An upgrade tale 2: upgrade harder

— 11:45 AM on September 25, 2009

So, almost three years had passed since my last major system upgrade—downright shameful negligence for someone in this line of work, clearly. I won't rant about diminishing returns all over again (that was last month's topic), but suffice it to say I remained largely satisfied with my Core 2 Duo E6400 throughout that length of time. The more time passed, the more I became resigned to stick with my old parts until something major came along, something that would really justify spending an afternoon gutting my computer, cutting my hands on sharp case edges, and trying to get screws out from underneath my motherboard.

That something finally came on September 8. I had contemplated Intel's Core i7-900 processors for some time, but I wasn't particularly thrilled about the prospect of blowing almost $500—or, in my case, €500—on a processor and motherboard, and then having to pay a further premium for one of them fancy triple-channel RAM thingamajigs. Via Lynnfield, Intel brought the Nehalem architecture to a price point I found much harder to resist.

Not only that, but in my diminishing returns post, I clamored about my wish for more power-efficient parts. The new platform fulfills that requirement in my eyes, with remarkably low idle power consumption that puts even previous dual-core offerings to shame. Then there's Turbo Boost, which can clock up individual cores by as much as two thirds of a gigahertz depending on load. It's like having your cake and eating it, too. You get a blistering-fast quad-core processor, excellent single-threaded performance, and really low idle power draw.

I gave in. On September 9, I ordered the following parts from local e-tailer

That processor and motherboard combo would go on to become the cornerstone of our fall system guide's Utility Player build. As for me, I decided to combine the aforementioned with the following from my former build:

  • One Zotac GeForce 8800 GT graphics card (with a custom Zalman cooler)
  • One Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer sound card
  • Two 320GB Western Digital Caviar SE16s (in RAID-1 mode) and one 1TB Caviar Green
  • One Samsung SH-W163A DVD burner
  • One Seasonic S12 430W power supply
  • One Antec P180 enclosure
  • Some fans

I already had a large Thermalright SI-128 heatsink on my Core 2 Duo, but the lack of a readily available LGA1156 mounting kit prompted me to grab the Hyper 212 Plus from Cooler Master—one of the few Core i5-compatible coolers available at launch. Despite its relatively low price, the 212 turned out to be very decent: it takes up to two 120-mm fans and features a convenient tower-style design, a variable-speed fan, and a great multi-socket mounting mechanism that bolts securely through the motherboard.

With a 120-mm Nexus fan doing a constant 1,000 RPM, the 212 keeps my Core i5-750 at around 35-37­°C when idle and 61-62°C after a 15-minute Prime95 torture test. I'd probably get lower load temps with the bundled, variable-speed Cooler Master fan, but consistently low noise levels are my main priority. (Hey, I practically live in front of this system. Give me a break.) I left the disturbingly puny Intel heatsink in its box for the same reason.

Well, that's not strictly true; I did take it out for a comparison photo next to the Hyper 212 Plus. Yeah, Intel is totally skimping on stock heatsinks these days. Look at that thing! Even the cooler that came with my 65W Core 2 Duo is at least twice as thick.

Here's everything securely bolted and fastened in preparation for the Great Platform Swap. That operation was surprisingly uneventful, taking about an hour and a half in total and eliciting no cursing on my part. I can thank Antec's cleverly designed P180 for the lack of cursing, although the enclosure also made me spend an inordinate amount of time on cable management. Yes, I have the old version of the case that doesn't let you run cables behind the motherboard. I'd probably upgrade if I opened it more frequently.

My motherboard choice probably deserves some attention, too. I believe I've covered all the bases in the latest system guide's Utility Player section, so I won't regurgitate it all here. In a nutshell, though, I like the GA-P55-UD3R's relatively low price, its abundance of SATA and USB ports, and the little touches like dual BIOS chips, all-solid-state caps, eight-phase CPU power, and Dynamic Energy Saver software. My only gripe is the presence of only two PCIe slots aside from the main graphics one. Since I use a dual-slot graphics card, however, I'm really no worse off than if I'd gotten, say, Asus' P7P55D LE or P7P55D.

With the hardware swap complete, I attempted to boot into Windows 7 using just one of the drives from my RAID 1. Predictably, Windows 7 threw up a blue screen of death during the startup sequence. I expected this, and I was ready to reinstall when I came to a realization: I'd forgotten to set the Serial ATA controller to RAID mode in the BIOS. It was still in IDE mode, and my Windows 7 installation didn't have the right drivers for that. I made the change in the BIOS, and much to my surprise, Windows 7 booted up without a hitch; it just spent a while re-detecting all my hardware afterward.

Better yet, the P55 PCH's storage controller knew my hard drive was part of a RAID config, and once I plugged in the other drive, it happily started rebuilding the array via the Windows software. Switching from one Intel chipset to another isn't exactly pushing the envelope, but I still appreciate when things just work like that.

The next little while was spent trying to get Internet access. After a driver update and several reboots, I finally remembered about the MAC address filtering on my router. Apparently, switching to a completely different motherboard with a different Ethernet controller also change your MAC address, even if you keep the same enclosure. Who knew?

Everything was soon in order, and I happily ran a few games and applications to gauge the performance increase. Oh, it was noticeable. Photoshop never loaded up so fast, and even web browsing felt snappier, especially in JavaScript-heavy sites. While all of this was going on, I noticed my hard drives were making more noise than usual.

A lot more noise. Except it wasn't coming from the hard drives.

Turns out, somehow, simple tasks like scrolling and dragging my mouse across a web page caused a high-pitched screeching noise to emanate from the power supply. Switching to Windows 7's "Power saver" power management scheme made the noise go away, but it also made the system feel a little sluggish. (Clock speeds rarely went above 2GHz, according to CPU-Z.) Switching to the "High performance" scheme made the screeching constant. A Google search revealed other users with similar problems. Some blamed it on their motherboards, others tried switching motherboards with no success, and one guy was unable to get rid of the noise even with different motherboards and different power supplies from different vendors. That didn't bode well.

I still decided to get a new PSU. Something inside there, probably a coil, was generating the noise after all, right? I'd been meaning to decommission the ol' S12 for a while, anyway—it had only two SATA power connectors and no PCIe power connectors at all, and I was sick of cluttering my case with more and more plug adapters. So, I shopped around and soon came across Corsair's HX450W. That unit isn't actually available in the U.S. for some reason, but it ticked all the right boxes for me: 80 Plus Bronze certification, modular cabling system, seven-year warranty, and a relatively low price. I got mine for around €67, a good €20 less than the HX520W, which has lower efficiency and a shorter warranty.

I switched out the S12 for the HX450W last weekend, spending another 30 minutes or so making sure all the cables were neat and tidy. Well, at least as tidy as you can get 'em in a first-gen P180. Happily, though, the noise was gone. The other Seasonic unit still works just fine with my Core 2 parts, which I've since transferred to my fiancee's PC, so I'm gonna chalk up the screeching noise to the S12's age. I mean, that thing came out before Intel's first quad-core CPU. Maybe its response to the state-of-the-art Nehalem chip with Turbo Boost and madly fluctuating voltages was PSU talk for, "Get off my lawn!"

But I digress. This adventure has left me with a very quick, power-efficient, and tidy PC. I dig the modular power cables, and they really make sense in an enclosure like this one. The Core i5-750 is a fantastic processor, and watching Turbo Boost kick in still makes me giddy. Part of me regrets not going with the i7-860, since it'd be really cool to see eight little activity graphs in the Task Manager instead of four, but the i5 is more than fast enough for my needs.

One component remains in need of an upgrade: that GeForce 8800 GT. With mid-range DirectX 11 cards so close to release, I've decided to hold off until AMD's Juniper cards... or maybe I'll get tired of waiting and spring for a Radeon HD 5850, who knows?

I'd rather not spend more than I have to, though. My primary gaming display has a pretty sane 1920x1200 resolution, and I only play games a few hours a week (if that). Besides, as I said last month, the vast majority of console ports and cross-platform titles already run great on the 8800 GT. I want my next graphics card to be faster, yes, but I also want it to be power-efficient and relatively cheap. Hopefully, Juniper will fulfill those requirements. If not, well, I might just sit this one out and see what Nvidia comes up with.

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