About computer upgrades

I’ve been thinking about computer hardware recently, since I had issues with two 2015 Macbook Pros – Biljana’s 13” had a defective SSD and a bloated battery, and my 15” had an even more bloated battery and 256GB SSD which had only 20-30 GB free space. Biljana’s laptop was already retired earlier this year, but I had to figure out what I wanted to do with mine, and ended up finding a very cheap upgrade path. I had a cheap but good replacement battery built in, and replaced the SSD with an adapter and a standard Samsung 970 EVO NVMe drive of 1TB. I decided to upgrade because unlike Biljana’s 13” that was a 2-core 8GB RAM machine, mine is a 4-core i7 with 16GB RAM and a 15” screen that’s perfectly good for photo editing and I had no issues with it other than the battery and a small SSD. Those being fixed now, I’m quite happy with it, which brings me to the main issue: is there a need to upgrade computer hardware regularly anymore, or has technology peaked? Right now I’m using several computers, and none of them are exactly new. My desktop machine is still a Skylake i7-6700K, my laptop is a Haswell i7-4770HQ, my phone is an iPhone 8 plus, the tablet is an iPad Mini 4, and the machine I’m writing this on, an ultralight hybrid Asus UX370UAR, is actually the newest and uses a Kaby lake R i5-8250U. Why am I using technology that’s basically 5 years old? Because it’s not upgradable, in a sense that upgrades don’t make it faster. Sure, you can replace it with something newer, but you don’t gain anything other than greater numbers on multi-core benchmarks; the actual speed and functionality is the same. I tested the new 16” Macbook Pro when I bought it for Biljana, and guess what, it felt almost identical to my 15”, which means I could replace mine with an expensive new thing and it would feel exactly the same. Sure, the touchpad is bigger, the screen is bigger and a bit better, but it doesn’t feel like a big difference.

I also came to an interesting conclusion when I plugged in different things into my desktop peripherals to see if anything is faster than my desktop, and it turned out that the CPU is the least important thing, because I have several machines with similar CPU/RAM/SSD performance, and they all felt laggy compared to my desktop, when I use them for normal desktopy things such as watching Youtube, switching between many apps and resizing windows to fit the big 4K screen. Guess why that was? Because today everything is strongly GPU accelerated, and driving a big 4K display is very speed-sensitive, partially because of the resolution, but mostly because of the physical screen size (43”), which visually magnifies all the problems, and the only two GPUs that worked fast enough not to cause visual lag are my 1080ti and my son’s 2070. Basically, it’s the GPU that makes all the difference, and as far as CPU power goes, the Haswell i7 in my Macbook Pro or the i5-8250U in the ultralight Zenbook are perfectly sufficient for everything I do, provided that they are equipped with enough RAM and fast storage. It’s not that I didn’t test the new 6-core machines; it’s just that I run the multi-core stress on my machines so rarely, that it doesn’t make a difference. However, if someone tells you that GPU doesn’t matter if you don’t play games, and you’re fine with integrated graphics, that’s probably true if you run a 1080p display, but on a big 4K display there’s a big difference. Integrated graphics works in a pinch, but it’s visibly stunted and creates an impression that the machine is much slower than it actually is. Even something like the AMD 270X was too slow for the 4k display, and I’m not really sure what’s enough and what’s overkill. I do know that 1080ti and 2070 are perceived to be equally fast and are great. I don’t know what’s the cheapest GPU that would suffice, because didn’t have many to test, but I would theorize that if something can’t run Valley benchmark smoothly at 4k, it might be too slow for the demands of window manager acceleration as well. Interestingly, the same doesn’t apply for the lower resolutions, because my 15” Macbook drives its own retina display perfectly fine with Intel graphics, and when I plug it into a 1080p monitor, it’s blazingly fast, and yet it can’t run Valley benchmark on those resolutions to save its life. However, on 4K, the only GPUs that are actually fast in Windows are also fast for gaming at the high resolutions. Years ago my recommendation would be to get the worst GPU that can still run your screen at the desired resolution and color depth, because GPU was not important, unless you wanted to play games. Today, my recommendation is the complete opposite: if you want to drive a 4k display or bigger, the GPU is the most important part of your system, and you should get a strong gaming PC as your desktop machine, regardless of how many games you intend to play. It’s just that your display will require powerful GPU acceleration to run smoothly, in everything from web browsing, scrolling to window resizing. However, if you don’t run 4K or 5K displays, you can greatly relax the GPU requirements: integrated graphics, such as Intel 620, will be perfectly snappy at 1080p, and you should only get dedicated graphics for gaming, and if you do GPU accelerated tasks such as video editing.

So, regarding upgrades, it’s all good news: basically, if you have anything that is Haswell or newer, if you have at least 16GB RAM and a fast SSD drive, your machine will run all normal tasks as quickly as a modern machine, providing that your GPU is modern enough for driving your display resolution. If you have specific tasks that require more power than that, well, then these general guidelines don’t apply to you, but all in all, unless your PC is really ancient, you will only need to upgrade when it finally dies, not before. But if your machine actually is ancient, you should definitely try the new generations because they are awesome. I bought an 8-th gen i5 Intel NUC for testing, and that thing is absolutely awesome as a desktop machine, if you’re running it at 1080p. At 4K, it’s marginal; it sucks in Linux and Mac OS, it’s much better at Win10, but still nowhere near the brutal speed of my 1080ti. At this point, Win10 has superior window manager acceleration and driver optimization and will extract the maximum from marginal GPUs.

Someone will say that NUC is overpriced and you can get a Raspberry Pi 4 for much less money, at which point I’ll just roll my eyes. Yes, you can, but the difference in speed is so great it’s not even funny. The NUC runs NVMe and SATA drives, it has an immensely superior GPU, it has socketed RAM which can go up to 32GB, and I tested both so I actually know. Raspberry Pi 4 is fine for web browsing and document editing, it’s great as a console for accessing other Unix systems, or a small home UNIX server (I actually have a 3B+ plugged into my home LAN as a server for rsyncing remote backups and hosting my e-mail database), but it absolutely sucks for anything video-related. It has some kind of GPU accelerated video playback but software support for it is sketchy or outright missing, so it works in some specific video modes and codecs, and completely fails in others, and generally, it’s rubbish for video. NUC, on the other hand, is better at 4K than Pi 4 is at 1080p, and that really tells you something. NUC can run photo editing in Lightroom perfectly fine, and that’s a professional-grade task. It’s my assessment that its speed is identical to that of the 15” Macbook Pro retina in Mac OS (hackintosh), and the benchmarks confirm it. So, that’s one type of a modern machine you can get today: it fits on your palm, it’s as quiet as a Macbook Pro, doesn’t draw much power, it’s blazingly fast, and its only drawback is that you can’t add a dedicated GPU later on, if you decide that you need it; for those cases, a “normal” desktop PC would be better. So, basically, this is the best time ever to buy a PC, because they are for the most part incredibly good. On the other hand, they’ve been as incredibly good for the last 5 years or so. As for the phones, they also peaked long ago: today they are all the same; pick your OS, pick the higher price level to avoid outright garbage, and you’re set. I can’t even force myself to think about them seriously anymore, they are like washing machines. If yours dies and it’s not economical to repair, you just go to the store and pick a new one: if you avoid the cheapest garbage, they are all the same and will work great.