What's the hot shit in PC hardware these days?

It doesn’t seem like clock speeds have made too many gains since 5 years ago when I shopped for a PC. Is stuff getting faster? Better? How should I be evaluating systems differently than I was 5 years ago?

I’m running an Athlon dual 4800+, basically wondering what people buy to run the resource-hoggingest games these days. TIA

If you want to game, most of your focus is going to be in the video card. Not to say that processor speed and RAM aren’t important anymore, but they’ve taken a big back seat. Also note that while clock speeds haven’t really really progressed much, overall processor design has, and the standard is moving towards four or more cores. RAM speed has also increased a lot over the last 5 years, and the standard is moving towards DDR3.

If you just want to upgrade your current system to keep it alive for another few years, just get a decent video card (as long as your system supports PCI-e). That way, you can keep your video card to put in whatever system you buy to replace your current one.

There aren’t that many resource hogging games at the moment, actually. There’s not at as much money in it anymore since the economy tanked. People aren’t as keen to spend $$$$ money on a gaming machine when any off-the-shelf box will have a respectable cpu & ram configuration and probably play WoW & Starcraft just fine.

Ars Tech recommends a pair of the Athlon Radeon 5870 for their god-box. AT $350 each, that’s a pretty reasonable price. I plan to be the market for a new card this time next year and I suspect a solo 5870 will be the one I pick.

Mind you, in December, the Radeon 6970 will be out. (ATI’s new naming scheme means the 6970 is the successor to the 5870. The 6870, otoh, is out now. It’s main attraction as far as I can tell is that it’s lower power consumption than the 5870. It’s not a huge leap in speed.) Presumably the 6970 will be the most powerful of the Radeon line and will be priced accordingly.

I’m not as familiar with the nVidia cards these days but Ars likes the GTX 460 for its bang-for-the-buck box.

Electronic Chaos summed it up pretty well.

5 years ago, clock speed was the marketable number. Consumers liked to buy mega-somethings and giga-majiggers. Intel was pushing their CPUs towards the milestone of 10ghz and in fact designed the first Pentium 4 cores to get there. But the chip makers discovered that clock speed didn’t scale up that high with modern manufacturing techniques. The tried and true method of shrinking the die size and pumping more voltage through the silicon failed at higher clock speeds, even on a heavily pipe-lined core such as the Pentium 4.

Today, the focus of CPU design is on multiple cores, and efficient power usage. Clock speed is not the benchmark it once was. 2 to 3 ghz processors are standard today, just as they have been for the last 3 years, but today’s chips are doing more work with each tick of the clock. AMD stopped marketing their clock speeds a long time ago, and even Intel is moving in that direction. You can’t trust a “gigahertz” to tell you how fast a PC is these days.

It’s certainly not a trend that’s helping people wanting to buy computers; The General Public had just grapsed the idea that a “Dual Core” or “Quad Core” computer which had something like 2.6Ghz of “Processor Speed” and a 512Mb “Video Card” was good, but now they’ve switched to “iCore” processors and now no-one who isn’t a computer geek knows what the hell an i3 or an i5 processor is in relation to anything else. Is an i3-350 processor with 2.18Ghz “Good”? Didn’t my last computer have more Gigahertz than that? So it is a quad-core processor, but it’s not really any good for games? How does that work? etc.

AMD have apparently stopped telling people what any of the “under the bonnet” specs are and have teamed up with ATI to come up with a series of “Categories” ranging from “Home Use” to “Performance Gaming” (or something like that). So you just have to choose what sort of computer you want based on that, without actually having any idea (unless you’re a computer nerd who wants to do some research) into what the system’s specifications actually are.

I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s noticed the “plateau” in PC specs lately, though- it’s nice to not have to update your computer every single year to be able to play anything, but I imagine when the next leap happens it’s going to be significant and expensive to upgrade to…

Does anyone have a link to a chart that ranks all the processors currently available? TigerDirect opened a clearance center in Chicago, and they appear to have amazing deals on returned computers, but to browse there effectively, I need a guide so I can get maximum processor for the money - unlike some I really need all the processor I need, as I edit and encode HD video.

From Tom’s Hardware.

Best Gaming CPUs chart
Best Gaming CPUs For The Money

For those of us who aren’t gaming but still want faster machines, one new trend is more parallel processing savvy software that distributes work to all the cores. Another trend is using the graphics processor for number crunching.

Yet another, though I don’t know too much about it, is that there is not really an FPU section of the processor anymore, or at least not much of one. Division of floats may be hardware encoded, and involves a lookup table to get the first few digits and then an iterative process to try multiplications while converging on a correct result. But the rest is assembled out of microcode, and does not necessarily limit itself to IEEE 32, 64 and 80 bit calculations, nor use the separate x87 ring buffer.

In my work I often need to estimate how long a calculation will run and try to adapt its complexity and accuracy to fit it into a timespan I can work with. It’s often overnight or over a weekend, and a few times I’ve set up a problem to run while I am on vacation. I think the longest one was about 250 hours. Since the processor gets hot and the fans all stay on, it’s important to check for things blocking airflow before starting. I also disconnect from the network so IT can’t push an update and reboot.

It seems to me that processors have kinda reached a plateau. The processors are much better but you don’t get that much gain since even a middle of the road CPU is pretty amazing.

For a while I thought SLI was going to be the next big thing but it seems like single video card solutions are still the best value for the money.

Computers are a system. They are only as fast as the slowest part. So the next big thing will be SSDs. As soon as SSDs get a little bit cheaper I’ll be upgrading my laptops to SSDs. Hopefully, I’ll be RAIDing SSDs in my desktops.

So IMO, SSDs are the hot new thing.

Very True. I was just pricing SSDs the other week, after hearing amazing tales of faster computers when switching to a SSD drive for the OS and software. it seems that 128 GB is the sweet spot for “afordability” right now, and that is barely enough space for all my apps. (around 90 GB, last I checked). In 6-12 months, 256 or 512 GB SSD drives should be more affordable, and most computers will ship standard with them.

The new Mac Book Airs only offer SSDs, and their performance has been surprisingly good despite their “slow” CPUs.

Our PC is about five years old now, and we plan to buy a new computer in the next two or three months, so this thread is helpful. We have no interest at all in gaming, but whenever I try to use something like Google Maps, it’s common for this clunker to freeze up momentarily. Even YouTube videos can be a bit clunky, although they’re a lot better since we finally switched from dial-up to broadband earlier this year. We hope to get something completely up to date; I suppose memory would be the biggest concern?

If videos and Google Maps are messing you up, you’d just need a newer video card. As people upthread mentioned, other than SSDs, video cards are pretty much where everything is concerned now-a-days when it comes to what a computer can and can’t do.

It’s being clunky in other ways, too. We figure it’s time for a new machine. But we’ll be sure to pay attention to the video card.

Yeah, timely thread for me too. I have no interest in gaming, but I do watch movies, and my biggest resource hog is editing photos. Since I’ve got a great monitor and a decent laptop, I was thinking about one of the cheap CPUs they have at Best Buy, what do you think? the Gateway SX series caught my eye.

This doesn’t make much sense to me, at least not for most general usage. When loaded, the OS and software reside in main memory; hazarding a guess, I’d say that most desktops/laptops have between 2-4 GB RAM. And that should be more than enough to maintain the “primary” (for lack of a better word) software in RAM. The only time a disk would have any effect on operation speed (besides start-up and shut-down, which would indeed show a significant difference) is if the swap file is being used. Which – again, assuming general usage – should be rarely.

For instance, I have 4 GB in my desktop (Debian linux); I also have a widget that displays the current memory allocation. Unless I’m copying a large volume of data (say, videos) or doing some heavy data processing (say, scientific data crunching), my virtual memory (i.e., disk swap) is usually not even used, much less given a workout.

So I believe that for the most part, any remarkable speed-up is actually illusory – although I’d also note that if a user perceives it to be faster, then that’s important. If my reasoning is faulty and I’m missing something, I’d surely like to know…

I believe the use of an SSD speeds things up under several circumstances:

  • The initial PC startup process, where the OS and all of its sidebar doodads get loaded up off of the hard drive.

  • The initial startup of a new application, where that application gets loaded up off of the hard drive.

  • Random database access (granted, this would involve the use on one humongous and expensive SSD)

Once things are up and running (and not accessing databases), then yes, an idle SSD is no faster than an idle hard disk.

Exactly. And given that, I’d ask: how many people (during general usage) actually use databases (or other random-access of largish disk files) that are substantially larger than what gets cached on load? Not all that many, and not all that often, I suspect.

I’d also note that SSD will have little to no effect on anything retrieved/sent over the network, where disk access speed is most likely not the limiting factor. So, web, email, “cloud” access, youtube, netflix, etc. – very little effect from SSD.

Again, my objection is simply to the notion that the “amazing tales of faster computers when switching to a SSD drive for the OS and software” have any substantial legitimacy for the general user.

It’s really a chore keeping up with these things.

I think for the sake of marketing there really should be benchmarking standards that can be applied to all makes. Even if they’re misleading.

When someone parks their new sportscar in the driveway, their friends can ask “How much horsepower?”, “What’s the 0-60 time?” or if they feel mean: “How many miles to the gallon?”.

With PCs right now, it’s a case of “Oh, I got the latest quad core, which is perfect for running physics-intensive games, and the graphics card has excellent fill rate and built in texture compression*, which is particularly useful on games like Fable III…”.
It’s just not the same.

I thought the Microsoft games rating thing was a step in that direction, but I don’t seem to hear about that much.

  • I don’t know if this is a real thing.

I’m not saying not to get that item, but you should do due diligence regarding your sourcing. One of the boilerplate pieces of advice is “make sure to look at systems from reputable white-box system builders”. If you have greater control over the selection of components that go into the box, you’re more likely to end up with a stable system.

AMD hasn’t “teamed up” with ATI, they are ATI. AMD bought ATI in 2006 and they are currently in the process of phasing out the ATI brand name all together.