Downgrading your computer: Why less is more

Planning on upgrading your computer? Consider downgrading it instead.
Written by Scott Raymond, Inactive

The System, By Rosscott

Friends, I am here today to tell you that you are being bamboozled! Hoodwinked! Flim-flammed! Throw out that beefy new Alienware workstation and get yourself a sturdy little slim profile desktop. Trade in that big honking business laptop and get yourself a sleek, shiny netbook.

Sounds kind of silly, right? Not entirely. In fact, there are very good reasons for downgrading your desktop or laptop system, some of which can save you money in the long term. Most people don't even need all of the bells and whistles their new system comes with; they may have been lured in with the mantra "more is better" without realizing that more costs more--even after the purchase is complete.

Admittedly, you would very well be giving up some performance. Gamers who thrive on the beefiest processors and video cards would be hardest hit. Ultra-realistic detail and high frame rates are critical to hardcore gamers. If you're a more casual gamer, however, you can afford to give up a bit of power. If all you do is use your computer for web surfing and email, you don't need a performance workhorse system.

Software developers and graphics designers are also likely to be affected by a downgrade. Compiling code, and working with high resolution images would be adversely affected by a downgrade. The software developers could possibly offload their compile onto a server, making a beefy workstation unnecessary. The graphics designer, however, might not be able to spare the computing power of their high end workstation--they would become less productive if it takes longer for them to do their work due to a downgrade.

The level of ease of the downgrade depends entirely on what you are downgrading, and how much. For instance, if you currently lug around a big old beast of a laptop when you travel, consider a subnotebook or even a netbook. For most people that travel, chances are very good that you don't need much more than access to the web and email. The migration path then is short and sweet; configure the new laptop, copy over your necessary data, and give your neck and shoulder a break from carrying around a giant brick of hardware.

If you're currently in the market for a new desktop system because your old one is giving up the ghost, consider more carefully what you need your computer for, rather than just buying something huge and powerful. For instance, do you need that high end $1500 Dell desktop, or can you do everything you need with the bargain $500 setup? If you're a parent giving a computer to your kids for schoolwork, you might want to be cost-conscious. Maybe you just need a small form-factor system that stays out of the way when you don't use it. An Apple Mac Mini for $699 or any of a number of tiny PC options are available, usually for $500 or less.

What if you're like me, someone that builds their own systems and isn't afraid of getting into the guts of their desktop to change components? Well, I recently performed a hardware downgrade on my main Ubuntu desktop/server system. It was a pretty beefy system, with an Intel quad core QX6700 CPU, an NVIDIA geForce 8800GTX video card, 8GB RAM, and 6 hard drives in a RAID6 array.

One thing that always bothered me was how much heat was generated in the system. The CPU required a heavy duty aftermarket heatsink/fan; the one that Intel provides becomes less effective over time. It was always a struggle to keep the CPU core temperatures cooled to under 50 degrees C, and I really didn't want to spend the extra effort and money on a watercooled system. I'll leave that to the overclockers that like to tweak the last bit of power out of a system.

Additionally, the video card also generated a massive amount of heat. Idle GPU temperature was 60C and could easily go up to 80C under load. Aside from cat hair and cigarette smoke, heat is one of the worst enemies of computer components. You can spend even more money trying to keep the system cool. But if you don't need all of that extra-powerful hardware, you can replace those components with more energy efficient, cooler operating ones.

Real Life, By Greg Dean

Real Life, By Greg Dean

I replaced the video card with an NVIDIA geForce 7200GS, and the CPU with an Intel E7200 Core 2 Duo, which comes to about $160 in cost. While they don't come near the performance of the other two components, I wasn't using the original parts to their fullest capacity anyway. The new video card generates so little heat that it doesn't need a fan, and doesn't draw enough power to require external connectors directly to the power supply. The new CP runs cool with the stock Intel heatsink/fan combo.

The system booted up just fine with the new components. I didn't need to install new drivers because the NVIDIA drivers are unified--the geForce drivers for Windows or Linux will pretty much work with any recent geForce video card. Operating performance speed didn't seem to have changed for me. The biggest difference was temperature. The CPU cores are 35C and 33C respectively, and the GPU is a chilly 25C. That is quite a reduction in heat generation. Also, it should be noted that the old CPU drew 130 watts, and the new one draws only 65 watts.

It hasn't been long enough to gauge how much energy savings there will be, but there is a way to estimate it. Doing some digging, I found this formula: ((Watts x Hours Used) / 1000) x Cost per kilowatt-hour = Total Cost. Since it is a server I need access to all the time, I leave my system on 24/7. The hardware in it draws an average of about 300 watts between idle and active use. 300 x 24 hours x 365 days/yr = 2,628,000 watt-hours, or 2628 kilowatt-hours. At a cost of about $0.12 for each kwh, that comes out to $315.36 for the year to run my server. The downgrade shaved the wattage output in half. Half of the cost would be $157.68, which means the downgrade would pay for itself in power savings in the first year.

A question that might be asked is, "Won't I just have to upgrade my system again in the future?" Perhaps. But keep in mind that Moore's Law of computer systems doubling in power every 12-18 months is not a guide you are required to follow. Most computer applications are perfectly capable on running on hardware that is several years old. And if you truly do need to upgrade, consider being more economical and not going for the top of the line components. You might find yourself saving a lot more money in the long run.

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