The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

February 27, 2013

Back on the Cutting Edge… Sort of.

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 11:50 pm

I apologize for the lack of a post last week.  This was because the vast majority of the time I had for writing was taken up by preparing a talk for Sacrament meeting at church on Sunday (I am planning to post that a bit later on, if for no other reason than to have it in my archives; I have a tendency to lose these type of things quickly after I’m done with them, and there are some older ones, as well as some of my older writing, that I wish I still had copies of.)   A few posts ago, I talked about some upgrades I was doing to my computer.  It was actually while I was in the process of writing that particular post that I discovered through my Blog archives that my then-current desktop PC had gone over four years without a major upgrade.  This was a year longer than I thought it was, and even though the upgrades I made a few weeks ago did provide a decent speed boost to my system, it did make me start to reconsider my plans to wait another 6-12 months to upgrade the rest of my system.  When I originally made those plans, I had figured that I was going to get a new case, video card and replace the main hard drive in the system with an SSD.  On doing a bit of further research, I came to the realization that the SSD, while it would have been a pretty decent speed boost, would have been badly bottlenecked by the slower serial ATA controller on my old motherboard, so I wouldn’t have been using it to its full ability.

Naturally, I probably could have found a cheaper solution to the problem than going out and replacing the whole system, but that was before I figured out how old my current system had become, apparently without me noticing.  And by the time I got to that point, it was pretty much all downhill from there.  Besides, given the age of my old system, there was a good chance that any upgrades like that would end up being a sunk cost when I did replace the system later on anyway.  Given the fact that I got over four years out of my old computer and over five years out of the one before that, I do have a tendency not to keep up with the latest trends in PC hardware quite as well as I used to back when I would either build or do a major upgrade on my PC roughly every eighteen months or so..  This means that the process of putting together a new computer generally starts out with several weeks of mostly figuring out what the heck you’re actually supposed to use.  And unless you’ve been keeping up with trends in the PC hardware market (which I haven’t) there’s a good chance that for at least the first week or so of the process, it’s mostly going to be a matter of figuring out which model numbers are supposed to be the good ones.  Fortunately, the info isn’t too hard to find if you know where to look (and don’t mind reading a whole lot of reviews).

Eventually I figured out that I should probably go with the 3570k (as opposed to the 3770k, which would have TOTALLY been overkill and would have cost too much,) the Z77, the GTX 660 Ti, the 840 and either the X-750 or the HX750 (either one, but the 700 I already have is apparently a ticking time bomb and really shouldn’t be reused.)  And yes, even after reading all the reviews and the benchmarks that still looks like a bunch of random numbers, but eventually I was able to turn it into something vaguely resembling a system formula.  Then I posted it to a web forum for some advice… At which point I had to basically redo half of it.  Finally, after a fair bit of going back and forth on things and waiting around for sales, here’s what I ended up with:

  • Case: CoolerMaster HAF X (this is the one I bought a few weeks ago)
  • CPU: Intel Core i5 3570k
  • Motherboard: Asus P8Z77-V
  • CPU cooler: Corsair H100i closed-loop watercooler
  • Power Supply: Seasonic X-Series 850W
  • Video card EVGA GeForce GTX 660 Ti (I also bought this a few weeks ago)
  • SSD: Samsung 840 Pro 256GB
  • Storage drive: Seagate Barracuda 3TB
  • Other stuff: Some random DVD-R drive, the Ceton InfiniTV card I bought back when I was having various cable problems, got working on my old system for about three days then messed something up to the point of never being able to get it back

When all was said and done and once mail-in rebates on a few parts are figured in, the whole build came in somewhere a little bit under $1,600 total.  That does seem like a lot to be spending on a computer these days,  and indeed I could have easily gotten something fairly respectable for half that amount, but it’s interesting to note just how far things have come over the years.  If I recall correctly, when my parents bought our family’s first 386SX based PC sometime in 1991 or 1992 (I’m a little vague on that) it sold for $1,499.  Even though that price did include a monitor, keyboard and mouse, DOS 5 and Windows 3.0  (which I didn’t need for this one since I already had all the peripherals and a transferrable copy of Windows 7) at the time that was considered to be a reasonably priced entry-level PC.  20+ years later, we’ve come to the point where an entry-level PC is a lot closer to the $300 range (plus $100 or so if you need a monitor to go with that or want to go with one of the all-in-one models,) and $1,500 will get you an out-and-out firebreather of a system.  The resulting system isn’t anywhere near the insane-level top-of-the-line stuff you see in the really crazy rigs (If you were really motivated you could manage to easily spend $3,000 on video cards alone these days) but I aimed to make a system that would cover my computing needs for a while and allow for some upgrading if the need arises later on.  Not that I should need to do so for a while, since what I’ve got is already pretty dang fast.

Thanks to the SSD (a Samsung 840 Pro, which is right near the top of the list of the fastest consumer-level SSDs you can get right now) this new system can go from pressing the power button to showing the Windows login prompt in ten seconds.  It’s particularly amusing to see the Windows startup animation not even have time to finish before it’s ready to go.  For quite a while it’s been shown that SSDs can be a huge performance boost, but for all the speed they bring they also come with the price of frequently dubious reliability.  This blog post over at Coding Horror has a rather interesting way of putting this (based on Barney Stimson’s Crazy/Hot scale from the sitcom How I Met Your Mother,) but still concludes that the drives are hot enough to put up with the crazy that comes with them.  Then again, that post was made nearly two years ago, and the SSD I ended up putting in this system does come with a 5-year warranty on it, so what’s the worst that can happen?  (No wait, don’t answer that.)   Currently, the conventional wisdom seems to suggest that the SSD is best used for putting system files and applications on, while a conventional hard drive covers the heavy lifting of data storage duty, which is what I’m doing for the time being.  As for the performance boost from an SSD:

This disk benchmark should give you some idea of just how much difference the SSD makes compared to a hard drive.  The red one is the 3TB Seagate I’ve got as my storage drive in my new system, which is considered reasonably fast for a hard drive these days, but falls behind some of the higher-end drives on the market.  And yet, when put next to the SSD, it’s no contest.  The IOPS on the hard drive don’t even register on the chart compared to the SSD.

And then just to make this a really unfair comparison, here’s the SSD next to the 500GB storage drive I had in my old system, which has to be at least 5 or 6 years old by now.  Perhaps the more interesting result to look at here would be a comparison with the WD Raptor 150 that served as the system drive in my old system and which was considered to be one of the fastest SATA hard drives on the market back when it came out (I think consumer-level SSDs were just barely starting to appear by then, but they were still firmly in the “rare and hideously expensive” category), but I don’t have that one hooked up right now.

Either way, even with Moore’s law starting to slip lately as the pace of improvements in processor technology slows down, you can still see that four years can make quite a bit of difference.  To be honest, my old system was still in pretty decent shape as far as being able to handle the stuff I was using it for, but it was getting to be time to upgrade.  I suspect I’ll be having this conversation again here in four years or so…


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