Gaming PC upgrade
My ancient gaming PC finally got an upgrade. I used to boast that it was so old it could run XP (and did, for many years), but now it’s new enough to install Windows 11.
My gaming PC started life as a collection of free, outdated parts. The CPU was an Intel Xeon (Conroe) taken from a rack mount server and dumped in a desktop motherboard. A collection of mismatched RAM added up to 3.5GB, which was more than enough for Windows XP. Case, power supply, hard disks, even a 1280×1024 (4:3) monitor were all part of the free parts collection. The only thing I had to buy was a video card. I got an Nvidia 450 GTS.
The first upgrade came approximately a year later when yet more free parts landed on me. The big one was the Intel Q6700 CPU, which doubled the number of cores. To be honest, I barely noticed the extra cores at the time because I was playing ancient games. The biggest downside to the new CPU is that it came with (and needed) a new motherboard, which was too long for the original case. There was a bigger case available so it was just a matter of moving things over, but I do miss that original case because it was cute and compact.
At some point, I got an old 1440×900 monitor. Initially, this wasn’t too useful for me because the ancient games I was playing just weren’t designed for widescreen, but as I got to newer games, I used this monitor.
It wasn’t all free upgrades. I bought a case fan, 64GB SSD and upgraded the OS to Windows 10.
Working From Home
When we all started working from home in 2020, the gaming PC became my workstation. At this point, the square monitor made a comeback as a second screen, and I bumped the RAM to 7GB to help the browser handle Jira and Confluence. I actually bought 4 2GB sticks, but one of the motherboard slots just wouldn’t take them, so I had to settle for 3x 2GB and 1x 1GB, hence the odd total.
Not too long ago, I replaced the power supply after it developed coil whine. The old one was a no-name, generic thing. I replaced it with a much nicer Bronze rated power supply.
One of the last, and most transformative upgrades was the addition of a 1TB SSD. This came out of my beloved MacBook Pro when it died. It freed me from having to squeeze games into limited space. I kept the 64GB SSD as a boot volume though, so I could continue to do image backups of Windows.
And finally, to the reason for this post. The new upgrades. My son recently got a new video card, and a new CPU, meaning we had some old parts in the house. It shows how ancient my gaming PC was that his off casts represented major upgrades for me.
The video card was an Nvidia GTX 1060 6GB. I’ve had it in my PC for about a month now. The thing is, while it let me crank up the graphical settings on some newer games, there really wasn’t any life-changing improvements. The game that seemed to benefit the most is The Division, which previously only just worked on low settings. I’ve already played that game though, so unless I play through it again, the improvement is moot. The most notable thing about the GPU is that I had to cut away part of the drive cage to fit it in the case! This is visible in the picture below.
The CPU was an AMD Ryzen 5 1600 AF. This is a late revision that features the ZEN+ architecture and performs more like a 2600 than the older 1600. He even had an unused stock AMD cooler because he uses a third party cooler. I only needed to buy a new motherboard and some RAM. After a bit of time to consider, I took the plunge and bought the parts last week (MSI B450-A PRO MAX motherboard and 16GB of RAM), letting me rebuild my system over the weekend.
After taking the old motherboard out, I noticed something I had missed before. My old motherboard was the full length of ATX, but not the full width. The new motherboard was full ATX, so I had to remove and reposition some drives in order to get it in. This was ok though because the new motherboard doesn’t have IDE, so my old backup drive had to go anyway, creating space. The drive previously hosting a Windows XP install will be my backup drive now.
That new power supply I mentioned? It is fortuitous that I bought it. While the old motherboard and GPU used 4 and 6 pin connectors respectively. The new motherboard and GPU required 8 pins for both. Luckily, the new power supply had these.
I tested the system without any of the drives connected, just to make sure it had gone together correctly. It all seemed fine, so I crossed my fingers and let Windows boot. I was honestly surprised to see it boot up just fine.
Unlike the GPU upgrade that was a little underwhelming, the CPU upgrade has been eye-opening. Games that used to take forever to start (Elder Scrolls Online was a particular offender) now start quickly, even near-instantly. The Witcher 2 is a game that struggled before, and didn’t seem to benefit from the new video card the way I thought it would, but the new CPU has made it run much better. There are games I have failed to run before (The Division 2) that now run just fine, which I’m sure has more to do with the CPU than the GPU. Possibly the extra RAM too but I dunno.
I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised that at 12 year jump in CPUs has resulted in a noticeable improvement.
After running for a little while, I noticed Windows had de-activated. I googled the error code and sure enough, replacing the motherboard is a common reason for this. Too late to be helpful, the internet told me I should link my Windows install to a Microsoft account before I install the new motherboard.
I really wasn’t interested in taking the time to rebuild the PC around the old motherboard again so I cheated.
Yes… that is the old motherboard perched on a cutting board (a rigid insulator) on top of the case, with power and SATA cables coming out of the case and the video card perched on top. This is how I booted Windows on the old motherboard again, only to find out I had already linked my Windows install to a Microsoft account. Sigh. Well at least it didn’t take me very long to do this. Strangely, after booting this, then booting on the new motherboard again, Windows was happy with activation and I didn’t have to do anything more.
There’s one final upgrade that happened. There was another old, free monitor sitting here. It’s a slightly odd 1680×1050 resolution. I hadn’t considered using it before because I knew the old video card would have struggled to drive it, but now that my PC clearly has some legs, I figured some extra pixels wouldn’t hurt. It’s still not 1080p, but it’s a step closer.
I’ve kept the square monitor as the secondary. The extra vertical pixels it has are more useful than width for the kinds of things I tend to throw at it.
I am thinking about getting a new case at some point. My current case only has 5″ and 3″ bays. I’ve now got 2 2″ drives, only 1 of which has a caddy. The other one just rests on the floor of the case. The drive cage being cut is a bit ugly. Finally, while the new motherboard has USB3 headers, I can’t use them with the case. It’s only got 2 USB2 ports on the front.
Apart from the effort to move everything to a new case, one possible issue is that I do still have a DVD drive and new, large cases generally don’t allow for them. I do have the DVD drive from my MacBook Pro in a USB caddy so it’s not like losing the PC’s DVD drive would be a total loss. I actually went through the last of the games I hadn’t played from optical media and got them working before Christmas because I knew this was coming and I didn’t want to find out I needed Windows XP one last time after I could no longer run it. That means I may never want to use optical media again…
Finally, Windows 11. This machine now qualifies for it. That was part of my consideration, I didn’t want to upgrade to a system that couldn’t run Windows 11. I even got an offer to install it already. I will surely do so, but I wanna play some games first. That’s what this machine is for after all.