Desktop Computer Upgrades: A Data-Based Perspective
Editorial By Tom Jaskulka
As enthusiasts, the “next best thing” is always right around the corner (usually about soonTM months away). Upgrade options are plentiful, so most users end up upgrading on some sort of a cycle (whether incrementally or wholly). With Moore’s Law taking a backseat to physics, the enthusiast market has had to tolerate new platforms with incremental performance advances of 5-10% from generation to generation. This has caused most upgrade cycles to increase from an “every other generation” tempo to “eh…my i5-2600K still churns out 100+ FPS, why upgrade?”
Of course, that’s from the same architecture to a newer version of the same brand’s processor. What about from platform to platform? By now, most enthusiasts are aware of AMD’s IPC deficit when compared to Intel’s Core architecture. While higher clock-speeds are an attempt to close the gap, Intel CPUs are just more efficient per clock than any comparable AMD processor. Now…how much does it matter? More specifically, how much does it matter to gamers? Is more graphics power the only thing that matters, or is your CPU holding you back? To make matters complicated, when it’s time for a computer upgrade where can you get the greatest “bang for your buck”?
In this editorial research article for Benchmark Reviews, I’ll examine two $350 desktop computer systems, two widely different computer upgrade paths, and a data-based approach to attempt to answer the ever-popular question: “what should I upgrade next on my PC?”. Given that $350 and an AMD-based computer, is it worth adding $350-worth of graphics power, or should a gaming enthusiast take that same amount and use it to switch sockets to Intel?
What to do with $350?
It all started with a conversation at work. You know the type.
“Hey Tom. I kinda want to get another GTX 970 – what do you think about SLI?”
[Begin 90-minute conversation]
Me: “And that’s why I think you should do that instead. You know what though? I’ve got two GTX 970s at home right now, and the same platform you have (FX-8350+990FX). Want to test it?”
And so it begins.
I love talking about hardware. Especially since the PC market has so many options, there never seems to be an easy/accurate answer – making the questions themselves much more interesting. Naturally, given all of the options open to us, we tend to distill arguments down to chunks that are easier to test. In some cases, this makes sense – rather than testing every specific configuration, we can break a computer system down into a logical category and make some general conclusions. This is why a GPU-focused testbed should seek to eliminate every other variable, for instance.
However, that doesn’t always tell the most relevant story. For instance, the question at hand – to SLI or switch to Intel? There’s a reason most review sites will use an Intel-based testbed for benchmarking graphics cards, as it’s been shown to be the least restrictive bottleneck (therefore more clearly – accurately – illustrating the differences between GPUs). How does that help someone using an AMD system? They can still choose – based on the data shown – a clear category of performance when it comes to discrete graphics, but their actual system results are going to be a little different. Here’s what I’m getting at: the only relevant test you can perform is with your own desktop computer system. It’s the only way to know exactly what your performance is going to be like during any given benchmark or game.
We still have to answer the question though, so let’s try something a little more specific. I’ve got two desktop computer systems with similarly-priced processors: one with an Intel Core i5-4670K and one with an AMD FX-8350. I also have two GTX 970s. I’ll be testing both CPUs with GTX 970s in SLI, then each platform independently with a single GTX 970 to hopefully answer the following question:
Given ~$350 and an AMD FX-8350-based system with a GTX 970, should a user just buy another GTX 970 or use that money to switch to an Intel-based platform?
Of course, such a question is useless without a goal – how else are we to measure the results, or know when a desired state is achieved? For this article, the goal would be finding the option that provides the best “gaming experience” for the money. Now, I understand that this means different things to different people, making it a bit tricky. At the risk of a spiraling descent into subjectiveness, I would personally define this goal as achieved if the following conditions are met:
- I feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of that $350 – or, phrased another way, I’ve gotten a $350 increase to my gaming experience (there’s a substantial difference in “feel” to the system). This has a couple pieces to it as well:
- Gaming feels “faster.” The frame rate should improve, as well as consistency of the frames.
- A performance target is met – while I shouldn’t expect to double my FPS on any computer system just by adding a second GPU, I should experience a substantial improvement – given a desktop computer already sitting around the $700 mark, spending what will amount to 30% of the total system budget should provide a 30% improvement in a perfect world. In reality, you tend to pay increasingly more for diminishing returns at the high-end, so I shouldn’t expect to be disappointed if I experience less than this.
- Two GPUs is a lot of graphics power. I don’t want to waste it, or be limited by some other component – otherwise what’s the point in upgrading graphics? Upgrading the component causing the bottleneck would make more sense, right? That’s what we hope to find out.
A few caveats:
- The conclusions reached apply to the specific configuration and platforms discussed – and it’s entirely possible this will be outdated by a something so simple as a driver or other software update. DirectX 12, for example, has the potential to render this entire article pointless.
- This article won’t take into account every possible use of a platform. The PC enthusiast market has a myriad of choices and user preferences – this article came about from a work discussion starting with the typical “I want to upgrade – what should I spend money on next?” This article assumes starting conditions of a typical enthusiast gamer with a general use/gaming PC.
- The best part about building PCs is you get to do what you want (and value). At the risk of spoilers, if you just really like AMD, knock yourself out.
- I’m going to make some assumptions. I’m assuming that enthusiasts will want the “best possible” scenario for each individual platform. I’ll be heavily overclocking the AMD platform, for instance – and I won’t leave the Intel platform alone either. This article isn’t about “Can a 4.8GHz FX-8350 beat a stock Core i5-4670K?” I’m not interested in fudging numbers to prove a result – I honestly want to know if one platform is better for gaming than the other, and if there’s data that can factually inform me that one solution is better, I want to know it.
So why all this talk about platforms and “experience”? Why even bring switching to Intel into the conversation with a user that is perfectly happy with their AMD FX-8350? I think it’s worth spending a little time to tell a bit of a story. About hardware, about history, and about one enthusiast’s quest for truth…