The best PC upgrades for gamers
27th Jul 2011 | 10:51
Top graphics cards, processors and more
Best PC upgrades: AMD base rig
There are certain phrases that are irrelevant if not completely meaningless to a PC gamer. Phrases like 'press start to continue' and 'I don't care about frame rates' are just two.
The most meaningless to us, though, is the oft-heard phrase 'if it ain't broke don't fix it.' Frankly, we can't help ourselves, but thanks to the unique way in which the PC has evolved we can get elbow-deep in printed circuit boards and really make a difference to our favourite games.
The age-old bastion of PC gaming has been the ability to replace key components of your machine as and when required to gain extra frame rates in the latest games. For a long time it was all about the CPU itself, and to a lesser extent the amount of RAM available, but with the advent of 3D gaming and the graphics accelerator card, the GPU has become just as vital to a smooth-running gaming rig.
Beating the bottleneck
But all along it's been about identifying bottlenecks in your system in order to pursue that Holy Grail of PC-dom: the balanced PC. Only a well-balanced machine will give you the full use of every component in your rig, and when you've spent £300 on a new graphics card you don't want to find out your CPU is making it work at only 50 per cent of its potential.
And that's why we're here, to stop you making impulsive purchases without thinking through the consequences.
We've picked two machines, representing rigs from both Intel and AMD camps that would've been fairly decent gaming PCs a couple of years ago, and we've tested a whole host of new components in each to discover the best PC upgrades.
There's a couple of caveats, though - aren't there always? The cheapest upgrade for any PC right now is to throw more RAM at it. After all, for £50 you can pick up 4GB of fast DDR3. But if you're after gaming performance enhancements anything above 2GB really isn't going to deliver anything in terms of frame rates.
General Windows performance will feel better, however, but only then if you're running a 64-bit operating system. And speaking of 64-bit operating systems, a rig from a couple of years ago wouldn't have come with Windows 7, oh no, you'd have been stuck with the mark of Vista, and probably the 32-bit version too.
Now most of us have made the move over to Windows 7 64-bit, according to the latest Steam Hardware Survey 41 per cent of us are running Win7 64-bit, with 22 per cent still operating in the dark ages of XP. Only 13 per cent are stuck in the Vista doldrums, so we're going to assume the OS upgrade has been made already.
So with that boring software shizzle out of the way, what do we do about getting some new hardware jammed into the confines of our beautiful gaming PCs?
AMD base rig
Motherboard: Asus M4A78T-E
CPU: AMD Athlon II X2 550 Black Edition
RAM: 2GB DDR3
Graphics: Nvidia GeForce 8800GTS
We've got three upgrade options on offer for this here AMD rig. Thanks to its AM3 pedigree the upgrade path is laid out before us like the yellow-brick road, meaning we can just drop in any modern AMD processor we happen to fancy.
The starting point is the dual-core Phenom II X2 550 BE, then we can see what another couple of CPU cores gives us with the Athlon II X4 645 quad. Moving ever upwards there's the similarly quad-core, but faster and L3 cache-heavy Phenom II X4 965 BE, followed closely by the hex-core Phenom II X6 1090T BE.
So we've got a wide range of processors on offer, but you can see that by purely upgrading the CPU itself you are seriously limited by the power on offer with the Nvidia 8800GTS. In its day it was an effective mid-range DirectX 10 card, now it's stopping any upgrade in its tracks.
Only the processor-intensive World in Conflict shows any improvement going all the way up to top chips, and only then by a max 3fps. Weak, huh? But that's just gaming. If you load up any processor specific benchmarks, such as the 3D rendering Cinebench or video encoding x264, you can see how much the raw computational performance of the upgraded CPUs increases.
As you'd expect the Phenom II X6 is around three times faster than the lowly dualie in the base AMD system with the 8800GTS. This highlights just how hobbled the CPU is in terms of gaming performance by a weak graphics card. You can see how wasted that makes the cash you'll spend on a CPU upgrade alone.
DX10 gaming: Just Cause 2
The news is a little better when it comes to a simple graphics card update, and that's thanks to the fairly decent gaming prowess of the wee Phenom II X2 550 BE. It's by no means an excellent gamer's CPU, but it's still got enough about it in terms of keeping the speedier graphics cards filled with a fair few frames.
We've chosen four graphics card upgrades: the sub-£100 budget choice in the HD 5770, the sub-£150 GTX 460, the £220 mid-range hero HD 6950 and the wallet-paining £300 GTX 570.
The biggest jump in performance comes in the form of the initial budget-conscious upgrade. The XFX HD 5770 pairs up brilliantly with the Phenom II X2 - both AMD parts incidentally - instantly giving playable frame rates at the 22-inch native resolution of 1,680 x 1,050. It's a huge jump in performance, and for less than £100 you've instantly got a far more relevant games machine.
You get a similar jump in performance swapping in the other AMD card, the Sapphire Radeon HD 6950.
The performance of the two Nvidia cards shows how reliant those cards are on powerful CPUs to keep them fed. Generally, the Zotac GTX 460 gives a few extra frames over the HD 5770 but not enough to justify the extra £60 for the pleasure, and when it comes to the hugely expensive Zotac GTX 570 you can see just how limited you are by the weaker CPU. So, time to balance the graphics card and your processor then, huh?
DX10 gaming: World in Conflict
The AMD upgrade
You've got to love AMD. It's the little guy compared with Intel's monster corporation. Don't get us wrong: it's no bedroom-office outfit, but it operates on a shoestring compared to Intel's huge R&D budget.
It's this reason we've still seeing essentially the same CPU cores that were introduced with the Hammer architecture in 2003, which is why the sockets have hardly changed. A couple of years ago AMD introduced the AM3 socket with DDR3 support and since then we've seen slightly new iterations of motherboards, with new Southbridge architecture, but still most AM3 motherboards will accept AMD's entire range of AM3 CPUs.
Importantly, that runs right up to the finest on offer: the Phenom II X6 hex-core range, with it's latest Thuban cores.
More frames please
Now we've seen just how little it can mean in gaming performance terms if you just upgrade the CPU on its own. If you're into your 3D rendering or video encode all hours of every day then upgrading the CPU on its own will certainly make a hell of a difference, but we're gamers and we want extra frame rates for the upgrade cash we're spending.
On the graphics side once more it's all about AMD. Drop an £82 HD 5770 into the mix and all of a sudden you've got a rig that's once more capable of giving you a decent gaming experience. Even a significantly more expensive HD 6950 plays nice with the dual-core Phenom II.
The Nvidia cards on the other hand prove just how desperate they are for a serious CPU partner. The Athlon II X4 645 does a good job of trying to give them the power they crave. Thanks to the four cores on offer the GTX 460 suddenly looks like the card we know and love, though again the CPU starts to limit the graphics cards further up the food chain.
Indeed, with World in Conflict there's little performance difference between the GTX 460, HD 6950 or the GTX 570.
In terms of a good budget pairing then, the GTX 460 and Athlon II X4 645 make for a winning combination. For a combined cost of £195 you've got a rig capable of topping 30fps across the board with 4x anti-aliasing thrown in for good measure in most modern games.
The Phenom X4 and X6 CPUs, however, represent the pinnacle of the AMD upgrade mountain and are processors with serious gaming grunt, putting clear water between themselves and the cheaper processing competition. In terms of raw computational grunt the Phenom II X6 is almost on par with the superlative Core i5 2500K, though in the gaming world those extra two cores make little difference compared with the quad-core Phenom II X4.
It's interesting, though, just how poorly the GTX 570 fares with AMD processors. It's only the notoriously Nvidia-centric DiRT2 benchmark that gives the most expensive card in our test the lead, though admittedly by a clear margin.
In the other tests the £320-odd Phenom II X4 965 and HD 6950 pairing is tops. Though for another £40 extra on top of the price of the quad-core Phenom II X4, there are six cores on offer for those who like to dabble in a little productivity too.
DX11 gaming DiRT 2
Final analysis: Finding the balance
Best PC upgrades: Intel base rig
Intel base rig
Motherboard: MSI P45 Platinum
CPU: Core 2 Quad Q6600
RAM: 2GB DDR2
Graphics: Nvidia GeForce 8800GTS
With the lack of any modern CPU upgrade path for the LGA 775 socket motherboards it's going to have to be a full platform upgrade to bring your old rig into the modern PC era. Of course, there is always eBay, with its lure of cheaper, second-hand components, but you're still going to be spending nearly £100 on an improved LGA 775 Core 2 Quad.
Even if you ignore the possibility of failing silicon in older, maybe worn-out CPUs, there's also the fact you're not getting a whole lot extra performance out of that older architecture anyways. A 3GHz+ Core 2 Quad is still not going to get the most out of either a HD 6950 or GTX 570.
So we opted to bring the Intel system bang up to date with a Sandy Bridge refit; pairing the superlative Core i5 2500K CPU with Asus's simple, but oh-so-effective P8P67 Pro. At just over £300 for the pair, and the unfortunate necessity of 4GB of DDR3 RAM; it's a pricey upgrade.
In terms of raw processing power, though, the i5 is twice as powerful as the ageing Q6600. It is only a quad-core design, with no HyperThreading, but the new architecture does run ring-buses around the older Kentsfield layout.
Despite the power of the 2500K, that 8800GTS is keeping it bottlenecked in gaming terms. Just as with the AMD rig then we have hit an impasse. You can't just upgrade one side of the PC, even if that side does incorporate a full platform upgrade, and expect to be hitting the frames per second we all deserve.
DX10 gaming: Just Cause 2
Like the AMD machine, in terms of a straight gaming frame rate upgrade, dropping in a brand new graphics card will instantly net you a fairly significant boost in performance. It's clear that on both the Intel and AMD side of things the 8800GTS is simply not powerful enough.
And again with the base machine staying unchanged apart from the graphics refit, it's the lowly, £82 XFX HD 5770 really takes the lead in instant gratification terms.
World in Conflict gives the most serious change with framerates going up by nigh-on 200%. That Core 2 Quad Q6600 was being massively bottlenecked by the 8800GTS.
But there the good news ends for this old system, and especially that classic ol' quad-core CPU. The processor simply doesn't have enough left in the tank to provide enough performance to keep any speedier GPUs fed properly. Only in the rather GPU-centric DiRT 2 does the framerate really go up any further, with the other three GPUs held back by the Intel processor.
The Nvidia cards here demonstrate just what a good pairing they make with the Intel platform. The GTX 460 especially looks like a bargain, performing almost as well as the HD 6950 in Just Cause 2 and DiRT 2. If you wanted a stop gap card, the GTX 460 would make the platform upgrade a little cheaper, and ready for a second in SLI.
DX10 gaming: World in Conflict
The Intel upgrade
As the performance leader in processor terms Intel hasn't needed to provide as much of a consistent upgrade path as its rival AMD. After all, when your new architecture is so much better than the previous generation, as with the LGA 775 and LGA 1156/1155, the argument for a full platform upgrade holds more weight.
But it does make things more expensive for the loyal Intel upgrader, generally doubling, at least, the price of a similar upgrade on an AMD platform. As we've explained there's really nowhere for you to go in terms of CPU upgrade on the LGA 775 socket, and that Q6600 isn't going to hold any sway if you want to drop in either a HD 6950 or GTX 570 for some serious gaming grunt.
So where next? You might think that avoiding the latest generation of Sandy Bridge chips for the LGA 1156 Lynnfield processors might give you similar performance for a fraction of the upgrade cost, but you're still going to be looking at a whole new motherboard and CPU combo.
The only place you're saving money down that route is on the motherboard. P55 boards are reasonably inexpensive now, around the £100 mark, but the gamer's CPU of last year, the Core i5 760 is the same price as the far superior Sandy Bridge stunner. OK, you may be saving an extra £20 on a board but that's not a huge saving and the performance upgrade is significant.
So with the money spent and the Sandy Bridge platform all set up and raring to game, what do we do about graphics cards?
Well, now we've gotten that GPU-hobbling Q6600 out of the way we can now look at the Nvidia side of the graphics divide. When you put the top AMD CPU in the test up against the 2500K across the four GPU upgrades, it's immediately evident how weak the Nvidia cards are on the AMD side compared with the full potential unlocked by the Intel CPU. Even the GTX 460 performs far better on the i5.
There is now clear water between the HD 6950 and the more expensive GTX 570. The raw power of the 2500K means that there is absolutely no CPU bottleneck anywhere along the line, meaning that for every penny spent on a graphics card you know you are getting the absolute maximum performance you can out of it.
That said, as a full upgrade package, the platform purchase combined with a GTX 570 would make for around £600 of upgrade cash. Providing you've already got a decent PSU, chassis and are already running Win7 64, then that's not a bad price for essentially a brand new, super-fast, gaming PC.
If you're looking for a cheap option this isn't it. We'd generally say that £500 is a good limit to put on the cost of an upgrade before you start looking around at pre-built rigs. With that in mind purchasing a HD 6950 instead of the Nvidia card is a sensible way to go. They're almost £100 cheaper than the GTX 570, and can come with some serious untapped potential in terms of both overclocking and BIOS flashing.
The Intel side of the upgrade world is definitely the expensive side then, but it does have the edge in serious performance terms, if not quite in affordability.
DX11 gaming: DiRT 2
Final analysis: perfect partners
AMD component reviews
Asus M4A89GTD Pro USB3 - £103
AMD has to be the current darling of the modern day upgrader. If you're sitting on any AMD socket AM3 motherboard, with all the DDR3 goodness that entails, then you've got an upgrade path in front of you that stretches almost all the way up to the fastest CPUs AMD has on the market.
Of course, that's all likely to change with the eventual release of the oft-mentioned but rarely-seen Bulldozer CPUs. Like the upcoming desktop-based Llano chips (seriously, we challenge you to say that codename without sounding like Lloyd Grossman) both these chips will require new motherboards and new sockets.
That said at the moment you can still drop a six-core Phenom II X6 into most existing AM3 motherboards. And that's quite a healthy enough chunk of processing power for most users.
AMD Athlon II X4 645 - £75
When you're talking about a CPU upgrade, going from two to four cores seems like the way to go, but on the AMD side do you have to go for the more expensive Phenom II X4 CPUs or can we, as gamers, make do with the far cheaper Athlon II X4 brand?
Well, for £75 it's tough to argue against any quad-core CPU running at 3.1GHz. There are cheaper sub-3GHz Athlon II X4 CPUs on offer, and proper, high-performance quads from AMD are running just over the £100 mark. There are though significant savings on offer for the prudent CPU upgrader with the Athlon II X4 645.
AMD Phenom II X4 965 BE - £103
The Phenom II range is looking rather long in the tooth now, and we're really hanging out for some sort of architectural update to its product line to bring in some much needed competition with Intel. All we are seeing with AMD is constant respins of the same tired quad-core Phenom II X4 chips with slight incremental increases in clockspeeds.
It has just released a new Phenom II X4 980 (definitely not to be confused with Intel's own 980 CPU…) with no technical enhancements bar a higher clockspeed of 3.7GHz. Now admittedly that is rather high for an AMD chip, but there's no overclocking headroom left in there and it's coming out at the same price as a 3.2GHz Phenom II X6.
Two extra cores for the same price? Now I'm no 3D renderer, but even I would rather have the extra two computational cores. Especially with new games finally taking advantage of multicore technology, such as The Witcher 2 and Brink.
AMD Phenom II X6 1090T BE - £139
The Thuban-powered hex-core Phenom II X6 processors currently represent the pinnacle of what AMD can produce in terms of CPU excellence. And they're definitely not bad chips. This Black Edition (read: unlocked multiplier) is yours for under £140, will chew through computational tasks and has more than enough grunt for gaming.
Despite the fact it is still rocking the same cores AMD has been putting out for years, Thuban still represents the finest CPU design AMD has created in a long time. They may well be superceded soon by the Bulldozer processors, but the fact that with a simple BIOS flash, you can drop these six-core CPUs into most AM3 boards of the last few years shows up one hell of an upgrade path.
As well as the fact it's got an extra couple of cores over the Phenom II X4 965, and runs the same 45nm design, AMD has still managed to put the chip together with the same 125W power draw needed to get the CPU going. Considering it's hitting 3.2GHz that's some impressive engineering.
Intel component reviews
Asus P8P67 Pro - £136
LGA 1155 Motherboard
As we've seen there's really nowhere to go for an LGA 775 platform in terms of CPU or motherboard upgrades; it's all about a whole platform refit.
Sticking with the Intel setup, there's only one place to go that makes any real financial sense and that's the awesome power of Intel's Sandy Bridge platform. This month may have seen the introduction of a new chipset in the form of the new Z68 motherboards, but in terms of price and performance the P67 will give you pretty much all you need for a straight gaming machine.
The extra niceties of the Z68, such as the Smart Response Technology and the Lucid Virtu software are all well and good for the top-end enthusiasts, or the ecologically minded folk wanting to calm their power-hungry GPUs, but for the gaming upgrader these extras are just pure luxuries.
All you really want is something that will make your new Sandy Bridge processor shine and that's something Asus's P8P67-Pro does with aplomb. It may not have the specific overclocking chops of something like its RoG brethren, but it's still got enough about it to make those K-series chips give a little more performance.
Intel Core i5 2500K - £156
LGA 1155 Processor
The gaming processor du jour is quite simply this: the Intel Core i5 2500K. There is no other CPU that can come close to both its gaming prowess and raw number-crunching power for the money. AMD can squeeze six cores into this price point, but in pure gaming terms the 2500K's four cores knock Thuban out of the ballpark.
For all-round performance its big brother, the Core i7 2600K, is the top dog in Sandy Bridge land, but its eight threads of processing power are a little redundant when it comes to actual gaming. As advanced as modern titles are, there are still very few, The Witcher 2 and Football Manager 2011 aside, that actually take proper advantage of multithreaded processors.
Indeed, head crayon-wielder Paul has recently taken to disabling the HyperThreading of his Bloomfield Core i7 920 when it comes to gaming. He's noticed a not inconsiderable rise in frame rates from cutting out the extra threads. The Core i5 2500K's straight quad-core sensibilities then are all that's required for the average gamer.
Graphics card reviews
XFX Radeon HD 5770 - £82
AMD budget graphics
The Radeon HD 5770 from AMD is getting a little elderly now. Released in late 2009 you'd be forgiven for thinking it a little irrelevant in these days of £600 multi-GPU graphics and HD 6xxx series GPUs flooding the market.
But there's still a place for this plucky ol' card - it's not quite soiling its plastic pants in a dusty corner of an old GPU's home just yet. Like the impressive HD 4850 before it, this always bargainous card has seemingly got better and better with age, like fine vinegar.
Now it's dropped well below the £100 mark it's a fantastic low-end upgrade that will make a significant difference to the gaming prowess of older rigs without making a huge impact on your bank balance.
The Juniper XT GPU beating inside the HD 5770 has got enough DirectX 11 goodness to cope with most of today's games at the modest end of the resolution spectrum. So running a 22-inch monitor with a native resolution of 1,680 x 1,050 will give you access to pretty much all the post-processing PC gaming can offer.
EVGA GTX 460 1GB - £139
Nvidia budget graphics
Nvidia's GTX 460 is one card that I think I've written more about over the last 12 months than any other card in existence. Ever.
Nvidia's Fermi graphical architecture showed us how DirectX 11 cards could be done, and done properly. Unfortunately, both the GTX 480 and GTX 470 were incredibly expensive cards and the GTX 480 especially was one hot, loud beast of a GPU.
So that meant that despite its lead in graphical power the still impressive Radeon HD 5850 was looking like the DX11 card of the day. Nvidia did try and bring in lower-end cards, but the short-lived GTX 465 was too weak and too expensive to make any dent in AMD's mid-range graphical superiority.
That is until the superlative GTX 460 turned up. In 1GB frame buffer flavour the GTX 460 almost overnight made the GTX 465, and even the GTX 470, seem completely obsolete. The price/ performance ratio from this little card was nothing short of astounding, harking back to the good ol' days of the 8800GT.
Sapphire HD 6950 2GB - £216
AMD upgrade graphics card
Right, we're getting into serious graphics card territory here, and inevitably that means serious money too. At over £200 that's a lot to spend on a single component if you're talking about an upgrade purchase. But it's AMD's latest, and arguably greatest, GPU technology inside that Cayman processor and it's got some heavy-weight DirectX 11 graphical architecture backing it up.
Taking the seriously GPU taxing DirectX 11 tessellation-heavy benchmark of Metro 2033 there is no NVIDIA card that can come close to managing doublefigure frame rates at the highest 2,560 x 1,600 resolution until you get up to the £400-odd GTX 580. And even that card can only manage an extra 2fps over this impressive GPU.
It was an odd one from AMD's perspective as it launched both the HD 6950 and the other Cayman-powered card, the HD 6970, at the same time. Despite the fact there was a gulf of around £80 in cost, there was very little between them in terms of raw performance.
In the overclocking stakes the HD 6970 had the edge, but that was only down to the fact AMD had artificially limited the clockspeeds on the HD 6950 so as not to allow people to push the cheaper card as far as it's slightly more powerful brethren.
Stranger still was the fact that barely a week after release there was a BIOS flash for the HD 6950 that enabled you to open the dormant parts of the Cayman GPU to essentially turn it into a HD 6970 for free.
Zotac GTX 570 - £277
Nvidia upgrade graphics card
When it comes to this upgrade group test, this is the daddy in graphics cards terms. At a chunk under £300 it's a card that will more than likely take up most of your upgrade budget, so is it worth that outlay on a single component?
Well, as we've shown the answer is not that easy. Dropping in the fastest, most expensive GPU is not always the magic pill to deliver instant frame rate bonuses for your favourite games. But this GF 110-powered graphics card is a quite excellent example of just why the Fermi architecture is so good, especially in this second generation of Nvidia's GPU.
Despite the naming conventions this is not really a direct replacement for the GTX 470 from the previous generation, it's actually got far more in common with the top-card of that line, the GTX 480.
First published in PC Format Issue 254
Liked this? Then check out 15 best graphics cards in the world today
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