If there’s one hobby that I have that I don’t get to spend much time on, it’s building/upgrading PCs.
A few years ago I upgraded my 10-year-old workstation/gaming PC, to something a bit more modern. At the time I was working with a fairly limited budget, and so I had to make some concessions around what parts to purchase for the upgrade.
During the course of the 10 years since the original build, I had added a 128 GB SSD boot drive and included additional two additional 1 TB HDD storage drives. So when I upgraded I opted to merely improve the PC internals, namely the motherboard, CPU, memory, and graphics card. The plan was to use this as both a workstation PC as well as for gaming and keep my laptop for remote work/conferences. During the upgrade, I discovered that I had a spare 128GB M.2 SSD from my then laptop that I could use as a secondary boot drive. So I ended up with a dual boot Windows (for gaming) and Ubuntu (for work) machine.
I’ve been using this way successfully for the past two years, but over the course of the last year, a few things become clear to me.
Firstly, while the 128 GB M.2 SSD was nice and fast as a boot drive for Ubuntu, it wasn’t enough space to keep all my work-related files on, so I had to purchase an additional 1TB storage drive, move my work files there, and symlink them all up to my boot drive. This meant that indexing new projects in PHPStorm could often be painfully slow.
Secondly, Steam Play, and especially the work being done on the Proton tool, was getting REALLY good. It’s gotten to a point where most modern triple-A games run natively on Proton or require a few tweaks here and there to get running smoothly. Even Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order (my favourite game of 2019), got to Gold level status on ProtonDB, even with the EA Origin account sign in required nonsense.
Thirdly, and a little selfishly, I wasn’t actually getting much time to game. Call me stupid, but as it turns out, the plan of having a gaming PC that would double as my workstation, while sounding like an amazing idea (gaming in my breaks during work hours, woohoo!) didn’t quite work out. In the two years since I upgraded the PC, the only game I actually managed to play through was the aforementioned Jedi Fallen Order, and that was only because I took the PC home and played in the evenings during my year-end leave.
With these realizations, I spent the latter part of 2019 and the rest of 2020 putting some money aside for a new build. The new PC would remain at the office, and the older, upgraded one would come home, giving me the ability to work and game at both locations. Over time I will probably only need to upgrade specific parts of the new machine to stay up to date, and then the parts they replace could be moved to the older one. By the time November rolled around, I’d saved enough to buy the parts for a modest mid-range build, with a decent upgrade path for future changes. Given that 2020 turned out to be the year it was, I decided I would like to end the year on a happy note.
A note on naming. I used to always call my workstation/gaming PC “Psyrig”, a portmanteau of my then online nick (Psykro) and the word “rig” (from the term gaming rig). As I got older I’ve dropped that name, and simply called it my workstation/gaming PC. Now that I have two, with different sets of parts, I’m going to have to think up some new names.
After much online research, I finally settled on the following parts
- AMD Ryzen 5 3600 CPU
- Asus TUF GAMING B550M-PLUS (WIFI) Motherboard
- 16GB Corsair VENGEANCE LPX DDR 4 RAM
- Samsung 970 EVO Plus 500GB NVMe SSD
- Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1660 Ti OC 6GB Graphics Card
- Cooler Master MWE GOLD 650W ATX PSU
- Cooler Master Masterbox K500L ATX case
The motherboard was the most important part of the build. I wanted something that would be solid now, but have a decent upgrade path. The Asus board supports both the current-gen AMD Zen 2 CPUs, as well as the newly released Zen 3 chips, has PCIe 4.0 connectivity, supports the latest standards for external ports (USB 3.2 and USB Type-C) as well as having built-in WiFi and Bluetooth. So when the time comes to upgrade either the CPU or the Graphics Card (or both) this board should be able to handle it.
I really wanted to get an X570 based board, but the price was just to high for my budget, so the B550 would have to do.
The AMD CPU was the second most important part. I’d been eyeing the Zen2 Ryzen 5 3600 for a while, and it was a great little upgrade from my previous 2600x.
The third most important part was a decent-sized NVMe SSD, that I could use for my boot drive, as well as for storing my work-related files, instead of needing to offload them to a separate hard drive. This also meant I could keep one 1TB HDD with the old PC, for general storage.
When it came to the graphics card, I didn’t quite have enough in my budget to afford an RTX 2060, so I opted for a GTX 1660 Ti instead. Once the current shortage of the new graphics cards is over I’ll probably want to upgrade this to either an RTX 3060 Ti or the equivalent AMD 6000 series card.
I wanted to get DDR4 3200 Mhz RAM, but that was out of stock so I settled on DDR4 3000 Mhz RAM instead. To round out the build, I went with a Gold rated 650W power supply, that can handle any modest planned future upgrades, and the Masterbox case because it was the most understated, within my budget.
The goal of this build is to only ever need to upgrade the graphics card when the current one gets a bit out of date. The rest of the hardware should be pretty solid for at least a couple of years, and I can easily swap out anything that might cause bottlenecks down the line.
I decided to stream the new build, instead of just taking before and after shots. I only ended up streaming the pre-build, where I made sure that all the parts were working, as trying to get a decent camera angle while I put the parts inside the case proved more difficult than I had anticipated.
Warning, content slightly NSFW
The completed build looks more or less how I wanted it to, simple, clean, fairly well cabled managed, and with all the RGB on the motherboard turned off. I still need to turn off the front fan RGB, but that’s only still on (I think) because I didn’t connect up the fan headers to the motherboard properly, so that’s a problem for another day.
I discovered Hardinfo when I wanted to benchmark my workstation against my laptop, for my Zenbook laptop review. While the benchmarks are related to the processing capabilities of the CPU, it was nice to see that all of those benchmarks were improved across the board in the new build. The only benchmarks that were worse were the FPU (Floating-point unit) benchmarks, which was interesting, but I have no idea what this means in the grand scheme of things.
|CPU Blowfish (lower is better)||0.97||1.05||0.50|
|CPU CryptoHash (higher is better)||1284.82||1058.34||1613.40|
|CPU Fibonacci (lower is better)||0.55||0.39||0.28|
|CPU N-Queens (lower is better)||5.12||4.80||4.40|
|CPU Zlib (higher is better)||2.35||1.46||2.82|
|FPU FFT (lower is better)||0.80||0.65||0.70|
|FPU Raytracing (lower is better)||2.56||1.13||4.47|
|GPU Drawing (higher is better)||16462.80||8428.99||19499.27|
In my Windows benchmarking days, 3DMark would have been my go-to graphics benchmark tool. However, I wanted to test something on Ubuntu. After a bit of searching, I found UNIGINE, and installed and ran the Superposition benchmark, at the “1080p medium settings” configuration on both PCs.
The old machine had a score of 7355, with an average framerate of 55, while the new machine had a score of 11153 and an average framerate of 83.
For completeness, I also ran the benchmark on “1080p high settings” on the new build, and recorded a score of 8111, with an average framerate of 60. While I can’t compare this to the old build, as the 3GB VRAM on the graphics card can’t handle the high settings, it’s nice to know that I should be able to run most games at high settings going forward, or as a worst-case scenario, drop down to medium.
I’m very happy with this new build, and I hope I don’t have to upgrade anything major for at least a year. That being said, I am fully aware that the new AMD CPUs and GPUs, as well as the new nVidia GPUs, have just launched, so I have no idea how long things will last in their current state. I’m a bit of a sucker for new upgrades!