Or, the continuing saga of the original “dumb PC”!
The “dumb PC” has seen a lot of changing roles and changing uses since I set it up. Originally, its purpose in life was “I have this case, what’s about the cheapest PC I can build into it?” and part of that goal was to re-use some spare parts I had from refurbishing and upgrading an HP all-in-one I managed to take home. Ultimately, building a system with even used parts around an old Athlon II X2 CPU was pretty cost prohibitive, and I ended up putting together a pretty cheap 9th-gen Intel Core system. Doing that gave way to trying to use a Linux desktop for the first time in.. well, decades, which went well, but, yano, games, so Windows 10 it was, and it got a fairly decent video card. It ended up becoming my main system, especially after the pandemic hit and working from home was the order, and more upgrades ensued until it ended up moving from an 8GB/240GB machine to a 16GB system with a 500GB M.2 SSD and a 1TB SATA SSD. It’s got both my 4k screens on it, and I even got it a cheapish webcam (once demand settled a bit) that actually works pretty well and support Windows Hello.
At this point, the machine really is my main system - all of my main job stuff is done there, most of the screwing around I do is done there, games are on there (when I have time and interest in playing them), etc. But, one of the things I started to run into was a lack of processor. This was supposed to be a cheap machine and as such it’s got a cheap processor in it - a Pentium Gold G5400, which is based on the 9th generation Core architecture, but is intended for budget systems and appliance use more than anything. It’s only got 2 cores, and does do HyperThreading, but my workflow now depends on virtual machines and Docker and all that more and more and that’s a bit much for that CPU. So, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and move from “let’s build a PC for cheap, it’ll be fun!” to “yep let’s build a pretty serious system.”
The one thing I didn’t do is actually stick with Intel. The 9th-gen Cores are great and all, and I’ve had an eye on a i5-9600 that’d swap right into the board, but it bothered me that I’d then have this basically new, current CPU floating around not doing anything, and it’s both too modern and too budget to really get anything out of it on the used market, so I’d want to also get another motherboard to slot it into and use for, I dunno, something. (Plus with previous upgrades I did have 8GB of DDR4 and the original 240gb SSD not doing anything.) But, looking at prices for the motherboard plus CPU kinda put me off. And, I kept seeing things on YouTube and whatnot talking about the Ryzen CPUs, and I hadn’t had a really good AMD system in a while.. so that’s what I went with: a Ryzen 7 3700x. That’s an 8 core/16 thread CPU for about the same money as the i5 (6 core/12 thread). On top of that, the new B550/X570 chipsets also just came out, so why not do all the new things?
As a quick aside, one of the first real modern systems (or maybe the first real modern system) I built was a 1.2GHz Athlon Thunderbird. It’s been a long, long time - arguably since the Pentium 4/Athlon XP Barton days - since AMD was not only a power player but legitimately better than Intel. Processors sure are ridiculous these days but it’s nice to kind of revisit those days of building systems and playing Unreal endlessly, and loading up games because it’s just so damned weird to have things that look so good. (And if you want to go back further.. we had a 386DX-40 system back in the halcyon days of Windows 3.1, CPU lawsuits, and the very early Internet. Me and AMD go back a ways, and those DX-40s were fast as hell and bulletproof in the day.)
Anywho, so aside from the processor, I also ended up with an ASUS Prime B550 motherboard to slot it into. The nice thing about the B550 is that it’s PCI-Express 4 capable now, and will support the new Zen 3 processors when those come out too. (So in 6 months or whatever, my VM infrastructure will become properly ridiculous.) It’s also got two PCI-Express M.2 SSD slots, one that maxes out at 2280 and one that goes up to 22110 or whatever the longer one is. And better I/O - the Intel board I have (also an ASUS Prime) has like 4 on-board USB ports total; this one has 6, at least, 4 of them USB 3.1 and two 3.2s on top of that. The one thing that kinda sucks about it over the other B550 boards I was looking at is that the LAN port is only 1Gb where other ones have 2.5Gb Ethernet. But on that same token I’m totally not putting the money down yet for 10GBaseT infrastructure so not gonna worry too hard on that.
I threw that all together and.. holy crap Docker starts so fast now. I did a test Windows install to the 240GB SSD and kept getting up while it was doing its thing, to come back 20 seconds later to a reboot, and then confusion because it wasn’t erroring out, it just blew through the install steps that quickly. I did run a Cinebench R20 test, and it benches about 6 times faster. The NVMe stuff is also vastly improved - somehow or another, my drive was running at PCI-E 2.0 with just 2 lanes, where it supports PCI-E 3 x4. (Why this was I don’t know.) I haven’t run games or 3DMark yet, but I don’t expect a huge increase there; I’m still on the older RX 570 GPU and I have a hard time justifying that expense. That said, it’s definitely snappier, which alone is an accomplishment - things are just so damned fast nowadays that it’s hard to really get a machine that feels faster, but this is a move that does it. To be sure, this was a pretty massive upgrade - it’s 4 times the cores and threads, and on an architecture that’s perhaps a bit faster than the Coffee Lake stuff now - but when you factor in the cost, it’s pretty impressive.
So, loads of SSD, a video card I’m pretty happy with, and a real fast processor. This thing is a pretty properly good computer now. The current final specs on it:
I’m pretty happy with it. So, I’m done now, right? Well, of course not! I am a terrible nerd after all, and there are slots and things that aren’t being used.
The first thing in line is the case and PSU - the Rosewill case it’s in is cheap and I’ve cut myself each time I’ve had to work in it, and it’s cramped and yeah basically no cable management. Airflow is OK given the case fans and mesh front but cable routing is a pain. And, the RAIDMAX 500 watt PSU that’s in it now makes odd noises sometimes. (The fan’s dying.) I’m not terribly worried about power consumption - the UPS that runs the whole nine yards there, including the screens, the MacBook Pro, its screens, and the dock/charger, all together use about 300wt - but bad fan is no bueno, and I want a modular PSU anyway. So, probably going with a Thermaltake or Fractal Design case and some sort of real PSU (Tt, Corsair, or Silverstone probably) for the next round. I have like maybe 1cm of clearance between the GPU fans and the front panel cabling/bottom of the case on the current one so this is now pretty needful.
Next up is RAM. 16GB good, 32GB better, RAM is cheap. 4x8GB DDR4-3200 or whatever runs like $130, and that board has 4 slots for a maximum of either 64 or 128GB. NVMe SSDs are cool but actual RAM is better. Speaking of, I’d also love to jettison the SATA SSD and drop in a NVMe 1TB one (or two!) in there. Even those are pretty inexpensive - I won’t get a Samsung 970EVO PRO for $100ish but the WD Black drives are pretty damned good too. (I believe I get RAID on the 3700x CPU too so a RAID 0 of two NVMe drives sounds like I need a moist towelette.)
I’d like to do up a faster video card but until case and power supply (and probably RAM) I’d rather not. It’s just too cramped in there as is. And I kinda want an RTX card (yes, for Minecraft), and those are still way more than I want to pay.
So, not but a few months in, and the fun plaything modern PC turned into my main machine, then turned into a real boy. I mean computer. And, I’ve already repurposed the Intel stuff into a new machine - the new and improved sinbox! So many weird computing projects.