So I’ve got this old HTPC. I wouldn’t call it “crappy” because it’s not too bad. It’s from 2010 or so and at least has SATA 3, USB 3.0 ports, and supports up to 32GB of DDR3 RAM (it currently has 6GB in it). It’s got a PCI-E x16 slot and supports PCI Express 2.0. The down-side is the processor, an AMD Phenom II X4 965. This is a quad-core processor with hyper threading that runs at 3.4Ghz and is easily overclockable to 4Ghz or so on standard air. Back in the day I used this thing as a media server, so I’ve already got 4TB of drive space in it.
So what was my use case for this today?
At home my desk is all set up in such a way that I can “dock” my laptop to it. My laptop is an AORUS X7 V5 Pro, so it’s rocking an i7 6820HK CPU, dual GTX 970Ms w a total of 12GB of VRAM, and 16GB of system RAM. NVME 512GB SSD and 2TB spinning SATA disk round that off. It’s quite a bit more powerful than the old system, obviously – when I have it with me. Sometimes I leave it at the office and just go home after client meetings or other outings, and then at home I’m without a PC. I leave it less often than I have it, but still.
The major positives of this setup is that I have all of my data, games, music, applications, etc. with me all at one time and all in one place. I don’t have to worry about dual-licensing software, making sure my game saves are synced (which Steam will do an ok job of, if the game supports it), making sure my music is synced, worrying about updates and patches on two machines, etc. The other positive is that the AORUS has performed absolutely FLAWLESSLY for the almost year now that I’ve had it. Hell, it’s even still on the initial install of Windows 10 that came on it (no bloatware here), and it’s rock solid and still ultra fast.
The negatives of this setup? First I have to make sure I always have it with me. This means that if I do leave it at work I’m hosed. Also, there’s not a LOT of storage on the device, just 2.5TB, but games are huge nowadays. As part of my “dock” setup at home, which is basically a USB hub tucked under my desk that connects a mouse/keyboard, my audio interface, my Vive, and whatever other USB things I need with one plug, I have an external 2TB hard drive for keeping stuff on that won’t “fit” on the laptop or that I don’t need day-to-day. Things like old backups of projects that I’ve kept, old art from when I used to do that stuff, my monstrously un-culled MP3 library, my digital pictures archive, application ISOs that I’ve kept forever (does anyone still need a copy of Server 2003?), etc.
So how was I to remedy this?
I figured “on the cheap” I could use that old HTPC, upgrade the RAM to 16GB, throw a modern video card in it (most games run primarily inside GPU now, uh… right?), and I’d be set. I could just use that instead. Sure I’d have to dual-install stuff and make sure music and whatnot was synced, but for all of my “production” and “work” stuff I use OneDrive anyway so it wouldn’t be THAT big a deal. So I started exploring.
We have zero computer stores around here now, since Circuit City and (more importantly) CompUSA were defunct a long time ago. It’s a holiday weekend so good luck getting anything delivered. Typically I’m an impatient person and want stuff “now” so I’d rather go spend $5-$10 more for something at a place like Best Buy and get it today than wait even 2 days for shipping. Especially when it’s the weekend and I’ve got that project blood flowing inside my veins, with a need to build something or make something.
Best Buy was able to provide me with the RAM. 2 sticks of 4GB DDR3 for $49. Not horrible, for $100 I could have a healthy amount of RAM at 16GB. The only video cards they had in stock were GeForce 1070s and 1080s. A 1080 is way too much for what I do, though the monitor (TV) that I would be using here is 4K, so the onboard ATI card from 2010 wouldn’t cut it (HDMI 1.3 only). The 1070 was the same price as on Newegg or Amazon, so that was fine. Of course the old power supply was only 400W, which isn’t enough for the 1070. A 650W EVGA modular PSU at Best Buy was $80. This was starting to get pricey, but that’s all I’d really need.
Then I started thinking “Hmm, maybe I should just build a new one and use this case.” Quickly I found out that full-sized ATX boards don’t really fit in that case, and there’s not enough room for tall air coolers either. There also isn’t room for 120mm fans, so the single- and dual-120mm fan air coolers would be out. At that point I’d end up buying everything, which Best Buy obviously didn’t have. Even if they did have it, that avenue started looking
really expensive really quickly, so I decided to just stick to upgrading the old system.
Then I started wondering about how much the old system would drag that 1070 down. Quick Google search told me that PCI-E 3.0 vs 4.0 isn’t a crazy jump, so that wouldn’t really be the bottleneck. The major bottleneck would be the CPU. The Phenom II X4 and X6 were SUPER popular CPUs back around 2010, mostly because of their ability to overlock really well. Because of this, a lot of people have them and I quickly found people who were using this exact setup themselves.
The long and short of it was that the CPU would kill the performance of the 1070 up to 35% in demanding games. Ouch. Most of the comments I’ve read were along the lines of “If I were going to do this again with this CPU I wouldn’t spend more than is required for a GTX 970. The CPU just can’t handle much more than that, and even then it’s throttling it a little.” Ouch.
At this point I didn’t want to insult a 1070 by dragging it down with a 7 year old Phenom II CPU, and I didn’t want to drag my wallet through the mud spending a ton of money on a custom-built PC – if I was going to spend that much I’d upgrade my AORUS and leave the dual-970M model at home. For shits and kicks I decided to check out Craigslist, and found someone who just 12 hours before had posted an Intel Core i7 6700K CPU and a EVGA Z170 motherboard for $450. The two of them combined on Newegg was around $600, so this caught my attention…
[Continued in Part II]