Building A New Computer – Part 1

Once upon a time I would either build or help others build a new computer once or twice a year. These projects were always fun and interesting, and I normally enjoyed each step in the process. Trying to build with a budget in mind and get the best bang per buck, and ensuring compatibility and optimal performance in an era that predates PC Part Picker added an extra layer of nerdy challenge.

However, as time went on my friends and I stopped building as much. Getting older meant we had the opposite problem as our younger selves: more money but less time. This made buying pre-builts more appealing. Others (myself included) fell into another bucket: the gaming rig simply didn’t need upgrading.

I think young me really enjoyed more demanding games. I was still young in the nascent era of hyper-realistic first person shooters that started to require serious hardware to perform. But older me is putzing around in games like Stardew Valley, Guild of Dungeoneering, Dome Keeper, and Monster Hunter Rise. Although all impressive in their own ways, most are many years old and the only 3D title (Monster Hunter Rise) was built to run on the Nintendo Switch which had low specs even when it launched in 2017. None of these games are very demanding. In fact, I have yet to run into anything I want to play on the Steam Deck that it can’t handle in a way I find acceptable.

Truly I have become less discerning over time, but there is also simply so much more choice in what to play and lots of good games do not require that much computational horsepower. This has lead me to keeping Typhon, my main computer, for far longer than I ever expected.

Typhon was built in November 2011. Little did I know that the Intel i7-2600k (there were no i9’s in this era) would be a real champion. Over the 11 years of Typhon’s existence I have had numerous hardware failures: broken hard drives, dead RAM sticks, the NIC on the motherboard, and two GPUs. But the i7-2600k continues to perform to this day. I think it is clear that the processors Intel produces are very likely to outlive the components they slot into, and I worry the day will come that the ASUS P8Z68-V PRO motherboard will finally give out and not be cheaply replaced.

There have been hints of Typhon showing its age over time, but with some maintenance and modernization I’ve always managed to go further than expected. In 2011 when the machine was built you could get a 120GB SATA III SSD for $150. Over the course of three operating systems (Win7, Win 8, and Win10) this really turned out to be not enough. Now you can get 1TB for $70, or $100 if you want a DRAM cache included. As my GPUs died or became otherwise insufficient (I’m looking at you Witcher 3), it was always easy to upgrade and the difference in performance between PCIe 3.0 and PCIe 4.0 for GPUs is basically non-existent. Last year during an unfortunately timed GPU replacement I was “forced” to buy a 1TB M.2 NVME SSD PCIe 4.0 drive as part of a Newegg Shuffle. Given that my rig was over 10 years old it had me thinking about upgrading, but it turns out there are very cheap PCIe 3.0 adapters for an M.2 drive, and this breathed a whole new life into my long lived gaming machine. Never before had I felt such speed and responsiveness, and it had nothing to do with my CPU.

Although Typhon continues to work admirably, the weight of a hundred small things have added up, and I was just waiting for a push into the upgrading camp. With the addition of the M.2 drive I thought upgrades would be a few more years out, and they could be. The only time I’d really maxed out the i7-2600k was when downloading games on Steam. With a gigabit WAN connection the CPU actually cannot process data fast enough to feed it from the NIC to the M.2 SSD. Strangely the storage and the network are now faster than the CPU during sustained max throughput. But even that I can live with. It is not necessary to download games at gigabit speeds. Ultimately, Microsoft and Windows 11 are my culprit. Typhon predates TPM 2.0 being released, and unless Microsoft relaxes this rule then Typhon will remain on Windows 10 forever (or something more drastic).

Separately from Typhon I also run a little Ubuntu server called Hermes. It was built to be an always-on box used for hosting game servers, software development, and other linuxy things. This computer too has started to show its age and wane in usefulness. Over time we migrated away from Ventrilo and Mumble servers to Discord. We’ve stopped playing the various Minecraft servers, but we may come back to them some day. And, somewhat to my surprise, the small hard drives and SSDs in this machine are actually not big enough to do some of the computing tasks I’m interested in doing. The only thing this server now runs is FoundryVTT, and that hardly warrants a separate machine running 24/7.

With the writing on the wall for both of these machines I started to reintegrate myself into the computer building hobby, and it was like reconnecting with an old friend. It was so great to catch up and see all of the changes that have been made over the past 5-10 years that I have not been paying particularly close attention to. PCIe 5.0 is here! These NVMEs really -are- that snappy! CPUs have so many cores now! Most computer cases don’t have 5.25″ bays anymore! There are motherboards that cost $1500!? And literally everything has RGB.

Of course I knew of these things, but using a Macbook Pro at work for the last 7 years and not upgrading my gaming rig really led me to have a shallow understanding of the space. And, honestly, that was nice. There is no reason to keep up with the computing hardware horse race if you are happy with what you have, and I think people throw out computers for more frequently than they should. In a world with so much e-waste we really should be more concerned about having a computer that meets our needs than having the latest and greatest every few years.

Now is also a unique moment in time. AMD just launched Zen5 CPUs, Intel is launching Raptor Lake CPUs in three days, PCIe 5.0 is rolling out, and there are new GPUs from Nvidia, Intel, and AMD all dropping right now during a period of low demand across the board.

It is finally time to build a new computer.