Note: This feature first appeared in the July issue of Maximum PC. Some pricing info may have changed.
The PC upgrade is, sadly, a lost art form today. Fifteen years ago, the vast majority of PC buyers bought machines with long-term plans to upgrade them as newer, more capable parts became available. Today, most people would rather just chuck an aged PC into an e-waste bin and buy a completely new computer. We say boo to that. A well-thought-out upgrade can be the most economical option, extending the life of your PC’s still-useful parts—not to mention giving you a tremendous sense of satisfaction at your resourcefulness.
The trick is in knowing where and when an upgrade makes sense. Sometimes the lure of an upgrade can walk you down a path you never should have started on. For example, it may be tempting to buy that Core 2 QX9650 on eBay for $300, but you’d be much better off upgrading the CPU and motherboard to a Core i7 instead.
On the following pages we detail three distinct PC builds desperately in need of performance boosts. We walk you through our thought process in determining realistic upgrade goals for each PC and how and why we choose the parts to get there. Before and after benchmarks reveal the fruits of our labor.
While these are just three case studies, let them serve as useful examples of sound upgrading practices that you can apply toward the resurrection of any elderly PC, within reason. The first step is always to thoroughly weigh the costs/benefits. Some PCs, after all, truly should be retired.
One of Dell’s first PCs to eschew proprietary parts is just begging for an upgrade
|CPU||2.66GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600|
|GPU||GeForce 8800 GT|
|ODD||NEC DVD burner|
|OS||32-bit Windows Vista|
|PSU||Dell 750 watt|
The Dell XPS 630i was budget state-of-the-art in 2008, but is now in serious need of more performance.
Crank back the clock to 2008 and you get Dell’s XPS 630i. A nicely outfitted gaming rig for its time, the XPS 630i sported a 2.66GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600, a GeForce 8800 GT, a 750-watt PSU, and—get this for a last-decade flashback—a Hitachi 320GB 7,200rpm HDD. In 2008, this was a decent machine in a very nice brushed-aluminum case for around $1,500. What made the XPS 630i particularly special was its use of off-the-shelf industry components. Dell has long been kicked around by the media for using proprietary power supplies and motherboards in its machines. Dell’s defense has been that the changes were made to improve the specs. For example, Dell was one of the first consumer PC makers to use larger, server PSUs and plugs in its machines—a practice that bugged everyone, including us. Today those server power plugs aren’t unusual at all, but a staple of ultra-high-performance machines, so it seems like Dell was on to something. But we digress…. More to the point: The XPS 630i was one of the first rigs in which Dell exorcised proprietary parts. It’s industry standard all the way, or so the company said at the time. Well, baby, we’re going to find out.
Since the XPS 630i began its life as a budget gaming rig, we thought we’d keep the machine’s mission the same, with upgrades that would transform it into a budget gaming rig fit for the modern day. Since we’ve always been fond of XPS 630i’s case, we had no intentions of upgrading the enclosure—just pretty much everything else.
If you run old games or a browser all day, the classic Core 2 Quad Q6600 is plenty of computer—but we wanted more. We pondered a CPU upgrade for about five seconds, but the prices of older LGA775 chips and the performance it would yield didn’t seem worth it, particularly since we didn’t know if the board in the Dell would support higher FSB chips or even 45nm parts.
|CPU||Intel 3.3GHz Core i5-2500K (overclocked to 4GHz)||www.intel.com||$225|
|RAM||8GB Patriot DDR3/1600||www.patriotmemory.com||$42|
|GPU||XFX Radeon HD R7870||www.xfxforce.com||$359|
|Cooler||Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO||www.coolermaster.com||$35|
|SSD||120GB OCZ Agility 3||www.ocz.com||$136|
|USB Expansion||NZXT IU01 Internal USB Expansion||www.nzxt.com||$18|
|OS||64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium||www.microsoft.com||$99|
We next considered an X79 board paired with a 3.6GHz Core i7-3820, but most X79 boards are simply too wide for this chassis. We also had to mind the Intel-style front-panel connector, which rules out any Asus board without doing some wiring surgery. Then we remembered the internals from our May 2012 “Build a PC on Any Budget” story. The Sweet Spot PC and its Core i5-2500K part seemed perfect for this upgrade. Yes, Ivy Bridge would have been nice, but we simply didn’t have access to the budget IVB parts yet. Since the Sweet Spot indeed seemed like the sweet spot, we figured we could just migrate all the internals over to the XPS 630i. Well, almost all of them. We hit a problem with our GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448 card. It requires an 8-pin PCIe plug, and the Dell only gave us two 6-pin units, so we opted for a slightly pricier XFX Radeon HD 7870 card instead. It’s faster than the 560 Ti 448 card. Another option would have been to spring for a GeForce GTX 680, but that seemed to break our budget mantra. The machine originally came with the 32-bit flavor of Windows Vista Home Premium, so that was ejected for 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium. The 320GB hard drive was dismissed from its boot duties in favor of a 120GB OCZ Vertex 3 drive.
We’ve always wondered if Dell was true to its word when it pledged that the XPS line used industry-standard parts. Our experience here shows that Dell wasn’t fibbing, provided you stick with a narrow board that uses a standard Intel-style FP connector. The Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3 fit like a glove. The only sticky part was that the front USB and FireWire connector cables were too short. There are two ways to overcome this: $5 extension cables or a $20 NZXT internal USB expansion. We opted for the latter. You’ll also need to pick up a $5 internal cable for the front FireWire port if you plan to use it; we just left it disconnected since the board has a rear FireWire port, too. The original 320GB drive gets erased and reused for storage to keep costs down. It’s easy enough to swap in a 1TB or 2TB drive, though.
The Dell XPS 630i was surprisingly easy to upgrade and exceeded our expectations in performance.
|Vegas Pro (sec)||WNR||3,021 N/A|
|Lightroom 2.6 (sec)||1,224||343(+257)|
|ProShow 4 (sec)||2,442||868(+181)|
|MainConcept 1.6 (sec)||5,580||2,009(+178)|
|STALKER: CoP (fps)||WNR||47.4(N/A)|
|Far Cry 2 (fps)||25.9||107.3(314)|
The performance difference was like night and day. If you’re idling a Core 2-class machine today and wondering if you really need to upgrade, we say hell yes (unless you get paid by the hour and want things to go slower.) The 4GHz Core i5-2500K smokes the 2.66GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600 part in everything we could run. And believe us, some apps would not run, such as Sony Vegas 9, which gave us “out of memory” errors in 32-bit Vista. In Lightroom, we saw a 257 percent improvement; in ProShow Producer 4 we saw a 181 percent boost; and in MainConcept the difference was 178 percent. Even in general use, it was hard to believe how far we’ve come in just a few years. Thanks to the SSD, our boots went from two-minute affairs to 30‑second ones. In the end, we’re declaring mission accomplished, because this old dog now sings.
The LGA1156 socket is a dead end, but it’s still plenty fast
|CPU||2.66GHz Core i5-750 running at 3.2GHz|
|RAM||4GB Kingston DDR3/1600|
|GPU||GeForce GTX 295|
|Cooler||Cooler Master V8|
|HDD||1.5TB 7,200rpm Seagate Barracuda 7200.11|
|ODD||22x Samsung DVD+R|
|OS||64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium|
|PSU||Cooler Master Scout / Corsair 750 TX|
At two years old, this CyberPower Gamer Xtreme 3200 can get a boost from the replacement of a few key components.
CyberPower PC’s Gamer Xtreme 3200 is only 14 months newer than the Dell XPS 630i, but what a difference that time makes. The Xtreme 3200 packs the dual-GPU-based GeForce GTX 295 (two GeForce GTX 285 chips), a 2.66GHz Core i5-750, 4GB of DDR3/1600 RAM, and a 1.5TB Seagate Barracuda hard drive. When new, this machine sold for $1,600. In 2009 dollars, that’s a pretty good deal for this much hardware, especially when you consider that it packs a dual-GPU graphics card. Much of the credit goes to the Core i5-750 chip, which made Intel’s new Nehalem architecture affordable for the masses
but that felt wasteful. Yes, we’d pick up new technologies such as SATA 6Gb/s and the like, but the Core i5-750 is still very serviceable and really only two years old. With that decided, our mission was to boost the PC’s performance capability and make it DirectX 11-ready with a few key upgrades.
We picked two main upgrades: the first was to dump the GeForce GTX 295 for a GeForce GTX 680 card. The original GeForce GTX 295 sold for $500, so swapping it out for the $500 EVGA GeForce GTX 680 card seems apt. This gives us modern API support, higher frame rates, and—over time—a savings in power, too, as dual-GPU cards don’t exactly sip power.
|RAM||8GB Corsair Vengeance DDR3/1600||www.corsair.com||$54|
|GPU||EVGA GeForce GTX 680||www.evga.com||$499|
|SSD||120GB Corsair GT||www.corsair.com||$169|
|OS||64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium||www.microsoft.com||$99|
The second big upgrade was a 120GB Corsair Force GT SSD. Using the second-gen SandForce controller, the NANDs in this SSD are a bit faster than those in the OCZ SSD we used in the Dell, so we decided to splurge a bit.A third, less significant upgrade was adding 8GB of DDR3/1600. Yeah, 4GB is fine for most chores, but, what the hey, memory is still cheap. That brings the machine up to a total of 12GB of DDR3/1600. We also decided that since the machine is a bit older now, we’d push the overclock a bit harder. The Lynnfield CPU is overclocked by increasing the base clock (remember that?), so we increased it from 160MHz to 175MHz. That takes us to 3.5GHz, and with Turbo Boost on, we saw the clocks hitting the 3.8GHz range. The last upgrade was moving from Windows Vista to Windows 7. We long ago made peace with Vista after Microsoft released SP1 and SP2, but we’ve become so accustomed to Windows 7 that we think it’s worth the $100.
A modern GPU and SSD and a bit more RAM do wonders for performance.
|Vegas Pro (sec)||4,501||3,064|
|Lightroom 2.6 (sec)||616||345|
|ProShow 4 (sec)||1,216||1,137|
|MainConcept 1.6 (sec)||2,618||2,377|
|stalker: CoP (fps)||WNR||60.9(N/A)|
|Far Cry 2 (fps)||772||168.5|
We didn’t expect the same stellar performance difference with the Cyber‑Power PC as we got with the Dell rig. After all, that machine received completely new innards. But despite being the most modest upgrade here, the CyberPower surprised us with its improved performance. The combination of the increased RAM footprint, slightly higher clocks speeds, SSD, new GPU, and clean OS install gave us more than we expected in a few benchmarks. Sony Vegas Pro 9, surprisingly, saw a 47 percent performance bump. Adobe Lightroom also achieved a very healthy increase of 79 percent. In gaming, we saw an 86 percent jump in Far Cry 2, and our DirectX 11 test, STALKER: CoP, actually ran. In some tests, the results were more as expected, though. Main Concept Reference and ProShow Producer 4, for example, gave us about a 10 percent improvement, which matched our 10 percent overclock. Overall, we think our upgrades make sense and extend the machine’s service life. We might consider this stage one of our upgrade. Perhaps next year it’ll be time to dump the Core i5-750 for Intel’s next-generation mainstream socket, the LGA1150 and Haswell CPU.
Part two of an ambitious upgrade to a 3-year-old ‘Budget Surplus’ machine
|CPU||2.8GHz Core i7-920 Running at 3.5GHz|
|RAM||16GB Corsair Vengeance DDR3/1600|
|GPU||Sapphire Radeon HD 7950|
|Cooler||Thermalright TRUE-120 1366|
|HDD||1TB WD Caviar Black|
|ODD||LG Blu-ray player|
|OS||64-bit Windows 7 Professional|
|PSU||Thermaltake Element S / Corsair 850 TX|
Here’s our aging warrior after the first round of upgrades in May—still X58, but with a modern GPU and more RAM.
In our May 2012 issue’s Build It section, we took a $1,400 gaming PC from our September 2009 issue and gave it a modest upgrade. The original rig was the midrange box in a trio of lean-year Dream Machines and was built around an Intel Core i7-920 and an ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2. It had three 2GB DDR3/1333 DIMMs, a 1TB hard drive, an LG Blu-ray drive, and an 850W Corsair power supply. The case was a Thermaltake Element S mid-tower.
In the course of our May upgrade, we took that aging PC and boosted it from 6GB of DDR3 RAM to 12GB (by buying a 16GB kit and using only three DIMMs). We also swapped the ancient, power-hungry dual-GPU card for a sleek Radeon HD 7950, but otherwise left the rig unchanged. The goal was to offer an immediate performance boost while paving the way for a second, more comprehensive round of upgrades down the line. That time is now.
The Core i7-920 was an enthusiast CPU back in the day, and this Hyper-Threading-enabled quad-core is still no slouch. In fact, we could take the upgrades we’ve already made, add an SSD, and call it a day—and we wouldn’t blame anyone who stops there. We’d still be stuck with a dead-end socket that has no feasible upgrade path, so we’re biting the bullet and going for the major upgrade.
Since X58 was Intel’s enthusiast platform at the time, we want to stay in the enthusiast realm while offering a generous upgrade path, so we’ll need a CPU with plenty of juice now and a motherboard with room to grow. We hate to run a fancy rig without an SSD to improve load times and all-around system responsiveness, so we won’t.
We’ll keep the RAM and GPU from May’s upgrade, as well as the case, power supply, Blu-ray drive, and hard drive from the original build. Everything else gets an overhaul. In place of the Core i7-920, we’ll use Intel’s Core i7-3820. We briefly considered keeping the X58 platform and upgrading the CPU to a hexa-core Core i7-970, but they’re $650 new and around $525 used. The Core i7-970 would add performance for multithreaded apps, but paying so much for a CPU on a dead-end socket didn’t sit well with us. The Core i7-3820 is a quad-core Sandy Bridge-E part with Hyper-Threading that overclocks well despite not being an unlocked part. And our internal benchmarks indicate that its performance is competitive with older Westmere hexa-core chips anyway, so there’s no point in buying the i7-970 when we can get the i7-3820 and a new X79 motherboard for the same price
|CPU||Intel Core i7-3820||www.intel.com||$300|
|SSD||240GB SanDisk ExtremeSSD||www.sandisk.com||$290|
|Front-panel USB 3.0||Biostar USB 3.0 Adapter||www.biostar-usa.com||$14|
|5.25-to-3.5-inch Drive Bay Adapter||Silverstone FP55||www.silverstonetek.com||$16|
|Front Panel Extensions||
NZXT Front Panel Connector
We’ll recycle the three 4GB DIMMs from the first part of our upgrade, and add the fourth. This is why we bought a 16GB kit instead of a 12GB kit in May—so we’d have the extra DIMM ready when it was time to go quad-channel.
Because of LGA2011’s integrated universal backplate, we’ll need a new cooler—
Thermaltake doesn’t sell an LGA2011 mounting kit for the Ultra Extreme 120. We like Xigmatek’s Aegir due to its direct-contact heat pipes and powerful cooling performance.
Last we’ll add an SSD. Solid-state drives dramatically reduce load times and come with blazing-fast read and write speeds. SanDisk’s 240GB ExtremeSSD is a speedy SandForce-based 6Gb/s SATA SSD and is price-competitive with others in its class. 240GB is generous enough that we won’t need to micro-manage programs, though we’ll still want to make sure media and documents are kept on the 1TB drive.
Because the Element S is an older chassis, it has a few problems of its own. It doesn’t have front-panel USB 3.0 ports, and though it shipped with 2.5-inch drive‑bay adapters, they’ve long since vanished into the depths of the Lab. The front-panel connectors are just a few inches too short to reach the pins on the motherboard, though we split the blame for that between Intel and Thermaltake. Fortunately, all of those problems are easily solvable. Biostar makes an inexpensive 3.5-inch bay device with two USB 3.0 ports on an internal header, and Silverstone makes a 5.25-inch bay adapter that accommodates a 3.5-inch device and two 2.5-inch SSDs. A few NZXT front-panel connector extenders, and our case is ready for 2012.
And here’s what it looks like now, complete with quad-channel RAM, a hefty Turbo overclock, speedy SSD, and front-panel USB 3.0.
|Vegas Pro (sec)||3,234||2,322|
|Lightroom 2.6 (sec)||394||256|
|ProShow 4 (sec)||1,184||857|
|MainConcept 1.6 (sec)||2,268||1,711|
|stalker: CoP (fps)||60.3||61.2|
|Far Cry 2 (fps)||1,185||121.8|
Color us unsurprised: A modern Sandy Bridge-E quad-core at 4.4GHz trounces a 2008-era Bloomfield quad at 3.5GHz. Thanks to the overclocked i7-3820 and the SandForce SSD, we saw huge gains in CPU- and drive-limited benchmarks. Our MainConcept Reference score was 33 percent faster than the pre-upgrade rig, ProShow Producer showed 38 percent improvements, our Vegas Pro 9 score went up 39 percent, and our Lightroom test was as whopping 54 percent speedier.
With the GPU and RAM upgrades we made a few months ago, we’ve gone from an aging X58 gaming PC with a hot, slow GPU and a dead-end motherboard to a fresh, speedy gaming PC on Intel’s latest enthusiast socket—one that doesn’t lack for modern amenities like front-panel USB 3.0, a capacious boot SSD, or modern graphics.
Granted, the only parts this machine has in common with the one we built in September 2009 are the case, power supply, optical drive, and hard drive, but it’s still the same rig, right? Or maybe it isn’t. What’s important is that it’s blazing fast, actually draws less power than the original, and is ready for the future.
Adherence to a few simple guidelines can make your upgrade go much more smoothly
If you upgrade your CPU or heatsink, you may be tempted to just plop the old heatsink back in place, but it’s generally recommended that you clean off the old thermal paste and re-apply fresh paste to the new CPU or heatsink. If the old thermal paste is gunked on like concrete, it may take more than elbow grease to clean it off. We use Arctic Silver’s ArctiClean, but a bit of 99 percent isopropyl alcohol also works in a pinch.
Just upgraded from a single card to a dual-GPU card? Sure, the plugs may fit, but if your PSU is sagging under the load on a cool day, it’ll get even worse when temperatures rise. It can be tough to gauge the power requirements, so check with the GPU vendor for what your new card requires.
If you just swapped a G-series Pentium for a Core i7-2700K you should probably upgrade your heatsink fan, too, as a faster CPU usually means more heat. If you’re using the stock Intel cooler, keep in mind that the budget chip’s cooler might look the same, but it’s actually different from the higher-performing heatsinks.
So you just added a second optical drive and upgraded the GPU. Just throw away that old bezel and expansion card slot cover, right? Not so fast, buddy. We recommend that you save those parts for the future when you decide to give away the case. That’s usually when you start looking for that old bezel or other parts that you thought you didn’t need anymore.
We know, we know, one of the pains of doing a major upgrade is dealing with an OS reinstall. However, when your upgrade involves swapping the motherboard and chipset, it’s recommended that you do a clean install. You can get away with just letting Windows redetect the new hardware, but a clean install will protect you against any potential problems.
Before you do your upgrade, we recommend that you take the time to perform a full backup of your files. Why? Because this is the time when something breaks and the last person who touched it gets blamed for the breaking, even if you had nothing to do with it. So consider this your public service announcement.
If you just upgraded to an SSD, don’t forget to move your default library location from that limited-space SSD to your HDD. Do this by clicking the Start button on Windows 7 and selecting Documents. In the left-hand pane, expand the Documents entry by clicking it and then right-click My Documents. Select the Location tab and click Move to move it to your HDD.
If you have four years’ worth of cat hair circulating in your PC, it’s time to clean it. We use a vacuum cleaner to carefully suck up the dust bunnies. Take care not to get the vacuum so close as to remove components from your motherboard and GPU. Also clean the case’s filters and vents of dust. If your wiring is a mess, now is also a perfect time to make it ship-shape.
If your machine is old enough, you likely did not have AHCI, or Adaptive Host Control Interface, enabled, as many motherboards left it off by default. AHCI lets you take advantage of advanced capabilities such as support for booting to devices larger than 2.2TB, native command queuing, and hot swapping. You should only enable AHCI if you’re doing a clean install of the OS, which would be the case if you’re installing a hard drive or SSD. If you enable AHCI without doing a clean install, Windows 7 will fail to boot until you turn it off.
Since you’re in your box tinkering around, we recommend that you take a look at the case’s airflow. Generally, you want air flowing from the front of the case to the rear of the case where it’s exhausted. You can reposition fans and adjust fan speeds to help with this. We generally recommend running more intake fans than exhaust fans in dustier environments. This should aid positive air pressure in the case and help reduce dust issues.