Motivation

About a month ago, I finally decided that it was time to upgrade my ancient Acer XC-605 PC to a more powerful machine to run my daily tasks more efficiently. The old PC specs are as follows:

  1. 2TB 3.5″ 5400RPM HDD
  2. Intel Core i7-4770 Quad-Core Desktop Processor 3.4 GHZ
  3. 220W power supply
  4. 16GB RAM
  5. Nvidia GT625 graphics card
  6. Small form factor casing

20151106_191503_HDR 20151106_191550_HDR

To many gamers out there, a 220W power supply is an absolute relic and is far from being sufficient to support any of the modern-day 3D graphics cards. In order to upgrade my graphics card, I will have to change the power supply.  However, there is no point in upgrading just one component since a bottleneck in performance may result. In fact, one may argue that the only decent peripheral listed up there is the Intel Core i7-4770 Quad-Core Desktop Processor 3.4 GHZ. Also, my budget was less than S$1500(~US$1000) and I could not afford to change the processor. So I decided to overhaul the entire system while keeping the processor. The new specs are as follows:

  1. Samsung 850 EVO 500GB 2.5-Inch SATA III Internal SSD
  2. Western Digital Caviar Green 3 TB SATA III 64 MB Cache
  3. Intel Core i7-4770 Quad-Core Desktop Processor 3.4 GHZ
  4. EVGA 500 B1 80+ BRONZE, 500W Continuous Power
  5. Kingston HyperX FURY 16GB Kit (2x8GB) 1866MHz DDR3 RAM
  6. EVGA GeForce GTX 960 4GB SSC ACX 2.0+ graphics card
  7. ASUS Micro ATX DDR3 2600 LGA 1150 H97M-PLUS motherboard
EGVA 500W power supply
EGVA 500W power supply
Kingston HyperX 16GB RAM
Kingston HyperX 16GB RAM
EGVA Geforce GTX960
EGVA Geforce GTX960
Samsung 850 EVO 500GB SSD
Samsung 850 EVO 500GB SSD
Asus H97m-Plus motherboard.
Asus H97m-Plus motherboard.

 

Purchasing the components (Price Comparison)

All the above components were purchased directly from Amazon with the exception of the Asus motherboard since it was not available for free shipping to Singapore.

In fact, a comparison of Amazon prices (converted to SGD using the prevailing conversion 1USD ≈ 1.45SGD) demonstrates how much savings one can derive by purchasing such computer peripherals directly from Amazon via their AmazonGlobal Saver Shipping program rather than from the retail stores in Singapore.

Price
(USD)
Price
(SGD)
Retail
(SGD)
Savings
(%)
Intel Core i7-4770 Quad-Core Processor 292.23 423.73 ~500 18
Samsung 850 EVO 500GB Internal SSD 160.99 233.44 ~350 50
Western Digital Caviar Green 3 TB SATA III HDD 84.99 123.24 ~180 46
EVGA 500 80+ BRONZE 500W Power Supply 44.99 65.24 ~100 53
Kingston HyperX FURY 16GB DDR3 RAM 80.98 117.42 ~171 46
EVGA GeForce GTX 960 4GB Graphics Card 224.99 326.24 ~450 38
ASUS Micro ATX H97M-PLUS motherboard Does not ship to SG 205

‘Retail’ indicates some kind of average pricing for the product among the retail stores in Singapore. Note that the last column indicates percentage savings derived and not just the mere difference in prices. One can immediately see that one can save an average of about 40% for such computer parts if one were to order directly from Amazon.com.

In summary, I kept my old processor and purchased the Asus motherboard and a medium tower casing from a local retail store. The rest are all ordered from Amazon. In total, I spent around SGD1120 (USD 772). This is incredibly affordable considering the fact that a ready-assembled machine of similar specs will easily cost over SGD2000!

 

Assembly – the steps

Of course, a big drawback of assembling your own system is that you have to know what you are doing. However, I assure you it is easier than you would expect. Here, I outline the steps I took to assemble my own system.

Step 1: Back Up

Back-up all your important data in preparation for disc cloning and data migration. Since I am upgrading to a Samsung SSD, it comes with the Samsung Smart Data Migration Software. In other words, my entire existing HDD can be cloned, including my Windows 8.1 OS. Since you will not want to store everything (large video and picture files) on your expensive SSD, move such large files from your existing HDD to some other external HDD or storage disks. At this stage, I’d recommend you empty your recycle bin and do a thorough clean-up of your HDD.

Contrary to what you might expect, there is no need to purchase a USB 3.0 to 2.5″ SATA III Hard Drive Adapter Cable since we are upgrading a PC, not a laptop. Why? Because in a PC, there will be extra SATA III cables for you to hook up your SSD to but a laptop does not offer this luxury.

Connecting a SATA III cable to the SSD
Connecting a SATA III cable to the SSD.

Ensure that your exsiting HDD is also connected before the cloning begins. The above procedure requires that you switch off your PC and open up your casing and I recommend that you properly ground yourself before doing so. However, since Singapore is humid, this step may not be as important as it is for people living in dry regions. Just touch some large metallic object should do the trick.

Step 2: Data and OS migration

Switch your PC back on and insert the Samsung Smart Data Migration Software CD into the CD-ROM drive. Execute the program in the CD and follow the on-screen instructions. Choose your ‘source disk’ to be your existing HDD and your ‘target disk’ to be the new SSD.

OS and data migration
OS and data migration

Once it is done, switch off your PC. Once again, ground yourself properly before proceeding. Disconnect the old HDD and the new SSD from their respective SATA III cables and hook up the SSD to the SATA III cable which was connected to the old HDD. In other words, the new SSD should be the primary disk drive now. Switch on your system and hopefully the system reboots as expected and the usual Windows 8.1 login screen appears. If everything is OK, proceed to next step.

 

Step 3: Change motherboard and migrate processor

Now, the real excitement has only just begun. Your old (working) system now has a new SSD but that isn’t the only upgrade that we desire – we want to overhaul the entire system including the motherboard. Remember that all the old drivers are meant for the old hardware. Once you hook up the new hardware, there may be driver conflicts. So it’s important to remove the following drivers before you shut down your system (do not turn back on until you have physically installed the motherboard).

  1. IDE/ATA/ATAPI/SATA/Storage/SCSI controllers
  2. VIA/Realtek audio
  3. Ethernet adaptor
  4. Display adaptor

If you are unsure, please watch this youtube video that will guide you through this step.

Now, once you have removed the (potentially) conflicting drivers, shut down and open your old casing for the last time. Since we are keeping the processor, we will need to extract it from the old motherboard. The processor is attached to a heatsink (cooler and fan) via some thermal paste. Perform the following steps:

  1. Remove the power cable from the fan.
  2. Unscrew the 4 screws connecting the heatsink to the motherboard.
  3. Slowly (and carefully) jerk and rotate the heatsink until it is severed from the processor.

If you are unsure, please watch this youtube video. Once the heatsink is removed, the processor is exposed and you can see the mess left by the old thermal paste.

Old motherboard: the heatsink will have to be removed before the processor underneath can be removed. The RAM and the IDE cables will be salvaged. The rest will become scrap metal to be recycled.
Old motherboard: the heatsink will have to be removed before the processor underneath can be removed. The RAM and the IDE cables will be salvaged. The rest will become scrap metal to be recycled.
Thermal paste to be cleaned from the processor after removal of heatsink.
Thermal paste to be cleaned from the processor after removal of heatsink.
Thermal paste with cleaning cloth included.
Thermal paste with cleaning cloth included.

Next, remove the processor from the old motherboard. Watch this Youtube video on the proper procedure on removing the processor. You can get the thermal paste from most DIY PC shops in Singapore. The one I bought comes with a cleaning cloth with alcohol already applied. Any ordinary tissue with alcohol will also do the trick. Gently wipe off the left-over thermal paste from the processor. Also, do the same to the heatsink and clean off the left-over thermal paste.

Thermal paste removed cleanly from heatsink.
Thermal paste removed cleanly from heatsink.

Next, install the processor on the new motherboard.  Apply the thermal paste on the processor and install the heatsink. Watch the same Youtube video on the proper procedure on installing the processor and heatsink on the new motherboard. When securing the heatsink to the motherboard, take care to secure the screws in a diagonal fashion so that the thermal paste is evenly squeezed. That is, screw the bottom left corner screw, then the top right corner and so on.

Thermal paste applied on the processor.
Thermal paste applied on the processor.
Heat sink secured to new motherboard.
Heat sink secured to new motherboard.

Note that both the processor and heatsink were migrated from the old motherboard to the new one. If you choose to get a new processor, the procedure is the same without the need to severe the old processor from the old motherboard.

 

Step 4: Connect SSD, secure motherboard to casing and boot up

Recall that the SSD has been cloned from the old HDD and it’s now a bootable hard drive. Now, fix your motherboard to the new casing. Attach the new power supply to the new casing with the included screws. Connect a SATA III cable (that comes with the motherboard) and a power cable (comes with power supply) to the bootable SSD. Connect the necessary power cables to all the fans (including CPU fan) of the casing. The casing should come with some front panel USD slots/ audio slots with corresponding cables which should be connected to the motherboard. The motherboard manual should come with instructions on which slots these cables should go.

Front panel cables. These should be connected to the respective slots on the motherboard.
Front panel cables. These should be connected to the respective slots on the motherboard.
The motherboard manual should come with instructions on all internal connectors including audio, USB, ATA, fan, etc.
The motherboard manual should come with instructions on all internal connectors including audio, USB, ATA, fan, etc.

 

Front panel connectors.
Front panel connectors.

 

Next install the new RAM. For my case, I combined my old 16GB 1600MHz RAM with the new 1866MHz RAM and installed them on the four slots available. Each slot can accept a maximum of 8GB RAM and a total of not more than 32GB. Consult your motherboard manual on how many GB of RAM your motherboard can support.

All four RAM slots are used resulting in a total 32GB RAM.
All four RAM slots (right side of heatsink) are used resulting in a total 32GB RAM. On the lower right corner are the front panel connectors.

Once the following hardware are installed on the motherboard

  1. Processor and heatsink
  2. SSD
  3. Power Supply
  4. RAM

with the corresponding cables connected properly, switch the PC on and then (typically) press Delete or F2 to enter the Bios. All motherboards are different, but there should be a menu with a boot order option. Select your SSD drive to be first, save the settings then reboot.

We note at this stage that we have not yet installed our graphics card and secondary hard drive. These will come later if this round of reboot is successful. The graphics of your system now depends on the onboard Integrated Graphics Processor. If the reboot is successful and everything works well, proceed to next step.

 

Step 5: Install GPU and secondary HDD/CD-ROM drives.

Now I dare say that other than the SSD, the next most significant upgrade is the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU). A comparison of my old Geforce GT625 and the new Geforce GTX960 yields the following:

Old and new GPU comparison.
Old and new GPU comparison.

The Geforce GTX960 is a mid-range graphics card that yields very commendable performance given its low price point. As you can see from the comparison above, it simply blows the GT625 away in dust. If you have a bit more to spare, I’d recommend the Geforce GTX970 which, at the time of this review, costs around US$320 (SG$464). The GTX970 is touted to offer the best bang for your buck. A comparison between the 960 and 970 yields the following:

A comparison of the GTX960 vs GTX960
A comparison of the GTX960 vs GTX960

Installation of the GPU is very simple. Simply secure the card firmly into the PCI Express slot and connect the power cable. Note that due to the size of the GPU card, it will eat into the space of the adjacent PCI slot.

GPU card firmed slotted into the PCI Express slot with power cable connected.
GPU card firmed slotted into the PCI Express slot with power cable connected.

After that, install any secondary HDD or CD-ROM that you have, remembering to connect the SATA and power cables. Switch on your system and if your connections are secure, Windows should detect new hardware installed on your system. The HDD/CD-ROM should be working without problem. Install the latest drivers for your GPU (with the included CD) and reboot again.

 

Step 5: Test

I completed the entire procedure in a single day. To determine how much of performance boost I had, I decided to run the legendary Grand Theft Auto 5. Watch the video below (select 1080p for FHD playback)

Note that the jerkiness is due to the screen recording and Youtube’s handling of the uploaded video. In-game play at 1920X1080 was really smooth – consistently over 60fps with the following respectable settings:

GTA5 settings.
GTA5 settings.

That’s it folks! I welcome comments and criticisms.

 

How to upgrade your PC (without re-installing Windows)

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