Performance Engineering And Value Over Time
Optimizing Your Gaming PC
Myth: Optimizing a gaming PC’s performance is an art, not a science.
Performance engineering is all about throughput and bottlenecks. Tuning a gaming PC’s performance, in principle, is little different than tuning a mammoth IBM mainframe for a specific workload. The key concept is that your setup is only as fast as the lowest-throughput device in the rendering chain. If you’re pushing high resolutions and the most taxing graphics quality settings, that weak point is probably going to be your GPU.
There are rare cases when the CPU can inhibit performance, appearing as the bottleneck. Those tend to be physics- or AI-heavy tasks, which are rather uncommon in modern games. Alternatively, titles that go light on eye candy end up running at very high frame rates (vanilla Skyrim, for instance) limited by the host processor.
The amount of graphics memory on your card, its graphics memory bandwidth, system memory (RAM) capacity, PCIe connectivity and bus traffic rarely bottleneck graphics performance. The only times when you’d see differently would be on a system configured near Windows' minimum requirements or in a poorly-optimized application (X: Rebirth sadly comes to mind).
Does that mean that faster RAM won’t help bolster your frame rates? No - improving the performance of a component not on the so-called "critical path" will help some. But those gains tend to be modest.
Upgrading the components currently limiting your gaming experience, on the other hand, tends to yield closer-to-linear benefits. As long as graphics are your bottleneck, swapping out a lower-end card with a higher-end one with twice the potential can almost double your performance.
Thus, the optimization of PC gaming, while a complex science, is very much a science still.
Where Do You Get The Biggest Value For Your Money?
Myth: Get the fastest CPU you can afford.
Value arguments are inherently different to tackle, since they’re so subjective. Please take my observations as personal thoughts more than irrefutable truths. You situation may very well be different based on your needs and current hardware setup.
In my experience, of the hardware you can buy, displays tend to last the longest. I bought a 30" Apple Cinema Display in 2004, brought it across the ocean with me and I'm still happily using it as a wonderful secondary display 10 years later. Thus, my personal mantra is to upgrade your monitor rarely, but spare no expense on it when you do.
Close to displays, you'll find speakers and headphones high up on my list. Quality audio equipment almost never becomes obsolete. And audio gear tends to retain its value well, so if you ever decide to upgrade, eBay will treat you well.
Quality power supplies cannot be under-emphasized. While seemingly unexciting, a PSU going bad can really ruin your day by not only rendering your system inoperable, but possibly damaging other equipment as well. In addition, PSUs are some of the most time-intensive components to "swap out" when they start exhibiting problems. You probably don’t need a huge power supply, but you don’t want to run your PSU constantly above ~80% of its rated capacity either, as doing so results in increased noise, lower efficiency and decreased lifespan.
Mice and keyboards fall into a distant fourth place. I mourned the loss of my Logitech MX510 mouse after six years of honorable (and intense) service. For a bit of nostalgia, check out Logitech New Mouse Range Goes Back to the Future.
Other PC components tend to age pretty quickly. Motherboards and CPUs rarely remain in production more than a couple of years. GPUs are replaced by new generations at more or less the same rate. Storage seems to get infinitely cheaper and increasingly faster. The performance impact of RAM on gaming in minimal. Wi-Fi routers and DSL/cable modems improve almost every year. PC cases can be recycled, but newer ones tend to introduce notable improvements. Fans and coolers (air or liquid), being mechanical components, tend to have defined lifespans and are bound to die on you eventually, requiring repair or replacement.
Furthermore, the rate of innovation in the CPU world has slowed considerably. The recent launches of Haswell-E on LGA 2011-v3 and Haswell on LGA 1150 were fairly unimpressive from a gaming perspective; check out The Core i7-4770K Review: Haswell Is Faster; Desktop Enthusiasts Yawn.
On a per-clock basis (at 4 GHz), even the Core i7-4770K offers little real-world benefit compared to a five-year-old Core i7-950 with an aggressively overclocked GeForce GTX 690, as you can see from this 3DMark comparison. The -4770K only fares marginally better in the Physics and Combined tests. It takes pushing the Haswell-based chip to 4.6 GHz to eke out less than a 1 FPS difference, as seen in this other 3DMark comparison. In short, CPUs make very little difference in modern gaming PCs. You most likely don't need to upgrade your host processor unless your platform is very old. And, even if you choose to, Don Woligroski’s Best Gaming CPUs For The Money column shows that any dollar spent above $200 is most likely overkill.
GPUs are a different story. These are the components where spending additional dollars makes a real difference, subject to diminishing returns. Check out Best Graphics Cards For The Money for the latest deep-dive in this area. One word of warning: while SLI/CrossFire solutions may be attractive from a prospective value angle, keep in mind that dual-GPU scaling isn’t always linear. And not all games support those technologies. As a result, you might want to consider shopping for a faster single-GPU card first.