PC System Build: Does Future Proofing Matter?

After upgrading my hard drive to an SSD drive and seeing the performance boost I was eager to on with my next planned system upgrade and replace the video card. Unfortunately my mini-ATX motherboard wasn’t going to handle a full-size video card due to the the SATA ports being too close to the card slots. So I’d need a new motherboard before proceeding. Since I was planning some major upgrades by year end it didn’t make sense to get a motherboard for the same CPU and go through all that work for a couple of months. So it was time to accelerate the upgrades and basically build a new system.

Random Access - System Builds category tileAfter upgrading my hard drive to an SSD drive and seeing the performance boost I was eager to on with my next planned system upgrade and replace the video card. Unfortunately my mini-ATX motherboard wasn’t going to handle a full-size video card due to the the SATA ports being too close to the card slots. So I’d need a new motherboard before proceeding. Since I was planning some major upgrades by year end it didn’t make sense to get a motherboard for the same CPU and go through all that work for a couple of months. So it was time to accelerate the upgrades.

This got me considering designing for future proofing. I put together my current build just under 2 years ago. The core i7’s were just out and if I wanted to future proof my PC by going with the LGA 1366 socket (the 1156 was available then) I would have paid a significant premium. I also question if I’d be upgrading just the processors, assuming I future proofed the motherboard. So this time around I’ll document my thinking and look back in a couple years to see how right (or wrong) I was.

What’s the PC For?

The first thing to decide in any build is what I’ll be doing on the PC. So between what I currently use it for and what I want to use it for, this was my list:

  • General PC stuff like web surfing, some browser based apps and general office applications. Pretty much anything I get will handle this.
  • Virtual Machines: I’ve tried setting up VMs on a remote “server” but it hasn’t worked well for me. It’s not that it didn’t work technically, it just wasn’t compatible with the way I like to work. I like having them all available on the same keyboard and screen in front of me at one desk. This will probably be the most resource intensive task I run on this PC. I’ll also want to be sure the CPU supports virtualization technology within the cpu.
  • Light photo editing and management: Nothing as intensive as Photoshop. Although it’s possible this could change in the next couple of years.
  • Multiple monitors: I currently have one window’s monitor on my desk (along with a Mac monitor). It will be awhile but I do want to add a second Windows monitor to the mix. I’d be going multi-monitor rather than a large single monitor.
  • Video encoding and playback: This will also be CPU intensive, especially the encoding.
  • Most of the above could be happening at the same time with many apps or browser windows open.
  • Hardware tinkering/overclocking: This isn’t something I’ve done, sticking to stock settings for their stability. While I still want my primary PC to be stable, all my data is server based and my Dell laptop meets my basic daily needs. So I could stand to be out a PC while I do a restore or figure out a problem.
  • I’m not a gamer. I may install one or two but I don’t need the ultimate game machine.

Basic Future Proofing

This time around I wanted to stick with quality component parts that would last several years and several builds.  So the case and power supply I picked should last 10 years or until the technology changes. I got the same power supply and case as I used on my Windows Home Server build so I knew I was getting quality. Being a full tower case it not only had plenty of room to work, but also plenty of room to expand.

Picking the Brains & Nervous System

That was the easy part, the hard part was next. Picking the CPU. I started off figuring I’d pick a Intel i7 but questioned that assumption early on. I started looking at AMD alternatives as I had a couple small AMD builds picked for their low cost. AMD’s rep was still one of a budget friendly CPU.

Among the Intel vs. AMD comments I found around the web were those that indicated an AMD chip was more “future proof” than Intel since AMD maintained more socket compatibility as it released chips. While this sounds good I completely discounted it from my consideration. Even if the new i7’s were socket compatible with my motherboard I wouldn’t upgrade since there’s been to many other changes.

On the other hand if I could upgrade the motherboard with one compatible with my current CPU and I’d be able to upgrade some technology (SATA III/USB III) and still be able to upgrade the cpu at a later time. This makes a bit more sense in theory, but I see the CPU and motherboard as hooked for life. I’m more likely to move them to another PC when the time comes for an upgrade. (My current motherboard & cpu will live on as a pretty beefy test box.)

So while others may upgrade cpu’s or motherboards independently it wasn’t something I’d be likely to do. So future socket compatibility wouldn’t be a consideration for me. Well, maybe if all else was completely equal and I needed a tie breaker, but it’s unlikely.

I looked at the high-end AMD Athlon II x6. My thinking was the six cores will help with the virtual machines and provide better performance running multiple apps. A six core Intel CPU is over three times the cost so that’s not even a consideration for me. A comparably priced i7-860 or i7-870 generally get better benchmark results in the reviews I read and seems better with apps that won’t use all the cores. And these days, most apps don’t use multiple cores. The AMD is also an “Black” edition which provides more overclocking options.

I ended up going with the AMD Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition. I figured the additional cores would benefit me more than benchmark scores. If I was looking for the  most power for a single app or game I’d probably be better off with an Intel. I think the AMD hexa-core will give me better performance for my needs, or at least not noticeably worse. Plus the AMD seems like it will be more fun to play with.

In theory the next gen AMD cheap is supposed to support the AM3 socket, at least in early versions. If it does and I want to upgrade the CPU (and the mobo mfg updates the BIOS to support it) then great, but it didn’t factor into my decision. My bet would be the next cpu and motherboard upgrade happen at the same time.

As for the motherboard to go with it, I’ll want at least one SATA III port for my existing SSD which is SATA II compatible. If a board has one SATA III then it has at least 2, providing some future expansion. I’ll also look for a external USB 3 port or two for when USB 3 devices start to appear. The standard for USB 3 header on the motherboard is to new for them to actually exist so that’s not a requirement.

I’ve had good luck with both Gigabyte and MSI motherboards and have liked them. That’s not guarantee these days but it’s where I started my search. I picked the MSI 890FXA-GD70 motherboard. It was a bit more expensive than a Gigabyte version but it has an extra PCI Express x16 slot and supports overclocking higher speed memory. I may never need the slot or overclock the memory so I may be paying for future proof insurance I’ll never use. The MSI board also seems better organized to handle longer video cards, with the SATA ports being lower on the board.

I’ve had a bit of buyer’s remorse since I clicked the buy button. But I should have them in hand soon and may feel better once I get them installed. The main thing gnawing at me is the performance. Logically I think I bought the best combo for my needs, but since I won’t be getting the Intel counterpart I’ll never really know for sure. The bottom line is benchmarks don’t matter so as long as it runs fast when I use it I’ll be happy. If I see all those cores in use at peak times I’ll have made the right decision. If I see cores still sleeping then I probably should have gone with better performance per core.