PC Selection. Difficulty level: Paralysis by Analysis
February 14, 2015 7:42 AM   Subscribe

It's time to replace the household PC. I'm a programmer, I use PCs all the time, but I have not paid attention to PC hardware specs in maybe a decade, so I'm lost in a sea of mostly equivalent choices.

The objective is a Desktop/Tower/Mini-tower with Windows. The use profile is email plus the internet plus a minimal amount of Word and Excel. The standard 1T disk capacity is huge overkill. The reason not to cheap out and get a totally minimal machine to to keep up with Windows and Internet-driven bloat for 7 years or so. I've been looking at Dell and Lenovo.

But I'm stymied by the problem of too many choices. For example, in the price range I'm looking at, I find the following options in CPUs.

3.6 GHz Intel Core i7-4790 Quad-Core
3.5 GHz Intel i5-4690 Quad-Core
3.5 GHz Intel Core i3-4150 Dual-Core
3.3 GHz Intel i5-4590 Quad-Core
3.2 GHz Intel Core i5-4460 Quad-Core
3.1 GHz AMD A8-7600 Quad-Core

I know that GHz is not the end of the story, I know that caches, multi-cores, and other design features are at least as important, I know that at a basic level, these are pretty similar. But still, in the end, I have to choose. What should I actually look for?
posted by SemiSalt to Technology (26 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If you need just word processing and email, web, etc, any of these processors will do.

The general rule of thumb:

Core i3 processors have two cores and two "virtual" cores through hyperthreading which adds a little bit to performance.

Core i5 processors have four physical cores and do NOT have hyperthreading.

Core i7 processors have both 4+ physical cores AND hyperthreading.

The AMD processors generally don't make much sense on a price/performance axis, but if you are concerned about having some level of graphics power and don't want to buy a separate video card, the newer AMD processors have a bit more oomph in their integrated graphics. But I don't think it makes much of a difference.

If I were you, I would go with a i3 or i5. Honestly the i3 is probably going to be fine; you would be better off spending the extra money on a SSD drive for your operating system. That will provide much more of a noticeable speed boost.
posted by selfnoise at 7:52 AM on February 14, 2015

You might want to look at some of these benchmark lists. It's often the case that substantial differences in price do not correspond to substantial differences in performance.
posted by alex1965 at 7:53 AM on February 14, 2015

Just to add to that: the system builders have this tendancy to put a really powerful CPU in and then skimp on everything else because... i dunno why, actually. Make sure you are getting a fast main drive, a decent video card/system, plenty of RAM (8 gigs plus) and a decent power supply before you start thinking about a more powerful CPU.
posted by selfnoise at 7:54 AM on February 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm a coder too, and recently bought a laptop (so not precisely the same, but similar). I chose to focus on the things that would make the experience of using the machine better.

For example, the day-to-day effect of an extra 0.1 GHz is unnoticeable. But the difference between a normal HDD and an SSD is huge, in application load times, boot times, etc. Similarly, a bigger hard drive adds nothing to my experience, but doubling your RAM makes using the machine much faster and more pleasant to use.

It's not strictly true, but I looked at options like you mentioned above, declared "they're all the same", and moved on. It made it much easier to actually make a purchase instead of getting lost in details.
posted by Dilligas at 8:15 AM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yes, seconding the SSD, that'll make the most noticeable difference.

Typically what you'll actually spend most of your time waiting for isn't the CPU. Instead you're waiting for Word to start, or for it to load a new document. Or you're switching back and forth between the Word document you're writing and the web pages you're consulting for reference, and waiting for it to reload stuff from disk that was swapped out while you were doing something else.

That's all waiting for disk IO. So, get the fastest disk you can (an SSD). If a large enough SSD to hold all your data is out of budget, then buy a second spinning disk for the big media files and stuff. Then get as much RAM as you can. That will sometimes eliminate the need for IO completely when e.g. switching applications. Also for future-proofing keep an eye on the "maximum supported RAM" for the system you buy.

Then worry about the CPU after all that....

But, really, SSD's are amazing.
posted by bfields at 8:28 AM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Ars Technica Hot Rod goes with the i5-4590, which feels about right to me. You'd do fine with the i3, and it'd give you more money for a nice SSD and RAM. My last desktop box had one, and I didn't feel like I was CPU-bound: unless you're gaming or doing something really intensive (where the GPU also comes in), pretty much anything on the market has enough gigahertz.
posted by holgate at 9:14 AM on February 14, 2015

The top-end AMD CPUs will probably be fine for right now but they're generally slower than the Intel CPUs you've listed. They're well suited for budget oriented systems (I have one of their APUs in my HTPC box) and some gaming systems where the graphics card is a much bigger piece of the equation. Even the graphics processing that they're building into the CPU is good enough for some light gaming now.

The intel CPUs will be more future-proof and I think any Core i5 will be fine, especially one with 4 cores. The i7s will only be better if you're doing a lot of multi-tasking with bunch of resource intensive applications at once. I'm using a Core i5 2500k from from about three years ago and it still feels really fast.

8GB of RAM should be plenty, a lot of gamers get 16GB now but I don't think it's doing anything for them. Nth'ing everyone who says to get an SSD. If you're not gaming, a 128GB drive should be fine for the OS and applications but I think it's good idea to get a 256GB and then a 7200rpm mechanical drive to store your data (or you can add this part later if you run out of space).

If you're just buying from Dell or Lenovo instead of putting it together yourself, I don't think there is really that much else to worry about.
posted by VTX at 9:20 AM on February 14, 2015

Tom's Hardware has a monthly article that gives their pick of the best CPU for a given budget, with a gaming (i.e. performance) focus. Here's this month's update. Naturally, games aren't just about CPU, but substantially, perhaps even more, about the graphics card, so tehy have that too: February 2015.

I'll second the advice of supplementing an SSD with a large HDD for storage. I get into the habit of selecting which applications get installed on my SSD vs. HDD, and store all my documents/music/video and such on the HDD. It's possible to mount the HDD as if it's a folder on the SSD, something I'd wish I'd done from the start, but I've got too many dependencies to try that sort of thing now.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:45 AM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have been a pro programmer since 1975 and only in 2011 did I finally decide, with the help of a patient experienced friend, to build my own tower. I guess I am lucky that I drive near a computer parts store (Microcenter) more or less on the way home from work so I didn't have to do the whole mail order thing. But for a tower I will never go back to buying retail. Reasons:
- I pick exactly what I want and what suits my budget based on research in Tom's Hardware (especially their monthly or quarterly build suggestions as a base point). I'm not a gamer so my needs are relatively modest.
- I know that there hasn't been a lot of corner-cutting by the manufacturer (e.g., tiny case with insufficient cooling that will quickly gather dust and heat up)
- no bloat ware
- I bought Windows as part of the system purchase so I got a price break

The second tower I built, this time without help, was an Ubuntu file server running Samba. It could be less powerful with minimal graphics and I can PuTTY in for administration. It also helps maintain my Linux skills.

posted by forthright at 10:15 AM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

You want to give /r/buildapc a visit. Lots of good info in the sidebar on the right side of the page. Definitely look in to the "logical increments" guide.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 2:05 PM on February 14, 2015

Are you planning on building this computer or did we just jump to that assumption? If you are, pcpartpicker.com is MAGIC for comparing prices and basic stats and making sure all the bits work together.

Also I can't believe I've never come across it before but I love that turn of phrase, paralysis by analysis. I just built a little gaming/photoshopping computer for the first time (installed the OS this morning! woo!) and it took two months to gather all the pieces for exactly that reason...
posted by yeahlikethat at 3:27 PM on February 14, 2015

Thanks everyone for taking the time to answer.

selfnoise: The breakdown of processor features is very helpful. I'm going to review the offerings to see what the price difference between i3, i5, and i7. I think the vendors go with an expensive CPU and cheap other parts is that the buyers have a way to distinguish the CPUs, but not the other parts. Who knows what power supply is in the box?

I was interested to see how many people mentioned an SSD. I'm not familiar with that technology. I may look into it, but I think it's a bit of a luxury for a lightly used machine. The discussion has reminded me that I should check the spec of the included drive for some indication of its speed.

yeahlikethat: I first heard the phrase "paralysis by analysis" is in sports, especially for pitchers standing on the mound wondering what to throw. I think Ron Darling was tagged with it as a young pitcher with the Mets. Yale, you know.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:11 PM on February 14, 2015

the SSD is not a luxury. Sacrifice CPU and RAM to get an SSD. It's the single most effective upgrade on any system. I put an SSDs in every machine I have.
posted by defcom1 at 5:54 PM on February 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

17th-ing the SSD. I have an old (July 2009) middling Intel Core I7 system with 90gb SSD C: drive and a 2T WD hard drive with a partition mapped to c:\users\me (a pain and i do not remember how to do it) so data is slow and programs fast.

The data drive is asleep in the morning, so the first program to run takes some time, but after that offline is totally zippy.
posted by hexatron at 6:07 PM on February 14, 2015

The only downside of putting a SSD in this particular PC is that you'll want to put one in every other machine you use. It is a "never go back" upgrade in terms of the user experience.

If 1TB is "huge overkill" in terms of desired capacity, then buying a spinning-rust hard drive would be a mistake twice over: one, because they're slooooow; two, because conventional HD manufacturers' focus is now on drives of 2TB and higher, where they're still the only sensible choice for people who aren't made of money. Outside of that "sweet spot" they don't tend to be priced competitively or have the best reliability ratings: a desktop-grade 500GB drive is around $50, only $5-10 cheaper than a 1TB drive of the same brand and $25 -30 cheaper than a 2TB drive.
posted by holgate at 8:08 PM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Definitely an SSD, especially if your storage needs are modest. It's totally ridiculous how much of an improvement they are over spinny disks. You can even skimp on everything else if you want to. PCs, as a rule, are hella fast these days.
posted by neckro23 at 12:09 AM on February 15, 2015

8 gig no-name ram, i5 4590, samsung pro evo SSD for windows and maybe a program or two, bigass spindle HD, r9 270x if you play a few games and gtx 970 if you play a lot.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:24 AM on February 15, 2015

With my ssd i tap the space bar as i sit down and i have my desktop ready to go by the time I have my hand on the mouse. Its magical.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:26 AM on February 15, 2015

Oh, and i7 is a waste of money except for certain very specific tasks.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:28 AM on February 15, 2015

I find that you can get a PC with SSD plus 1T for about $250 over the price of the base computer. This brings a Envy 700xt to $1054. That's about 30% more that the computers I've been looking at.

I've also discovered that there exists such a thing as a hybrid drive, or SSHD. This is a regular drive with an 8G onboard cache of SSD. Tests show speed increases over a regular HD of 5-30% depending on task and circumstances, a lot less than the SSD. Seagate seems to be going to a 5400rpm disk. HP seems to want a $35 price bump. Anyone with any experience?

Also, while I'm at it, does anyone have experience with touch screen on a desktop? I can't quite picture a use for it myself...
posted by SemiSalt at 8:02 AM on February 15, 2015

No to a touchscreen on a desktop. You'll be reaching across a desk to touch something. Touch is for hand-held devices or wall mounted devices, not desktops.

30% speed improvement is not worth even a small cost increase, when a SSD can give you 500% or 1000% speed improvement. Listen to what everyone is saying. The single most noticeable improvement in your computer, today, is SSD. For any desktop.
posted by blob at 8:30 AM on February 15, 2015

Yeah unfortunately you're paying a bit of markup because it's a prebuilt machine... there isn't as much of a price premium when just building yourself.

SSHDs are not worth it: you are paying more for a device that is not much faster and is basically two things stapled together. There are better places to put that extra 30 bucks.

Touch screen on the desktop doesn't make much sense unless you are using something like an all-in-one PC in an unusual space, like a kitchen.
posted by selfnoise at 8:35 AM on February 15, 2015

Build it yourself.

Here is something I whipped up that you could build yourself and should be at least as good as or better than the HP system you're looking at:

Intel Core i5-4440 - $190
ASRock H97M LGA 1150 Micro ATX Intel Motherboard - $70
G.SKILL 16GB (2 x 8GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM - $113
SeaSonic 550W 80 PLUS GOLD Certified Modular Power Supply - $88
SAMSUNG 850 EVO-Series 250GB SSD - $120
Western Digital Blue 1TB 7200 RPM 3.5" Internal Hard Drive - $57
LITE-ON DVD Burner 24X - $20
Antec Sonata Proto Black ATX Mid Tower Computer Case - $70

Sub-total - $730, another couple bucks worth of shipping so let's call it $750 total.

A lot of those components are higher performance than you really need (a 550W PSU is really overkill since you don't need a discreet GPU), you could shop around and might find better prices somewhere else or wait for a deal (though Newegg is usually pretty competitive on price), you'll need your own keyboard, mouse, and copy of windows, and there are a couple of things that you might add like a heatsink for the CPU. The one that comes with it will be okay but you can get a bit cooler and a lot more quiet for not too much more money.

I didn't do much research into each component so you could probably get a bit cheaper with a different case or PSU or something but this should be a much better deal than the HP system and it will work a little better (quieter, cooler, and easier to work on/upgrade). It's really not much hassle to build your own system. The most time consuming part is installing the OS and all the drivers, assembling the hardware is actually pretty easy.

The SSD is seriously a "why would anyone ever get a computer without one" component once you've had one (and especially if you add one to a system as an upgrade). I added one to my desktop and promptly added one to my laptop and I won't build another computer without one again.
posted by VTX at 11:05 AM on February 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

All right! all right! You've convinced me. Now, HP gives me this choice:

256GB SATA 3.5 TLC Solid State Drive
256GB Solid state drive

The priced difference is $10 (negligible). The SATA is the cheaper. Which way do I go?
posted by SemiSalt at 7:17 AM on February 16, 2015

I believe that every programmer should have not only a windows box, but also a Linux box, and an OS/X box, at least. And why limit yourself to x86 family? ARM chips rule the smartphone world; some are octa-core! And things are continuing to change. Spend $35 on a Raspberry Pi and $20 on a 64gig SD card, repurpose your screen, keyboard, and mouse, get your email online (if it isn't already), learn some Word/Excel compatible programs, and watch for that 4,096 core chip you'll be wanting in a few months.
posted by at at 8:39 AM on February 16, 2015

The order had been sent! Thanks for everyone's suggestions.

BTW: decided against TLC due to the endurance factor.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:18 PM on February 16, 2015

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