Saturday, 8 September 2012


If you want the best of the best of the best and you don't care how much you spend to get it, this upgrade guide will help you make the tough decisions when you consider the list of upgrades, it's always tempting to wonder just how good you can make a PC. There's always a trickle-down effect, and the computer beasts of today will be dwarfed by even an average machine of tomorrow. But what if you can't wait?

Well, if you have the money to spend, untold delights are yours for the taking. In this guide, we'll show you the best upgrades you can buy at any price. These aren't necessarily the most expensive upgrades, nor the most technologically advanced, but if you had an unlimited budget and a PC to build, there's no question that this is the stuff you'd want in it.

Prices quoted are current on as of 29th May 2012.

Case Upgrade

The most expensive cases are triumphs not just of thermal engineering and artistic design, but of economics; after all, how expensive can you make a box for computer parts? The most expensive examples come with all kinds of crazy extras, like built-in touch-screens or full water-cooling systems, but if you're just looking for a case, there's only one we can recommend above all others.

Thermaltake Level 10 GT Snow Edition - £200.98

Themaltake's original Level 10 case was a bold design with lots of new ideas, but its price (£520 at launch) was more than enough to put people off. That's why the company launched this: the Themaltake 10 GT.

As well as being cheaper than the original, the Themaltake 10 GT actually has a few improvements. It has better air flow features, a headphone bracket on one side, new cable management hooks and support for USB 3.0. A lockable side door allows easy access to the internals, and an LED controller lets you change the colours on the fans between red, blue, green, or variable.

Passive cooling is provided by its unique aerodynamic shape, which forces air either in or out of every spare inch, as well as a chambered design, which isolates component heat. Active cooling comes in the form of multiple fans: three 200mm fans on the top, front and left panels, and a 140mm rear exhaust.

There are five hard drive bays, which are hot-swappable, supporting both 2.5" and 3.5", a regular 3.5" bay, and four 5.25" bays. A padlock on the left secures the removable bays from theft or accidental removal.

The Level 10 GT doesn't just have nice features, though: it also looks impressive. The design is industrial-inspired and unlike any other case, particularly at this price. The attempt to find optimum airflow means that it's not just a box, it's practically a terrain. The only negative point you can make is that with all of these nooks and crannies, it's bound to be a real pain to dust.

Motherboard Upgrade

Given that the function of motherboards is largely to provide a place for the other components to sit, you might wonder how expensive they can get. Indeed, even the costliest motherboards don't get within a few hundred pounds of the costliest cases, but that doesn't stop them trying. Let's forego multi-chip boards on the grounds that you're aiming for something that could actually be afforded by someone without a winning lottery ticket, and look instead at our favourite high-end motherboard.

Asus Rampage IV Extreme - £329.98

Forget Ivy Bridge for the moment; Intel's Sandy Bridge E platform is aimed at 'enthusiasts', which in practice means the sort of person who likes benchmarks enough to notice the improvement you'd get from a £300 motherboard. At least until the launch of Ivy Bridge E, the Asus Rampage IV Extreme is still the fastest chipset around for enthusiasts and overclocking fans. 

The Rampage IV Extreme's distinctive red-and-black styling proves it means business before you've even switched it on.

The board's large width means that it falls quite decisively into the larger Extended ATX category of form factors, so it's worth checking in advance if you have the space - and not just for the board, but for the water-cooling system it so desperately needs to make the most of its abilities. The board comes with a single fan

not because it doesn't need more, but because it assumes you have something specialist in mind for cooling. As if to hammer the point home, there's even a 'slow mode' switch on the board for use during nitrogen-cooling benchmarks.

Practically speaking, it has more features than you can shake a stick at. There are eight SATA ports (two of which are SATA 6Gbps, 12 USB 2.0 ports, eight USB 3.0, and five PCI-E slots, a massive four of which can be run together in SLI. Eight DIMM slots allow for up to 64 GB of RAM. Clearly, you get a lot for your money, but then you are paying for it.

RAM Upgrade

The advent of 64-bit computing means that there's no effective limit to the amount of RAM you can put into a machine, but anything more than 16GB is just wasting money, because there's not an application around that could use that much. Still, that doesn't mean you can't get rid of a few spare coins when choosing a RAM package...

Corsair Dominator GT x4GB - £139.99

Corsair Dominator RAM is the older brother of the Vengeance line, aimed at people who like the fastest possible setup regardless of performance- to-cost ratio. Hearing that the Dominator GT memory was launched to coincide with the Sandy Bridge-E platform should give you some idea of the kind of systems it's built for: expensive and fast.

The Dominator GT memory sticks have a distinctive look, with deep blacks and vivid reds. It's all reasonably functional, however, and you won't find it sporting a particularly flashy heat spreader design - just flashy colours.

The 2133MHz clock speed is impressively fast, while latencies are a solid 9-11-10-27. The retail kit includes a Corsair Airflow fan and a free connector for the proprietary temperature monitor, VVJ1 which can be purchased separately. It's guaranteed to run fast, and overclocking isn't just possible, it's practically encouraged.

Given that it costs twice what the Vengeance line does, you could feel cheated that the performance increase isn't proportional to the cost, but then that's a problem with all high-end computer components. If you want the best, you have to be willing to pay for it. In the case of high-end RAM, the price is often driven up by the rarity of high-fidelity components, which may explain why some companies are offering it at even higher prices than others.

Indeed, at these speeds, the biggest concern is whether the CPU is capable of keeping up with the memory clock speed, because you'll need a processor that can handle such high-end performance. Easier on paper than in reality!


CPU Upgrade

When you're working without a budget, the sky's the limit for processors, but speeds can only get so fast because they top out.

Eventually, you reach a point where even spending more money on ostensibly 'better' CPUs won't yield any increase in performance or quality. For consumer-oriented processors, that point is reached with this next chip.

Intel Core i7-3930k (current price: £427.99)

It might cost more than twice the price of the cheapest Core i7, but the i7-3930k is the point where value and performance reach their apex. There are 'better' Core i7 processors in terms of raw stats, but even the Core i7-3960X, one of Intel's most powerful chips, doesn't out-perform the Core i7-3930k in any significant way, despite being priced at more than £700. Even if you're not restricting your costs, there's no point spending that much.

With a six-core Hyper-Threaded Sandy Bridge E setup, the i7-3930k is already fast out of the box, but its unlocked multipliers mean you can take it above and beyond the best. Clock speeds of 5GHz are comfortably within reach, as long as you have sufficient cooling capabilities. The only downside is that because it's Sandy Bridge E, it requires a Socket R (LGA-2011) motherboard, which means you won't be able to buy a worse chip and upgrade to it later. Still, if you have the money to spend £450 on a new processor, then let's be honest, you can probably afford the motherboard upgrade at the same time.


Graphics Card Upgrade

When you're spending money on a computer, a good graphics card is the place where your cavalier approach to economy will be most visible (absolutely no pun intended). High-end graphics cards make their presence abundantly clear from the moment you crank up a game, with ultra-high resolutions and more simultaneous effects than even real life can handle. Actually picking a card is difficult, with multiple high-end examples, all of which can claim to be the best. We've gone for this one.

Sapphire Radeon HD 7970 - £399.95 

The HD 7970 is AMD's most powerful graphics card, and the first on the market to be developed with a 28nm manufacturing process, which almost doubled the number of transistors in the GPU. For those of you who aren't technically minded, this is a good thing.

On a card like this, you shouldn't have any trouble getting smooth frame-rates even when running games at resolutions of up to 2560x1600, but you can easily overclock it if you want it to get even faster. It's a power-hog, and its 400W power draw will likely mandate the purchase of a new power supply just to make sure your PC can actually run it (it needs both eight-pin and six-pin PSU adaptors plugged in), but there's no question that it'll be worth the extra few pounds. 

Similarly, at 281mm long, and with a dual-height profile, it's going to require a lot of space in your case, so check that you actually have room for it before you buy (or prepare to hacksaw some holes in your case at short notice). A new monitor would also not be out of the question, as you're going to need something that can display the massive resolutions it handles. But if you have the money to spend, dropping it on an HD 7970 is one way to ensure that you enjoy it when it's gone.

Storage Upgrade

When you reach the high end of upgrades, you'll struggle to find storage worthy of your purchase. Sure, you could cram your case full of 2TB hard drives and set up a RAID array for data redundancy, but unless you're the sort of person who runs a data centre out of their bedroom, that's really just spending money because it's there. Why not consider getting something with more modest storage requirements but that will offer a true upgrade experience?

OCZ Vertex 4 512GB 2.5" SATA 6Gbps SSD 

We already recommended the OCZ Vertex 3 for mid-tier buyers, but if money is no object there's one better step you can take:the OCZ Vertex 4. Its half a terabyte capacity means you could conceivably run it without any extra hard drives in (reducing system noise, heat and power consumption) while reaping all the usual benefits of running an SSD. Run your operating system and games off it, and you'll see immediate and impressive results.

Indeed, in many ways, this is the dream SSD: it's fast, capacious, and better than its competitors in almost every area. Its power consumption is high for an SSD, but if you're fitting it into a desktop it's a non-issue, measuring at just over 1W. Otherwise, it's got all the benefits of the Vertex 3 with extra space on top. And if that's not enough, a 1TB version is due shortly, but given that there's a £180 difference between the 256GB and 512GB models, we don't need to tell you that a 1TB model is going to cost you. A lot. Premium Buyer's Advice

When you're working without constraints on your spending, it's easy to lose sight of hardware performance and get tricked into thinking that the most expensive is automatically the best. In many cases, you can drop a few hundred pounds off the price of things like CPUs and graphics cards and never notice a difference.

Although it's tempting to buy a super-powerful graphics card for gaming performance, you should remember that the best cards could mean you have to buy a new power supply, case, motherboard and monitor just to see the best performance out of it - at which point, you're not so much upgrading your PC as buying a new one. And let's face it, if you're a performance enthusiast, there's a good chance you already have a graphics card better than 95% of the population, so improvements will be quite poor for the money, in relative terms.

That's why we think that if you can afford to buy any upgrade on this list, the best performance boost will probably come, of all places, from replacing your traditional hard drive with an SSD. It's tough to explain how churning hard drives are a bottleneck on even the fastest systems - you could be running the best processor on the planet, but there's always going to be a point where it's twiddling its thumbs as data gets read off those Victorian-style magnetic platters. If you have £500 to spend on any upgrade here, buy a large SSD and don't look back.

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