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CPU history

Alastair Grant | Monday 25 May 2015

I recently decided that the steel box containing my first "real" PC that was collecting spiders in the garage could finally go to the dump. I had kept it so I could, if the mood ever arose (which, it never did), I could play some DOS games as they were originally intended - Worms and the original GTA being the main contenders.

Now these games work fine through DOSBox, so there was really no need to keep that computer, despite the heavy nostalgia factor. It was my first PC, built at the end of secondary school - I had been saving for a 100MHz 486 but time went on and the expensive Pentium's appeared. I finally had the parts I needed and the cash I needed for a Pentium but the shop (as it was either go into a shop or through a catalogue in these pre-Amazon days) only had a Pentium 200 MMX. I want to say it cost me £250 - either way, it was all the money I had, but I got it - and so started my hobby of computers.

By the end of it, it was pretty full featured: 200MHz 1st generation Pentium with MMX extensions - it was most definitely known with the MMX bit to differentiate it from the standard P200; it seems a strange habit mentioning extensions given the long-list that chips come with these days. A 4MB S3 Virge VGA card for the 2D stuff, ultimately a 12MB Voodoo2 (after starting with a 4MB Voodoo Rush) - all running on PCI. And a Vibra16 sound card on ISA - I think I also had a proper PCI Soundblaster in there but that probably got migrated up the computer chain as I upgraded. And of course, an ISA modem - I suspect that computer never saw past 28.8Kbps.

P200 and expansion cards

Intel Pentium 200 MMX: 1997 to 2000
Operational for: 17 years
Ultimate fate: Sat in a loft for years and ultimately was dumped in 2014

After college I had saved up for a new computer to play Peter Molyneux's much hyped Black & White computer game. There was no way my old P200 would have been capable for that so I waited for the release of the first 1GHz processor, the AMD Athlon "Thunderbird". Unfortunately the game wasn't that great and I had already got hooked on Counter-Strike; the sudden jump from a P200 playing 640x480 at about 12fps to 1024x768 at 60fps jumped my average score from 1:1 to 10:1 - the early adoption of ADSL only trebled that ratio until the rest of the world caught up. Alas, the Thunderbird on a VIA chipset with a Creative sound-card was a disaster and meant constant freezes. It got to the point that if I played under a different alias in-game, other players could still identify me by the number of times my character froze up whilst my computer rebooted.

AMD Athlon "Thunderbird" 1GHz: 2000-2001.
Ultimate fate: Became a home-server before blowing it's capacitors and being replaced with an AMD Duron.

Luckily, being after college I had a job that could start to feed my hobby and it was then I swore never to touch AMD and Via again and replaced it with a new-fangled 1.6GHz Pentium 4 (Willamette) at Â167. Life was suddenly bliss without constant crashing. This will have been built on an Abit motherboard, a brand that has since disappeared, but during their day, they produced some pretty good enthusiast motherboards. My younger sister was then bought a new computer for her A-levels, this featured a more powerful 2.4GHz version of the processor that found itself on long-term loan to my motherboard.

Intel Pentium 4 "Willamette" 1.6GHz/2.4GHz: 2001-2003
Ultimate fate: Unsure, may have become a server, may have been donated to a friend-in-need (the borrowed chip was returned)

In October 2003 I built my first high-end rig. I invested big in my beast of a computer, with income to burn I got a new Pentium 4, this one with hyper-threading - at 3GHz (£225) and a fancy Audigy 2 ZS Sound Blaster (£85) to replace the standard one I had been running before. The sound-card even more impressively than ran through to 2012 when I finally replaced it with a Sound Blaster Z. This machine, running on an Abit IC7 was my monster PC - it was pretty much the end of a generation the Netburst architecture underlying the Pentium 4 was failing against AMD's offerings and AGP was about to be phased out for PCIe. I built it with RAID-0 disks and was the main-stay of my Counter-Strike dominating years.

My P4 finally started to show it's age when I could no longer upgrade graphics cards for it. The last one it could take was a back-ported PCIe card, the Gainward 7800GS+ (an Nvidia GeForce 7900GT with an AGP bridge). It had to go due to age, but was still in working condition. So this became my home-server for years before it too was too old for serving up content being stuck with a 32-bit only CPU - it though has now moved on to my father's home to run as a media-server there. Constantly ear-marked for replacement it keeps plodding along.

Intel Pentium 4 "Northwood" 3GHz: 2003-2008
Ultimate fate: Still running in my father's loft serving up media
Operational for: 12 years and counting
Update October 2017: Now immortalised in a picture frame as I couldn't find a practical use for it.

I cannot remember the exacting reasons I needed to do a stop-gap upgrade for my PC, it was probably graphics card related. With Intel's new Nehalem architecture on the horizon I scraped the bottom of the barrel and got a dual-core "Conroe" Pentium (only £45) based on the first generation Core architecture (a revival of the P6 architecture that had first appeared back in the P200 days as the Pentium Pro).

Intel Pentium Dual-Core "Conroe" 1.6GHz: 2008
Ultimate fate: Became a file server for a while before spewing its guts in early 2012
Operational for: 4 years

I was amazed at how well the 1.6GHz "Core" based processor performed, it blew away my 3GHz power-house in terms of performance, which really highlighted the disadvantages of Netburst. Still, it wasn't a spectacular beast and was happily replaced later that year with my next beast. And I feel I've struck the correct way of doing this, and that's to adopt at an architecture jump. We were introduced to Nehalem, argued as Intel's seventh fundamental architecture change. We then later saw the i5 and i3 brands crop-up, nobody seems to know the real reason behind any of it. Entirely jumping over DDR2, I came in on day-one with DDR3 and a decent dive into the 64-bit world - running Windows Server 2003 x64 bit until Windows 7 rocked up on the scene.

I bought in at the bottom of this market getting the i7-920, which appeared to give the best bang for buck. Clocking at 2.66GHz and costing about £240 it kept in-line with what I had spent previously on my "main" CPU. I started with 3GB of RAM and in tri-channel and up-ed it to 9GB over it's life and then back down to six as one of the memory channels knackered out bringing me to a peasant-like dual-channel configuration. The clock speed went up to 3.8GHz on air-cooling but it got a bit toasty, so it was mainly running at 3.66GHz.

What can I say about the x58 powered beast? Well it just ran and ran. And it has since been replaced, not due to being under-performant but again due to becoming obsolete - and due to the nagging effects of heat. Running at a GHz or so over base-clock with two over-clocked GeForce 560ti's dumping heat into the computer, it wasn't power-efficient and drew well over 500W from the wall.

It made it six years as my main PC, cementing it into the lead of my PC builds - and still happily processing everything in today's world without fuss.

Intel Core i7-920 "Nehalem" 2.66GHz / 3.8GHz: 2008-20014
Ultimate fate: It's now my wife's main PC and running happily
Operational for: 7 years and counting

With an eye on a significant jump in architecture change from Nvidia in the form of "Maxwell" and the 900 series GeForce cards as well as the adoption of DDR4 memory I figured it was a good time to bite. But the pressure was now on from the Nehalem build to at least match six-years. In order to do this I spent some time trying to guess where technology is going to go - a futile effort at the best of times. DDR4 seemed to be a no-brainer but storage seems to also looking like it will go down the PCIe route instead of continuing on SATA.

The reality of my next purchasing decision was is the best place to jump in is probably with Skylake-E, which would have been another couple of years taking my Nehalem up to eight years in age - something which I felt was asking a bit much of it. So I bought in at Haswell-E, which doesn't get me PCIe 4, but does bring DDR4 and being an "E", PCIe lanes, although not as many as I'd like and those come with a very hefty price tag. To match the Nehalem's PCIe lanes (albeit x3 instead of x2), I had to go for the mid-range processor, which was a doubling of price. So I've landed up with a six-core 3.5GHz Intel Core i7-5930K at an eye-watering £430.

It's silly powerful for my needs, so I'm hoping that my gamble will pay off and I'll still be happy with it up to 2020.

It already seems that PCIe is becoming main-stream so with 40 3.0 lanes I should be able to limp by with two graphics cards running across 16 lanes each as well as room for a couple of 4 lane PCIe drives. The first of which is coming in the form of an Intel 750 PCIe SSD - I'll see how well that compares to my existing RAID-0 SSD.

Intel Core i7-5930K 3.5GHz / TBC: 2014 - ...

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