Bi-Annual PC Upgrade

I bought a custom-built gaming PC four years ago so I could upgrade it incrementally and avoid buying a new PC every couple of years to keep up with games. Over the long run this would provide me with a better system for less money.  The original machine came with a high-end fourth-generation Core i7 CPU, 16 GB RAM, a 2 TB hard drive, and a 4 GB GeForce GTX 970 with an additional slot on the motherboard for another card if I ever wanted to add one. By 2016 I had added a 512 GB SSD and a second GTX 970 for dual-card gaming (called SLI) on the highest settings. It’s been two years and it’s time for an upgrade once again. 

This year’s upgrade is focused on storage and graphics. As it is Black Friday® Season, I’ve been looking for deals on hardware.

New Storage

I found a 2 TB NVMe SSD from Intel for $250 (about $100 off) to replace my 2 TB hard drive. After a couple years of increasing prices, SSDs have started dropping significantly. This SSD costs about $0.12 per GB, which is less than drives using slower connections.  I’ll use this drive as my primary boot drive and storage for my most frequently used games. The other drives will be for the less important ones.

This should resolve a number of issues I’ve been having with my Windows machine in terms of its performance. It runs games well, but opening an app like Chrome takes almost 30 seconds – atrocious in this day an age. I also can’t even use it for the first five minutes after boot because it’s reading so much data from disk that it’s unresponsive. It’s embarrassing when my 10-year-old iMac boots and starts apps faster than my four-year-old gaming PC. 

New Graphics

My second upgrade is in the graphics card department. Nvidia released its 10-series graphics cards soon after I upgraded to dual GTX 970’s but I skipped them due to high prices driven by demand from the cryptocurrency market. My dual 970’s provide a 60 – 80% boost over a single 970 and compare well to the newer hardware. The RTX 20-series was released recently, the cryptocurrency market has slowed, and Black Friday deals have popped up so it was a perfect time to think about investing in a new card or two. 

The RTX 20-series doesn’t have as large a performance boost over the previous generation as the 10-series did, but the 2070 “high-end” model is still faster than the previous generation’s “enthusiast” 1080. I purchased one because I found a Black Friday deal that brought it to $485 (from $550). This is a huge change for me because I bought a single card. No more dual cards this time around. 

My 970 scales really well with two cards, resulting in an 80% performance improvement in many games. A single 1080 is about 100% (2x) faster than a single 970 and a single 2070 is about 15% faster than a 1080. That results in a setup that is 130%  faster than a single 970 and about 27% faster than my  dual 970s. Spending nearly $500 on a 27% performance improvement doesn’t seem like it’s worth it, so why am I doing it?

Bye-Bye SLI

First, let’t talk about why I’d drop down to a single card again: support for SLI is dwindling. For the first time, Nvidia is limiting SLI capabilities to its highest-end cards. The RTX 2070 can’t be configured to run alongside another card. To use SLI one needs to purchase the flagship RTX 2080, which costs $750. My dual 970 setup cost me about $600 total and I’m not willing to spend $1500 on SLI with this generation. I could buy a couple of 1070’s or 1080s for $800 – $1000 to continue my SLI setup but there are other reasons to drop to a single card. 

SLI provides high-end performance at a lower cost but it has its downsides. First, SLI is not supported by all games. Unsupported games use a single GPU causing frame rates and graphics quality to suffer.  Even titles that support SLI don’t often support it for a few patch cycles and can break it over time. I remember Far Cry 4 breaking SLI with every other patch over several months until it finally stabilized. There was nothing like starting up the game to be greeted with choppy frame rates that weren’t there the previous day. The performance increase can also vary by game depending on its level of optimization.

The second issue is that SLI also can suffer from something called microstuttering, which is an inconsistency in frame rates between two cards. This means that the dual-card setup delivers lower frame rates than it is supposed to. It varies by game with some exhibiting minor stuttering while others exhibit enough to negate any multi-card boost. It also feels choppier during game play. This, combined with the need for custom support and cooling concerns has made SLI into less of a focus for game developers and even Nvidia itself. The sun may be setting on SLI.

Memory, Heat, & Overclocking

My GTX 970s each have 4 GB of memory which is used to hold textures and becomes more constrained as newer games continue to increase detail. SLI on the 970 doesn’t allow the cards to share memory so I don’t get a combined 8 GB with two cards, just more processing power. The GTX 2070 has 8 GB of memory and it’s a generation faster than the memory in my 970s. 

All CPUs and GPUs are certified to run at certain guaranteed speeds without crashing but some are capable of being pushed further (overclocked) if they have enough cooling and power available. I don’t think I can push my 970s very hard because they generate a lot of heat together which limits their overclocking abilities and actually decreases their speed due to throttling. Dropping down to a single card should provide more headroom maintain speed and overclock which will improve performance. 

New Technology

Another reason to upgrade is related to the new technologies available from newer cards. The big features of the RTX generation are ray tracing for more realistic lighting and artificial intelligence features such as Deep Learning Super Sampling which improves antialiasing details while also improving performance. Both of these need to be supported individually by games but will be helpful to have in the future. I can also take advantages of new features introduced with the 10-series such as improved texture compression to help me get the most out of my 8 GB and better frame buffering to reduce the need for performance-sapping v-sync. 

Price & Opportunity

The final reason that I’m upgrading is price. My RTX 2070 card was about $80 off for Black Friday. I can probably sell my two 970s for $100 each, brining the total cost of my upgrade down to about $300. I’m using credit card cash back to buy it anyway so it’s essentially free. 

Wrapping it All Up

I’m excited to get my new SSD and new graphics card, reconfigure my system, and benchmark it. I’m very interested in seeing what kind of improvements I can get. It may be a four year old machine but I think I can go at least another four years before needing a major upgrade. 

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