The complete guide to upgrading your PC
30th Aug 2009 | 11:00
How to revitalise an ageing computer - whatever your budget
According to Microsoft, less than five per cent of end users of its operating systems open up their machines. Given that upgrading is one of the cornerstones of what has traditionally made the PC such an attractive platform, that's an amazing statistic.
Why aren't more of us extending the life of our machines with a simple upgrade? Has our throwaway society really reached the point where it's easier to replace the whole machine rather than keep it up to date by upgrading?
Perhaps people worry that their warranties will be invalidated, or think that swopping components around is more hassle than it's worth. Is Microsoft making upgrading desktop computers tougher than it should be?
That five per cent statistic surfaced in defence to Microsoft's policy on having to reactivate Windows when you change a significant number of components in your machine. Adding more memory or replacing the graphics card shouldn't incur the wrath of Redmond. But touch the motherboard or the main hard drive, and you'll probably need to reach for the phone.
Reactivating Windows is little more than an annoyance, though, so it's hardly a deterrent. Is the real reason simply that upgrading has become too complex and expensive? Over the next few pages we'll look at the many different options available, what tricks you need to bear in mind when physically upgrading and what you need to look for when considering a prospective upgrade.
We'll also look at the performance advantages of some of the key components and the trends and big releases that will change the upgrading landscape in the coming months. Upgrading your machine isn't a dark art. So while delving into the depths of your PC case might sound scary, don't be frightened. Let us take you by the hand and ease you into getting started on making some essential upgrades to your system.
Picking a motherboard isn't like picking any other component in your machine – it's less of a component and more of an assertion of a choice of platform. How you pick a motherboard is more about everything else that's going to end up in your machine rather than which features you would like on it.
Your choice of motherboard can essentially be reduced to asking which of the two CPU manufacturers you want to patronise, as Intel and AMD haven't shared a common platform since the days of the 486. So only once you've picked your processor can you decide which motherboard you want to use in your system.
MOBO CHOICES:Don't spend more than you need to – pick a motherboard that has features that you'll actually use
The latest platforms from Intel and AMD represent a fundamental change in the role of the motherboard. Both Intel's Core i7 and all of AMD's Athlon/Phenom/Phenom II CPUs now feature integrated memory controllers. At the most basic level, this means that the raw performance that used to separate the various motherboard chipsets has vanished.
Nowadays, apart from additional logic and a better selection of voltage regulators and capacitors to assist overclocking the chips, there's little to separate motherboards in terms of data throughput. If you're looking to differentiate motherboards by way of features, you're going to need a magnifying glass, as the most essential features are now included across the board.
This isn't due to a malaise among the motherboard manufacturers, but rather a shift in where the features are integrated. Indeed, it isn't the motherboard manufacturers that offer up the core competencies these days – it's the chipset manufacturers. For instance, you no longer need to go out of your way in order to find a motherboard offering RAID support, because RAID 0/1/5 is now standard on all modern chipsets.
There aren't as many companies manufacturing motherboard chipsets at the moment either – Nvidia and AMD produce chipsets for AMD's CPUs, and Intel covers its own bases. Intel's Core i7, for instance, is currently only served by one motherboard chipset: Intel's own X58. Motherboard manufacturers have managed to tweak this situation to address a number of price points, but these are generally around the £200 mark (with one exception in the form of the Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD3R, which can be picked up for £143).
The feature-sets are impressive, but the lack of a truly affordable motherboard has undoubtedly held the Core i7 back. Gigabyte managed the low price on the GA-EX58-UD3R by shaving off two memory slots, which capped the maximum memory offered by the motherboard – although realistically, four slots should be sufficient for the vast majority of users.
There are still a few differentiating features between motherboards, though, with audio support being a major selling point for most manufacturers. How many Gigabit Ethernet ports are included can also separate one board from the next, while those looking to attach FireWire peripherals will find themselves having to pay out a little more to find a motherboard that supports the technology.
Indeed, for many it may be worth buying a more affordable motherboard and a FireWire PCI card instead of one that offers support natively. A selection of premium motherboards fall under the 'enthusiast' banner, with those featuring overclocking options costing more than normal boards. A card with a back-up BIOS will set you back more, for instance, but it can save you time if you push an overclock too far.
Onboard power and reset switches can also be useful if you like to tinker inside your machine, although again these tend to be available only on the higher end boards. If you're planning on running multiple graphics cards, one of the most impressive solutions currently available is Intel's X58 chipset.
This is the first time that a single motherboard chipset has been able to support both ATI's CrossFire and Nvidia's SLI technologies. We'll cover this in more detail when looking at graphics card upgrades, but for those who like the idea of multi-GPU graphics but don't have a particular allegiance, it certainly makes Core i7 a tempting platform.
Ultimate upgrade: If you're looking to get the full gamut of features, the Gigabyte GA-EX58-Extreme ticks all the right boxes, including FireWire support, HD Audio and up to 24GB of DDR3 RAM.
Price: £231 (£201 ex VAT)
Best bang for the buck: AMD's Phenom II processors may support DDR3 memory, but the difference over DDR2 is slight, making the likes of the Asus M4A78 a wise buy for those on a budget.
Price: £60 (£52 ex VAT)
Hold on for: The release of Core i5 should produce a far more affordable (although annoyingly incompatible) platform compared to Core i7. Expect to see boards costing closer to the £100 to £150 mark.
CPUs and RAM
The launch of Intel's Core i7 has changed the CPU landscape considerably. Intel already had a lead on its old rival AMD thanks to the raw power of the Core 2 Duo. While these chips were somewhat inelegant, they delivered where it counted most: raw performance.
CORE I7:These are a good choice if you need a lot of power but you might do better waiting for Core i5
Core i7, however, has opened a gulf between the two companies and, thanks to the inclusion of a memory controller, meant that AMD's often-lauded memory throughput has finally been eclipsed. Intel has recently released new revisions of the Core i7, and the D0 stepping of the Core i7 920 has quickly become the most sought-after processors around, thanks in no small part to its overclocking potential.
However, while the chip itself isn't too expensive, you'll need the whole platform to make use of it, and that can cost a surprising amount of money when it's all added up. You'll need a socket 1366 motherboard to plug your processor into, enough memory to make sure the new processor has room to breathe (6GB has quickly become the norm) and of course the processor itself.
You're quickly looking at £500+ for such an upgrade, which is why AMD has managed to keep competitive.
Ultimate upgrade: The eight logical cores of the Core i7 represent the pinnacle of desktop computing. The new 920 D0 stepping offers stunning value for money, too, especially if you overclock it.
Price: £216 (£188 ex VAT)
Best bang for the buck: Multicore processors needn't cost the earth. The AMD Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition isn't just an affordable processor, it's also the basis of an affordable platform that can still deliver big numbers.
Price: £109 (£95 ex VAT)
Hold on for: It's not going to trouble the Core i7, but Intel's Core i5 boasts a more mainstream pricing for the whole platform that could provide a knock-out blow to AMD's current value processors. Expected this Autumn.
There are four types of RAM currently in circulation, and they're defined by the support offered by your motherboard. The newest addition to the world of memory is DDR3, and it's an integral part of Intel's Core i7 and AMD's AM3 platforms.
However, older DDR2 RAM is still the most common memory standard (Core 2 Duo and Phenom both use it), and for good reason: it's affordable, well supported and has a proven track record. The third most popular type of memory is DDR, which could be the memory in your machine if you haven't upgraded in recent years.
TRIPLE CHANNEL:DDR3 demands you have three sticks of RAM, one for each slot on your mobo
If you've got a very old machine then you may still have basic SDRAM, in which case you'll find upgrading surprisingly expensive as it's now very much a niche technology. Whichever memory standard you're using, RAM sticks are defined by their speed and latency.
There are a few things to watch out for: you need to get the new sticks to match the memory that's already in your machine (or alternatively throw that away and start afresh), and you need to buy in multiple numbers that match the number of memory channels on your motherboard.
So if you're running a Core i7 rig, you'll need three DIMMs, because Core i7 boasts a triple-channel memory controller. If you've got an AM2+ Phenom II, then a pair of sticks is the order of the day.
Ultimate upgrade: You can get far more affordable 6GB kits, but the Corsair Dominator GT set boasts support for 2GHz bus speeds and 8-8-8-24 latencies for an impressive slice of memory performance – and it looks impressive too.
Price: £237 (£206 ex VAT)
Best bang for the buck: If money is more of an issue, the OCZ Gold 6GB 10666 triple-channel kit makes for the perfect accompaniment to a Core i7, and with 9-9-9-20 latencies it's not sluggish either. Price: £63 (£55 ex VAT)
Hold on for: There are no major new memory technologies on the horizon, and DDR3 memory prices are finally at reasonable levels. Prices should continue to fall a little over time, but until Core i5 arrives and shake things up further, now is a good time to buy.
The graphics card is the most likely of all modern PC components to start a heated debate. Why? Because anybody who has bought one of the latest and most likely expensive pixel-pushers will be keen to justify their purchase. However, when all the passions have been spent and the dust has settled, there is little separating the latest offerings from AMD and Nvidia.
As ever, though, the devil is in the detail. A fundamental shift has taken place between AMD and Nvidia's graphics cards recently, and it's to do with how the companies are approaching the highest end of the 3D market.
Nvidia has largely maintained the stance that it can keep improving and tweaking its cores to produce faster and faster GPUs, and to some extent it has succeeded. AMD, on the other hand, has concluded that multiple GPUs are the answer for high end products, and so it has been focusing more on the mainstream market, with high-end solutions made up of combinations of the mainstream chips. And again, the company has been successful to a degree.
What this means to us as upgraders is that there is a wide range of graphics cards available that can transform your gaming experience. Specifically because of the refocusing, an incredible amount of GPU power can be had at the more mainstream end of the scale, with cards costing between £100 and £150 now more than capable of driving a 20in or 22in screen at the native resolution with all the effects turned on.
You'll need a bigger screen in order to get the most from cards that cost close to £200, with the likes of the GeForce GTX 275 capable of running a 24in screen at the highest settings at a smooth 60fps. Indeed, it's only when you connect a machine to a 30in screen that you really push the current generation of cores, and it's then that you either have to select a single-card multi-GPU solution or go for an SLI or CrossFire card to drive the screen properly.
At this point you can easily spend a small fortune on a graphics subsystem (and the accompanying power requirements) for your system, but with good reason: the end results are usually extremely impressive.
An alternative way of using SLI and CrossFire is as an upgrade path in itself. Buy a card now, and then buy a second card later for a moderate performance boost. It's not a bad theory, but in practice finding a card a couple of years out of date is tricky, and stockists tend to charge roughly the same for older cards as they do for a more modern card.
The second-hand market can help you track down that second card, but there will be no reassurances that the card will work, so it can be risky. You're looking at roughly a 60 to 70 per cent performance improvement from the addition of that second card, so it may not transform your gaming the way that you were looking for anyway. And while driver support for such solutions has improved, it's still not perfect.
Essentially, we'd recommend caution when it comes to both SLI and CrossFire graphics cards, unless the card in question is so affordable that it becomes a risk worth taking. One thing you do need to be aware of when eyeing up a potential graphics card is that you'll not only need enough power to run the card, you'll also need the connectors to do so.
The more mainstream cards require just a single six-pin connector, but faster cards will require either a pair of these, or one six- and one eight-pin. You need to make sure that there's ample cooling in your machine too, as some of the cards (particularly dual-GPU solutions) can reach close to 100°C under full load.
Once you've decided what sort of price you can afford and selected the GPU you want driving your graphics card, things come down to the clockspeed of the GPU and RAM and the amount of RAM on each card. There's an economy of scale here, too – big manufacturers can afford to produce graphics cards that little bit cheaper. Keep an eye on recommendations in PC Plus for the latest and greatest cards that you should be considering for your rig.
Ultimate upgrade: If you're looking to drive a large screen, the Asus GTX 295 is an incredible piece of graphics kit. Capable of running all modern games smoothly, it's a stunning one-stop card.
Price: £360 (£313 ex VAT)
Best bang for the buck: It's a close battle between AMD and Nvidia for best value, but the recent price battle makes the Sapphire HD 4870 1GB the best choice.
Price: £132 (£115 ex VAT)
Hold on for: Things should hot up once Intel enters the market with Larabee, and assuming that it's any good, we should see the price battle intensify even further. On paper it looks very interesting, so if you fancy giving it a try, hold your horses on the graphics card front for a bit.
Hard disks and power supplies
Hard drives have maintained that unerring pace of progress that only computer components seem to achieve: the core technologies behind them are continuing to improve (leading to larger capacities and faster throughput), while the price tags just keep on dropping.
As a snapshot of the current state of the hard drive market, you can pick up a 1TB hard drive for as little as £60 to £70. The technological advances mean that such drives perform well too, with some managing read speeds as high as 80MB/s. If you want serious performance, though, there is a slightly more newsworthy addition to the storage market in the form of 'affordable' solid state drives (SSDs).
OLD FAITHFUL:Although SSD's offer much faster speeds, for cost you can't beat the humble harddrive
This technology has been rumbling along for years now, but the launch of the Intel X-25 pushed SSDs out from their niche to become a serious consideration for anyone looking for highperformance components. High-end SSDs offer read speeds of over 220MB/s, and much improved write performance.
Even if you can't afford a top-of-the range SSD, a low-end drive will generally give twice the performance of conventional platter-based drives. Ideally you want to set the SSD up as your main boot device, as it can as much as halve your boot time.
There are two significant downsides to SSDs, though: their capacities are tiny when compared to platter based drives, so you'll need one of those for your data anyway, and they're significantly more expensive than standard hard drives. If you can afford it, the best solution is to use an SSD as a boot drive and a conventional platter-based drive for your data.
Ultimate upgrade: It's not cheap and it's not particularly big, but it's incredibly fast – Intel's X25-E has made SSDs a real consideration for those looking for performance. It may hold only 32GB, but the X25-E will leave your existing hard drive looking pathetically slow.
Price: £325 (£283 ex VAT)
Best bang for the buck: The perfect accompaniment to an SSD or indeed as a main drive for the more cost conscious upgrader, the Hitachi Deskstar boasts a 16MB cache, 7,200rpm spindle speed and a cool 1TB of storage for a paltry sum.
Price: £59 (£51 ex VAT)
Hold on for: The SSD market is still growing, but expect prices to settle a little over the coming year, thanks in part to improved support from Windows 7. Hybrid drives may off er the best of both worlds, so keep an eye out for them.
While it would be reassuring to think that the massive success of netbooks means that low-powered computing is infiltrating every aspect of our computing lives, the truth is that performance computing continues to increase the demand placed on our power supplies.
While we used to get by with the 250W PSUs that came bundled with PC cases, if you mean business then you're looking at making a separate purchase these days, and one that can set you back a tidy sum.
BFG:Remember to leave a little bit extra power with your PSU in case you need to upgrade again
It's not all bad news for the environment, though, as manufacturers are taking efficiency seriously – a lot of PSUs already offer 80 per cent efficiencies, but 85 per cent and 90 per cent models are on the way too. The hardest part about picking a power supply is working out how much power your machine needs.
Thankfully there are freely available tools to help you work this out, ranging from the simple to the exhaustive. Once you know how much power your system (or your potentially upgraded system) needs, give yourself a little room for further upgrades (50 to 100W) and you're done.
Ultimate upgrade: It's undoubtedly overkill for the vast majority of machines, but at least with the CoolerMaster Real Power 1,250W PSU you know that you won't be caught short on the power front, even if you fill your machine with all the best kit.
Price: £150 (£130 ex VAT)
Best bang for the buck: Realistically your PSU needs are going to be quite modest, and a 500W model should really be more than enough. If you don't fancy shelling out too much dosh, the OCZ StealthXStream 500W Silent should have you covered for an upgrade or two.
Price: £43 (£37 ex VAT)
Hold on for: More efficient PSUs that can hit 90 per cent efficiency at high load are on their way, and while they may be more expensive to buy initially, they'll save you money over time.
One essential upgrade...
Sometimes you just can't afford to upgrade your whole system. If you can afford one upgrade, and only one, then how you spend your money should be dependent on what you use your machine for. Gamers have it easy – a new graphics card is generally the way to go as long as the processor isn't more than a couple of generations old.
If you move a lot of data around then a new hard drive makes sense. For heavy application use, the difference having an SSD as the main drive can make is simply incredible. However, for general day-to-day use, and for a more rounded upgrade for your money, we'd have to cheat a little and recommend that the move to the new Core i7 platform is the best upgrade you can make.
Intel has done a sterling job of shattering many of the bottlenecks of previous generations: the memory throughput is stunning, and the raw power of Core i7 makes light work of traditionally intensive tasks. It's not without its downsides, of course – and in the case of Core i7 the downside is very much financial – but if you need the power, there's nothing quite like it.
At least for now. It could easily turn out that the biggest threat to Core i7 is its soon-to-be-released sibling, Core i5.
First published in PC Plus Issue 285
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