Upgrading your PC can be a head-spinning process. Our Lab experts help you sort through the chaos with 18 products that won't break the bank.
The art of the PC upgrade is simultaneously an expression and a test of one's diagnostic skills, computing savvy, and fiscal sensibilities. Identify the bottleneck. Research the parts that will fix the bottleneck. Remove the bottleneck.
As always, price and performance are the pivot points. After all, you can't just toss $US1000 at your system to level it up. Well, you can, but in most cases you'd be a fool for doing so.
When the Maximum PC staff convened in conference room Spock to plan this story, we decided to establish some ground rules. First, we challenged ourselves to stick to our theme of a successful budget upgrade. This meant avoiding the tendency to fall back on the most expensive, best-of-breed components in each category.
Instead we forced ourselves to take a more nuanced approach. In each category, we expended considerable energy determining which product(s) owned the sweet spot-top-left on the 2x2 grid if you're graph-happy-of the price-performance ratio. Staying consistent with our real-world theme, we used real-world pricing from sites like NewEgg and Amazon. Because we're talking about upgrading an existing machine, you'll find no case or mobo recommendations here.
Without further adieu, we happily present the results of our research. Below you'll find a bevy of product recommendations that prove you don't have to break the bank to achieve substantial gains in performance.
Solid State Drive
It's easy to argue that a budget SSD doesn't actually exist. That said, a $US125 solid state drive can qualify as a budget upgrade in some contexts-and only some of those contexts involve recreational drugs.
Intel's X-25V solid state drive (the V stands for Value) doesn't have the fastest sustained write speeds (think 50MB/s, not 200MB/s), but its sustained read speeds top 150MB/s and its random-access writes are triple any of its peers'. This makes it perfect as an OS drive, which relies more on reads and writes than on sustained writes.
If you don't mind keeping data on an external drive or SD card, a 40GB Intel X-25V can also offer a substantial speed boost to the 5400rpm drive on your netbook or older laptop. And if you're moving to Windows 7, the X-25V supports TRIM, which will prevent performance degradation. $US125 is a lot for a hard drive, but for an SSD, it's downright reasonable given the performance bump you'll experience.
✔ SSD for $US125
✔ TRIM support prevents degradation
In the old days, the prospective hard drive buyer had to choose between high performance and high capacity. Heck, if you're planning on upgrading, you probably don't have either.
Fortunately, while solid state drives have thoroughly usurped the highest end of the performance spectrum, mechanical drives still rule the capacity roost, and they're only getting faster. To wit: the 1TB Seagate Barracuda 7200.12, which costs just $US80 and offers sustained read and write speeds of over 100MB/s.
While it can't match the speeds or random-access times of WD's VelociRaptor drives or SSDs, the 1TB Barracuda is capacious enough for all your apps and data-unless you're in the habit of ripping Blu-ray discs, of course. So, if your OS drive is getting long in the tooth (or just running out of room), moving to a 1TB Barracuda 7200.12 will buy you some breathing room and a substantial speed boost.
✔ 1TB for $US80 defines Budget Upgrade
✔ Perfect single-drive solution
If you're currently performing DVD chores with a 16x burner, an upgrade to a higher burn-speed rating is beyond cheap (shoot, our current Best of the Best 22x Samsung SH-S223 is $US20), but not all that satisfying in terms of performance gains. With DVD media stuck at 16x, higher-rated drives only exceed that limit when burning to discs of a particular brand. And even then, you're looking at a time savings of maybe a minute. Big whoop.
Instead, consider the benefits of upgrading to a BD-ROM combo drive. You can get Samsung's SH-B083L for $US100. It gives you the ability to enjoy HD Blu-ray movies on your newly upgraded display, while still offering respectable 16x DVD+/-R write speeds. In our tests, the SH-B083L's performance was on par with the more expensive Plextor PX-B320SA in everything but DVD ripping, where the Samsung took 15:17 to copy a dual-layer disc vs. 10:47.
✔ Affordable, speedy blu-ray performance
When it comes to videocards, you can count on today's $US300 product being superior to the top-shelf product from two generations back. That's certainly the case with cards based on the ATI Radeon HD 5850 GPU, which not only deliver superb performance, but do so without requiring a massive power supply.
What might it be replacing? If your gaming rig is three years old and you invested in a high-end videocard, it would have been based on Nvidia's 8800 GTX, and the card alone would have set you back $US600. Besides costing a fortune, that card required a massive heatsink and fan and sucked power from two 6-pin power cables in addition to what it drew from the PCI Express bus (165 watts in total). That GPU boasted amazing performance at the time, and it heralded the arrival of DirectX 10. Today, the card is performance-limited with next-gen DX10 games and it doesn't support DX11 at all.
A Radeon HD 5850 card will deliver excellent performance and should remain viable for years to come-as long as you don't upgrade to a 30-inch display. At 1920x1200 resolution with antialiasing disabled, these cards can run Crysis at 30fps. Boost AA to 4x and you'll lose just four frames per second in a game that used to bring even the highest-end GPUs to their knees. You'll fare even better with other titles: Far Cry 2, for example, can easily hit more than 60fps at 1920x1200.
Upgrading to the HD 5850 is a simple decision in other ways, too: It's 9.5 inches long, so it will fit in any case that housed an 8800 GTX, and you won't need a new power supply. Lower price, excellent frame rates, and decreased power consumption-what's not to like?
✔ Hello, DirectX 11 games!
✔ Perfect replacement for the 8800 GTX
Twisted Nematic LCD panels blow. After running through our DisplayMate, Blu-ray, and gaming gauntlet of Lab tests, the TN displays we've reviewed retreated with their DVI cables tucked between their legs. So what's a budget upgrader to do?
If you want our advice-and you do-pick up ViewSonic's VP2365wb. It's a 23-inch IPS panel offering 8-bit colour depth. It's equipped with a four-port USB hub and a height-adjustable stand that tilts, rotates, and pivots. And you can find it selling online for about 300 bucks.
You will encounter trade-offs: Although it's marketed as a "professional" monitor, its max resolution is a consumer-ish 1920x1080. It's dimmer than its pricier competitors, and it doesn't have an HDMI input. But in Lab tests, we had no problem playing games or movies, and it's a better photo-editing monitor than any TN display we've tested.
✔ In-plane switching display offers superior image and viewing quality
Belkin has been hit or miss on the router front over the past few years, but its Play router is a definite hit. Here's a concurrent dual-band 802.11n router (it runs 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios simultaneously) with a virtual guest network, a USB port that can share either a storage device or a printer over the network, and very respectable throughput and range that sells for less than $US100.
The router is self-healing, too. It automatically detects and attempts to resolve network problems, and it will automatically reinitialise itself on a weekly basis (you choose the day and time-or turn off the feature if you don't like it). If that doesn't deliver enough value for you, Belkin also throws several applications into the mix. Memory Safe is a utility that runs on your client PCs and automatically backs up whichever directories you designate to an external drive attached to the router. Music Mover is an UPnP- and DLNA-compliant media server. And Daily DJ analyses your music library and automatically creates playlists based on one of three user-designated moods: High Energy, Steady Groove, or Kick Back. We haven't used this last feature long enough to have a solid opinion about it, but it wouldn't detract from this router's value even it if was unusable.
In fact, there's just one feature we find wanting on the Play router: It has a four-port 100Mb/s switch, versus a gigabit switch.
✔ Self-healing router
✔ Built-in UPNP/DLNA media server
Mouse and Keyboard
Basic mice and keyboards are commodity-priced goods, available for as little as 10 dollars. They get the job done just fine. But if you're planning to do any gaming at all, you owe it to yourself to upgrade to a gaming-grade mouse and keyboard combo. This upgrade-one of the cheapest you can make-may very well make the biggest difference.
For a budget gaming mouse, we recommend the Razer Abyssus ($30). Although it sits at the bottom of Razer's sizeable gaming lineup and lacks a few of the features we appreciate in a mouse, such as thumb buttons, the Abyssus will feel like a noticeable step up from any non-gaming mouse. With ultra-tactile buttons, a 1,000Hz polling rate, and a very-respectable 3,500dpi optical sensor, the Abyssus should be more than responsive enough for all but the most hardcore gamers.
Our keyboard recommendation is Microsoft's Sidewinder X4 ($50), which eschews some of the over-the-top bells and whistles of its more expensive X6 sibling, but retains all the features we really care about in a gaming keyboard. These include anti-ghosting (which allows many simultaneous key presses), programmable macro keys, and multiple profiles that switch when you load a game. Physically, the keyboard's a real beauty, and the extra-springy keys are a joy to use for extended gaming or typing.
✔ 1000Hz polling rate = responsive gaming
✔ Anti-ghosting keyboard
Power Supply Unit
Picture a raft full of PC components. It'll take seven days for the rescue boat to arrive, but only five days of food and water remains. Who gets pushed off the raft first? The GPU? The CPU? No way. They're first-class passengers. The case? The lowly keyboard? Don't kid yourself. The power supply will be the first to go. Do you know why? Because no one respects the power supply.
And sadly, that's the strategy everyone takes when they build a budget PC. We mean everyone. Hell, we've even occasionally given the PSU short shrift when push came to shove.
Fortunately, Corsair's 750TX is one component that might force something else to swim with the sharks. (Yeah, take that, mouse!) With a five-year warranty, a high power-efficiency rating, and a single 62-amp rail, this PSU will keep any budget PC running, even on those sweltering summer days when your components are broiling at 120 degrees. With a street price of $US99 and SLI certification for dual GeForce GTX 470 cards, the 750TX strikes a good balance between budget and midrange. Sure, it lacks modular cables, but that just means you can't misplace the cables.
✔ SLI certified for dual GeForce GTX 470 cards
Few things suck harder than cheap speakers-well, except maybe cheap TN displays. So we have to wonder how Logitech manages to sell the 2.1-channel Z523 speaker system for less than a hundred bucks. Heck, we've seen them selling online for as little as $US70!
Now, we'll be the first to admit that these puppies can't compete with the likes of B&W's glorious MM-1 system, which we review on page 80, but if you're seriously considering those bad boys, you aren't reading a story about budget upgrades. The Z523 isn't appropriate for critical listening, but it can fill a small room and it has an exceedingly large sweet spot, thanks to the presence of a second driver mounted on the back of the two satellite speakers. These rear-facing drivers bounce audio waves off the wall behind them so that the sound arrives at your ears a microsecond after they've heard the front speakers.
The 40-watt amp in the subwoofer sends 9.5 watts to the two-inch full-range dome drivers in the satellites and 21 watts into a four-inch down-firing subwoofer, which is augmented by a six-inch side-facing pressure driver. There's an input for a digital media player, and separate volume controls for stereo and for bass, so you can crank the lows for gaming. Lastly, there's a headphone jack for those times when you'd prefer to rock out in private.
✔ Surprisingly rich sound
✔ Rear-facing drivers = large sweet spot
At around $US60, the Fatal1ty HS-1000 headset is hardly the cheapest on the market, but it contains several features we consider a must.
First, we like our gaming headsets to have cans big enough to surround the ear, for maximum noise isolation and comfort. The HS-1000 fits the bill here, with large, oval cans and ample foam padding. Second, we need a decent, adjustable mic-bonus points if it's removable, for when we're not playing games. The Fatal1ty gets a gold star here, as well. Third, the set should have some sort of in-line volume/mic control, to make it easy to fine-tune your settings mid-game. Creative's set has this as well.
Last and most importantly, for us to call any gaming headset an "upgrade," it has to actually sound good. That means bass deep enough to let you really feel each exploding frag grenade, and highs that let you hear the bullets whizzing past your head. This category is what makes the HS-1000 really shine as a budget headset, thanks in large part to Creative's excellent X-Fi drivers, which emulate the functions of a full-fledged X-Fi soundcard, including EAX effects and simulated surround sound.
You could go cheaper, and you could certainly go more expensive, but we think that the Creative Fatal1ty HS-1000 hits the budget sweet-spot: strong performance at an amazing price.
✔ X-Fi drivers produce high fidelity
✔ Removable mic reduces geek factor
The CM Hyper 212 Plus quite epitomises the "budget upgrade" concept. It requires minimal investment ($30 and half an hour) but can yield big returns for nearly any system. Sceptical? So were we. The Hyper 212 Plus is a CPU cooler with direct-contact heat pipes, which give it excellent performance for its size. It's one of the best air coolers we've ever tested: On our test bed, it cooled a stock-clocked Q6700 at 100 percent CPU utilisation down to just 43 C-an 18 C difference from Intel's stock heatsink.
But why bother upgrading your CPU cooler at all? For the clocks, of course. Overclocking your CPU is the cheapest way to squeeze more performance out of your rig, but overclocked chips put out more heat. By getting a better cooler, you can sustain higher overclocks. Given that the Hyper 212 Plus can install on virtually any socket, performs better than any other air cooler we've tested, and only costs $US30, it's one of the best things you can do for your PC.
The Real Question is: 4GB or 6GB?
For budget buyers, it makes no sense to get caught up in the bandwidth wars that memory makers are waging today. The truth is, unless you use applications with particularly high bandwidth requirements, DDR3/1333 will work fine.
Ultimately, the amount of RAM you should run in a modern PC really depends on your CPU. If you are running an AMD system with dual-channel DDR3, the minimum is 4GB. Likewise, if you are rolling a dual-channel Intel system, then 4GB should be in your sights. Intel systems with tri-channel memory should run a minimum of 6GB of RAM. Anything above 6GB is gravy.
Invariably, first-time upgraders want to know whose memory to buy. Since RAM is generally a commodity component, our guideline is to stick with known brands: Corsair, Crucial, Kingston, OCZ, Patriot. No yellow-box memory, please.
The good news is that RAM prices seem to have stabilised somewhat. We found 4GB of brand-name DDR3 for $US100 on the street, with 6GB of brand-name DDR3/1333 in the $US160 range.
Does it make sense to upgrade your CPU today? What's the sweet spot for price and performance? And how about Intel's LGA775? Answers below!
When it's time to pep up an old PC, the CPU is usually the first candidate that springs to mind. By leveraging microarchitecture changes, larger cache sizes, and additional cores from a new chip, you can turn that tired old dog into a prancing pony.
At least, that's always been the promise of a CPU upgrade. While we're certainly champions of the value of a fast processor, we're also the first to admit that the CPU is not always the most severe bottleneck holding you back. So before we weigh in on the intricacies of which CPU you should upgrade to and how to form a logical upgrade plan, here are a few reasons why you should think twice about investing your hardware budget in a new processor.
The GPU-CPU Divide
You're familiar with the not-so-quiet war between the GPU and CPU crowds these days, right? While both factions seem quite happy to float big, fat stinking lies about the other on occasion, we generally agree that if your PC suffers from low frame rates in games, investing in a bigger GPU will usually be more impactful in delivering higher frame rates and a better gaming experience. This is especially true for those of us who play games at resolutions of 1920x1200 or higher.
This doesn't mean the CPU is worthless in gaming. You probably won't be happy with the performance you get by pairing a Radeon HD 5970 with a 2.8GHz Pentium D, for example. But if you already have a peppy little 2.86GHz Core 2 Quad Q9550, your money is better spent upgrading the GeForce 9800 GT you're currently running instead of the CPU. One caveat: We are finally starting to see more and more games that are being optimised for quad-core. A few titles such as Napoleon: Total War have even been optimised for hexa-core processors. Our guidance here is that you're OK with a high-clocked dual-core in the 3GHz or higher range, although the new baseline you should shoot for is a tri- or quad-core processor in the 2.5GHz or greater range for gaming. More on that later.
Low RAM? Full Hard Drive? Be Warned!
Other scenarios to consider before upgrading your CPU are instances when you have abnormally low amounts of system RAM or a particularly full hard drive. If you're running 2GB or less memory on a modern OS, strongly consider moving to 4GB. And sure, that hard drive may have been fast when it was an empty 1TB vessel, but at 80 percent capacity, it will read and write much slower because the heads have to grab data from the inner portions of the platter. In this case, buying a secondary hard drive and migrating data files to the new drive will improve overall performance more than a new chip.
How to Pick 'Em
OK, let's get down to it. When weighing your own chip upgrade, when is the right time to pull the trigger?
Within the same family of chips, adding clock speed will normally give you corresponding performance benefits. For example, upgrading from a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo E6600 to a 3GHz Core 2 Duo E6850 will give you roughly a 25 percent boost in application performance. With this in mind, you should ask yourself if it's worth buying a $US180 CPU for a 25 percent lift.
If you run multithreaded apps such as encoders, RAW file converters, or 3D modelling, you'll see the biggest performance gain by adding extra CPU cores. Upgrading from a dual-core 2.93GHz Core i3-530 to a 2.93GHz Core i7-870, for example, can yield a 100 per cent increase in threaded app performance.
Since we're working under the parameters of an upgrade story, we'll skip major overhauls, such as moving from a Core 2 Duo E6700 on the LGA775 to a Core i7-930. Such an undertaking requires a new motherboard, new RAM, a new heatsink-and well, just about new everything. We're going to stick with upgrades that work within a certain platform.
Intel's premium socket has never really been your budget buddy. Motherboards that support it demand a price premium over other Intel platforms and also require buying three sticks of RAM instead of two. Still, Intel's original 2.66GHz Core i7-920 has always been a rocking deal, and its replacement, the $US300 2.8GHz Core i7-930, is our first choice as a step up.
If you're looking for a higher-end upgrade, we recommend passing on Intel's $US500 3.2GHz Core i7-960. Assuming that the Internet rumours are correct, it makes more sense to wait for the 3.2GHz Core i7-970 successor, which will allow you to make the jump to a hexa-core processor. The i7-970 is expected to release as early as the end of this summer. The price is unknown, but we expect it to cost around $US500–$550.
Other than this, there's not much more manoeuvring room on Intel's LGA1366 platform for budget-minded shoppers. Let's move on.
The LGA1156 is Intel's real budget platform. The previous top chip was the 2.93GHz Core i7-870. On LGA1156 is so fast that, until the hexa-core Core i7-980x was introduced, it was hard for us to justify even considering LGA1366 processors at all. That chip has since been supplanted by the 3.06GHz Core i7-880 which goes for $US583 in bulk.
If you originally built a machine using the dual-core 2.93GHz Core i3-530 and you're finding that this $US113 chip doesn't have the pep for your video encoding or content-creation needs, the sweet spot in the LGA1156 category for budget buyers is the 2.8GHz Core i7-860. At $US284, this gives you a Hyper-Threaded quad-core processor. In terms of performance, upgrading to the Core i7-860 cut the time it took us to encode video from an iPhone in HandBrake by 51 percent, and RAW conversion for still photos was cut by as much as 84 percent. Extreme overclockers will likely want to reach for Intel's new 2.93GHz Core i7-875K. This new K series chip gives you a quite a bit more flexibilty in overclocking options. However, it's also a bit pricier at $US342 in bulk. Non-overclockers will probably quite happy saving the $US60 and getting the Core i7-860. And don't let the lack of a K fool you, the Core i7-860 is still a good overclocking part.
If $US284 is too rich for your blood, our next pick is Intel's Core i5-750. With this $US200 CPU, you lose Hyper-Threading, but retain Turbo Boost. Again, compared to the Core i3-530, your HandBrake encodes would be cut by 40 percent and RAW conversions by 40 percent. Generally speaking, gaming performance with the Core i5-750 is also much improved.
So what to do if you already have a Core i5-750 or Core i7-860? The next step up is the stellar (albeit pricier) 3.06GHz Core i7-800 chip. This CPU is slower than Intel's $US1000 3.33GHz Core i7-975 Extreme Edition but not by as much as you'd expect from a chip costing almost half as much.
The AM2+/AM3 platform is a glorious playground for upgrading. Because this platform allows anything from power-conserving dual-core CPUs to six-core chips on the same motherboard, it's difficult to pinpoint a single baseline CPU that most upgrades will be coming from. So instead, we'll give you a range of top picks.
If you're upgrading from dual-core and living on a tight budget, the quad-core 2.8GHz Athlon II 630 is our choice. At $US99, it's a steal and leaves its dual-core siblings in the dust.
The real steal, however, are AMD's new six-core processors. The hexa-core 3.2GHz Phenom II X6 1090T sells for less than $US300 and the 2.8GHz Phenom II X6 1055T is going for $US200. At those prices, this is a no-brainer upgrade, particularly given that with Intel, you're going to have to fork over $US1,000 to get six cores.
Are AMD's hexa-cores capable of slaying their equivalently priced Intel counterparts? Yes and no. The Phenom II X6 1090T aced Intel's $US562 Core i7-870 in some of our Lab tests involving heavily multithreaded apps. However, in most other applications, the top-end, $US300 hexa-core AMD chip had a tough time beating even the $US200 Core i5-750. Ultimately, since you can't buy the Intel chip without buying a new board, CPU cooler, and practically rebuilding your system from scratch, the comparison is moot. The takeaway is this: At $US300, the Phenom II X6 1090T is a great upgrade for this platform.
We've long considered Intel's LGA775 platform to be a non-starter. Intel hasn't introduced anything new for it in a year. The chipmaker also hasn't cut prices on LGA775 chips enough to keep them competitive with AMD or even its own Core i3 parts. In many ways, these CPUs are simply not competitive with anything on the market today. Add the mish-mash of incompatible chipsets and motherboards to the mix and it's clearly time to bail on LGA775.
Despite all this, the LGA775 continues to make up the majority of new desktop PC sales thanks mostly to bottom-feeder boxes. So what do you do if you happen to have an LGA775 box that you're itching to upgrade? First, make sure you can upgrade it at all. If you have an old nForce 680i machine, for example, you probably cannot run a 45nm Core 2 Quad chip. (Thank you, Nvidia and Intel.)
Most of the lift you're going to get on the LGA775 will come from moving to quad-core. There, you'll get the best bang for your buck from the 2.83GHz Core 2 Quad Q9500. At $US183, it resides squarely within the budget-minded price-performance sweet spot. We don't think the 3GHz Core 2 Quad Q9650 makes much sense at $US316, but when you consider that the 3GHz Core 2 Extreme Q9650 cost $US1,000 a few years ago, you might want to do it just for bragging rights. But you have to ask yourself: Does it make sense to buy a new chip for a platform that's a dead man walking when a new platform and a Core i3 or Phenom II will deliver a lot more power for your money?
What To Do Before Swapping Your Proc
Don't be that guy. You know, the rookie who commits the cardinal sin of buying a non-returnable CPU just because it fits the same socket as his motherboard. That's something that will end in tears. Follow this quick list before you buy any upgrade CPU.
Yes, read the frakking manual and your motherboard maker's website to find out which CPUs will work on your board. If it's not listed, there's a good chance it just won't work no matter how much you wish that it would.
2. Update the BIOS
OK, you've determined that the shiny new CPU will work on your board. Before you install the new chip and boot though, make sure you update the BIOS. Otherwise, you'll have to put the old chip in just to update the BIOS to POST your new chip.
3. Assess Your Cooling
If you just went from a dual-core CPU to a six-core CPU, that $US13 heatsink might not get the job done anymore. Think ahead. Be prepared to meet your increased cooling needs.
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