Daily Archives: October 4, 2010

The Path to My Next System

Like Zubon, I too am looking at my current computer system and trying to decide where to head next.  My fun, or lack there of, with Civilization V is just in the category of “last straws” on this front.  My current system has issues and I need to do something about it.

As I see it, I have four basic choices as to how I can go about upgrading.  They are laid out below.

Upgrade Current System

If I could nail down my problems to just software, this would be the cheapest solution.  While it is a few years old, the hardware I have still has decent specs.

I wouldn’t bother putting XP back on the drive if I were going to reinstall the OS. I would go pick up an Upgrade copy of Window 7 Professional and some more RAM, back everything up, and do the full reformat install.

Unfortunately, I am not totally convinced I have a software-only issue when it comes to my current rig. Have a couple of video cards die, have the system fail to reboot a couple of times (after the bios but before Windows), and see some red lights blinking every so often on the motherboard status readout and you begin to wonder if there isn’t flawed hardware at work.

I could hedge my bets by getting the full version of Windows 7 Professional, which I could then move to another machine, but my RAM investment would be totally wasted.

Maybe $300 total if I am lavish with my RAM purchase. $500 if I get the full, stand alone install of Win7.

Pros: Least expensive choice, know exactly what to buy, would be done in a day.

Cons: Strong suspicion that this will not fix the problem, leaving me to pursue one of the other choices instead.

Buy a New Windows System

This is how I have upgraded systems the last couple of rounds. You go online to your favorite purveyor of gaming oriented PCs, select what you want from a series of drop downs, given them your credit card number and in anywhere from 7-45 days, a new rig shows up on your doorstep.

The advantage is simplicity. A new machine shows up, you unplug the old one, plug in the new one, load your software, and off you go.

The problem is that somebody who is mildly informed as to what is what in the world of computer performance, it can be a frustrating experience making a decisions.

First there is the temptation to spend just a “few dollars more” on every component, which can quickly explode your budget. A faster CPU, a bigger hard drive, a better video card, and then a stronger power supply to supply the juice and suddenly you’re spending a fortune.

Then there is the vendor preferences. You try to configure the same system at a few sites so you can compare prices. Only site A doesn’t have the video card you really want. Site B has it, but their hard drive options are completely different. And site C has the video card, and the hard drive choices are better (although still different from A and B), but they seem to be totally gouging on the price of RAM and why did they choose THAT motherboard?

So you can end up getting past the problem you expect, an eye for parts that your wallet cannot support, only to have to compromise on things that were within your budget, but which you couldn’t get because the vendor in question didn’t offer it.

Likely will end up being $2,000 when all is said and done.

Pros: Fresh, new computer smell. As close to a plug and play experience as you’ll likely get

Cons: Cost, especially if you cannot keep your desires under control, and compromise, since I have yet to find a vendor that offers exactly what I want. Oh, and it always takes longer to get the system to you than you think and the damn case is always bigger than you think it is going to be.

Buy a New iMac

We like Apple at my house and in my family in general. More than one relative of mine hinted in a not-so-subtle way that I should get a job at Apple when I was laid off. I have had some sort of computer or device from Apple running regularly at home since 1983 and, until the great Mac crash of ’96, worked on Macintosh products. So there is an affinity in place already.

We have an iMac already, an older Intel model, that is the “public” computer in our home, out in the family room. This is what my daughter gets to use. If has worked well and has survived the perils of a young child who doesn’t always wash off her hands before she gets to the keyboard.

And there is much to recommend the current generation. I can get an Intel i7 processor along with the 27″ LCD display, plenty of RAM, all with a minimum of cords and clutter. And the Mac even runs most of the software I want to use.

Unfortunately, it won’t run everything. Lord of the Rings Online is a good example. So there would have to be some sort of method of running Windows in order to run all the software I want. That means installing another OS or finding some form of emulation.

There are several choices. There is BootCamp, Parallels, VMWare Fusion, CodeWeavers CrossOver Mac, and probably a couple others I’ve missed. But most of these tend to be more focused on non-gaming software. When I read, for example, that Parallels 6 is up to 40% faster in 3D graphics over the previous version, I am left wondering how bad it was before and is a 40% boost enough. It could still suck now.

Once we get Windows emulation involved, hard to see how this works out for much less than $3,000, list price.

Pros: We like Macs. Hardware simplicity. Big new monitor as part of the package. Dual OS fun. Friends at Apple who can get me an employee discount.

Cons: Still have to run Windows. Hardware simplicity because you get no choices. Hope you like that hardware, because there are no upgrades. Still burns a hole in the budget even with that standard 15% employee discount. And have you touched the back of an iMac after a couple hours of WoW? I wonder about cooling.

Build a New System

You can exactly what you want!

But first you have to figure out exactly what you want.

It has been a while since I last built a system and there are aspects to the whole process that have changed. Back in the day, cooling for a CPU would be an itty, bitty (by today’s standards) heatsink. Sort of a square hedgehog. Now though. Now they look like altars to strange technological gods. They bristle and are menacing, dwarfing the chips they cool, their fans buzzing with evil designs. And then there is liquid cooling, once seeming insane overkill, now offered not only in kits but by mainstream PC vendors as part of their configurations.

You can tell that I am worried about cooling, can’t you?

Still, I was a repair tech at one point in my career. There was a brief point in time where I had probably installed more post-assembly PowerBook 500 modems than anybody else in the world. I have the tools. I can do this.

I just have to fill in the blanks for the major parts.

Here is what I have so far:

OS: Windows 7 Professional 64-bit – I actually need some of the things that come with Professional.  On the other hands, I won’t pay the $10 more for Ultimate because there isn’t anything it adds that I care about.

Motherboard: Gigabyte X58A-UD3R – Supports 9xx series Intel i7 chips, USB 3.0, 6.0GB/s SATA, and got high marks over at Firing Squad.

CPU: If I’m going to do this, I’m getting a CPU that is a serious upgrade.  I am leaning towards the Intel Core i7-930 or i7-950 – Never been a fan of AMD.  The i7-860 runs faster than either of those in Turbo mode, but you cannot count on that.  Meanwhile the price spread between all three of these CPUs is about $30, depending on where you shop.

CPU Cooling:  Here is where I need to do some research.  Do I go for the spiked fortress of aluminum with a fan in the middle, or do I willingly put a container of liquid in the middle of my new computer.  Heat is death to electronics, so I must choose wisely here.

Video Card: Some variation of the nVidia GTS 450 – Low power, low heat, low price, and all my high end video cards have died tragic deaths. Plus I can go SLI with that motherboard if I really need more GPU power.

RAM: 6GB of something. Maybe 12. Depends on pricing.  You have to get it in sets of 3 DIMMs for optimum performance with the 9xx i7 chips.

Hard Drive: 1TB 6.0GB SATA would be ideal I suppose, but they are kind of rare on the ground and pricey.  I am tempted to get a smaller 6.0GB/s drive just for the OS and the page file. We’ll see.  No brands in mind really.  But hard drives have been something of a commodity for a while now.

Optical Drive: Will scavenge from my current systems. I have my last two sitting around the house, which gives me 4 drives to choose from.

Power Supply: Something in the 800 watt range, just in case, unless prices are crazy.

Case: The toughest choice of all, really. You need to balance cooling, quiet, ergonomics, and size.  And the field of choices is huge.  A good friend of mine just went for the Cooler Master HAF 932, which certainly has a lot going for it.  But it is a big ‘un.

Now the big benefit, aside from getting exactly the parts I want is that the total price will be less, since I will be doing all the work.  Of course, that will mean first, figuring out what I want in all categories, then spending time doing price comparisons and such.

And then there is the anxiety that haunted me back when Potshot and I rebuilt the engine in my ’74 Plymouth Duster:  When I put this all together, will it actually work?

Pros: You can get exactly what you want.  Costs less than buying a pre-configured system.  No shovelware on the drive.

Cons: Decisions, decisions.  Price shopping like crazy.  Wondering if I made the right decision.  Hoping it all works together.

Making the Choice

So those are my basic, likely choices.  I could throw some unlikely ones like, say, going to a Linus desktop configuration or upgrading to Vista, but neither of those are going to happen.  So which route would you go?

Comments are welcome, unless you want to start a “Mac vs. Windows” debate.  Good experiences with particular computer components are especially welcome.