A Good Time to Upgrade PCs

PC hardware just keeps getting cheaper and faster. Now that so many people have been working from home the deficiencies of home PCs are becoming apparent. I’ll give Australian prices and URLs in this post, but I think that similar prices will be available everywhere that people read my blog.

From MSY (parts list PDF ) [1] 120G SATA SSDs are under $50 each. 120G is more than enough for a basic workstation, so you are looking at $42 or so for fast quiet storage or $84 or so for the same with RAID-1. Being quiet is a significant luxury feature and it’s also useful if you are going to be in video conferences.

For more serious storage NVMe starts at around $100 per unit, I think that $124 for a 500G Crucial NVMe is the best low end option (paying $95 for a 250G Kingston device doesn’t seem like enough savings to be worth it). So that’s $248 for 500G of very fast RAID-1 storage. There’s a Samsung 2TB NVMe device for $349 which is good if you need more storage, it’s interesting to note that this is significantly cheaper than the Samsung 2TB SSD which costs $455. I wonder if SATA SSD devices will go away in the future, it might end up being SATA for slow/cheap spinning media and M.2 NVMe for solid state storage. The SATA SSD devices are only good for use in older systems that don’t have M.2 sockets on the motherboard.

It seems that most new motherboards have one M.2 socket on the motherboard with NVMe support, and presumably support for booting from NVMe. But dual M.2 sockets is rare and the price difference is significantly greater than the cost of a PCIe M.2 card to support NVMe which is $14. So for NVMe RAID-1 it seems that the best option is a motherboard with a single NVMe socket (starting at $89 for a AM4 socket motherboard – the current standard for AMD CPUs) and a PCIe M.2 card.

One thing to note about NVMe is that different drivers are required. On Linux this means means building a new initrd before the migration (or afterwards when booted from a recovery image) and on Windows probably means a fresh install from special installation media with NVMe drivers.

All the AM4 motherboards seem to have RADEON Vega graphics built in which is capable of 4K resolution at a stated refresh of around 24Hz. The ones that give detail about the interfaces say that they have HDMI 1.4 which means a maximum of 30Hz at 4K resolution if you have the color encoding that suits text (IE for use other than just video). I covered this issue in detail in my blog post about DisplayPort and 4K resolution [2]. So a basic AM4 motherboard won’t give great 4K display support, but it will probably be good for a cheap start.

$89 for motherboard, $124 for 500G NVMe, $344 for a Ryzen 5 3600 CPU (not the cheapest AM4 but in the middle range and good value for money), and $99 for 16G of RAM (DDR4 RAM is cheaper than DDR3 RAM) gives the core of a very decent system for $656 (assuming you have a working system to upgrade and peripherals to go with it).

Currently Kogan has 4K resolution monitors starting at $329 [3]. They probably won’t be the greatest monitors but my experience of a past cheap 4K monitor from Kogan was that it is quite OK. Samsung 4K monitors started at about $400 last time I could check (Kogan currently has no stock of them and doesn’t display the price), I’d pay an extra $70 for Samsung, but the Kogan branded product is probably good enough for most people. So you are looking at under $1000 for a new system with fast CPU, DDR4 RAM, NVMe storage, and a 4K monitor if you already have the case, PSU, keyboard, mouse, etc.

It seems quite likely that the 4K video hardware on a cheap AM4 motherboard won’t be that great for games and it will definitely be lacking for watching TV documentaries. Whether such deficiencies are worth spending money on a PCIe video card (starting at $50 for a low end card but costing significantly more for 3D gaming at 4K resolution) is a matter of opinion. I probably wouldn’t have spent extra for a PCIe video card if I had 4K video on the motherboard. Not only does using built in video save money it means one less fan running (less background noise) and probably less electricity use too.

My Plans

I currently have a workstation with 2*500G SATA SSDs in a RAID-1 array, 16G of RAM, and a i5-2500 CPU (just under 1/4 the speed of the Ryzen 5 3600). If I had hard drives then I would definitely buy a new system right now. But as I have SSDs that work nicely (quiet and fast enough for most things) and almost all machines I personally use have SSDs (so I can’t get a benefit from moving my current SSDs to another system) I would just get CPU, motherboard, and RAM. So the question is whether to spend $532 for more than 4* the CPU performance. At the moment I’ll wait because I’ll probably get a free system with DDR4 RAM in the near future, while it probably won’t be as fast as a Ryzen 5 3600, it should be at least twice as fast as what I currently have.

5 comments to A Good Time to Upgrade PCs

  • Liam

    The video card is in the processor. Check if the CPU you chose has built in graphics, as there is none on most main boards. For AMD those tend to be called APUs, for Intel you need to avoid F processors.

    for the one you chose: has radeon graphics.

  • Frédéric Brière

    I think you mistook the mere presence of a HDMI port with actual onboard graphics; AM4 motherboard can only dispense with a video card when paired with an APU. Otherwise, I just bought a 3200G for no good reason. :)

    (And for the record, there are AM4 boards out there that support HDMI 2.0, although it’s possible they are not available in your market yet.)

  • Liam, Frederic, and the guy who sent encrypted email: Yes you are correct. I hope that people would take my post as a place to start research not as a direct shopping list.

    As for AM4 boards with HDMI 2.0, I didn’t check the specs on the more expensive boards. Generally I go for the cheaper stuff and replace things more often. If you pay twice the price and have hardware last for 4 years then on average you will have a less powerful system than if you get the cheapest stuff and have it last for 2 years. Also the anonymous guy pointed out that if you buy a CPU with APU then it’ll be a less powerful or more expensive CPU so a PCIe video card is often a better option. Probably if you want to do things that need HDMI 2.0 then you want something better than motherboard video.

  • Alex PK

    Be careful with upgrading now, as both AMD and Intel are launching new architectures, partially incompatible with old motherboards.
    In particular, to make sure you can upgrade your CPU in the future on AMD tech, you should ho for a 500-series MoBo (X570 or B550). The current B450 MoBos can probably be updated to support the new Ryzen 4xxx but will sacrificing compatibility with older models, and won’t support future 5xxx CPU series.
    I’m not completely up to date with Intel but I think they are changing the socket completely for the next gen, so it’s not much better. And AMD is better in the price/performance ratio anyway.

  • Alex: Thanks for mentioning that. But given that the most expensive motherboards are less than half the price of the most expensive CPUs (both AMD and Intel) and the cheapest motherboards are still cheaper than the cheapest CPUs you would want to use (the very cheapest CPUs on offer are significantly slower than the 2nd and 3rd cheapest) that’s probably not going to affect many people. If you buy a $100 motherboard and $300 CPU, if you then get a new CPU why not buy another $100 motherboard and then you will have 2 systems instead of having 1 system and a spare CPU you can’t use?