Choosing the Right Components: Holding Out for Haswell

Intel P4 Processor by Eric Gaba, CC BY-SA 3.0
Intel P4 Processor by Eric Gaba
CC BY-SA 3.0

For a long time, the desktop computer processor market has been dominated by two companies: Advanced Micro Devices (better known as AMD) and Intel. After the PC boom of the 80s when Texas Instruments, IBM and other semiconductor companies were competing on a equal footing only Intel and AMD emerged with high powered, innovative consumer products for the late 90s and 00s. Except for a brief period in the mid 00s, Intel has always been the more dominant of the two companies, despite struggling to gain traction in the lucrative tablet and smartphone markets in recent years.

Back in 2004, I would have been stupid to buy anything other than an AMD processor. While Intel struggled to get faster clockspeeds from the Pentium 4 chips due to heat dissipation problems, AMD had introduced a 64-bit extension to the x86 instruction set, produced a successful consumer 64-bit processor and begun what was to become a near domination of the server processor market. To all intents and purposes, it looked like AMD were about to go from being an underdog to replacing Intel as the dominant power in the processor world.

The situation is completely reversed today. Intel abandoned a large part of the Pentium 4 processor architecture in favour of the Core architecture and have found phenomenal success with it’s increasingly powerful derivatives. AMD are struggling financially and have seen their most recent processors struggle to compete against faster and cooler Intel chips (Ars Technica has a good article about how AMD arrived in this situation).

Given that Intel processors run at much cooler temperatures and use less power while giving greater performance, I am firmly in the Intel camp. Next month, Intel will be launching their next generation processor, based on the Haswell architecture. These are expected to reduce power consumption and heat generated further while retailing at the same price point to the current generation of processor. The Haswell chips also use a new motherboard socket, meaning that a compatible motherboard should last for at least four to six years before needing an upgrade.

As far as models go, I see my choice as being between the enthusiast orientated i5-4670K or a more budget orientated i3 chip. The i5 is a four core processor, due out in June and will likely provide my system with an excess of computing capacity. The i3s haven’t yet been announced, but are expected to go on sale sometime towards the end of the year. The current generation of i3 processors have only two cores but due to poor use of multiple cores by game developers, they are more then capable of running high end games.

There are some arguments for going for an AMD processor over an Intel chip. Xbox Infinity is expected to use an AMD processor and it has already been confirmed that the PS4 will use a customised version of AMD’s Jaguar laptop processor. Some argue that this will lead to games being better optimised to run on AMD hardware. I’m not familiar enough with the diferences between AMDs mobile and desktop processors to comment on this, but given Intel’s dominant position in the market, I find it hard to imagine that developers wouldn’t take the time to optimise games for both Intel and AMD systems. This may, of course, be rather naïve, but only time will tell.

The Rise of RPG PDFs

It’s been a very long time since I last bought a pen and paper RPG book. It’s been well over two years since I last played in an RPG game at all. It’s been so long that I don’t even remember where my whisky tin full of dice is, although I know my collection of RPG books is safely buried in a mound of boxes somewhere in my mum’s house.

It’s a bit depressing – even after I’ve effectively abandoned the hobby – to read about how eReaders and tablets have taken over from giant hardback tomes.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I bought a Kindle and I found my iPad invaluable when I was still gaming, but I found that neither device could replace my RPG books. My Kindle hasn’t even come close to replacing any type of book in my life thanks to a nasty habit of buying the same book in both hardback and digital forms.

RPG books are a particularly special case though. There is something about the scent of the paper, the glossy illustrations and the crack and snap of the pages that is an essential part of the role playing experience. It’s a particular joy when someone has a newly released book which is getting handed round a group or when you find an old, out of print game in a FLGS or on eBay.

There are also advantages to paper books over their digital equivalents. It’s not unusual for game masters to ban players from reading or referring to particular books to prevent cheating, reading ahead in stories or rules lawyering. If the source books are 300 pages of glossy A4, you can’t really hide them at the table. With a Kindle or an iPad, you could be reading anything at the table.

On the other hand  PDF game books are a massive benefit to independent game designers and small publishing houses because they cut out the overheads and the middlemen, allowing direct sales to fans. Which is why they are here to stay.

Choosing the Right Components: The Case

When you start to look at PC components  the range of parts available seems bewildering. Even the differences between pre-built models can seem impenetrable. Intel, AMD and Nvidia all use note entirely straight forward numbering systems where the performance difference between products is not always clear.

It is quite easy to decode the naming schemes, although it takes time to learn. Websites such as Logical Increments or groups like BuildAPC Reddit provide guides and advice on choosing parts and how to find the best bang for your buck. Of course, you still have to take a lot of time and care to select the components that will work best for you. I’ve been looking at the various components and getting up to speed with the modern PC market for several months now and with the exceptions of the processor and motherboard, which I’ll finalise after the release of Intel’s new Haswell processors, I’ve made my choices.

The first component I chose for my computer isn’t generally something you would pick first: the case. In many ways, the case is a non-critical component: all it needs is sufficient ventilation to cool the processor and the graphics card, something to keep dust out and mounts for the various components. It doesn’t even need to be new – the standardisation of the ATX motherboard means that cases that are nearly 20 years old should comfortably hold modern components (albeit with a bit of bodging).

I remember PC cases in the 90s being uniformly beige, generally boxy and normally uninspiring. Concepts like airflow didn’t play a big part in the design of these cases, which often came without dust filters and with a tangled mess of wiring. So it was surprising to find out that cases now look like this.

While Corsair’s Graphite series cases are pretty unique, they are representative of modern cases. The beige is gone. Now cases are built from high quality aluminium or steel, power supplies have been relegated to the bottom of the case to keep them cooler, there are trays underneath motherboards to allow for the neat routing of cables and there are modular internal components allowing you to customise a case to your needs. Importantly, the ‘designer’ cases no longer look like glowing, plastic monstrosities but take their design queues from companies like Apple and BMW. It’s a different world.

My first preference for my own system is Obsidian’s 600T in white because it looks like a Star Wars Stormtrooper’s PC, however building a full size ATX system just isn’t practical while living in a London houseshare. If nothing else, I will need to move it at some point and I’m not prepared to drag 30 to 40 kilos of PC across the city on public transport. So, I’m compromising by going for a Mini-ITX system.

BitFenix ProdigyThe main advantage of a Mini-ITX system is it’s size. The motherboard is the fraction of the size of an ATX board. You do lose some features as a result of this, but enthusiast quality ITX boards are more then capable forming the basis of a good gaming and home media system. A lot of ITX cases are extremely cramped and designed for use with low power processors and integrated graphics processors, so an ITX gaming system does need something a bit roomier and with space to ventilate a graphics card and a decent processor.

Thankfully BitFenix, one of the more innovative case manufacturers, have brought out the Prodigy. It looks like a squat Mac Pro and can fit all but the largest graphics cards but it’s small enough that it can be easily carried in a sports bag or similar. It also supports water cooling, which I find amazing. Ten years ago, water cooling was the preserve of madmen and the elite overclockers, now it’s almost standard, even in cases this small.

Small but powerful and versatile – it’s all I really want in a PC.