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.

25 thoughts on “The Path to My Next System

  1. Bariwyn

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

    Honestly, my PS is about 600w, but it has a high amp rating. When I went to upgrade from my 450w, thinking a higher wattage would be the best, I was told by one of the guys that this wasn’t the case. He said that most gpu’s fail because of a lack of amp support from the power supply. He suggest I get a 550 or 650 watt for my computer with a higher amp rating. That’s what I’ve done and I’ve had no issues.

    I’m not running the best computer, but it’s not the worst either (i think). I have an nvidia 9800 gpu, 4gigs ram, and a dual core processor (not overclocked). My Power supply is 550 or 650 watts (can’t remember which), but it’s rated up to 25 amps.

    Sorry if you knew this already.

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  2. That English Editing Chap...

    I would always build from scratch, you can get what you want, at a decent price and it gives you control. I also think its a good learning experience, I put liquid cooling in my last scratch build, and it taught me a lot… (in a good way!)

    In terms of vendors, in the UK I use Dabs.co.uk – Very good pricing, good customer service et al. Not sure if they have a US arm, but in any case, you could go by a cashback site (equivalent to Quidco in the UK) that could drop your prices by another 5%.

    A scratch build also gives you a couple of other advantages:

    1. You can salvage a few bits and pieces from your current rig (e.g. DVD player, Memory) if you’re confident that it all works…

    2. 64 Bit system – You can install W7 64 bit and enjoy greater memory capacity etc.

    Whatever your choice, good luck!

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  3. Rieger

    I have built 3 systems for buddies in the last year or so almost exactly like what you have mentioned Wilhelm. I watched three or four computer parts websites and purchased the parts as they went on sale. I had two come in at $1300 and one in at $1000. I think that really is your best option and gives you the most choice.

    As for your CPU heat sink I have had fantastic luck with Zalman fans in general. Probably put them in 6 or 8 systems over the years and have never had a problem. With the majority of the Zalman fans though, just make sure you have installed the heat sink before you install the motherboard into the case or you will be doing everything twice.

    With cases I have always like the Antec Sonata. It comes with a 500W power supply, but a REAL 500W, not like some of the cut rate power supplies that boast 800W of power only to cut out on you when you push it. I build 2 system with i7 processors and single hard drives in those cases and neither one of them have had any issues at all over the last 7 months.

    So I vote “Build it yourself” Good luck to you.

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  4. Facepalm

    Since you will probably upgrade later, I’d say go with the first option, Win7 Upgrade. This is the cheapest and could potentially get you what you want.

    If that doesn’t work you could, as you’ve pointed out, just go with the “Build your own” option and you’ll already have pieces to the puzzle.

    I’ve built probably 6 scratch systems over the years and I’ve always gotten way more for my money than going with a big box manufacturer (Dell, HP, etc.)

    Good luck!

    Like

  5. Bhagpuss

    I’m pretty confident that I could build my own system from scratch and I always consider it, but in the end I always finally decide against it. I’m sure it’s the best option, but best isn’t always best, if you know what I mean.

    Instead I spend a lot of time browsing various “build it from our list of options” websites until my head spins and I can’t think straight. I google every alternative component choice and read the reviews, which often brings up negatives I would have missed.

    Eventually I make a decision, fill out the online forms and press the button. I’ve done this four times in the last decade I think, and the same again for Mrs Bhagpuss’s machines. It’s kind of fun until it isn’t and then there’s the inevitable coda of soemthing not working when the thing finally arrives.

    Nevertheless, that’s what I’ve been doing and probably what I’ll go on doing. I always think I’ll get a system that I can upgrade as I go and keep for many years, but always when the time comes to upgrade any major component, prices have moved so much that I might as well buy a whole new rig. That’s why we now have working PCs in four rooms of the house, even though there are only two of us left living here.

    Good luck on whatever route you go.

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  6. Ska

    Go ahead and build your own and liquid cooling for atleast the CPU is a fun addition. Building your own allows you to spread the purchases over a time frame your budget can deal with also. I’m pretty much just in an endless upgrade cycle so it never seems like I have too big a purchase at once.

    I liked Thermaltake for my initial liquid cooling build. They have some good refurb and discont sale prices. http://www.thermaltakestore.com/index.html

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  7. Ben

    I just (last Thursday) built my new system with specs much like what you are listing. Total cost was ~$1600 and it was a cinch. Putting together systems has actually gotten easier than it used to be.

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  8. Mojeaux

    Wow! I’m going through exactly the same thing! Except my current system isn’t dying on me. I’ve been researching my next build and I’m with you on just about everything you chose for your next build with a few minor exceptions:

    OS: Windows 7 Professional 64-bit
    -Good choice, it’s the only way to go if you want to take advantage of all that RAM.

    Motherboard: Gigabyte X58A-UD3R
    – great board for the money! The only thing that concerned me was the spacing of the PCI slots. And if you have to skip a slot, you may cut the bandwith of the second card by half. Personally I’m going with:Asus Rampage III Formula

    CPU: i7-950
    – good choice and mine too.

    CPU Cooling:
    – I’ve done a lot of research and I’m thinking that the Noctua NH-D14 is the way to go. The self contained liquid cooling options I’ve seen haven’t bested the cooling provided by the NH-D14 by much if at all, and cost a good bit more.

    Video Card:
    – For a few bucks more I would really really really recommend the GTX 460. A pair of those out performs the GTX 480 and comes real close to beating ATI’s second best card for less money. Research the GTX 460, you won’t be sorry.

    RAM: 6GB of something
    – I’m thinking at least six, if not 8GB. Cas latency 7 or less. Corsair is a top notch company.

    Hard Drive
    – not purchasing a HDD so can’t advise.

    Optical Drive: Will scavenge from my current systems.
    – Ditto

    Power Supply: Something in the 800 watt range, just in case, unless prices are crazy.
    – I’m going with a 1000w one, since I’ll probably upgrade to a pair of GTX 480’s when the prices come down a bit.

    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.
    – the HAF 932 is a good case no doubt. I’m looking at getting the HAF X.

    good luck!

    Like

  9. Jason

    Build your own all the way. If you’re looking at i7s, I like the following build:

    MoBo: Gigabyte X58A-UD3R
    Proc: i7-970
    RAM: 3X2 or 3X4GB of pick your favorite RAM
    Graphics: nVidia GTX-460. Buy two if you can afford it.
    Case: Antec Three Hundred or Three Hundred Illusion. Skip the Illusion to save a few bucks or if you don’t like LEDs on cases.
    Power: Corsair 750W, SLI ready. You can go bigger here as well, but 750W should do it.
    CPU Cooler: I usually use the box cooler, feel free to buy something bigger and better.

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  10. We Fly Spitfires

    I voted for buying a new pre-built system. Although yes, it will be a more expensive option, if you go with a good company and get a 3 year warranty then it will last you a long time and give you peace of mind and avoid a lot of stress. Also if you’re reasonable about your selection (i.e. don’t pick 2x top range graphics cards in SLI etc) then it doesn’t have to be too pricey.

    I use a company in the UK who let you pick all of the components you want and then they build it for you and ship it out. Unfortunately I don’t know of any similar ones in the US but I’m sure there must be hundreds.

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  11. PeterD

    I became disenchanted with building my own systems a few years ago after a total system failure that I simply couldn’t figure out. After spending a fortune swapping out and returning various parts, I eventually scrapped the whole system and ebayed all the parts. Not a single purchaser complained that I sold them faulty equipment, so there was nothing wrong with the components. Two months with no computer at all.

    I used the money to buy a refurbished Dell XPS. I used that computer for 4 years with ZERO issues. The thing never crashed, never had problems running software and was really just a beautiful stress free owning experience.

    The one problem, of course, was that being a dell the upgrade path was pretty limited. After 4 years it just couldn’t keep up anymore and I had to get something else.

    Refurbs can be a good bargain but you really have to shop carefully. Sometimes the machines are priced really strangely, such that you can get a NEW version of the same computer cheaper on the main site. But if you’re willing to accept you probably won’t be able to get every single feature you want and can take the time to watch for bargains you can easily snag a computer for less than it would cost you to build it, and get warranty and technical support as well.

    I’ve priced components from places like Newegg and found that building your own isn’t much of a savings over places like Dell anymore. If you find a sale, you can probably get something NEW cheaper than you can build it.

    To those that pooh-pooh Dell as not being for serious gamers, get over it. Seriously. The premium you pay to get that sexy looking Alienware isn’t worth it. Sure the Dell isn’t cool. But I’d rather play the sexy new games without ransoming my child’s college fund, thanks.

    @We Fly Spitfires, sadly the shops like that in the U.S. (other than the big manufacturers like Dell) tend to be notoriously unreliable. Ibuypower.com is one example, and their reputation is absolutely horrible. They’re not even that cheap.

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  12. Quain

    Build your own. Buying a prefab is nice, but all it really saves you is two or three hours of headaches (which it really doesn’t, once you realize they put thirty-seven thousand crapware programs on it.)

    http://secure.newegg.com/WishList/PublicWishDetail.aspx?WishListNumber=15122766

    That’s what I bought a few months ago. Runs like a dream. You can spot in an i7 without any problems. I think you’re shooting a little high on the power supply, unless you’re planning to Crossfire/SLI or using an older generation power sucker. Not that the Windows Experience Index should be treated as gospel, but it clocks in at mid-high 7.0’s on everything but the harddrive, and that’s easy enough to swap if you want to go high-end. I don’t play juice sucking FPS games so I can’t tell you how it performs with max settings on a 64 player server, but Civ 5 runs like a dream.

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  13. P@tsh@t

    I’ve always preferred building to buying. Ultimately it’s proven more cost effective to do incremental upgrades and to define my own upgrade path when prevailing architectures change etc.

    In ten plus years of building I’ve only purchased one nice aluminum case, three powersupplies, three mobos but many CPUs, video cards, etc.

    The sting is always more bearable when it’s hundreds rather than thousands. Of course, I have to keep the peace in the house and do parallel upgrades to Mrs. Ps machine at the same time or I’d be sleeping on the virtual couch so that’s a bigger consideration for me.

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  14. Mark Raynor

    Unless you’re overclocking, I don’t think you’ll need liquid cooling, especially if you take the other suggestion I’m about to make if you build your own system.

    My current system is housed in an HAF 932 tower, and I’ll recommend it to one and all – yes, it’s big, but between the space, the fans it comes with, and other tricks such as tucking cords behind the motherboard backplate, it’s very easy to air-cool. That and a good aftermarket fan cooler (such as CoolerMaster’s own V8 [ http://www.coolermaster.com/product.php?product_id=5279 ] or Thermaltake’s SpinQ [ http://www.thermaltakeusa.com/Product.aspx?C=1148&ID=1831 ]) should be all you need insofar as cooling goes.

    Like

  15. bluelinebasher

    Normally I would just say build, but didn’t you just get a new system recently? I’d give Win 7 a shot in your case. Simpliest solution and you would probably buy it anyway if you are building a new box from scratch. I heard they are redoing the family 3-packs because they saw I just purchased my OEM version…

    However I did build my own from scratch basically since I gutted mine down, and came close to the $700-800 mark by reusing my old Antec case and 400ish power supply. Building my own let me buy in stages (agonizing, but we’re talking hard times budget here), ended up with i3-530 Clarkdale, 4gb ram and a MB for around 320 at new egg, a hd, dvddrive, os, and video card for the rest (most going to the video card) from fries. I was a little worried since I hadn’t build a box in a few years but it was easier than ever to put together. Next year will probably be more ram and a SSD, but I don’t know about the power situation, plus, I’m very happy with the system as is.

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  16. scotth

    I should probably build my own machine, but I haven’t yet.

    I bought a Falcon Northwest, their low end desk top, and I have been very happy with it. There was a minor issue with the sound card, and their customer service walked me through some trouble shooting, then called me to help me correct the wiring mistake. I recently added a second hard drive for back up, and replaced the DVD drive with a blue ray burner. It went really smooth. I would buy from them again.

    My wife bought a laptop from Doghouse. It has had video driver issues from the day she got it. Their customer service seemed more determined to convince her there was no problem than to do anything to fix it. We eventually sent the machine back, and they installed new drivers. However, it still isn’t resolved, she has to reload the driver almost every time she boots up. I would not buy from them again.

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  17. Random Poster

    My two comments would be about:

    1: The graphics card. As a couple others have mentioned you would be better off with the GT 460 as opposed to the GT 450. It outperforms the 450 by a good margin costs about 10 dollars more has excellent cooling, noise, power draw and overclocking capabilities and is just a great video card.

    2: Liquid cooling you should only worry about if you plan on overclocking your CPU as high as you can (or if you just hate fan noise). If you plan on not overclocking or going with a mild overclock (say a couple hundred Megahertz or so) a good heatsink should be more than enough.

    Like

  18. Random Poster

    Ok one more comment, is there something wrong with the case you currently have? If not you could save some money on reusing the case.

    Also if you are building your own, you can hold off on the video card you are buying until you see if you actually do need a new one. Unless of course you plan on placing your old card in another PC as an upgrade.

    Like

  19. fnord

    If you decide to build, you’ll need to buy Windows 7 anyway. Trying a clean install with Windows 7 on your current system only costs you a little time.

    I’ve heard Civ5 isn’t always playing nice with some of the nominally minimum requirements, so if you meet all the recommended requirements except for being on XP, it’s possible a Windows 7 install will fix things even without adding RAM.

    Even if your computer is nearing the end of it’s useful life, delaying a new purchase/construction will give time for prices to drop. And, of course, for you to save up.

    Like

  20. Tralmek

    I’ll be getting my EVE screenies to you soon! ;)

    I’ve faced this same dilemma since Windows 7 released. I have a video production company and really needed to upgrade form my XP 32bit installations so I could take advantage of my 4+ gigs of RAM and 64bit capable processors on all of my machines. I ended up upgrading three machines to Win 7 Ult 64 (actually wiped them and installed OEM). Additionally I bought a MacBook Pro and did bootcamp on it, also with Win 7 Ult 64.

    I now use the MBP for most of my gaming–StarCraft, EVE, City of Heroes, and Steam games on the Mac side, then LoTRO, EQ2, Star Trek Online, and other non-Mac games on the Windows side.

    Overall this has worked well for me. I’ve had intermittent blue screens on the MBP, I’ve attributed them primarily to overheating–sometimes I forget to set the fan speed to high, and I don’t have a coolpad yet. The other drawback to gaming on the MBP is that I can’t use the better graphics card while in bootcamped Windows. I’ve also had blue screens on one of my other computers under Windows 7, but I was having equal or more issues with it under XP. I’ve tracked those issues down to a faulty graphics card.

    Windows 7 has been a vast improvement for me in every way from XP. The machines all run faster and more smoothly than under XP, and address the computers’ full capabilities. Just doing the upgrade using all OEM I saved a good $6000, even buying the MBP, over replacing all of the computers with pre, or even custom-built ones.

    Like

  21. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @Random Poster – The case of my current machine is fine. I just have a strong aversion to tearing apart a working machine, even if it has problems, until I have a replacement in place.

    Like

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