A PC For The Fu­ture

Mark Pick­a­vance talks about things you might well want to con­sider if you’re con­sid­er­ing build­ing a PC in the next six months

Micro Mart - - Contetnts -

If you’re plan­ning to build a new com­puter, then you have to ac­cept that it only has a lim­ited life­span be­fore it be­comes out­dated. How­ever, with the right knowl­edge and some care­ful thought, you can make sure your new build is as fu­ture-proofed as pos­si­ble. Mark Pick­a­vance ex­plains what you need to be aware of

There was a time that choos­ing the parts for a new PC was re­mark­ably sim­ple, be­cause the choice was so lim­ited. When In­tel launched the i486, it only made two ver­sions ini­tially: 25MHz and 33MHz mod­els.

These days, the op­po­site is true, and you’re the con­fronted with a rel­a­tively huge range of pro­ces­sors, mem­ory, GPU and motherboards that are widely avail­able.

With so many op­tions, it’s dif­fi­cult to know where to start. I created this small fea­ture to show peo­ple pre­par­ing to build a new PC what things they might want to con­sider in­clud­ing and the things they could prob­a­bly leave out. My sug­ges­tions won’t fit ev­ery sce­nario, but they should help any­one build­ing some­thing new to strike a de­cent bal­ance be­tween what’s use­ful now and what could be ideal fur­ther down the road.

But first, let’s talk about pro­ces­sors and the best choices for those who want longevity for their sys­tem.

The CPU Game

There’s a prob­lem with buy­ing pro­ces­sors that stems from the very lim­ited brand op­tions the PC cur­rently has. Specif­i­cally, it’s In­tel or AMD, as most pro­ces­sors made by other com­pa­nies aren’t X86 ar­chi­tec­ture com­pat­i­ble, and there­fore not re­ally a PC.

For a long time, AMD has been try­ing to com­pete with In­tel, a com­pany that on em­ploy­ees alone is about 12 times larger, and on rev­enue is about 30 times smaller.

While chips like the Opteron re­ally demon­strated how far down the wrong path In­tel went, since then, it’s been all In­tel if you want raw per­for­mance on a desk­top sys­tem.

The prob­lem with this dom­i­nance is that there’s no pres­sure on In­tel to re­duce prices or ad­vance per­for­mance lev­els sig­nif­i­cantly, re­sult­ing in a de­gree of stag­na­tion. These days, we’re lucky if we see a 5-10% per­for­mance bump for a new gen­er­a­tion, and fre­quently In­tel messes with the socket so you can’t re­al­is­ti­cally use new CPUs on other boards and vice versa.

Be­cause of how of­ten it does this, I wouldn’t think about a mid-term up­grade on the pro­ces­sor for any new PC I was build­ing. In­stead, I’d ac­cept that the CPU placed in it at the out­set will prob­a­bly be the one it will end up with for­ever.

That does seem to fly in the face of hav­ing a sock­eted pro­ces­sor, but my ex­pe­ri­ence is that when you want to up­grade, you’ll find you can’t, be­cause In­tel has done some­thing to make it ei­ther im­pos­si­ble or im­prac­ti­cal.

What’s par­tic­u­larly ir­ri­tat­ing is that oc­ca­sion­ally it won’t change the phys­i­cal socket, so its old chips will ac­tu­ally go on a new chipset, but they won’t work for nu­mer­ous rea­sons. So be aware of that.

Be­cause of this, I’d re­ally rec­om­mend you look at what In­tel has in its Core i5 range when you come to build, be­cause these gen­er­ally of­fer the best com­bi­na­tion of price and per­for­mance.

Un­less you have mod­est re­quire­ments, i3 is un­der­pow­ered, and i7 is not worth the price for the nom­i­nal im­prove­ment. You can oc­ca­sion­ally get deals that might make the i7 af­ford­able, but most of the time you just don’t need all those cores and threads un­less you’re into heavy pro­cess­ing.

Buy­ing to­day, I’d prob­a­bly go with a Sky­lake-cored pro­ces­sor, mostly be­cause com­pat­i­ble LGA 1151 motherboards are rel­a­tively cheap, and the Core i5 6500 can be found for less than £200. I’d avoid ‘K’ class over­clock­able pro­ces­sors for no other rea­son than if you want a PC to work for a long time, then just don’t over­clock it. I’d also avoid Haswell chips for no other rea­son than they’re older tech­nol­ogy that costs nearly as much as Sky­lake for the same core/clock.

When you buy a CPU, you need to think hard about the mother­board to go with it, be­cause the two will only work well if they’re con­sid­ered in par­al­lel.

Some read­ers might be won­der­ing why I haven’t men­tioned the AMD Zen pro­ces­sor, which we’ll see soon, al­legedly. These might be won­der­ful, but so many times be­fore, AMD promised plenty and de­liv­ered much less. It would be good for the PC in­dus­try if Zen was a chip that would fire back up the old In­tel ver­sus AMD an­tag­o­nism, but more it’s re­al­is­tic to ac­cept it prob­a­bly won’t. I so hope I’m wrong on this point, be­cause In­tel badly needs a big kick up the pants at this time, as much as AMD needs a lit­tle success.

I wouldn’t think about a mid-term up­grade on the pro­ces­sor for any new PC I was build­ing


While the brand op­tions might be lim­ited, the mother­board choices for the cur­rently avail­able chips are huge. In­tel makes at least six plat­forms for its cur­rent LGA 1151 pro­ces­sors, some be­ing more af­ford­able than oth­ers. At the cheap end are the

H110 and B150 boards, and at the top of that food chain is the Z170, which can eas­ily be twice the price.

My ad­vice is to buy the Z170, Q170 or H170 and not any of the oth­ers for one crit­i­cal rea­son: PCIe lanes. In the cheaper boards, the chipset has fewer PCIe lanes, so the sys­tem is re­liant on those that come with the pro­ces­sor.

That’s fine un­til you use a dis­crete video card that needs x16 PCIe 3.0 lanes, and the sys­tem is left with vir­tu­ally no lanes avail­able for any­thing else. The im­por­tance of this can’t be over­stressed, be­cause if you want the very best stor­age op­tions (cov­ered else­where), then you’ll need those spare lanes.

If you won­dered why many H110 motherboards don’t have many slots, then the an­swer is that there just aren’t the PCIe lanes to sup­port them, and in some sit­u­a­tions us­ing a fea­ture that uses lanes may dis­able some or all of the slots that they have.

Avoid this prob­lem from the out­set and pay an­other £50 for a mother­board with lots of lanes, like the ex­cel­lent Z170, and don’t get stuck with a sys­tem that has up­grade prob­lems down the road.

The temp­ta­tion, if you just got a wind­fall, might be to go for an X99 LGA 2011-V3 mother­board. Per­son­ally, I wouldn’t. Few reg­u­lar users of desk­top com­put­ers need that sort of power, and ev­ery­thing to do with these sys­tems is over­priced. Yes, they are the quick­est sys­tems, and they have the most PCIe lanes, but pay­ing be­tween £200 and £500 for a mother­board, and then at least an­other £400 to £1,600 for the pro­ces­sor is a mug’s game.


They might be cheap, but hard drives are slow and use too much power. Any sys­tem you’re build­ing now should have an SSD, and only a hard drive if you want cheap ex­tra stor­age. If your bud­get is tight, a 256GB SATA SSD is rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive and can eas­ily hold the Win­dows OS and a few im­por­tant apps.

The cur­rent ver­sion of the Se­rial ATA in­ter­face is SATA-3. And the fastest drives on that in­ter­face can read at 550MB/s and write at 520MB/s, which is rea­son­ably quick.

But it isn’t the fastest by any stan­dard, be­cause that award goes to NVMe drives that con­nect di­rectly to the PCIe bus. NVMe drives come ei­ther as a self-con­tained PCI Ex­press card that needs a PCIe x4 slot or as an M.2 NVMe card.

To con­fuse mat­ters, M. 2 can also be used for SATA, where the same per­for­mance lim­i­ta­tions as SATA- 3, so be care­ful not to con­fuse the two. Motherboards can come with SATA- 3, M. 2 NVMe, M. 2 SATA or even a new ver­sion of SATA called SATA Ex­press.

The one that is get­ting the most trac­tion is M.2 NVMe, and that re­quires for lanes of PCIe to pro­vide the band­width needed for a sin­gle high-per­for­mance drive. There seems lit­tle ev­i­dence that the SATA Ex­press con­nec­tor that uses two lanes of PCIe is be­com­ing pop­u­lar or even get­ting sup­port from drive mak­ers.

There­fore even if you can’t af­ford M.2 NVMe right now, get­ting ei­ther a mother­board with the M.2 slot on it or one with enough spare PCIe lanes so you can drop one in with a cheap M.2 card is the right choice.

The per­for­mance these drives de­liver is up to six times. bet­ter than the high­est- end SATA SSD you can buy, and they’re also very low power con­sumers com­pared to con­ven­tional SATA drives.

Video Cards

This is a dif­fi­cult area to give ad­vice on, be­cause each time AMD or Nvidia comes along with a new gen­er­a­tion, they make most of their pre­vi­ous de­signs ob­so­lete. I my­self spent a de­cent amount on a GTX 960, only to have the bet­ter GTX 1050 Ti come along for less within six months.

Be­cause of those pit­falls, I’d avoid spend­ing any more than £200 on a video card of any flavour, be­cause in less than four years the per­for­mance that costs you £500 now will be £150 then. And un­less you’re a 4K gamer, you won’t no­tice much dif­fer­ence.

I also wouldn’t con­sider us­ing mul­ti­ple GPUs as a strate­gic plan, be­cause in this writer’s ex­pe­ri­ence if you don’t de­ploy them from the out­set, you’ll never buy the sec­ond card at a later stage. When you come to the point where you want to add that power, you re­alise that you could put that money to­wards a new more pow­er­ful sin­gle card and sell your old one to soften the hit, and get gen­eral speed im­prove­ments.

It’s also worth not­ing that the lat­est Nvidia cards only re­ally work in two card com­bi­na­tions and that us­ing multi-GPU mode doesn’t al­ways make a game or app faster by de­fault.

An­other con­sid­er­a­tion is that PCI Ex­press, cur­rently at ver­sion 3.0 will get a hike in band­width in 2017 with the in­tro­duc­tion of PCIe 4.0. This jumps from a max­i­mum of 8GTps to 16GTps (GTps = Gi­ga­trans­fer), and it also has mas­sive power re­duc­tion ben­e­fits that should help por­ta­ble sys­tems.

They might be cheap, but hard drives are slow and use too much power

To sup­port this, both In­tel and AMD will be launch­ing new chipsets, new pro­ces­sors, and also you’ll need new video cards to work with it. But, it will be back­wardly com­pat­i­ble with PCIe 3.0, so ex­ist­ing video cards should work well in PCIe 4.0 slots.

I’d moan that things change too of­ten, but PCIe has been around seven years. With that in­for­ma­tion, those want­ing to build the ul­ti­mate gam­ing sys­tem might need to wait a lit­tle longer, if they want some­thing that ex­ploits these new en­hance­ments.

Use­ful To Have Along

When I con­sid­ered writ­ing this fea­ture I thought about ex­actly what I’d put in a new PC if I built one to­day. Af­ter much chin scratch­ing, one fea­ture that I re­ally would in­clude is USB type-C, be­cause in about five years I pre­dict it will have taken over USB ports en­tirely.

You can get it on some motherboards al­ready, but it’s some­thing you can also eas­ily add with a card or even with a front-panel header plate.

Not that I would dis­pense en­tirely with con­ven­tional USB this minute, but this change will be nec­es­sary go­ing for­ward. For this rea­son, I’d make sure any mother­board you buy has a proper 20-pin USB 3.0 header on it, for the front-panel ports.

Those We Leave Be­hind

If you have an ATA drive still, with some con­verter to SATA or even an IDE card, ditch it now, please! The per­for­mance of any IDE drive com­pared with SATA is ut­terly abysmal, and they use lots of power to do things slowly too. The same is also true of SATA-1 and SATA-2 hard drives, where the amount of band­width is very lim­ited.

For ex­actly the same rea­sons, I’d dump any IDE op­ti­cal drives, and on my lat­est sys­tem, I’ve ac­tu­ally dumped SATA op­ti­cal too. I don’t use discs of­ten, and when I do, I have a USB 3.0 op­ti­cal drive for the job. Hav­ing hard­ware hang­ing around the PC on the off-chance that I’ll use it seems lu­di­crous.

USB 2.0 is also not some­thing that you’d want to en­cour­age in a new sys­tem, es­pe­cially when USB 3.0 is back­wardly com­pat­i­ble with its older in­car­na­tion. Those with a USB 2.0 card can leave it in their old PC, be­cause a cheap hub on a sin­gle USB 3.0 port on their new sys­tem would be much more ef­fec­tive.

Ex­am­in­ing many sys­tems over the years, I’ve seen some crazy stuff still on a mod­ern PC, like a mo­dem. What’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber is that sys­tems gen­er­ally work bet­ter the less com­pli­cated they are. It’s also much eas­ier to iden­tify what might be wrong if you do have a prob­lem.

If you’re trans­fer­ring to a new flag­ship, it’s a good time to per­haps leave as much of the legacy junk on that sys­tem as you can and truly get a fresh start. Un­less you butcher it en­tirely, you can al­ways fire it up to use that SCSI scan­ner or what­ever, should you ever need that fa­cil­ity again.

Fi­nal Thoughts

The con­cept of fu­ture proof­ing is one we’ve ex­plored in nu­mer­ous ar­ti­cles in Mi­cro Mart, and it comes with a sub­stan­tial caveat. When you con­struct a new com­puter, you’ve no idea what revo­lu­tion­ary thing some­one will come up with next that makes what you’ve got ob­so­lete. And if the last 40 years of com­put­ing guar­an­tees any­thing, it’s that those de­vel­op­ments will hap­pen, and they will change ev­ery­thing.

Ob­so­les­cence is part of the per­sonal com­puter ride, and we’ve all watched things we spent plenty on to be the best be rel­e­gated to less than scrap value in short order.

The fine irony is that at some point, prob­a­bly not that far down the road, the PC as a con­cept will prob­a­bly hit the buf­fers en­tirely, and the ideas that have been cen­tral to it, like the X86 ar­chi­tec­ture and the Win­dows oper­at­ing sys­tem, will go to the knacker’s yard too. But that’s fine, be­cause if it were oth­er­wise, I’d be typ­ing this on Word­star 1.0 on a CP/ M run­ning Z80 based ma­chine.

If a PC can give you five good years use be­fore you even think about mov­ing on, then you’ve had some de­cent use out of it, and those that get ten out their hard­ware, I salute you.

If you have no in­ten­tion of up­grad­ing your PC ever, then you should re­ally en­ter­tain the idea of a lap­top, un­less you’re a gamer. Those who do like to tin­ker can stick to the desk­top form fac­tor, with a de­cent nod to those changes they’re likely to make over its life. Hav­ing slots, bays and a case big enough to han­dle those changes just makes sense. Or it will when you come to make those al­ter­ations.

Be­ing re­al­is­tic, you can never cover all the pos­si­ble di­rec­tions that tech­nol­ogy will go in, but you can avoid head­ing down the most ob­vi­ous cul-de-sacs with a lit­tle re­search.

AMD has been promis­ing a com­pet­i­tive desk­top CPU seem­ingly for­ever. Will its new Zen range be that chip?

The Asus ROG Ram­page V Edi­tion 10. An X99 chipset mother­board that costs the best part of £600 and ide­ally needs a £1,600 pro­ces­sor, which will soon be ob­so­lete when PCIe 4.0 is launched

The in­cred­i­ble Gi­ga­byte GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Water­force 8GB is pos­si­bly the ul­ti­mate sin­gle video card you can buy to­day. But will it be worth £778.98 a year from now?

M.2 NVMe stor­age. The size of a stick of gum and six times the speed of the very best SATA SSD

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