“Upgrading” to a Slower Laptop, Definitely Turned Out To Be a Downgrade

You may remember I wrote a post barely 6 months ago discussing how I no longer had a need for a powerful desktop and that having a moderately powerful laptop was all I needed. Well, after only 6 months I’ve caved, and realised that isn’t actually the case, and built myself a shiny new desktop machine.

What went wrong?

There’s a number of reasons that relying solely on laptops isn’t ideal for me. Aside from the obvious ones which we’ll come back to shortly, there’s the size; but that’s not in a way you’d expect. In essence, when I’m looking at big blocks of text, or have lots of things going on, on screen. I just can’t read anything. That’s no fault of the laptop instead, more of a fault of a genetic condition of mine – nystagmus. The small screen isn’t so much an issue when playing most games, watching videos, and doing day to day things like Microsoft Office, and web browsing. It’s when we come to busy things like coding using an IDE, and using more complex productivity applications like the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, Unity and Blender, that I start to have any real issues. There’s just too many things on screen at a time, so there’s not much space that can be taken up by each of them.

I’ve found myself regularly plugging into an external monitor or two, and using the machine more like a desktop more often than I expected. I never did it I the first few months of owning the laptop, but with the projects I’ve been working on so far this year, I’ve felt the need for it most of the time. Even just dropping down to having 1 display instead of 2 has had more of an impact than I ever expected – and I expected it to be huge. However, I’ve surprised myself with how much I’ve managed to do on the MSI’s 15.6” 1080p display. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great display. It just isn’t suitable for me.

The more ‘normal’ issues I encountered

As I just briefly mentioned, only using a single display instead of 2 is a huge change, and not a good one. A couple of years ago I was rocking 3 monitors with my main desktop and I changed down to 2 when I moved to University. That wasn’t a huge change, and I managed it pretty well, adapting pretty quickly, but I just can’t get used to having one display on a main machine. Even when not trying to get work done, it’s just nice being able to have my music library open on one display, and whatever I’m doing on the other. If you’ve never tried it, I’d highly recommend it. If you have a desktop that is.

As much as I said in my post about moving to the laptop that the drop in CPU and Graphics performance wasn’t noticeable. I can tell you now, that after months of actually using it day to day, not just on a honeymoon period, the difference is huge, and noticeable. I upgraded to the 1TB NVMe SSD I mentioned pretty quickly after writing the last post, as the 128GB SATA drive preinstalled got filled very quickly and felt super slow compared to my old 960 Evo 250GB that was in my desktop.

The drop in CPU performance wasn’t noticeable at all in day to day tasks, as I’d expected. But, as soon as I started to edit video, or even just do some moderately complex composition in Photoshop, the difference became apparent very quickly.

As for the graphical performance. I didn’t try to game much at all in the first few months I had with the laptop. I played a little bit of World Of Warcraft and it handled that just fine. Given the weird demands of that game, you’d like to think it’d have ran well, but it very definitely could have not. Luckily, it did. Every other game I ran on it did pretty well too. I did have to drop the graphics settings down quite a bit on everything I tried though, when compared to the settings I was using on my old GTX 1080. But, I got everything running at 1080p at 60 FPS, which is all I could have hoped for.

VR gaming was a completely different story all together. I can give a very quick synopsis – it wasn’t good at all. I didn’t try a huge number of things, but with what I did try running so badly, I didn’t want to try much else. I’ve never found myself getting motion sick whilst playing VR before, but with the weird frame rate drops, and tracking glitches, it happened whilst running the Oculus Rift from the laptop. I think the frame rate drops are likely due to to the GPU not being quite up to the task, especially with only 3GB of VRAM. And the tracking glitches were likely due to the CPU thermal throttling, causing it not being able to keep up with the tracking data from the sensors.

What was I looking for in a replacement?

For starters I need lots more power, both in the CPU and GPU department. Ideally, I’d like it to be more powerful than my old Ryzen 1800X and GTX 1080 combo if I can fit that into my budget. I only had a 250GB NVMe SSD in that old desktop too. Since using the 1TB SSD in the ‘new’ laptop, I think I’d like to have at least that much NVMe based storage, along with a decent amount of mechanical storage too.

Choosing the CPU and Platform

It’s been three years since AMD launched the first generation Ryzen CPUs, and that includes the 1800X from my old desktop. I never had any issues with the old system, and so I expect the newer generation Ryzen platforms to be even more stable than that. However, at the same time, the last Intel system I ran – the Core i7 4790k with a GTX 970 was super stable too, apart from the two times I had to RMA the GTX 970, but that was due to manufacturing issues on Gigabyte’s part – nothing to do with NVidia’s chip. So, choosing between Intel and AMD will be down mainly to price and performance.

The Ryzen 3000 series is giving Intel a run for it’s money at every single price point, all the way from the 6 core Ryzen 3600 at around £150, to the Threadripper 3990WX 64-Core chip at about £3500. AMD is also consuming less power, and otutputting less heat compared to the Intel counterparts, and at a lower cost, and often higher performance. It seems like a no brainer to go with AMD this time round, as Intel only seems worthwhile if I was after a feature that’s exclusive to their chips – such as Thunderbolt, or Optane memory; or if I wanted to build another hackintosh. None of these are relevant to me as I want a powerful Windows desktop. The plan was basically to go with the best Ryzen 3000 chip I could afford.

Along with choosing the CPU, there’s the choice of motherboard. With a lower end chip like the 3600 or 3700, it’s reasonable to choose a last generation motherboard like a B450, or an X470. But, with the higher end Ryzen 9 chips – the 3900X and 3950X, it’s worth springing for the new X570 chipset. For your average Joe that just wants a fast gaming machine, it won’t make much of a difference, but neither will a 12 or 16 core CPU, but if you want lots of expansion, including very fast, NVMe based storage, having PCI express 4.0 as standard going with X570 just makes sense. I want to be able to have lots of very fast PCIe 4.0 storage. I’m not going to yet, but definitely in the future, so X570 is my platform of choice.

To choose a CPU for X570, for me it’s simple, get the fastest chip that fits into my budget, and at RRP (recommended retail price), that would be the Ryzen 7 3800X, which goes for around £350. However, when I was purchasing the components, there was a sale on for the Ryzen 9 3900X, making it £400. For the extra four cores, and eight threads it’s a no brainer since I could still afford it.

Selecting a GPU

In early 2020, thi is probably the hardest component to choose as there’s so many options available, as well as the fact that there’s supposedly a plethora of new cards coming from both AMD and NVidia in the coming months. However, due to the current situation witht COVID-19, if these new cards do get launched, which is likely to be delayed, actually getting ahold of one will be much easier said than done. As well as that, the performance increase we’re likely to get won’t be massive. That’s something I’m happy to go without. The most I wanted to spend on the graphics is around £500. This puts me a chunk off the price of an RTX 2080, but well within the price range for a lower cost RTX 2070 SUPER, or a higher end RTX 2070. If I wanted to spare some extra cash, the RX 5700 XT is a solid option sitting around £400 and between the RTX 2060 SUPER and RTX 2070. I want the fastest card I can, so I chose a 2070 SUPER; more specifically the Gigabyte Windforce 3X variant.

The Rest of the Components

Choosing everything else was straightforward. An 80 plus Gold rated power supply of the Corsair TXM variant was a clear choice for a power supply. 32GB of 3200MHz DDR4 will be plenty for now, with an easy path to 64GB should I need it in the future. I want the system to look good too, so I chose the Corsair iCUE 465X RGB case. I’ve had lots of Corsair stuff in the past so that case was a clear choice at the price point I was looking. I went with two 2TB hard drives over a single 4TB drive, as it would allow me to keep a local copy of some data should I need to. NVMe storage was a little more difficult as there’s a range of speeds to choose from, and all at different capacities and price points. For now, having a PCIe 4.0 SSD seems to expensive with the amount of space I’d get, and having 5 GB/s over 3 GB/s probably won’t be that noticable in most tasks these days. With the PCIe 3.0 models, there’s still various speed choices. The lower cost models tend to be between 1 and 2 gigabytes per second. Whilst higher end models are around the 3 gigabyte per second mark. In the end I decided to go with a 480GB Corsair MP510 as my boot drive, which reads and writes at around 3 GB/s, and a 1TB Sabrent model as my secondary SSD. Both of these cost about the same, with the Sabrent being slower at around 2 GB/s. For my main games, apps and in progress projects, the 1TB drive should be perfect.

I think that pretty much covers everything in the system. So let’s move onto…

What it’s Like to Actually Use

It’s really, really fast. I’m surprised at how much faster it is than the 1800X from my last desktop. The 2070 SUPER is even noticably faster than the 1080, especially in VR with more demanding titles like Doom VFR. This is just when using it generally. When benchmarking, the 3900X doubled the Cinebench R20 and R15 scores the 1800X achieved. Given that it’s only got 50% more cores, a 100% performance increase just shows how impressive the IPC improvement of Zen 2 is. When running the same tests on the 7700HQ in my laptop, I’m looking at over four times the performance, that’s just incredible. I also ran 3D mark Time Spy, as Port Royal wasn’t compatible with the GTX 1080 so I have no results from that. I’m not going to go into specific numbers, but the new system, beat the old one by a not insignificant amount. Likely due to the increased performance in the physics, and combined tests. According to other people’s benchmarks the 2070S should be around 10-15% faster than the GTX 1080, and this seems to hold true when comparing to my old benchmark results.

How did COVID-19 Affect the Purchasing Experience?

With the arrival of COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, the supply chain, especially on China’s side for new hardware, is being affected somewhat significantly. Because of this, price rises and component shortages are highly likely to happen, and I have seen them starting on various models of things. Because of some new projects I’ve been working on, having a more powerful PC was necessary. I ordered the parts sooner than I had planned because of the likely issues happening soon. Fortunately, at the time of ordering my components there was a discount on the CPU, as I mentioned earlier it allowed me to go with the 12 core 3900X over the 8 core 3800X. I also managed to save a bit on the 2070 SUPER too, at £50 off. A pretty decent saving really.

Overall, was it Worth the Reupgrade?

If we look at it purely for work purposes, yes it really was. For video projects I can export in less than a quarter of the time. For design and modelling, I can work much faster and more smoothly. And for development I can compile much faster. Less time waiting means more time working, which means there’s more money to be made. Aside from that, I can spend less time working, and get the same amount done. It’s a win in every regard really.

For non-work purposes, the experience just doesn’t compare. The desktop just beats the laptop handsdown, games just run so much better, and the general usability, and responsiveness is much better too.

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