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The Longevity of PC Hardware, and The Ethos of Upgrading

great_big_abyss

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Arguably, the most important feature of a PC is that it just works, and that it performs all the tasks that are demanded of it, whether those demands are light like running MS Office apps and media consumption, or heavy, like AAA gaming titles. For non-PC-enthusiasts, i.e. those people who just want to game or work, they don't want to be bothered with measuring the performance of their PC. They just want everything to work. Then there are the PC enthusiasts - people (most of here on this forum) who take some kind of perverse pleasure in maximizing performance, or efficiency, or 'bang for the buck'. They spend hours poring over articles and benchmark results, debating endlessly with their peers about whether 3600MHz DDR4 RAM is worth the price bump over 3400MHz DDR4. Those enthusiasts with deep pockets will always try to have the latest and greatest. They'll be logged in to their favorite retailer's site waiting for the release on the newest gen of powerful graphics card, hoping to be one of the lucky few who snag a limited first day release, and they'll be damned what it costs them. They WANT that RTX3090, no matter the cost. Others, perhaps less well heeled, but still enthusiastic, will still want the latest and greatest, but are willing to wait until the madness dies down, prices stabilize, and they can get that RTX3080 or even RTX3070 (because don't you know it's 90% of the performance at 70% of the price?!?) at a relative bargain compared to inflated launch day prices.


Then there are those enthusiasts who don't have the budget to play at the high end of the current generation, but we still enjoy tinkering, and maximizing PC performance. We shop for gently used, almost new high end components, or even mid-range new stuff. Raw performance is less important, however being able to maintain a desired frame rate at a given resolution is the name of game. It's all about maximizing the experience of PC (gaming), while minimizing the cost. Don't get me wrong, it's still expensive. A used high end video card can cost as much as an entire console. The trick is to spend money on components that will help the experience, and not spend money on those components that won't. The excitement comes from knowing which components are required to keep your PC funning smoothly and reliably, in order to perform the tasks that are demanded of it.

Personally, I acquired my Z77 platform 8 years ago in 2012. I bought a new Z77 motherboard, 8GB of DDR3 RAM, and an i5 3570K processor. A few months later, somebody on HWC was selling an i7 3770K. I wanted it. Did I need it? No. The 3770K was the highest end consumer grade processor available (not including the 'extreme' family of Intel CPU's - but those are more Prosumer). My i5 was perfectly adequate at the time. Yet I wanted the best. And seeing as it was a few month old used processor, the i7 came at a pretty good discount from buying new. I even managed to recoup most of my investment by selling the i5 3570K to somebody who might have been upgrading from an i3, or completely changing their platform on the cheap. It turns out that wanting to have 'the best' back then was the key to my current upgrade path. Eight years later, my 3770K is still going strong. It may not be the overpowered, underutilized CPU that it was 8 years ago, merely falling under the 'adequate' category by today's standards. But it still works. It still runs everything I want it to. More importantly, my CPU doesn't seem to be acting as a bottleneck to my GPU, ensuring that my hardware as a whole is working harmoniously, and I'm not needlessly spending money in one area while neglecting another - more on this later.

Graphics Cards, are another story completely. Boy oh Boy has their performance been advanced in the last few years. And so have their prices. 8-10 years ago I was playing in the mid-high end. Back then a GTX680 was the highest end single GPU graphics card money could buy. For $500, one could attain greatness. I bought a slightly used GTX680 for $400 while it was still current and briefly experienced greatness. Then the 7XX series came about and changed everything. Nvidia started launching cards like the Titan and the GTX780Ti, which stomped all over the playground and ate the GTX680 (and subsequently renamed GTX770)'s lunch money. For some reason, the price of the high end video cards started inflating astronomically. The new high end Titan was priced at a staggering $1000. The new, slightly less powerful (but only in some ways - compute) but no less spectacular GTX780Ti was priced almost as high. Generation after generation of high end video cards were released, all at ever increasing prices. These days, the absolute high end of graphics cards, the RTX3090, is priced at an astronomical $1500. US. Before store markups (which are huge, due to high demand). What's unfortunate about this is that the previously affordable midrange cards have kept up with their big brothers. Where a decade ago, one could purchase a decent mid-range card like a GTX560 or GTX660 for a couple of bills, nowadays, in order to get into the NEW mid-range graphics card market, you're spending at least double or triple that amount.

Graphics cards are likely the components inside a PC that need to be replaced the most. Graphic card technology is advancing at an astonishing rate, and game design is following suit. If you WANT to run AAA titles at 4K 60FPS, or even 1440P at 144hz, Ultra settings, you basically need to be at the high end of the video card market all the time. When you play with mid-range cards and current games, well, you can either run 1080P at high FPS, 1440P at medium FPS, or 4K at low FPS. Graphics cards are rendered obsolete quite quickly by the standards of every other PC component. My GTX960, which 4 years ago was a very decent card, capable of maintaining high framerates in every game at 1080P, is considered old and underpowered by today's standards. It can't keep up with modern games anymore. You either need to lower in-game settings to minimum or medium at best, or expect frame rates to suffer. And forget about running any kind of VR game on a GTX960. The Framerates will be so low as to be unplayable. Therefore, even though my current CPU architecture and platform is completely capable, the video card is the one component that needed replacing.
 

great_big_abyss

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So now we get to the crux of the matter: The Ethos of Upgrading.


I never specifically 'built' my PC - it's been an evolution, unless you count all the way back in 2010-11 when I built from scratch what I could consider my current 'build'. Brand new, I bought an M5A97 motherboard, 2x8GB of DDR3, and a used Phenom II X4 965 processor. A new AMD HD5830 video card was attained for not very much money. That motherboard and RAM, btw, are still in use, serving in my son-in-law's computer, currently running an FX8370 processor. Anyway, I digress. That initial build sat as is for a while. Then I got bit by the 'enthusiast' bug. I started buying components and upgrading, not because I needed to, necessarily, but because I had some disposable income, and I wanted to play around. Additional storage, to accommodate my growing media library. A new video card, because why not. My first SSD (a 60GB version - that was a large, expensive one at the time). a bunch more video cards - not because I needed them, but because I wanted to compare performance, and just play around. I played around with Crossfire and SLI, I played around with older cards and newer cards, and even with older cards as PhysX cards. Then came my big architecture chage from AMD to Intel. I intially upgraded from my 1055T (which had replaced the 965 a year prior) to an AMD FX8370 CPU. As it turns out, I lucked out, in a way. The new processor, bought from Memory Express, didn't register all of its cores on my system. When I went to return/exchange the processor in store, a spur of the moment decision was made and I returned the FX8370, and bought my Z77 board, 3570K, and an additional 2x8GB of RAM. The 1055T went back in the M5A97, and the M5A97 left my rig for the final time, to be interred for the rest of its life in my stepson's system (at the time he was running an AMD APU - so the 1055T was a nice upgrade). Shortly after that upgrade, the 3770K found its way into my rig, and has there remained ever since. Some more upgrades just for the sake of upgrades happened. A new case here, a video card there, more SSD upgrades as capacities increased and prices decreased.

Then 7 years ago something happened. My biggest life change, aside from my daughter being born, occured. We bought a house. Our new house was a lot smaller than the rental we were previously living in. I lost my dedicated 'computer' space. Now, the only place for me to have a computer was on our TV in the living room. That changed my PC priorities a bit. No longer was the PC a plaything just for me, but rather now it was a tool for the entire family to use. It was our primary media consumption device. It was our web-surfing machine. My wife used it to shop online. It played Xmas music during Christmas parties and when we gathered around our tree opening gifts as a family. I was relegated to a 'sometime' user. Because our house was small, there was always somebody in the living room, watching or doing something on the computer. Most of my attention was given to my then toddler daughter, and when she went to bed, my wife and I would watch TV shows or movies together. PC gaming was a rarity. No longer did I have time for evening long gaming sessions, playing Battlefield IV with my friends, or Civ V with my brother. I was only able to snag 15 minutes here, or 20 minutes there. I started playing World of Warships, because not only did I enjoy the game, but the 15-20 minute battles were the perfect format for me to sneak in a little bit of gaming here and there.

In 2015, I performed a series of what would be the last upgrades for a long time. I no longer had time for PC enthusiasm, so I rebuilt my computer with an eye towards silence and reliability. A shiny new case (a Corsair 600C - inverted because of the location of the PC in the living room). A GTX960 video card (a review unit bought off SKYMTL for a fraction of the 'new' price). A new semi-passive PSU. A passive CPU cooler. A new 4TB HDD (big at the time) - my existing 2-2TB HDD's were linked together in RAID0, so that I had 2-4TB drives to keep media. A new 128GB SSD that I merged with my existing 128GB SSD in Raid 0 to create a super-fast 256GB boot drive. For 5 years, my system was as stable as a rock, and silent to boot. It did absolutely everything that I asked of it, and NEVER gave any problems. It was honestly something that I didn't think about very often anymore. We just used it. All the time. And because the only game I occasionally ever played was World of Warships (which isn't very demanding on hardware) on our 1080p TV, I was never left wanting. My hardware just worked, and worked well. It faded to the background.

And then life gradually changed. Unlike the stark, drastic change of moving house and losing my own computer space, my daughter gradually started getting into PC gaming. She's 8 now, and Roblox is her game of choice. My wife also plays Roblox, usually with my daughter. My wife has had her own laptop (a venerable but still reliable 8 year old Ivy Bridge Lenovo Thinkpad) for a few years now, so she plays Roblox on it. My daughter would play on MY computer on the TV in the living room. That was the status quo for a while. Then COVID happened. School got cancelled, and when it started back up in September, the option of remote learning was given, which we took. This was a blessing in disguise, as it was the perfect opportunity for me to get 'my' PC back. Due to remote learning, my daughter does all her schoolwork on Microsoft Teams. She started off using my wife's laptop, which honestly, my wife didn't like (ironic how the entire family using MY PC wasn't actually an issue, but once HER laptop starts getting used, action should be taken - I might have been part of convincing her action needed to be taken - all part of my master plan, muahahaha). I convinced my wife that our 8 year old daughter should have her own laptop, you know, for school work. I shopped around on Kijiji, and found a steal of a deal on an old HP elitebook from 2012 (Ivy Bridge). It has discrete AMD graphics, and came with a 128GB SSD. Brilliant! The laptop is responsive, and perfect for her to do her schoolwork on, have her TEAMS meetings with her teacher and classmates, and oh, BTW, it's perfectly capable of gaming, too. Because we're not allowed to socialize in person with anybody (Manitoba's COVID numbers are really bad and we've been in lockdown for a while), my daughter spends her free time playing online with her cousins and her school friends. They all play Roblox together. It's great. The best part? I GET MY COMPUTER BACK.
 
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great_big_abyss

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Seriously, for the first time in 7 years, I find myself once again the primary user of the computer in the living room. Yes, it's still hooked up to the TV. Yes, we still use it for media consumption as a family. Yes, my wife will occasionally jump on it to check something online, or do our online grocery shop. But I find myself having far, far more time to do what I want on it. I'm playing more games (at the moment still mostly WOWS, but I did pick up Civilization VI a couple of weeks ago), and have more time for extended gaming sessions. Rather than get back into FPS shooters or RPG games like I used to be into, I'm deciding to go the VR route.


In October, for my daughter's birthday (pre-lockdown), she wanted to have a party at VR Arena. This is a business that has 8-10 high end gaming machines, with an HTC Vive hooked up to each one. You can book time individually, or come as a party, and everybody can play together. So we invited 4 of her close friends, and booked a 2-hour long gaming session. One of her friends didn't show up, so I was able to use one of the machines that we booked. To say that I came away impressed is an understatement. I loved it. So much so that I decided I wanted to have VR for myself. Long story short (about the VR, not my PC upgrade thoughts), but I chose the Oculus Quest 2, for various reasons (price, resolution, ability to play stand-alone/wirelessly). I ordered two of them, one for 'me', and one for my stepson. Ostensibly, they're for the whole family, and sure, we'll probably have some family gaming sessions together where we play Beat Saber in multi-player mode, or some other multiplayer game (Population: One), but really, ultimately I see my stepson and myself being the primary users of the Quest 2's. I've long been a proponent of graphical fidelity. I like to play my games at max resolution, and if my display is capable of 60hz, I want to see 60FPS in game. The Quest 2 has a resolution of 1832x1920 pixels per eye, so multiplied by two, that's 3664 x 1920 pixels, or pretty damn close to 4K resolution. It's also capable of 90FPS. There is absolutely no way my GTX960 was going to cut the mustard playing in VR. Then again, VR games are currently 'behind' mainstream 'flat' games with regards to texture and graphical quality. Games like SuperHot VR have almost no textures to speak of. Other VR games are cartoony, and still others, like Beat Saber, don't represent any meaningful strain on a GPU. There are a few that can be quite demanding: Half Life: Alyx is one of them. But even AAA FPS games like Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond, don't look as good in VR (with regards to textures) as FPS games did on flat screens even five years ago. What I think this means, is that even though a GPU will have to push out close to 4K pixels, it won't be as demanding as pushing out high texture graphics in 4K on 'flat' games.

I did some research, looking at minimum specs and recommended specs for various games, and came out with the result that the current mid-level crop of video cards should be just fine for the next few years. This would include cards like the GTX2060, 1660Ti, and the RX5600XT, RX5700, etc. As usual, the mid-range of cards represents the sweet spot for performance vs price, and if a mid-range card would be quite acceptable for my needs, then that's what I'm going with.

So, enter the final iteration of upgrades on my machine. Several things were upgraded here. With 8TB of mass storage, my harddrives are about 50% full after 5 years, therefore I don't need to worry about them for a bit longer. My boot drive, on the other hand, did bear some thinking about. 256GB worth of SSD's filled up quite quickly. For the last few months I was at the point where I was needing to uninstall games in order to install new ones. A new 500GB SSD rectified that problem, set up as a Steam/game drive. An RX5600XT replaced my GTX960. While it's not the fastest graphics card currently out, it's about 3-4x more powerful than my old GPU, and most importantly, at less than $360, was affordable. It should be able to push out the VR games problem free for the next couple of years. 8GB of RAM wasn't going to cut it either. 16GB of DDR3 was acquired on the cheap, and installed next to the existing 8GB. 24GB is unconventional, but it seems to be working fine.

Here comes the part concerning Hardware Longevity. While my 3770K is getting long in tooth, and the architecture is missing some features (DDR4, NVME, etc.), I can't afford to do a full platform upgrade at this point (at least not to something worthwhile - I considered the i7 7770K bundle that's been in the Buy/Sell for weeks now - but upgrading just for a 25% increase in performance doesn't make any sense to me). While I would LOVE to gain access to some of the newer features like NVME SSD's, and RGB and fan motherboard control, the fact is my 3770K is still rocking it. When I ran benchmarks on my new card (both 3DMark's Timespy and Unigine's Superposition benchmark, as well as their respective VR benchmarks), the RX5600XT was able to run at 99%, meaning my CPU really isn't a bottleneck. It remains to be seen if this will still be the case in-game, but for now, I'm thinking that the 3770K is still going to rock it. I HAVE replaced my passive cooler with an H100i so that I can overclock the CPU. I was able to get it to 4.6Ghz relatively stable, but backed it off to 4.2Ghz due to heat. I have to say, there is a certain satisfaction in having an old, but premium piece of hardware, and working it hard. The extra money that I paid years ago to upgrade from a 3570k to a 3770K is starting to pay dividends now, by staving off the money I'll eventually need to spend on a complete architecture change. I think I can squeeze another two years out of my current CPU, motherboard and RAM, at which point it will be TEN years old, and really, will owe me nothing at all.

In two years time, I can see myself upgrading to a newer, yet still used, piece of kit, maybe a Rzyen 3rd gen processor, which will then be 1-2 years old, and hopefully available on the used market. A new video card will probably be required at that time, but then again, maybe I'll be able to squeeze 4 years out of this card, just like I did with the GTX960.

This long diatribe was all to say that PC Enthusiasts come in many different forms. I went from exploring different hardware and changing/upgrading often, to taking pleasure from getting a lot of use out hardware, and having a machine that generally doesn't need any thinking about on a daily basis. The epitome of 'stability', and the Ethos of Upgrading. Spending money only on what needs, and saving money on what doesn’t.
 
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GeezerGamer

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A path well traveled, Good post!
Cheers

Of note I was still using a GTX680 earlier this year..hehe
 

Bond007

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My PC hobby has gone through a very similar process. A series of upgrades, add-ons, and tweaking. Like you it has resulted in me sitting with a 3770 (16gb ram, ssd, and gtx 1070Ti).

I look at sales all the time and want to upgrade for the sake of upgrade / rebuild from scratch. But, like you, I continue to pass. While I love building and tweaking PCs I keep grounding myself with the fact it is still doing what I need it too.

Part of me loves the value I got from buying a BNIB second owner bundle (z77 with 3570k), but the other part of me just wants it to show evident limitations so I can upgrade!

We will see how long it holds out or when a deal too good to pass up comes my way.
 

danmitch1

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I agree, I still have my gtx550ti running on a 775 modded quad xeon oc'd @ 4ghz cooled with H60 & 8gb of DDR2 800 as a spare machine lol
 

Mr. Friendly

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One can get as muchsatisfaction as a PC enthusiast by running old hardware as by constantly upgrading to be at the leading edge.
I can agree with that. I bet Vortex will too...up until recently he was fiddling with ancient Xeon's and overclocking them on X58 boards or something, LoL!
 
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