Upgrade or Replace Gaming Computer?
November 12, 2013 10:42 AM   Subscribe

I am considering either upgrading or replacing my 6 year old gaming computer, not sure which to do. What would you do?

My current gaming computer is a Dell XPS 720 purchased in 2007 (specifications here). The CPU is a Q6600 quad core instead of the one listed in the base specs. The computer is still mostly stock; the only thing I have upgraded on this computer is the video card, which is now an NVIDIA GTX 560 or similar video card. I am still running Windows XP. My last reformat was in 2009. The games I most frequently play:

-Skyrim
-XCom (had to change the .exe file to make it work on XP)
-Civilization V
-Minecraft

I am not a "hardcore" gamer or an FPS gamer who needs the latest performance, but I am observing that my current computer is starting to fall behind in performance. It takes a surprisingly long time to open Chrome or Steam.

Here are the options I am considering:

1. Upgrade the operating system to Windows 7 or 8. Buy additional RAM to take advantage of the higher memory limit (currently limited to 2 GB because of Windows XP). I read on the Windows 7 upgrade guide that it has to be a "clean install." Hopefully this gives me another year or two of use before the computer is too far behind the curve to play the current generation of games.

2. Buy a new gaming computer. Not necessarily top of the line, but something in the $1500 to $2000 range that will give me another 5 years of reliable gaming. I am not going to spend $3k or up for the latest Alienware computer.

Cost is somewhat an issue, as I want to make sure I am getting the most value for my money and don't wish to spend money carelessly. But given that I use this computer every day for gaming, it's something that I feel is worth spending money on.

Here are my questions:

-Given the conditions I have described, what would you do?

-Are there other upgrades I should be considering doing to my current desktop to improve the performance? I know that upgrading the motherboard on this computer would be difficult, as its form factor is no longer used and would require case modifications to fit a new motherboard.

-If you recommend a new gaming computer, which would model/manufacturer/vendor you recommend? Considering desktops and laptops.

-Are gaming laptops worth the money? I was looking at products from ASUS's Republic of Gamers line.

-If I do upgrade the operating system on the current computer, what pitfalls should I be aware of? I have never upgraded a computer from XP to anything else. Is there anything Dell-specific that I would need such as drivers, licenses, or other software?

-Windows 7 or Windows 8? It's hard to dig through all the various opinions regarding 7 vs. 8.
posted by zompus to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I bought an ASUS republic of gamers laptop about 4 years ago now, and it's still keeping up much better than I might have expected. Other than making sure that I had it elevated on fans- which was the only issue I ran into with a gaming laptop, it was a pretty spectacular machine for what I paid.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 10:45 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not a gamer per se, but I build my own systems a lot. I would really recommend building your own PC from scratch. You can build an amazing machine for under $1000 that will last you 5 years for sure. If you can upgrade a graphics card you can build a machine.

NVidia just lowered their GPU prices too, so it's a good time to be in the market.

I have a machine with a Q6600, it's a great CPU but even the lower end Intel processors blow it out of the water, which to me would signal time to upgrade.

As for upgrades to the current machine, an SSD would be a good idea and you can always stick it in your new machine whenever you get one.
posted by hamsterdam at 10:57 AM on November 12, 2013


I put my computer together at about the same time you bought yours, and it's still playing nearly every new game I can find with upgrades to only the RAM (from 2GB to 4) and the video card (a Radeon 6670, released maybe two months after your GTX model). Adding more memory, and upgrading the OS to use that memory, will very definitely buy you a year or two of solid use. I haven't used Windows 8 so I can't speak to which one you should get -- although I can say that Windows 7 is great.

However, the Core 2 processor that makes your computer go is very definitely nearing the last phase of its lifespan, where games that aren't made with legacy support in mind will run poorly or not at all - for instance, that Q6600 is the minimum required to play Saints Row 4.

Given that you're going to be spending money either way, I'd say go for a new computer. A capable gaming machine shouldn't cost you anywhere near that $1500 mark and it'll last for a good long while. Get one of the latest-and-greatest Haswell processors, a bunch of RAM, and don't bother with a good video card - just take the GTX out of your old model and plug it into the new one.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:59 AM on November 12, 2013


I would look very carefully if you really want to spend that much money for a new computer if you decide to go this route. For $800 or so you should be able to build a creaming machine that will last you for a while, and then you have another $800 left in a few years to get something even better.

If you want to stay with what you got, I would throw the money at the RAM and Win 7. I have been using Windows since the mid 80s and I have to say that I am too old to get used to the new Win 8 way of doing things.

I found ars-technica to be an excellent resource, for example http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/07/ars-technica-system-guide-july-2013/

Anandtech is another good place to read up on things
posted by nostrada at 10:59 AM on November 12, 2013


I built my system from scratch and that makes updating it really easy. You can get cheaper pre-built systems, but I am not sure they will last you as long or cram as much power into them. If you bought a Dell, chances are they skimped out on the power supply, the kind of RAM or the motherboard. It's really a question of what you can spend and what you want to spend. If you're willing to spend $1500, you can build a top-of-the-line PC that should last like 7 years. Check out NewEgg's tutorial on how to build a computer. They also sell builders packs with a motherboard and RAM to keep things simple. You can check the motherboard to check for compatibility for the bundles can take out some guess work. It's not all that hard to build a PC and it will certainly build a new appreciation for what you have.

That said, if you are using Windows XP, that means you only get 3.5 GB of RAM. I have 8GB. Your current computer is on its last legs unless you start swapping out components and get Windows 7. But for that much trouble, I'd start from scratch and consider getting a SSD for your C: Drive.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:29 AM on November 12, 2013


Here is another vote for building your own. I use this site: Logical Increments to get a good base on parts and price.

For the dollar amount you are listing you can build yourself an "Extremist" gaming machine that will last for years and years.
posted by bleucube at 11:50 AM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


i built my own and upgraded my own for years and years. and then a couple years ago i just wanted something that worked where someone else was responsible for the fiddly bits. i didn't mind paying a little more for that privilege, but like you, i wasn't looking for a $3k pc from alienware. i wanted the feel of it being built by me without the work of it.

after a bunch of research i ended up buying the edge z40 from velocity micro. i decided to upgrade the processor, video card, power supply, and cpu cooling bringing it from $1k to $1400. my computer is, two years on, still able to play everything i've tried on it with all the bells and whistles turned all the way up. like you, i'm not a hard core fps player or anything, but i like world building so i need some amount of power to get it all done. i'm super pleased with my purchase and when i want to upgrade it i'll probably send it to them to do the work.
posted by nadawi at 12:25 PM on November 12, 2013


Seconding what Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish about upgrading the RAM. The max that machine can take is 8GB which should be fine for the next few years. Maybe an SSD if you are ok with spending a little more.

Can't comment on Windows 7 vs. 8, I'm fine of 8.1 but I know a lot of hardcore types prefer 7.

That said, I built my own. It really is easy. Bit-tech have some buyers guides
posted by Z303 at 12:33 PM on November 12, 2013


Another vote for build your own: if you follow bluecube's link to Logical Increments, for $1000 you are soundly in the Superb/Excellent/Outstanding range which will last comfortably for a few years.

Save the extra cash for upgrades down the line, or for upgrading your display setup. Here's an old RPS post about gaming monitors - what to look for and pricing and finding decent/cheapish OEM stuff - the prices on those should have dropped by now, but otherwise they still look good to me.

Alternatively if you're don't want to build your own, and are willing to wait a little while, the upcoming Steam Machines should be promising.
posted by xqwzts at 12:38 PM on November 12, 2013


I built a gaming machine in 2011 and found that it was cheaper than the last time I built-- I think I got by under $1300 for parts (spent around $200 on the graphics card, which is probably the part that can really move the price the most all by itself). I would vote in the new-PC category. If you can upgrade a graphics card and replace a hard drive, you really do have all of the technical skills required to build a PC from parts. (Almost said "from scratch" there: begin by mining silicon...)

Win7 is a good gaming OS-- it's Win2000-good if not quite Win98SE-great. I recommend upgrading while you can. 64 bit is a good way to go. No idea on Windows 8, but there's no incentive for me as a gamer to find out, really.

If you do go the upgrade route, here are my suggestions. I think they're all covered above, but I'll put them in order:
1: Memory upgrade. Not only maxing the RAM, but check the motherboard specs for the fastest memory it can handle, but in spec (i.e. DDR2 or DDR3) and clock speed.
2: Graphics Card. Tom's Hardware's latest (monthly!) guide for best card per budget. Not sure if you're loyal to nVideo GeForce, but ATI is hot stuff lately.
3: SSD and/or fast HDD: 128GB or 256 budget-willing for the SSD. Hard drives should be 7200RPM, no slower. If you have any 5400s, convert them for backup. Also consider RAID0 (striping.. I think that's RAID 0, but striping is what I mean) for speed. Mount the hard drive RAID as a folder on the SSD so you can write games there. Back up the SSD religiously-- when they fail, they fail hard.
4: Windows 7 takes the #4 slot, unless a prior technology requires it, 64-bit, update. No longer need anyone worry about 64-bit driver availability as we did in '09.
5: Bigger monitor, or additional monitors, widescreen, as needed. You've probably lost 1 or more monitors since the 2009 purchase, but you should be on a high-quality widescreen, preferably in the 26-32" range, but very reasonably 22-24" at least. Keep windex wipes near the monitor. Not sure if touchscreens are cheap enough or necessary if you go Win8, I doubt either is the case.

But you've gotten a lot of mileage out of this one. I'd build new, in your shoes.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:03 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's wired's take on it:
http://www.wired.com/reviews/2013/11/high-low-gaming-pcs/
they say about $700 should do it.
posted by defcom1 at 1:16 PM on November 12, 2013


Posted this on Twitter too - but I keep a "system build components" list because I get asked similar questions often as the resident tech-guru among my friend groups. Last updated it about a month ago.

My current Windows box is the 6-core AMD proc, 16G RAM (overkiill for most things), 128G SSD boot/OS drive, 1TB WD Red HD for games storage, GeForce GTX650 video card, Windows 7 64-bit.

You can build a *really* nice system with an even better video card and a 27" monitor for less than $1K. Feel free to shout at me via the normal channels for further advice.
posted by mrbill at 1:37 PM on November 12, 2013


came to recommend logical increments, but also to note that you can GREATLY undercut some of the items on it's list, and mix and match a bit. For instance gtx 660s are like $120 refurb on newegg right now and still strike pretty high up in the gpu rankings. Definitely get a totally new motherboard, ram, hard drive and power supply... but i'd honestly be fine with a refurb anything else. Hell, especially a gpu. They come with nice warranties and everything.

If i was going to build a system right now i'd do one with the cheapest quad core i5 that included turbo boost, that GPU, 8gb of ram, a 128gb ssd, 1tb hdd, and just the rest of the recommendations from the relatively low end of that list.

You really don't need to go all out on that list and spend $800 or anything to have a powerful system that will last well. I'd rather spend a bit less now, spend the extra money on something else, and then upgrade the GPU in a year or two. CPUs have basically reached the point where they're faster than any game really needs or uses anyways(and are usually pushing them single or dual core loads, and getting the absolute max turbo because of it)
posted by emptythought at 3:43 PM on November 12, 2013


The Q6600 is a dog by today's standards CPU-wise and if you intend to use the computer often for stuff like web browsing, a nice 4th generation i7 will make you much happier and save you time.

The gamer friends I have with the Asus gaming laptops love them but curse the cost.

I suspect that a $650-750 XPS 8700 would represent a much better experience than trying to upgrade your current system without breaking the bank and at a price point that's likely hard to beat if you prefer a legal copy of Windows.
posted by Candleman at 4:13 PM on November 12, 2013


I think the only reason to drop over a grand on a computer is if you plan on buying the oculus rift, because it needs some serious processing power. Other than that, it'll be a while before developers start taking advantage of any hardware that's superior to the new consoles.
posted by empath at 8:34 PM on November 12, 2013


Thanks for your detailed answers, everyone. Based on the comments here I have decided to try building a computer from components. The last time I attempted this was in 2003 and it was a pain, but I get the impression that building a computer is much easier/simpler now than back then.
posted by zompus at 9:56 AM on November 13, 2013


-I wouldn't worry about upgrading the graphics card right now, looks like the CPU is your big bottleneck. (The GTX 560 should last at least another couple years.)
-Running the same install of Windows for six years is a terrible, terrible idea. A clean sweep and a fresh install (even of XP) will make everything feel much snappier with the same hardware.
-Gaming laptops are much, much, much, much more expensive than hand-built desktops of similar power. Prebuilt desktops are much, much more expensive than hand-built desktops with the exact same parts.
-You don't need a fancy case.
-You do, however, want a full-size ATX case, unless you just can't fit it in your home.
-If you have more than 2GB of RAM then you need a 64-bit OS.
-Upgrading your CPU alone after a couple of years is not a good idea. Get a new motherboard as well.
-Don't forget about your power supply! An anemic PSU can cause all sorts of hard-to-diagnose problems from overheating to blue-screens to graphics artifacts to just randomly shutting down. Double-check the specs on the one you have now, you'll probably want at least 400 watts.
posted by clorox at 8:18 PM on November 22, 2013


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