies I just mentioned above. Whether you’re building a new system, or planning an upgrade for a recent system build, understanding which of these new developments are important in the short term, and which aren’t, will help you plan your upgrade strategy more effectively.

But before we dive into the technologies, let’s first think about your system needs.

What Do You Really Need?

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.


Intel Socket Confusion

Intel now has three different sockets for their desktop CPU platforms. Whether you’re building a new system, or looking to upgrade an older system, making the right choices will save you some pain and money down the road. If you’re committed to using Intel CPUs – and Intel is the current performance leader – then picking through the socket options is no easy exercise. Let’s look at what’s available, and the pros and cons of each.

LGA 775
The LGA 775 socket appeared in November, 2004. Until recently, LGA 775 has been the mainstay of the Intel product line, even after the LGA 1366 Nehalem CPUs shipped last year. While Core i7 took the performance crown, Core 2 CPUs using LGA 775 continued to be Intel’s mainstay.

Now that the
LGA 1156 motherboards using the P55 chipset have shipped, it’s likely that LGA 775 will gradually be phased out. But that phase-out will likely take a long time. If you look at Intel’s price list, there are still over 30 CPUs being sold that require LGA 775.

As an example, let’s say you have a system currently running a Core 2 Duo E7600. It’s got 3MB of L2 cache and runs at 3.06GHz. It’s easy to swap in a Q9650, which is currently around $320-$330. That swap will get you a quad core CPU with over quadruple the shared L2 cache that still runs at 3GHz. That’s a big performance gain for much less than the cost of a new motherboard, a new CPU and possibly new memory.

So if you’re running LGA 775, and your budget is tight, consider staying with that socket for the time being. By the time you really want to upgrade to one of Intel’s more current platforms, that cost of upgrading will probably be lower than it is today.

Intel's LGA775 Socket for Pentium, Celeron, and Core 2 CPUs

Yet More Intel Sockets and AMD

LGA 1156
This is the socket for Core i5 and Core i7 800 series CPUs. It will likely be Intel’s mainstream socket for the next several years. LGA 1156 will support processors with dual channel memory controllers, and is even slated to support Intel’s next generation microarchitecture, code-named Sandy Bridge.

So if you build an LGA 1156 system today, it will probably have a long lifespan. I’m hedging, not because I’m concerned about the socket itself, but because of motherboards. It’s always possible that a budget LGA 1156 motherboard won’t support Sandy Bridge due to limitations in the power supply circuitry. That happened back in the LGA 775 era, when Intel transitioned to Core 2 from Netburst. A few existing P965 and 955X boards could handle Core 2, but most couldn’t – all because of power distribution requirements.

Still, LGA 1156 will be around for a relatively long time, and will support dual and quad core CPUs, with and without Hyper-Threading.

Intel Core i5 Processor On The Intel DP55KG "Kingsberg" Motherboard

LGA 1366
This is the power user socket of choice. If you need a ton of memory, or higher default clock speeds, then you’ll need the horsepower implied by the Core i7 900 series. I did note in my last column that the Core i7 920 isn’t a good deal, relative to the socket 1156 Lynnfield CPUs, but the 950 and 975 Extreme both run much faster. More importantly, the triple channel memory controller allows you to cost effectively build systems with six or 12 GB of RAM. That’s great for video editors, 3D modelers and similar application scenarios running on 64-bit operating systems that need lots of system memory.

From an upgrade perspective, Intel has publicly stated that their six core Gulftown CPU will drop into existing LGA 1366 motherboards.

Intel Core i7 Processor and the DX58SO Socket 1366 'Smackover' Motherboard

What About AMD?
AMD’s socket strategy is a little more transparent than Intel’s. Currently, AMD has a single socket for desktop systems, socket AM3. It’s also true that many of the older Socket AM2+ boards will accept socket AM3 capable CPUs with a simple BIOS update, though you’ll lose some flexibility in power management.

On the other hand, AMD’s CPUs simply don’t perform as well as Intel’s. But what that means is that they’re a relative bargain, particularly if you’re not doing video or photo editing. So if you need to build a system on the cheap, or upgrade an existing AMD-based system, don’t count AMD out.


Graphics: What About DirectX 11?

I get this question every time a new DirectX API ships: "Should I jump into the new generation of graphics cards?"

It was a tougher sell in the past. Whenever a new generation of GPUs shipped to support a new API, those initial GPUs were typically very high end. Anyone remember $600 GeForce 8800 GTX’s? DirectX 10 was also something of a disappointment. Visual enhancements were relatively minor, and performance often took a serious hit.

AMD Radeon HD 5870 DirectX 11 Graphics Card

This time around, it’s a little different. AMD’s ATI division was first out of the chute. Not only is performance of the new Radeon HD 5870 stunningly fast. The HD 5850 isn’t so shabby either. Plus, AMD followed up pretty quickly with more budget-oriented cards, like the Radeon HD 5770.

While it’s a little early to tell, it looks like DirectX 11 is a much bigger step up than DirectX 10. Plus, it won’t be exclusive to a single OS, running on both Windows 7 and Windows Vista. Performance will likely improve, even on older GPUs, due to the addition of multithreading in the API. And features like hardware tessellation promise significant image quality enhancements.

AMD Radeon HD 5750 and 5770 DirectX 11 Graphics Cards

If you currently have a graphics card that would have been high end three months ago – a 285GTX or Radeon HD 4890 – you can probably wait a bit, to see how it all shakes out, and to find out what Nvidia will have in store. But if you’ve been living with an older card, it’s a good time to upgrade. ATI’s new cards are solid, faster than their previous generation and, in the case of the HD 5850 and HD 5870, the fastest single GPU cards available. And they’re priced right, too.


Windows 7: Good News for Existing Systems

When Windows Vista shipped, users rapidly discovered that older systems bogged down running the new OS. They needed better graphics, or a faster CPU, or more memory. As the Vista service packs hit the street, hardware requirements eased a bit, but Vista is still something of a system resource hog.

Windows 7 is different. If you’ve built a system within the last two years or so, you don’t need to upgrade your PC hardware to run Windows 7. Period.

If your PC stretches back to the Pentium 4 / Athlon 64 X2 era, you’re probably still in good shape. Windows 7 supports platform technologies with built in drivers going back a few years. I haven’t tried to get Win7 running on an older Pentium III box, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it worked. I did install Windows 7 on a
1.6GHz Atom based system with 2GB of DDR2-667. Performance was surprisingly brisk for web browsing and light duty office use.

Where you might run into issues is if you’re still using older printers, scanners or web cams, as drivers may be hard to find. Most Vista drivers do work under Windows 7 – but I’ve run into situations where the drivers may work, but the installer package won’t run.

Still, you generally won’t have to upgrade your hardware to run Windows 7 if you have a reasonably current system. That’s a refreshing change from what happened with Vista.


Windows 7 Taskbar With Larger Preview Panes

What About 64-bit?

If you plan on moving to the 64-bit version of Windows 7, you may want more RAM if you’re currently running on 2GB, but the hardware requirements otherwise are no heavier than the 32-bit version. Even if you stick with 2GB, you should still see good performance if you don’t run a large number of simultaneous apps. You do, of course, need a 64-bit capable CPU, but those have been around for a few years now.

Moving to Windows 7 from XP

This is a tougher nut, because you will have to do a clean install. This may incur additional costs – for example, you may need to spring for the full retail version (or a full OEM version) of Win7 rather than the upgrade version. Of course, if you’re running XP on a much older system (more than three years old), it may be time to upgrade your hardware anyway. So use the excuse of moving to Windows 7 as a justification to upgrade your hardware as well. But if you’re running on XP just because you wanted to avoid Vista, and your hardware is fairly new, you probably won’t need to update your hardware.


Future Platform Technologies

We’re starting to see the first SATA 6gbps hard drives and motherboards capable of supporting them. If you’re running a single drive system, with a traditional 7200RPM hard, don’t be in a hurry to swap in a new motherboard just because you want faster hard drive performance. You almost certainly won’t see any visible performance increase.

Seagate's Barracuda XT 2TB is the first SATA 6G HD to hit the HH lab

We’re also starting to see a lot of hoopla about USB 3.0 devices. Discrete USB 3.0 controller chips are appearing as well. I wouldn’t recommend buying a new motherboard just to get an onboard USB 3.0 controller, but it may be worth grabbing a PCI Express card with a controller chip – but only do that if you have a specific need.

My general philosophy when it comes to improvements in platform technologies is to wait until the new chipsets arrive, so support will be native to the core logic. But there are times when a specific application may call for an incremental upgrade. The good news is that most of us have a number of extra PCI Express slots, so you can always drop in a card if you really need the new tech.


Final Note
As you can see, while the upgrade landscape is a little more complex now than ever before, applying a few rules of thumb will result in a system that offers capacity for future growth and upgrades. That, in turn, allows you to extend your investment. While the hardware companies would love for us to build a new system every six months, for most of us, that's just not going to happen. So keeping one eye on the future means you'll maximize your system's longevity and keep your wallet much happier.

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