After 5 long years of service, the power supply in my home-built PC gave up the ghost and died. I decided to take this opportunity to research the current state of PC hardware and see how I could rework my existing setup to extract the most performance per dollar from any new purchases.
My Previous Setup:
Back in highschool, I built this mid-tower ATX computer with my Dad. I didn’t really have a good understanding of how to choose components or tweak overclocking settings to get better performance. He helped me piece out all the parts so my hard-earned savings would go far enough to get a killer rig. Here’s what that looked like back in 2014:
|Monitor||Dell P2014H 20inch 60Hz Monitor|
|Motherboard||ASRock Z68 Extreme 4|
|CPU||Intel i5-4690k 3.5GHZ|
|RAM||Crucial DDR3-2133 4GB (x2)|
|SSD||Samsung 840 EVO 250GB 2.5-Inch SATA III Internal SSD|
|HDD||500GB Seagate Green HDD|
|Power Supply||Corsair TX850M|
|Case||~20$ low-quality used case off Craigslist|
This box tore up Half-Life 2, Portal, and League of Legends back in the day, but before it died, it started feeling sluggish. I long ago ran out of space on my 256GB SSD and games were struggling to load assets from the magnetic platter drive. The CPU which used to chew through rendering and encoding jobs struggled to render units in RTS games.
My primary motivation for upgrading was increasing my computer’s performance as a general workstation, improving gaming performance, and ensuring that I would be able to perform modular upgrades in the future. I emphasized future compatibility, since I knew that being able to upgrade as needed if extra performance was required for Virtual Reality or other technologies in the future was important to me.
|Monitor||Dell S2417DG YNY1D 24-Inch 2560x1440 165hz|
|Monitor||Acer CB242Y 24-Inch 1920x1080 75hz|
|Motherboard||MSI MPG X570 Gaming Edge WIFI|
|CPU||AMD Ryzen 7 3700X 3.6GHZ|
|RAM||G.SKILL Ripjaws DDR4 3200 16GB (x2)|
|SSD||Crucial 1TB M.2 SSD|
|HHD||Seagate Barracuda 2TB 7200RPM (x2)|
|Power Supply||Antec High Current 850W|
Ram is King
Normal tasks like web browsing were going to see the biggest speed improvement from higher quality RAM, but everything uses RAM to some degree. The DDR3 2133 4GB sticks I was using had become painfully antiquated, and bottlenecked nearly every other component in my system.
This was a place where I could get outsized performance gains by upgrading. I decided to grab the best RAM I could reasonably afford. 32GB of high performance RAM was going to make web browsing snappy and help ensure that there would never be bottlenecks in gaming performance based on games having to hit swap memory.
Storage is Crucial
I’m a big fan of Escape From Tarkov, but the game loads an insane amount of textures and assets directly from permanent storage at the start of each round. As a result, load times in that specific game are directly bound to my decision to use an SSD or HDD.
During my research, I learned about M.2 SSDs which hadn’t existed when I was building my last computer. The Crucial M.2 I chose is extremely cost efficient and has ridiculous performance. It reduced my load times in EFT by more than a minute which is impressive!
Future-proof and Avoid Bottlenecks
More experienced PC Builders are probably curious why I decided to keep my GTX 970 and upgrade the motherboard instead. I definitely would have seen a larger performance boost during gaming by upgrading my graphics card. However, I had a limited budget for this upgrade, and wanted to ensure that I would be able to take advantage of modular upgrades in the future.
Upgrading my motherboard to an X570 model let me take full advantage of my new high speed RAM, upgrade my CPU, and use an M.2 SSD which my old motherboard didn’t support. Though on the surface, spending money on a new motherboard and CPU rather than a graphics card provides reduced performance, it allows me to get reasonable performance gains now with the option to upgrade my GPU in the future.
Don’t Skimp on the Power Supply
The other controversial choice is spending around 100$ on a high quality power supply. You can find cheaper power supplies with lower ratings for nearly half the price. Choosing Anton, which came across as the most reputable from my research, ensured that I wouldn’t run into problems when overclocking, and ties into my ideal of future-proofing this machine.
After-Market Performance Tweaks
This was the first time I tried to wring extra performance from my components beyond their listed specs. Diving into the wild world of overclocking showed me that there’s an entire world of enthusiasts who are able to drive these parts harder to get substantial performance gains.
It also showed me that for a casual overclocker, the process has been made much more accessible. I used the following tools and processes to make sure that I was taking full advantage of all my new high quality components without spending excessive time tinkering.
Flash MOBO Updates
Almost all motherboards come with safe configuration values for RAM access speeds and other component configurations. In recent versions of MOBO firmware, there should also be mechanisms for changing these values. You want to look-up your manufacturers upgrade mechanism and use it to get the latest version of firmware possible so you can be sure that all your components are being used at their intended speed by the motherboard.
For my MSI board, it was as easy as downloading a signed firmware blob, putting it on the root directory of a flash drive, plugging it into the computer and rebooting into the BIOS. It ended up containing better support for M.2 drives and my specific RAM, so definitely look into this for your own motherboard!
Extreme Memory Profiles
Because the focus of most motherboards is offering the most stable experience possible, they often will cap RAM access speeds to some known value. This is criminal if you’re looking to get the highest performance from your hardware!
You may have bought some smoking DDR4 3200 RAM, but if your machine is artificially capping that frequency to 2133, then you’re just flushing money down the toilet if you don’t tweak this setting. Most motherboard firmware will come with something called XMP or Extreme Memory Profiles. Tweaking these options will let you set the frequency of your RAM manually.
CPU manufacturers used to fight tooth and nail against overclockers who were circumventing their marketing strategies by finding cheaper chips which could be overclocked to match more expensive offerings. These days the manufacturers have come around and most offer official software to overclock their chips.
I bought the AMD Ryzen, so I just had to download the Ryzen Master program which lets you manually set overclocking values. It’s literally free performance at the cost of component lifetime, which is a trade I’m willing to make.
It’s worth noting that if the CPU isn’t your bottleneck, then overclocking might not net you a huge increase in frames or performance. If you’re using VR, or something which requires your GPU to churn out intensive frames, then the bottleneck probably isn’t your CPU processing those frames. If you’re playing a real time strategy game with thousands of units that your CPU needs to process, overclocking might help you get a substantial performance bump.
Monitor Color Tweaking
The most important features of a monitor from the perspective of a gamer is a high refresh rate (144Hz recommended), and compatibility with your graphics card. There are two mechanisms which monitors can use to sync their refresh rate with the output of frames from your graphics card, AMD Free-Sync and Nvidia G-Sync.
Almost all high-end monitors will support both, but it’s worth double checking that whatever monitor you purchase supports the version of syncing which is compatible with your graphics card. It would be a sad day if you purchased a monitor which only supported G-Sync and you had an AMD graphics card.
With both the monitors I bought for this upgrade, tweaking the built-in color settings using the Nvidia Control Panel made an enormous difference in the quality of the image. Whenever you buy a new monitor I highly recommend that you do a search for custom color configurations for your specific monitor. Take advantage of the work of other enthusiasts and you’ll see a big increase in the quality of your images.
After you’ve pieced out all your parts and completed the physical build, you should always run benchmarking software. This will validate that all the components in your system are performing as expected, and that you haven’t made some mistake which is silently dropping your performance.
I’ve had good experiences using Cinebench and UserBenchMark. UserBenchMark in particular is quite nice since they compare the performance of your components to other users with the same hardware. This is an excellent way to ensure that you haven’t done something silly like not fully inserting your RAM…
After I put this build together I was thrilled with the performance gains. The entire computer feels much snappier in regular tasks due to the upgraded persistent storage and RAM. When playing real time strategy games, I found that the upgraded CPU realized substantial frame gains. Seeing my favorites like EFT, League of Legends, and Alien: Isolation on my new monitor with more than 60 frames made all my research worth it.