On PC upgrades and diminishing returns

Like many of you, I'm giddily waiting on the release of Intel's Lynnfield processors to upgrade my main desktop PC. This system is still trucking along with a first-gen, 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo E6400, having skipped three major generational steps on the Intel side—the first quad-core wave, the shrink to 45 nm, and Nehalem—and two on the AMD side—the first Phenom series, then the Phenom II.

In fact, I've barely upgraded from the build I wrote about all the way back in November of 2006. Sure, popping the side panel will now reveal an extra 2GB of RAM, a GeForce 8800 GT, and a 1TB Caviar Green. Oh, and I suppose I also switched sound cards and CPU coolers, but those were more like side-grades to get around driver problems and minimize noise, respectively. Point is, the core components are getting pretty long in the tooth.

I was wondering about that the other day. After all, I'm a PC enthusiast with a job and a reasonable amount of disposable income, and I like to play games. My computer should already be rocking some sort of 45-nm processor with a latest-gen graphics card (or two). At the very least, I should have four CPU cores.

What gives?

Sitting down and actually using this thing provides a pretty good explanation. In the past, I could readily feel when a machine was aching for a serious upgrade. Games started to choke, the operating system felt sluggish, booting up or opening apps took a frustrating amount of time, and occasionally, I didn't even have the right slot in my motherboard for a new graphics card. This time? I can't really complain about anything.

Here's a good example: I finally grabbed Techland's Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood last weekend. This month-old game ran buttery smooth and looked drop-dead gorgeous at 1920x1200 with the detail turned up. That's using a three-year-old processor and a two-year-old graphics card, neither of which were even high-end parts when they came out.

I get the same impression with Windows and the software I use daily. Vista never felt particularly sluggish to me, and Windows 7 is even faster. Photoshop CS4 feels delightfully snappy, probably because it taps into the GeForce via OpenGL to accelerate the user interface. Firefox has been getting quicker and quicker with each new release. I buy my MP3s online these days, so I hardly ever use MP3 encoders anymore. And my other apps—Pidgin, Thunderbird, WinSCP, FileZilla—well, they're not that resource-intensive to begin with.

The only exception I can think of is Armed Assault 2, which runs like a three-legged dog on heroin unless I turn down the resolution and disable post-processing. To my knowledge, though, Bohemia Interactive has yet to make a game that delivers smooth frame rates at launch. (I had similar problems with the original Armed Assault, and don't even get me started about Operation Flashpoint.)

So, if I don't really need to upgrade, why am I already pricing out a Lynnfield system in my head? Why am I excited about AMD's upcoming DirectX 11 GPUs? Good question. I think a good part of it is my desire to tinker with new hardware and brag about my PC once again, if only for a few months. Another part is that, while I may not crave the extra performance, I certainly wouldn't mind it.

This situation has made me re-think my priorities a little bit, though. I may just splurge for a low-power Lynnfield variant if Intel releases some. After all, it would be foolish to suffer more noise, more heat, and bigger power bills if performance isn't a priority. The same goes for graphics—no foot-long, watt-guzzling cards for me, thank you. With current consoles still setting a hard ceiling for games' graphical demands, a mid-range or mainstream card based on a next-gen, 40nm, DX11 GPU should serve me just fine.

I may even take a hard drive (or two) out of my desktop PC and buy one of those little Atom-powered Windows Home Server machines, like Acer's easyStore H340. At that point, I'd be free to ditch my Antec P180 chassis and turn my main PC into a quiet little MicroATX gaming rig. That would involve finding a decent MicroATX motherboard, of course, and those can be hard to come by.

Or who knows; maybe I'll just wait for Clarkdale. Two cores, four threads, low power, and low pricing—wouldn't that be good enough?

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