In this article we’ll take a look at some tips for system builders to help them avoid putting themselves in a corner when the upgrade bug hits.
As we covered in the first part of this mini-series, choosing the right board is crucial to how your platform behaves over time. Your motherboard dictates how far you can stretch the limits of your platform and if everything else is top-notch but the board is not, then you have a problem. Its a bottleneck not in performance terms, but rather in terms of future upgrades and hardware choices.
Get a better understanding of mainboard choices and decisions in this article: Planning for the upgrade bug
Choose the right chassis
In our earlier feature, Top 5 bargain gaming PC cases, we had a look at some of the best budget cases around. Lets say you decide on a nice mATX motherboard for your new rig and you figure that going for the Cooler Master Elite 344 is the best option. But if you ever want to run SLI or Crossfire, you’re limited for space and most mATX motherboards don’t support dual graphics setups. Most chassis limit you to installing around six hard drives and for consumers who intend on keeping their PC going for a long time, expansion options should be at the top of their list.
If you’re not certain you’ll be sticking to mATX boards and chassis, or less than five hard drives, the solution is to invest in a bigger case. The Cooler Master HAF921 Combat costs just over R800 but it has a lot more interior space to work with, has front-panel USB 3.0 support and enough cooling options should you move to water-cooling or try your luck with a multi-GPU setup.
Buy higher-density memory modules
Most people elect to populate their available memory slots with lower-density modules, for example four 4GB modules to land up at 16GB of available memory. However, if you later upgrade to higher-density modules, not only are you left with spares you might never need or sell, you could actually spend more money than you planned in the process of upgrading all four modules.
Dual-channel memory isn’t as important as it used to be and most boards are happy enough running a single memory module. There is still a case for matched RAM kits that will appeal to enthusiasts, gamers and power users, but when you’re just starting out with your first rig it’s okay to get the highest-density memory you can afford. When the times comes to upgrade a year into ownership, the chances of finding the same memory that you bought earlier are pretty good because the DDR3 market is well saturated.
As memory prices continue to increase it makes more sense to buy modules of a higher size now while the price is still reasonable, with the option of doubling or even quadrupling that when prices begin to take another nose dive. The price for most 8GB DDR3 modules hovers around R400 for those without heatsinks. RAM marketed for gaming and enthusiast use starts at around R650.
Some platforms, like AMD’s APU family on socket FM2, benefit greatly from dual-channel memory configurations and higher frequencies. In those cases it’s okay, even recommended to put in two modules at a smaller density, so long as you leave yourself room on the board for easy upgrades in the future.
Invest in a GPU with a larger bus width
Graphics cards have memory modules that require an 8-bit interface to work in the PCI-Express slot, which we know as the memory bus. Most low-end graphics cards end up with bus widths 32, 64 or 128 bits long and the larger the bus size, the more bandwidth there is available to feed the GPU with information. Smaller bus widths like 128-bit get around this to an extent with memory clocked at a high frequency.
Over time, new games will require more bandwidth and power to run smoothly. For graphics cards with bus widths smaller than 192 bits in size, this means that sometimes they’re not able to deliver enough bandwidth for newer software and performance tops out. No amount of overclocking the GPU or the RAM will help because your card is already at its limit. For a GPU with a 192-bit or larger bus size, performance stays at the same level a lot longer.
It doesn’t have to be the top of the range, but bigger bus widths help your GPU stay relevant for longer. Some good starting choices are the AMD Radeon HD7850 or Nvidia’s GTX660 from around R2400.