Case In Point: Navigating The Upgrade Minefield

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.


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