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Future Proofing - A Valid Concept?

Our newest writer Martin Castaldo gives our readers his view on future proofing

This is my first article for CCL and what could be more of an exciting and controversial article to start with other than the concept of ‘Future Proofing’ and with Ivy Bridge (Z77) newly launched just last month, future proofing is a term that I believe should be thought about carefully. Within the industry of computer hardware can we really ‘future proof’ our systems?  If so, how far into the future can we realistically look?  Future proofing your computer is a task that most computer users have to think long and hard about in an industry that changes and adapts so fast.

Let’s put this into perspective; Kentsfield CPUs were launched in 2007 with the more popular choice being the Q6600 which was a great chip, one still run by myself on a spare system used for testing. But since then we have seen: Yorkfield, Clarkdale, Lynnfield, Bloomfield, Gulftown, Sandy Bridge, and Sandy Bridge-E to list but a few. Since the Q6600 I have had 4 different processors in 4 years including the Core i7 920 processor.  With so many hardware releases in such a short space of time, is future proofing even feasible?

So how far into the future should we look if we are attempting to ensure our systems are up to date in the future?  Let’s take a step away from the typical gaming system and explore the future proofing stance in a business environment. A lot of businesses look to change their computers every 3 years, in the recession some are looking at a 5 year refresh plan, meaning is this something that we also should consider as a benchmark for future proofing our personal computers? That we should look at building a computer with a 3-5 year life span, but is that the limit? I say maybe, although in business it depends on what you use your computer for. If I didn’t use my computer for gaming and virtualisation would I change it as often? I doubt I would, as I do not need to be at the top end of hardware to keep up with latest games and software, whereas Microsoft Office can run on the oldest of machines.

Let us compare computer future proofing alongside another investment which I think is comparable such as a car, do I change my car every 3 – 5 years? No I don’t, the innovation within cars is nominal at the moment and there is not enough change or performance increases between models that there are with computer hardware updates.  If I compare a 2001 Ford Focus to a newer 2011 model, what is the difference?  Both can have climate control, both have cruise control and both work fine.  But if we compare a 2001 Intel Pentium 4 to a 2011 Intel Core i7 3930K would we notice the difference?  -  Yes we would.  Whilst it is nice to see computing taking such dramatic steps forward compared to other areas of the market it also leaves computer owners at a disadvantage as their once up to date kit can soon become inferior.

My thirst for innovation comes from a long history of benchmarking, testing and pushing hardware to its limits. I admit that this is not for everyone, I built a future proofed system for my father over 3 years ago and to this day the computer has had no upgrades, no software changes and it runs without any issues (apart from the rogue virus once and a while).

As a gamer I tend to look at the latest and greatest game on the market, for example the fairly recent first person RPG Skyrim.  When examining a game I’d say to myself what do I need to run this game easily, without making the current hardware sweat.  If I purchase, say, an nVidia Geforce GTX 680 how long would it be before the next model of GPU is out as if there is a new hardware release within 6 months I will usually wait.

Another major influence on future proofing is cost, we all count pennies, some more so than others and it’s something that we all consider when we decide whether or not the next upgrade is essential. Pay more now and have your hardware last longer or pay less in the knowledge that you might pay for it down the line when you are forced to upgrade as the programs and games you want to run aren’t working as effectively.

There are advantages in waiting, as that amazing piece of hardware you are after currently itching to get might be half the price in the near future.  For example: stay with 2 GB of RAM for now and get some more when you see it cheaper later in the year. RAM prices fluctuate and as a result they go up and down a lot, so you might grab a bargain or pay more if you’re unlucky.  RAM is something that doesn’t change that often, we have seen the change from DDR2 to DDR3 but not the vast changes seen in other areas like the CPU or GPU markets.

Graphics card prices normally fall with the introduction of new GPUs, if you bought a 570 and want to SLi it with another or want a new GPU the 570/580 would be a good direction to go as the 680 is now out.  I class GPUs as the fastest changing part of a computer, for example, nVidia since 2010 have launched the 400, 500 and 600 series and as for AMD (formerly ATi) they have launched the 5000, 6000 and 7000 series. Most of the GPU innovation is driven by the games industry and ensuring that your GPU can run the latest game is a must for gamers. This is where the term “but can it run Crysis” comes from, Crysis being one of the biggest benchmark games ever released, offering vastly superior visuals due to its complex game engine.

So if you are looking to future proof, where should you spend your money? Well that all depends on what you use your computer for, if your priority is gaming then a good GPU and average CPU is a must, if you do a lot of virtualisation, then a decent CPU and a lot of RAM, if it’s mainly browsing Facebook or other social networks then just an average computer would do for a good few years. I would say spend some money on a decent case and power supply as they hardly ever change and is an investment that will last through many upgrades.

Be wary how much you will pay for the latest and greatest innovations when looking to future proof your computer. Solid State Drives (SSD) currently aren’t as cost effective as a mechanical drive due to their relatively new introduction but the prices are falling and they’re slowly becoming more cost effective. I find SSDs are fantastic new technology as Windows boots up faster, access times are cut in half at least, but again are you willing to pay the price for this new technology or make do with the adequate older drives?

In conclusion, do I think future proofing is still a relevant term and worthwhile?  I believe yes, although there are many factors to look for when future proofing your computer, such as what you use your computer for, if you need the latest hardware and use the latest software, how much you can afford and where to spend your money.  So think about how long you need your computer to last, the purpose of owning the PC and set yourself a realistic budget.  Remember to take some time planning, as future proofing can be a complicated and sometimes costly venture for the unwary buyer.