Build It: Upgrading an X58 Rig into a Gaming Powerhouse

Nathan Edwards

The Mission: Way back in the recession-bound depths of 2009, we skipped our normal balls-to-the-wall Dream Machine build in favor of three more modest PCs . Rather than a $10,000 ode to excess, we built rigs actual people would build. Our $1,400 midrange system, which we called the Budget Surplus, was kitted out with an Intel Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz on a Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD3R motherboard with 6GB DDR3, a 1.5TB boot drive, and the finest in dual-GPU technology: a Radeon HD 4870x2.

The Budget Surplus is showing its age—nearly three years old! I’ve had many people with similar systems ask if it’s time for a new rig, but I’m hesitant to recommend a major upgrade before Ivy Bridge and Ivy Bridge-E come out.

Rather than going all-out on a new machine, I’m going to bring our 2009-era box into the present day with a few upgrades that’ll make the machine feel new again, and that I’ll be able to bring with me when I do bite the bullet on a new CPU and motherboard.

Strategic Maneuvering

[caption]Our Budget Surplus machine as it appeared in 2009.

As I mentioned above, I’m not going for a whole new build here. I just want to wring some more life out of my X58 system. The Core i7-920 is still a good CPU: it has four cores and multithreading, and it overclocks like a champ. Plus, with Ivy Bridge and Ivy Bridge-E on the horizon, it doesn’t make sense to upgrade my CPU just yet.

The motherboard is a weird one: it was a budget board in mid-2009, and though it has triple-channel DDR3 support, it only has four DIMM slots instead of the usual six. The fourth DIMM slot, if used, will up the total amount of memory at the expense of bandwidth. When we built the machine, we used three 2GB DIMMs for 6GB total. RAM is cheap these days, and four 4GB DIMMs only cost a tiny bit more than three 4GB DIMMs, so I’m going to buy a 16GB kit and use three of the DIMMs, keeping the fourth in reserve for when I change motherboards later. That still gives me 12GB of RAM—double what this machine had before.

As much as I’d like an SSD, I don’t want to spend a fortune just yet, so I’ll wait until the eventual platform upgrade. Until then, I’m sticking with the hard drive, optical drive, case, and PSU from the old build, since they’re still going strong. Well, the hard drive was replaced with a 1TB Caviar Black at some point, but since that happened in the indefinite past it doesn’t count. I will add a $30 USB 3.0 PCIe expansion card, because I like USB 3.0 and that’s the only way I’ll get it without a motherboard upgrade.

The graphics card, on the other hand, is four years old, sucks power, and doesn’t even support DirectX 11, so that’s gotta go. I’m replacing it with a brand-new Sapphire Radeon HD 7950. At $480, it’s cheaper and faster than a GTX 580, supports DirectX 11, and draws less power than the ancient card it replaces. With Sapphire’s aftermarket heatsink, it’s also much cooler.

The original configuration called for Windows 7 Release Candidate, but I’m operating under the assumption that anyone who still uses X58 would have updated to a real version of Windows 7 when the RC stopped working, so I don’t count Windows 7 as an upgrade. Total cost for the RAM, USB 3.0 card, and GPU? Just $605.

Tearing It Down

Before I began the upgrade process, I uninstalled the drivers for the old videocard. Next I powered down the system and started the upgrade. The first thing I did was remove the old GPU and RAM from the system. I also took this opportunity to remove the heatsink, clean off the old thermal paste, and reapply it.

It’s a good idea to do this every year or so, and I’ve been bad about that. I used Arctic Silver’s ArctiClean two-step thermal compound remover ($10, and Arctic Silver 5 ($13,

I also took this opportunity to move the heatsink fan from pull configuration to push, to give it some distance from the rear exhaust fan which was creating a bit of noisy turbulence.

Tidying Up

While the system’s empty, it’s nice to do some dusting and rewiring. The Thermaltake Element S doesn’t have the cable-routing features we take for granted in more modern cases, but it does have a few routing cutouts, as well as a cover to hide the shameful non-modular power supply cables. We did a good wiring job when we built the thing, but, well, it’s been a while. Stuff happens. It’s not a big effort to take a few minutes and clean up. The motherboard power cables, for example, can be wired behind the motherboard tray.

We Can Rebuild It

Once the case was nice and tidy, it was time for the upgrades. I put the new RAM in the three white slots (I could install the fourth DIMM in the blue slot, but I’d take a bandwidth hit). The USB 3.0 PCIe adapter can go in either of the top two x1 PCIe slots, and the videocard in the top x16 PCIe slot. I connected two 6-pin power connectors, closed up the case, and booted to see how much of a difference the new components made.

Phase-One Complete

Since the Budget Surplus machine’s CPU was already overclocked to 3.5GHz, I didn’t see any meaningful change in benchmarks that measure processing performance—all CPU-bound benchmarks were within 3 percent of their original scores. Our benchmarks aren’t really designed to measure memory size, either, so I didn’t see a big change from that upgrade, but in daily use, 12GB of RAM is better than 6GB, and hell, it’s cheap!

Gaming benchmarks were a different story. “Wait,” I hear you cry, “You mean to tell me a brand-new $480 Radeon 7950 outperforms a videocard from mid-2008?” Shocking, but true: The Sapphire HD 7950 was twice as fast in Stalker: Call of Pripyat (which the dual 4870s had to run in DirectX 10 mode) and 35 percent faster than the old setup in the DirectX 10 Far Cry 2.

If you’re like me, you rarely go three years without updating a single component, and you don’t replace every part of your PC when you do update. This upgrade is designed to be the first step in a two-step process: The next step will include a CPU, cooler, and motherboard at the very least, and an SSD and a new case if I’m feeling fancy. All the parts I bought for this upgrade (save the USB 3.0 adapter, which will be rendered superfluous) will carry over into the new build, as will the PSU and drives.

The two-step upgrade process serves two purposes: it spreads the financial pain of upgrading into two discrete chunks, and it gives me a performance boost on my current rig. Rather than using a slow machine for longer, I get a slightly faster machine now and another speed boost later. Don’t think I’ll forget about this build, either—tune in in a few months when I do the second half of this upgrade. We’ll ponder the Ship of Theseus paradox. You can Google that.

Our Budget Surplus machine consisted of a quad-core 2.66GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, 6GB of Corsair DDR3/1333 on a Gigabyte X58 motherboard, with an ATI Radeon HD 4870x2 graphics card, a 1TB WD Caviar Black drive, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional.

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