The Graphics Cards
|The ASUS Republic of Gamers Crosshair IV Formula. Source: IXBT Labs|
There is an accompanying video to this, which was enormously long and included far too many pedestrian details originally. I think I cut more footage that I used. I was brutal. The blog is the place for organised information. And there will probably be quite a lot because this build was over a year in the making and it's taken me so long to finish this that it's out of date now. Also, so the article isn't ridiculously long, it's split into 2 parts: part one is for the research and part two is for the build. Let's get into it.
I'll keep this bit brief, but a bit of back story is important because the graphics card I already had was central to this whole thing. The last time I purchased a whole PC new was in 1999 and I've been making incremental upgrades ever since. Never being able to afford a top of the range graphics card (except that time I bought an ATi Radeon 8500 - ah, simpler times!), I have always tried to get good value for money. But I have failed a number of times. When attempting to upgrade the 8500 to a card that could better handle GTA III, I purchased a 9200SE or something, thinking that a higher number meant better performance. No. I was caught out (and never again) by crappy marketing by ATi and this probably represents the first occasion graphics card model names ceased to make logical sense. Although the 9200 did indeed succeed the 8500, it was an inferior version of the same chipset. I sent it straight back. I then did a bit more research and settled on nVidia's GeForce 8500GT, itself a 'value' card. My low-budget purchasing style had begun.
I'm not sure how long it was until I lost patience with that card, but I distinctly remember buying GTA IV when it came out and the 8500 failed abjectly. It took me a while, but I eventually managed to buy a suitable replacement in 2009: a Radeon HD4850 with 512MB DDR3 memory. Although the cards share a number of similarities, the 4850 has twice the RAM, double the bus width, higher clocks and 5 times the pixel and texture rates owing to 5 times as many transistors.
|The Sapphire Radeon HD4850. Source: vgamuseum.info|
It was just under £80 in a clearance sale on Amazon and, although it was released a year after the 8500GT, it was over a year old by the time I bought it, which meant it still performed well but was cheaper than its successors. I was using this card in my main PC alongside an overclocked Core 2 Quad 9550 CPU but the itch to upgrade had become impossible to ignore. I would have loved to have chucked in an additional 4850 into my motherboard for a bit of extra grunt, but the chipset didn't support CrossFire. Instead I made a pre-emptive strike and purchased an additional 4850 because they could now be had for £9.99 on eBay. Now all I needed was a motherboard and this marked the beginning of the process that ended up with my kick-ass system. Muhahahahahaaa.
Asus Crosshair IV Formula. Retail New: £190. I paid: £30. Saving: £160.
But it wasn't that simple. Do you have any idea how many motherboards there are out there? Millions. Starting a process to find 'the one' is an absolute nightmare, especially when the board you own is from 2008 and you haven't been keeping up to date with technological improvements. The problem with having years between upgrades is that the amount of research that's required is absurd. It was now 2016 and I was broke. Intel had reached the 6th generation of its Core architecture and AMD's Excavator was a laughing stock. Neither of those was going to be an option, and vintage computing had definitely become my thing; I was far too used to getting stuff for free / cheap and never spent enough time playing new games to justify the outlay, never mind the fact I lacked the earnings to support such a habit. Brassic, I was.
So I started small. What chipsets supported Crossfire? How would I find a motherboard that would allow me to use my existing CPU and graphics card, plus add a new one and support a future CPU upgrade? This chart was a good place to start. Intel's X48 and P45 chipsets seemed appealing, but searches for boards using them came out as expensive. I was looking to spend about £30 and they were all £70+ for the board alone. Additionally, these tied me to Socket 775, which had a low ceiling performance-wise. So I started looking at AMD models instead. This would, of course, require a CPU upgrade as well but, if I could find a cheap enough board, AMD CPUs of the time weren't as expensive as Intel equivalents but performed very well. Also, Crossfire was an AMD thing and Intel boards tended to have support for nVidia's SLI technology instead. Some did both, but were expensive and rare.
The trouble with these keyword-based saved searches on eBay is that they don't work well for things like motherboards, especially when you don't have a specific model in mind. Let's say I use 'Computers' as the category and use 790, 890 and 990 as the keywords representing the chipset names. Unless the chipset name is included in the motherboard model name, you're relying on the seller to include the name of the chipset in the description. The kind of seller that would do this usually knows what they have, making it harder to find a bargain. Unless I went through the massive pain in the arse of setting up a search for every single known motherboard model known to man with the chipsets I wanted, all I could do was sit back, wait, and strike quickly when something came up.
|Gigabyte's GA-MA790XT-UD4P (almost). Source: Ali Express|
And wait, I did. It was July 2016 when the first bargain presented itself, a Gigabyte GA-MA790XT-UD4P. It was £20 buy-it-now so I jumped straight in there. My existing system had a Gigabyte board and they're fine, but not at all exciting. At this point I needn't say anymore because I fucked it up properly. It's an AM3 board and I tested it with an AM2 CPU by accident (they all look the same!!!). You can drop an AM3 CPU into an AM2 board and it'll work fine but you can't do it the other way round. Except you can. They are mechanically compatible but not electrically compatible. I knew this, but I had picked out the wrong CPU. I didn't notice this until I attempted to remove the CPU and felt more resistance than you would normally expect. Once I'd removed it I ended up with a broken CPU and a socket with a burn and a missing contact. I tried my absolute hardest to fix it because this was actually quite a nice board but, alas, I failed. Who knows - maybe it was faulty already. I was heartbroken. It would have been a capable board.
Christmas came and went and 2016 became 2017. I bid on a number of boards as the months went by, but all went over my very slim budget. My next bite came from a different fishing line (a result from a different, unrelated saved search) in February and was described literally as 'Job lot computer parts...unknow condition'. While the description was piss poor (and badly spelled), the photos were more revealing and I spotted a motherboard that might just fit the bill. At £7.50 for the lot I couldn't go wrong. The board in question was an Asus M4A79T Deluxe and a quick bit of research showed me that this was a quality board featuring the 790FX chipset. I was so excited to receive this board that I had it installed in its case and all connected up before I'd even tested it. Obviously it didn't work and no amount of repairing was going to fix this thing. The chokes for the voltage regulator literally crumbled into nothing when I tried to replace them, so some kind of serious corrosion had taken place here and affected the board very seriously. Disappointing.
I had to wait until July for the next hit but holy crap it was a good one. Again, it was buy-it-now and it was listed as 'ASUS Crosshair IV Formula AMD 890FX Mainboard ATX Socket AM3' so I got lucky with the title. Although the user had listed the board as untested, it was worth the risk for the price. It came, it worked, I was stoked.
The Graphics Cards
2x Sapphire Radeon HD 4850 X2. Retail New: £259.97 each (£519.94). I paid: £15 each (£30). Saving: £489.94.
I thought I had decided on my graphics cards but finding the ill-fated Gigabyte motherboard had rejuvenated my thinking around the project and I'd hit on a new idea: QuadFire. It was ridiculous but as soon as I thought of it I couldn't get the idea out of my head. I became obsessed. The key moment came when I discovered Sapphire's HD 4850 X2 - two 4850s on one card. I could actually have used one of these in my existing system, simulating Crossfire on one PCI slot but now I could have two of these cards meaning four GPUs. This was insane to me and enough time had passed that these cards were almost as cheap as a single 4850. Additionally, this card was nearly as fast as its big brother, the HD 4870 X2 which was, at the time, the fastest card on the planet. By March I was the owner of two 4850 X2s. The dream was becoming a reality.
|Sapphire's ridiculous Radeon HD 4850 X2. Source: MadboxPC|
AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition. Retail New: £213.79. I paid: £25. Saving: £188.79.
Phanteks PH-TC12DX Cooler. Retail New: £38. I paid: £14. Saving: £24.
I'd also been doing a lot of research into CPU options and two main candidates had emerged for this system: the quad core Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition and the Phenom II X6 1055T. Both had become legendary for different reasons, with the X4 being the flagship CPU when it was released in April 2009 and famed for its overclocking abilities while the X6... well it has 6 cores. Whichever one of these I chose was probably going to be the most expensive component. It was still going to be dramatically cheaper than when new, and would still perform respectably today with complementing hardware. One thing that's interesting is that my existing Core 2 Quad 9550 was very comparable at the time, but lacked the unlocked multiplier. Very clear memories came back to me of reading articles online when these CPUs were released, marvelling at the idea of having a hexa-core CPU or a Black Edition model. I was literally realising a dream by building this system.
|AMD's Phenom II X6 1055T CPU. Source: techradar|
Two weeks after buying the graphics cards, I was bidding on both a 1055T and a 955BE simultaneously. What I expected to happen was that I would win one or neither of the auctions. Instead I won both. Oops. But at £45 for the 6-core and £25 for the 4-core I think I did okay. The plan was to try out both CPUs, benchmark the hell out of them, and decide which one to use based on that. I could then sell the spare one. As for cooling, air would suffice for my needs and I already had a pretty good solution in my Phanteks PH-TX12DX, which has a massive heatsink and a fan blowing either side. I originally purchased this in summer 2015 for my previous system for overclocking purposes so it's well over spec for this system.
The Power Supply
Corsair TX850W. Retail New: £114.99. I paid: £28. Saving: £86.99
From the moment the QuadFire idea came to me, it was clear I was going to need a serious PSU. Nothing I had was going to cut it, mostly because of the amount of PCIe power connectors I was going to need. Sure, I could use adaptors but, at best I would have an unstable system and, at worst, I could destroy it all. 850W was going to be more than enough and a few days of research and eBay searches led me to purchase a used Corsair TX850W. It's not at all modular but features like that always command a premium.
Fractal Design Define R3. Retail New: £89.99. I paid: £25. Saving: £64.99.
Samsung 840 Pro SSD. Retail New: £185.10. I paid: £0. Saving: £185.10.
Hitachi DeskStar 7200rpm 1TB. Retail New: £45. I paid: £0. Saving £45.
The case was actually the first thing I had bought. I hadn't bought a new one for years and I found a second hand Fractal Design Define R3 on Gumtree. It was 'arctic white' but it was £25 and had all the features I was looking for: PSU at the base, lots of drive bays, excellent air flow, clean appearance, great cable routing and two 5.25" bays at the front. What a bargain.
System storage was taken care of by a Samsung 256GB SSD someone gave me for free. Although it was released in late 2012, it's a SATA3 part, so it matches the hardware. Further storage was taken care of by a 1TB SATA3 hard disk I already had and a random SATA optical drive, which happened to be ASUS-branded. The SSD was important because storage is always a bottleneck. With the 890FX chipset comes the SB850 south bridge and 6Gbps SATA speeds. Blazing!
If I'm going to get this system properly overclocked to gain me some more performance, I'm going to need proper RAM. At the time of the build I chucked in whatever DDR3 RAM I had, but this will be a future upgrade.
The specs of this system are such that nearly every component is top-of-the-line for 2009. Only the cooler isn't period correct as it dates from 2013, and I've mentioned the loophole with the SSD. Here are the final numbers:
Total New Retail: £1,352
Total I Paid: £140
Total Saving: £1,015
For 2009, this is a truly awesome system. Scan's Gaming PC of The Month for April 2020 rocked a Ryzen 5 and RTX 2060 graphics for little more than a grand, so the fact it only cost me £140.25, a saving of £1014.70, demonstrates a number of things:
- Buying the latest hardware is a mug's game.
- Building a system that's 7 years old is loads of fun and rewarding.
- You can have a system that was, at some point, completely awesome. You can do the same thing every 7 years.
In the next part of this article I'll do a bit of a gallery of the system itself and the change of direction that I decided to take with the graphics cards. Thanks for reading, find me on Twitter.
Crossfire Compatibility Chart at AMD [archived]
Asus Crosshair IV Formula specs at Asus
Asus Crosshair IV Formula review at IXBT Labs
Gigabyte GA-MA790XT-UD4P at Gigabyte
Asus M4A79T Deluxe at Asus
Quick Reminder... at Ars Technica
Radeon HD 4850 X2 specs at Sapphire [archived]
Radeon HD 4850 X2 review at techpowerup [archived]
Radeon HD 4850 X2 review at Overclockers Club
Recommended Power Supplies at Overclockers
Power Supply Calculator at Coolermaster
AMD Phenom II X4 955 BE specs at AMD [archived]
AMD Phenom II X4 955 BE review at Trusted Reviews
AMD Phenom II X4 955 BE review at Tom's Hardware
Comparison of 955BE and Q9550 at CPU World
Comparison of 955BE and 1055T at CPU World
Phanteks PH-TC12DX specs at Phanteks
Phanteks PH-TC12DX review at Hardware Secrets [archived]
Corsair TX850W specs at Corsair
Corsair TX850W Review at JonnyGURU [archived]
Fractal Design Define R3 specs at Fractal Design
Fractal Design Define R3 review at Anandtech
Samsung 840 Pro specs at Samsung
Samsung 840 Pro review at The Guru of 3D