As I’ve spent much time researching current trends in PC industry and decided to upgrade (it was 4 years since my last upgrade), I thought of sharing the information I found to help you upgrade, as well as to save you a great deal of time with a quick and summarized guide, rather than long text nobody likes to read. This guide is likely to stay up-to-date until 2014 due to Intel design model and my philosophy to upgrade only after Tick (die shrink) phase. I’ve tried to make the information as accurate as possible. The time is precious, so let’s go.
The goal of my upgrade was to get as close as possible to the following configuration (considering it is a desktop machine):
- Good value for the money (best buy)
- Power efficient as much as possible (green)
- As cool as possible
- Used primarily for work (stable) and occasional gaming (fast)
- Long lasting (to avoid spending much time and money on next upgrade)
Main processor (CPU)
Given the choice between Intel and AMD, Intel is definitely leading the game at the moment – it uses 22 nm technology based on tri-gate (so called 3D) transistors. Intel also manufactures processors based on Tick-Tock model to make the process cheaper and safer. Each Tick represents die shrink (CPU becomes smaller, more power efficient, cooler) and each Tock modifies CPU microarchitecture. Changing microarchitecture involves engineers redesigning the CPU circuits so in my opinion it is not a good time to upgrade (people introduce bugs in the microarchitecture which is fixed in subsequent versions of the CPU – these versions are called CPU stepping level). So I believe that it is safer to upgrade when microarchitecture reaches Tick stage (CPU shrinking) as no major changes to the CPU design is applied and bugs from previous versions are fixed. If you want to be completely on the safe side, do not upgrade until at least 6 months have passed since a new CPU has been introduced on the market and initial issues have been fixed.
As you may have guessed, Ivy Bridge is at a Tick stage.
Here is a list of CPUs available at the moment that use Ivy Bridge architecture for you to choose from:
My choice was based on above criteria – a good balance between speed and price. So my choice was Intel Core i5-3470S – a power saving CPU ranging from 2.9 GHz to 3.6 GHz (based on CPU load), with integrated CPU graphics ranging from 650 MHz to 1100 MHz (once again based on load), 6 MB cache (the more the better) and 65W Thermal Design Power (the less the better). My additional goal was also to make it more compatible with “Hackintosh” system as Apple prefers Intel CPUs (if I need to build a Hackintosh) and with better support for virtual machine environment (VMWare, VirtualBox etc.) where once again Intel is a better choice than AMD.
Like I wrote above, the goal was not to get overclocked system but a stable and power saving one, while maintaining the highest speed as possible. Given the criteria, Intel Core i5-3470S is what I label the current “Best Buy”.
Motherboard for Ivy Bridge CPU
Ivy Bridge CPUs use LGA 1155 socket (also called Socket H2) so the motherboard must have this socket. Good thing is that Intel decided not to change socket design this time like they usually do so LGA 1155 can support Intel Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge microprocessors. To take advantage of the integrated CPU graphics it also must have a DVI (or HDMI or Display Port) connector on board. Number of USB connectors should be as high as possible, especially the USB 3 ones as most hardware today uses USB to connect to a machine. Here are also the rest of criteria I used when choosing the motherboard:
- Power saving features
- Supporting as many USB 3 and SATA 3 connectors
- Supporting 4-pin PWM controlled fans (for silent fan operation when not under load)
- Having high quality built-in sound
- Having gigabit network connector
- Eventual support for LucidLogix Virtu MVP (software to virtualize graphics card function and take advantage of discrete GPU (dedicated graphics card) and processor GPU working together)
Having a choice of many chipsets designed for the Ivy Bridge I needed some list of specifications for these chipsets. This list can be found here:
Z77 is the most high-end chipset for Socket 1155 processors and offers the most features. Considering the price of the motherboards using it, it is not much more expensive than the other ones using chipsets with less features so I decided to go with that one. So I label Z77 as the current “Best Buy” chipset.
|CPU Support||Ivy Bridge LGA-1155||Ivy Bridge LGA-1155||Ivy Bridge LGA-1155||Sandy/Ivy Bridge LGA-1155||Sandy/Ivy Bridge LGA-1155||Sandy/Ivy Bridge LGA-1155|
|CPU PCIe 3.0 Config||1 x16 or 2 x8 or 1 x8 + 2 x4||1 x16 or 2 x8||1 x16||1 x16 or 2 x8 or 1 x8 + 2 x4||1 x16 or 2 x8||1 x16|
|Intel SRT (SSD caching)||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|USB 2.0 Ports (3.0)||14 (4)||14 (4)||14 (4)||14||14||14|
|SATA Total (Max number of 6 Gbps ports)||6 (2)||6 (2)||6 (2)||6 (2)||6 (2)||6 (2)|
|PCIe Lanes||8 (5GT/s)||8 (5GT/s)||8 (5GT/s)||8 (5GT/s)||8 (5GT/s)||8 (5GT/s)|
This well-done article lists 32 Intel Z77 motherboards tested with Ivy Bridge processors for you to consider:
From the above article I went with Gigabyte GA-Z77MX-D3H motherboard. There was also a choice of Gigabyte GA-Z77-D3H which does have certain advantages, but due to much noise on stability of this board on various Internet forums, I decided to avoid it. Gigabyte GA-Z77MX-D3H doesn’t have PCI connectors (the old, white ones, 32-bit) and Intel Smart Response support but that is OK as I will go with dedicated SSD drive. So my choice of “Best Buy” motherboard is Gigabyte GA-Z77MX-D3H for system with the specifications on the top.
This was a relatively easy. Currently, the best price-to-performance ratio is on the DDR3 1600 MHz side so this is my “Best Buy” choice. Some may argue that faster memory is required for this system. However, real-world performance (and not synthetic tests) don’t make a case for anything faster than 1600 MHz. For example – WinRAR performance saves you 2 seconds from 47 second operation. Gaming performance increases maybe 1 FPS. Hardly a case for faster memory considering the extra price you pay for it. You can better spend your money by buying more memory rather than faster memory. You can see some real-world tests on following URL:
The size of the memory is another thing. Currently, Windows 7 is comfortable with 2 GB. It works very well with 4 GB. As memory price is not a big issue you can double that to 8 GB. There are very few applications that can make use of that much memory. You can go with 16 GB but I don’t believe that is necessary. If needed, it can be upgraded at later time.
So my choice is Corsair DDR3 1600MHz 8GB (2x4GB kit), XMS3. Make sure you get them in 2x kits because that way it can use dual-channel bandwidth and gain some additional speed.
Solid State Drive
One of the components that will increase your productivity the most is the Solid State Drive (SSD). Once you install one into your system and see the file operation speed increase, a normal 7200 RPM hard drive will really seem sluggish. This is probably the best upgrade you can get for your machine no matter what you will use it for. Traditionally, SSD drives have been quite expensive but I believe this is no longer the case. If you are not satisfied with their capacity then you can still use 2 drives – one for the operating system (SSD) and another for your data (traditional drive, for your work files, multimedia, games etc.).
Real world performance gives you 10-15 seconds Windows 7 boot compared to regular 1-2 minute. Even on SATA 2 system.
Some real world tests are here:
The choice here is yours but I recommend you get a model not based on asynchronous NAND memory. These models are cheaper, but not much from their faster synchronous NAND brothers. My “Best Buy” choice – OCZ Vertex 4, 128 GB. This particular model comes (in fact whole Vertex 4 series) with the Indilix Everest 2 controller with practically no performance penalty whether you use it with compressible or non-compressible data and excellent performance with random write access. However, even if you get a cheap asynchronous memory based model it will still be considerably faster than a regular 7200 RPM hard disk.
My recommendation for the other drive (storage one) is a power-saving “green” model. 2 TB Western Digital WD Green would do nice for this purpose. Note that it spins at 5400 RPM so it is slower than non-green versions of their drives but that also means more power efficient, more silent etc.
UPDATE: Since the time of writing this post I’ve discovered that WD Green can have issues with excessive head-parking. This feature is called IntelliPark and it is designed to save power, but the way it is implemented could easily be called a design flaw – it parks head every 8 seconds by default. This could possibly lead to premature disk failure and can also have effect on disk performance under certain operating systems. WD has a tool called WDIDLE3 which you can use to disable IntelliPark but I didn’t want to bother. Instead, I would recommend Toshiba DT01ACA200 which spins at 7200 RPM and although it draws a bit more power (less than 1 W) it is also quite a bit faster. Additional problem with WD is that there are at least two versions of their 2 TB “Green” disks (WD20EZRX) – one with 3×667 GB platters and another with 2×1 TB platters and it seems that the one with 2×1 TB platters is better choice. However, there is no certain way to tell which version is it except putting it on scale and measuring its weight – definitely not a choice if you’re ordering it online. You can find more information regarding this on HDD Platter Capacity Database blog. As I couldn’t find neither of these problems with Toshiba drives (they all seem to use 1 TB platters and there is no excessive head parking) I would recommend Toshiba DT01ACA200 instead. Note that you will need more recent operating system with both of these drives as they use Advanced Format – Windows XP does not support it but Windows 7 and later do (the consequence is that the disk will run slower on Windows XP). There is a cure for that as well, at least for WD disks – it’s called WD Align Tool.
This is where this guide ends. I haven’t mentioned graphics card upgrades simply because I didn’t do any at the moment. So this has been left out of this guide (may be added at later time). I also didn’t go into details with power supply, keyboard and other minor components as it is a bit outside of the scope of this guide so you should choose those which you like the most. I hope this guide saved you some time – feel free to make a comment.