Keeping my desktop computer fresh with recent upgrades

Yes, I still have and use a desktop computer. This post might be a little geeky for some of you, but I wanted to document this!

I bought my current desktop computer back in June 2010. It’s a Dell Studio XPS 9000 and I paid just over $1,500 for it at the time. I ordered it with a Core i7-920 processor (it’s a quad-core) and 12 GB of DDR3 SDRAM, so it was pretty powerful right from the start. I also included an NVIDIA GeForce GTS 240 video card and 1 TB 7200 RPM SATA hard drive.

Dell Studio XPS 9000

I have upgraded it over the years, which is one of the great capabilities that a desktop offers. I’ve added additional hard drives for data, I updated my dual monitors to 23″ displays, and I’ve added lots of peripherals like webcams, and various mice and keyboards. I have also upgraded the OS of course, from Windows 7 to Windows 8.1, and I plan to upgrade it again to Windows 10 when it is available later this year.

My desktop will be five years old this summer, and I have thought about replacing it. But I have also thought, as a I do more with mobile devices, that perhaps I don’t need a new desktop. Maybe I could extend the life of this one instead?

The main limitation to further upgrades is the motherboard, which only supports the LGA 1366 socket for processors. That limits me to Core processors built back in 2011, as it has now been replaced by LGA 2011 and LGA 1150. I think the best processor I could get to replace my existing one is the Core i7-990X, released in February 2011, but availability is limited and prices are high. It just doesn’t seem worth it.

So after I eliminated the processor as a potential upgrade, I started to think about what else might give me a performance boost. The first thing I decided to do was add a USB 3 controller to make importing photos and video quicker.

inateck usb 3.0 expansion card

I did a bit of research and landed on the Inateck Superspeed 4-port PCI-E to USB 3.0 Expansion Card, which I got for $26.99 CDN on Amazon. I wasn’t familiar with Inateck, but their stuff seemed to have a ton of positive reviews. Installation was quick and straightforward, and Windows 8.1 recognized the card right away. I did experiment with a couple different driver versions, and found the best performance using the latest driver (unsurprisingly).

I have both an external USB 3 hard drive and a USB 3 hub hooked up to the card now, and everything has been working great. Even though it is hidden away under my desk, I like that the card has a dark face; it’s interesting and different. This was definitely a worthwhile and pretty inexpensive upgrade.

Speeding along with an SSD

After I had the USB 3.0 upgrade working, it didn’t take long to land on the hard drive as a possibility for the next improvement. I had been reading about solid-state drives and I knew that having an SSD could make a big difference with start and load times. I’ve always marvelled at how quick my Surface Pro starts up and I’m sure the SSD plays a big role in that.

So I decided to purchase an SSD. I went with a Samsung 250 GB 840 EVO, which I got at Memory Express for $149.99. It seemed like pretty good price for a reasonable amount of space and solid performance. It’s not the biggest or fastest SSD, but it’s definitely not the smallest or slowest either.

samsung evo 840 ssd

I already had one drive for the OS and applications and one for data, so I just replaced the OS drive with the SSD. I decided to do a fresh install of Windows 8.1 and all my apps, because I had read some negative things about trying to do a migration or backup/restore. Now clearly a fresh install of Windows 8.1 will make a difference when it comes to performance, but not this much!

Before the upgrade it took:

  • 43 seconds to get to the login screen
  • 23 seconds to get from the login screen to the desktop being visible
  • 2 minutes, 46 seconds until startup was done

After the upgrade (and after installing all updates and all the usual software I use) the times are:

  • 23 seconds to get to the login screen
  • 4 seconds to get from the login screen to the desktop being visible
  • 23 seconds until startup was done

That’s a big, very noticeable improvement (and yes the stuff running on startup is comparable if not identical). Application launch times are also noticeably quicker now that they are running from the SSD. Overall I’m really happy with the upgrade. It was definitely worth the money!

Will I have a desktop computer in the future?

This may be the last desktop I’ll ever own, actually. The performance and capability of mobile devices has come so far, there’s less and less need for standalone desktop machine. I can already use my Surface Pro for pretty much everything. Combined with external displays and input devices, it could definitely serve as my one and only computer.

On the other hand, the cloud is (for me at least) dramatically changing how I think about my devices. The days of “that’s on my desktop” or “that’s on my laptop” are long gone. So are the days of “that’s on my USB key”. Now my stuff is available on every device all the time, and the definition of “my stuff” is expanding too. With OneDrive, my files are accessible no matter where I am. When I log into Windows with my Microsoft account, my settings and apps are also available. When I sit down at my desktop computer, it looks pretty much the same as when I am working on my Surface. In other words, there’s no need or advantage to having just one computer.

So maybe it does make sense to have a computer that just sits at my desk, permanently hooked up to large displays and the ergonomic mouse and keyboard that I love. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the my current desktop is the last “tower” that I’ll ever own. I have been looking at is Intel’s “Next Unit of Computing” or NUC form factor. The idea is basically to shrink the desktop down into something that fits in your hand. I can imagine having a powerful, tiny box on the corner of my desk to drive a few large displays. They’re relatively inexpensive too. One day maybe.

Until then, I’ll make the most of these recent upgrades to my desktop!

  • Paul Strandlund

    I moved away from the desktop a few years ago and started to get laptops that are essentially as powerful as desktop machines. This way I still get the portability and the power. There are some downsides as the machines are heavy and don’t have long battery lives, but I still get everything I need. I can add keyboards, mice and monitors if I choose or I can move it into my living room and hook it up to the big screen to watch movies.

    Laptops this powerful aren’t cheap and can’t be upgraded, but I get close to 4 years of life from each before they become slow enough to replace, much like my old desktops used to do.

    I still use my tablet and phone, but for work, I prefer to use the laptop. 🙂

  • Harma Mae

    You’re right, the great thing about desktops is that you can swap things out – definitely more difficult to do with a Surface Pro! Cuts down a bit on electronic waste too, maybe. But is it at all portable, and do I always need that level of power? Not really, no!