Opinion Piece

Time To Upgrade The ‘Ol PC

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Back in March of 2013 I put together my first gaming PC in a while, working with a budget so tight that the elite community of gamers would giggle like school girls as they caressed their GTX Titans. Still, tight budget or not it has done rather well over the past year, giving me access to plenty of awesome games along the way, but about a month ago the sudden urge to do some upgrades took hold of me. This highlights one of the great things about a PC: if you’ve got some spare cash then you can upgrade the machine to further enhance your experience. I didn’t need to do it, because as budget as my previous build was it could have kept playing games for a little while to come, but I did it because it was something I wanted, a treat to myself. It’s also handy for this website, as it means I can stay on top of the PC titles, at least for the time being.

Naturally I didn’t start from scratch: the motherboard, an Asus M5A97 LE R2.0, was still going strong and has impressed with its features given its low price point. The power supply, case and original hard-drive didn’t have any major problems, either. Not using them would simply have been a waste of solid components, and would have of course meant that I was actually building a whole new system, a far more expensive endevour than just chucking a few upgrades in there.

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The first thing on the shopping list was a new processor, and given the motherboard that meant sticking with AMD, which was fine by me as they still offer the better money to performance ratio, though if you can afford it Intel still have the more powerful gaming CPUs. After some searching I eventually settled on replacing my old but incredibly awesome Phenom x965 Black Edition with the FX-8350 Black Edition, a 4Ghz processor packing eight cores in total. Despite its age, the Phenom has been truly superb to me over the past year and a half, and truthfully was still coping very well with modern games since many titles still don’t take full advantage of quad-core processors. As for the FX-8350, it’s a bit power hungry and runs quite hot, but it’s a beast that can handle games very well, and if I do over decide to create more videos then the eight cores will come in handy for rendering. More than anything, though, it’s a purchase for the future, as more games are listing the FX series as a recommended processor, and with the eight core architecture of the Xbox One and PS4 we may start to see games that can fully utilise the CPU.

If there was one thing I disliked about the Phenom it was that the stock cooler and fan were incredibly noisy under load, making the PC sound like a jet getting ready to take-off. This was problematic as I do a lot of late-night gaming, and when the rest of the house is silent the vast noise of the PC carries more. Even with a set of headphones on, it was still pretty loud. Without earphones it was deafening. After a quick bit of research I discovered that the stock system for the FX-8350 was either the same or even louder, and didn’t keep the CPU very cool, either. And so I went in search of an after-market cooler. However, I did have a couple of stipulations: the first being that I didn’t fancy attempting to remove the entire motherboard, so easy installation inside the case was a must. Second I needed a cooler that didn’t require a backplate to hold it in place because my cheap PC case doesn’t have access to the rear of the motherboard. Above all my main goal was to find a cooler that would simply be much quieter than AMDs stock offering. I was willing to accept little to no decrease in temprature over the standard setup, provided the cooler would create a much quieter computer. Eventually I settled on the Cooler Master TX3 Evo, a step down from the massively popular Cooler Master Hyper 212. Thus far the tempratures have not been superb, but that was less important to me than the noise, and to my delight the Evo is quieter at full tilt than my Phenom was at idle.

To further help the tempratures and noise, though, I am in the middle of refitting the basic Raidmax fans that came with the case. The rear 120mm exhaust is being replaced by a Noctua, while the front 80mm is being swapped out for a 120mm Corsair fan which should bring a lot more air through the system. The case did originally come with an 80mm side panel fan, but the size of the Cooler Master TX3 Evo meant that the fan had to be removed. However, for the sake of extra cooling I’ve since strapped a 80mm Noctua Redux to the outside of the case, using soft washers on the inside to allow me to tighten the screws without cracking the plastic and to reduce potential vibration. With any luck these better quality fans should drop temperatures by another degree or two, plus make the machine a tad quieter overall.

Speaking of the case, my biggest regret is probably not spending a bit more on a case when initially piecing together my computer. At the time I opted for a cheap as chips Raidmax Tornado, choosing to place the extra money in other areas due to the already tight budget. When you get down to it, the Tornad0 suffices for the money paid, but it lacks any decent cable management and the airflow is pretty bad. It’s also awkward to work in due to its size, which is made even worse by the aforementioned lack of cable management. The designers simply didn’t allow any space behind the motherboard plate for cables to be tidied away, and thus I have them all bundled away up on the top drive slots. In comparison to the system I recently built for a friend, where the cables are all neatly tidied away, my own machine is a shambles. Of course I could simply fork out some more cash and purchase a new case, but at the moment dragging out all the components and moving them over to a new case is something I’m unwilling to do. For now I’ll tick along with the Tornado, but to anyone considering building a computer, put aside a bit of cash for a decent case. You’ll thank me later.

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Following the CPU the next upgrade was the graphics card. Last year AMD very kindly agreed to supply me with an HD 7790, and in defense of the 7790 it still performs well. Indeed, if you’re on a tight budget it can be gotten quiet cheaply these days. Still, this time around I went with the AMD R9 270, which sits beautifully as mid-range card that offers brilliant performace for the money. It’s a damn fine choice for 1080p gaming without shattering your bank account. In fact, this is the third build I’ve used it in, and I remain pleased with the results it provides. Running in tandem with the FX-8350 the computer is handling games excellently at medium-highest settings, depending on the title itself, naturally. I’ve also overclocked the R9 270 so that it now outperforms the R9 270x, granting me some extra frames per second.

Sadly I can’t overclock the processor. This is partially because the Evo cooler isn’t good enough with this particuilar CPU to handle even a small overclock without tempratures reaching worrying heights, although it must be said the cooler is geared more towards small processors that output less heat. The biggest reason, though, is that I’m still using a Corsair 500w power supply, and the consumption of these new parts is pretty close to the limit of what the PSU can handle. Even a small overclock could potentially push it too far.

I also threw another 4GB of Corsair Vengeance ram into the system, bumping up the total to 8GB, which is what I’d recommend anyone buying or building a system aim for these days as it’s the sweet spot unless you’re planning on doing serious video editing work, in which case it may be worth investing in 16GB. Over the past year I’ve gotten away with 4GB, but the upgrade was a no-brainer at this point.

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Finally, I added a terabyte of storage in the form of a Western Digital Caviar Black hard-drive, the sole purpose of which is to store games and my Asset Library, which is a vast series of folders containing all the images and such that I use for reviews and news. Generally speaking I would recommend most people don’t pay the extra cash for the Caviar Black since the extra performance it offers over the more common Caviar Blue isn’t worth the higher price, but if you really want to eek out that tiny bit of speed then it’s a lovely hard-drive that also packs a hefty warranty of five years. In my case I bought the Black version because it had a small discount, bringing the price down to the that of the Blue. My initial 500GB drive is still used for Windows and other programs, but down the line an upgrade to an SSD is something I would love to do, as it’s probably the most noticable performance upgrade you can get.

So there we have it, a newly upgraded system. It’s certainly not a powerhouse like some people out there are running, but what I like about the mix of CPU and graphics card is that they represent something affordable and realistic, a combination that your average gamer might be aiming to get. Youtubers streaming gameplay using behemoth setups is always fun, but it can also provide unrealistic views of performance. Sure, the latest game may run smoothly on something using two Titan Cards and an i7 CPU, but on the average person’s computer at home we may discover that poor optimisation makes it hard to run on common hardware and that the Youtuber’s setup was pushing through these problems with raw grunt.

And do you know what I chose to play first on this upgraded machine? Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Seriously. It’s getting 120FPS, which is stupid given my screen doesn’t go past 60Hz, thereby making the extra 60fps redundant. But hey, after that I ramped Far Cry 3 to ultra and went and started at the view for a while, until some of the local wildlife decided that may legs would make wonderful chew-toys, at which point I promptly set fire to everything and happily watched the beauty of a burning tropical paradise. Good times.

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