A Minor PC Gaming Miracle

Building and maintaining your own gaming PC is the best. It's also occasionally the worst. This week I upgraded my PC, fully expecting it to be a pain in the arse. Instead, something magical happened. Windows 10 actually came through.

I spent the past six months or so in a constant state of doubt about my PC. I had a really good graphics card (a GTX 1080) and a slightly aged but still totally serviceable CPU (Intel i7-4770k, OC'd to 4.2Ghz). Yet I kept getting lacklustre performance in new games. I repeatedly went through The 10 Stages Of Coping With An Underperforming PC Game. In fact, it's part of why I wrote that article.

I spent a few months hung up on the question of whether my performance was "CPU-bound." My graphics card was mighty, and should have been turning in better performance than it was. Something else had to be bottlenecking me. Maybe it was time to swap my three-year-old CPU for a new one.

I decided to get a faster CPU, which also meant upgrading my motherboard. Late last week I ordered the new parts and set aside some time to set them up. I hit a slight hiccup because I hadn't realised I'd also need new RAM, so I went ahead and ordered new RAM. (#5 on my list of The 10 Worst Things About Building a New Gaming PC: The thing you need but don't have.)

I assumed I would have to re-install Windows as well, of course. You can't just install a new motherboard, RAM, and CPU without re-installing Windows! I set up a Windows installer on a USB thumb drive and backed up my data. I set aside a couple of hours for reinstalling all my software once I got the new PC set up, and preemptively braced for whatever data and saved games I would lose. This is how I lost my Dark Souls 3 save last year, and I've reinstalled Windows enough times to know that it's always something.

Same case, fresh guts: Intel i7-7700K CPU, Asus Maximus IX Hero motherboard, GTX 1080 GPU, 32 GB RAM, Corsair H110i cooling system, mismatched but effective Noctua fans. The physical stuff was a breeze to set up. The new motherboard was the same form-factor as my old one, so I really just had to slide it into place in my case, screw in the mounting screws, and reconnect my case wires and power cables. I turned it on and… it's aliiiiive! I will never tire of the feeling that accompanies the first test-boot of a new PC.

Of course, I immediately ran into trouble booting off of the Windows installation USB drive I had set up. I made my way around the new BIOS, checked the boot order, got it to work. It was time to format my hard drive and reinstall Windows.

Only… wait. What if I didn't? What if I just tried booting as usual? Surely that couldn't work. Right?

I tried it. It worked. There was Windows 10, same as I'd left it. The desktop background was the same. All the little ins and outs of my software and operating system were intact. My games and applications were ready to go. Windows system profiler saw the new CPU and RAM. I did some googling and found mixed results as to whether or not this was possible or advisable. Could you seriously swap out your CPU and motherboard without reinstalling Windows? Turns out, as long as you stay pretty close to what you had before, there's a chance that you can.

I got a notification that I needed to reactivate my Windows licence on this PC. Ah, here it is. This is where they screw me. I had upgraded to Windows 10 during a free promotion; the last version of Windows I paid for was an OEM system builder's licence for Windows 7. OEM licenses are allegedly tied to a single motherboard, though I've seen people say they have used them on multiple builds. I tried entering that old activation key, and it worked. Windows was activated. I was good to go.

I may never tire of walking down this street at 85fps. I've spent the last day waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I don't think it's going to. I've also spent the last day destroying the games that had been giving me trouble, also known as acting out the final item on my list of The 10 Best Things About Building A New Gaming PC.

Hitman? Forget it, 80+ FPS in 1440p on the crowded streets of Marrakesh, where before I'd been in the 40s. Watch Dogs 2? 70-90fps with temporal filtering off when I used to struggle to break 50. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided? 80+ FPS on the streets of Prague with settings maxed. Looks like I had been CPU-bound, after all.

It isn't often that I'll say the sentence, "Wow, Windows 10 really made that a lot easier," but here we are. I'm sure I got lucky by choosing parts that were close enough to my existing build that Windows could handle the upgrade. I'm sure there were a hundred different ways the process could have gone wrong. All the same, Windows 10 really came through for me on this one. Behold, a minor PC gaming miracle.


Comments

    if you want to sell your old Motherboard, cpu and ram
    i'd be interested

      I have an i7-920 with 12gb of triple channel ddr3 and a 4gb 960gtx which I'm considering selling..

        A whole computer or just CPU, RAM, and GPU?

          Mobo, cpu, heatsink/fan, ram, and gpu. I also have a blu-ray burner which I didn't bother installing in my new one. All of it is currently mounted in an old Antec case with no PSU.

          Oh, and I could also include the copy and key of Windows 7 Ultimate I ran on it (to which I applied the free Windows 10 upgrade)

    I literally had the exact same experience a couple of weeks ago. Kudos to MS, Windows 10 is solid.

      I've had the same experience with both Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. New Mobo, CPU and RAM but kept video card and drives. Plugged everything in and rebooted and it just worked. Each time a couple devices needed updated drivers - which windows did automatically but that was it.

      Only downside, was like the author - windows realises its new hardware and wants to reactivate. I actually had to ring MS to activate on the Win7 machine. But it was surprisingly painless. A couple minutes on hold then a person asks whats up. I explained my mobo died so I'd replaced mobo/cpu/ram and they said "cool" and gave me a new code to reactivate it. No cost other than sitting on the phone for about 10 minutes total.

    I went through pretty much the exact same process a month ago...built my new pc from scratch as the 1080's that I got last year just weren't cutting it with my old i7 (gen 1). When I went to activate windows, it took me a while to realise that my original license was tied to my old PC...so I had to buy another license.

      You can get around it by actually removing/deactivating the key on your PC before putting the new hardware in, but with the free upgrade licences, you will no doubt hit a snag at some point in the future with activation. i too bought an OEM copy and changed my licence to avoid any issues with activation. It'll be worth it in the long run, as no doubt, this windows will probably go through a few motherboard or other major hardware changes before I get rid of it!

        There are some vague circumstances with the free upgrade, I'm not exactly sure the criteria but my Win8 copy was upgraded during the free period to a Win10 retail licence, meaning it can be put on any hardware without worrying about hardware ID changes invalidating the licence. Might be worth people checking what type of key they have to see if it might be an issue.

          Yeah retail ones can be transferred. The licence you ended up with may have depended on what version and type of windows install you had originally. I had an OEM copy of Win 7 Ultimate, so I ended up with a digital licence that doesn't actually have a key.

            Yeah, I got a digital licence as well, it's just marked as a retail type licence. I've transferred it across a complete hardware change once so far with no problems. I just skip the key question in the installation process and log in with my Microsoft account when it's done and it automatically registers itself.

              cool! Maybe it was cos you had windows 8?
              Also, do you find there's much benefit to logging in with microsoft account in win 10? It used to make it a bloody nightmare when it came to servicing peoples windows 8 machines, as you'd need their password to log in to the computer (or their profile at least, which is generally where the problem resided). That was enough to deter me from using my microsoft account when I first jumped to 10, and I just use a local account. Curious to know if there's much extra that's useful in win 10 when logging in with one though.

                I've had no problems at all using a Microsoft account, and it does mean you can avoid the key thing altogether since the Windows licence is attached to the account rather than to a key. Aside from that it's all the standard stuff if you use it: Windows Store app purchases are portable, you can sync Windows settings across devices if you want, if you use Cortana its learning is synced across devices, you get something like 15GB of free OneDrive space (OneDrive is tightly integrated into the OS so it just behaves like any other folder). It can tie in with apps like Xbox Games, Music, Office 365 if you have it.

                There's certainly nothing essential in there, but I find the system works great using the Microsoft account and I've had nothing that would be considered a drawback because of it. Possibly the only thing you might consider a drawback is Microsoft's password policy prevents you from reusing a password you've used before, so you don't have absolute control over your password as you would with a local account. I'm fine with that though.

                Microsoft account means when I load visual studio on any of my machines it keeps the same setup, projects etc.
                Ties in with my Xbox live account and don't laugh @live email. Makes it all fairly seamless.
                When I upgraded my machine during windows 8 time. I just logged in to the new one, no license transfers or anything, Office was the same.
                I don't take full use of all its capabilities but for what I use. It's not bad.

                  Cool! I was aware of all the stuff that's been mentioned by you and Zombie Jesus, except for the visual studio bit! That is possibly the only thing that I might find really useful. Still dunno that I'll do it, but good to know at least :) Thanks!

    I mean...you can just boot off of your old installation but you'll likely see drastic performance and stability improvements if you do a fresh installation of Windows..it's ill-advisable to under take massive upgrades and maintain the same installation of Windows..

      I was curious as to whether this would be the case myself, but my transfer went smooth as silk, and after installing all appropriate drivers, all the speed boosts I expected to see were 100% apparent. Previous windows versions really seemed to have an issue with that kind of swap over, but it looks like Windows 10 may have actually worked around it.
      I booted off my previous install with the intention of testing it out, fully prepared to re-install after discovering it didn't really meet my expectations, but it simply blew my mind!

      Windows will detect the hardware and make adjustments or down load new drivers as required.

        It did miss a couple of drivers for me, but they're easy enough to find. It's usually a good idea to go through and actually uninstall old drivers that are not being used any more too.

          Same here. It's been pretty easy to retain since about Windows 7. I tried it back in the day with WinXP and Win98 and didn't have a great time. Eventually giving up and reinstalling clean. But Win7 onwards has been pretty sweet.

          The main thing to watch is whether you're running AHCI or IDE in the mobo BIOS. I found Windows isn't very happy if you switch in new hardware and switch from say IDE to AHCI.

            Yeah it doesn't boot if you do that, but there are ways to fix that if you do need to change it. I had to do it when I first installed Windows on an ssd, cos for some reason it didn't like the drivers Windows itself chose to install for the SATA card i installed. I had to hunt down better drivers before it would even let me change it.

    what CPU did you have before, and what did you upgrade to?

    curious as i have a feeling my i5 4790k is bottlenecking my 1080

      ...a slightly aged but still totally serviceable CPU (Intel i7-4770k, OC'd to 4.2Ghz)

      I'm not sure how much it affects the 1080's, but I had a 4gb 960GTX prior to my upgrade, and after upgrading the mobo/cpu/ram etc, I found the performance of many games was only marginally better (like 5-10fps). I went from an i7-920 to an i7-6850 too. I honestly thought I would see more of a boost, considering I only had pcie 2.0 and sata 2 on my old system. Things were definitely a little more efficient/smooth, but the gaming gains weren't what I expected. Mind you, I ran a lot of games at 4K, so that might be part of it.
      Doom ran at 25-32fps at 4k prior to the upgrade. After, it ran at 30-35. Wasn't til I got the 1080ti that I noticed a huge gain.

        Bear in mind that your small increase 25fps to 30 is actually a 20% improvement. And 20% is a pretty decent number.

        Sounds like the CPU was bottlenecking your PC initially. But after your upgrade the Vid card became the bottleneck.

        I had similar experiences in WoW a couple years back. Went from Radeon 7970 to a GTX970 and didn't still had lagouts on boss fights. Bumped CPU up to an i7-4770k and it became smooth. Later Doom was just a bit glitchy at 4k. Updated to GTX1070 and it became much more playable. Holding off as long as possible before I upgrade CPU again.

          Yeah I mean it wasn't a bad improvement, but even in other games I didn't get that much of a boost. Like it wasn't as though all my games saw a 20% improvement. If they had it would be easy to pin down the bottlenecks, but some other games which I already ran at 100+fps, I only saw a few fps boost as well, where you'd expect them to get 20+ fps boost or there about. It probably has a lot to do with the engine the game runs on too, but it's hard to say whether a particular hardware config will see the gains you might expect from a CPU upgrade. Best bet I guess, is see how much of your CPU is being utilized during gameplay. If the cores are being used to almost their full potential, chances are you'll notice a nice boost :)

            Yeah I know what you mean. Some games are much more heavily CPU based than others. And sometimes games you wouldn't expect to be CPU limited (WoW) actually are. Makes it hard to predict performance from new hardware.

    Sounds like I need to upgrade my i5 2500k in order to complement my two 980ti cards...

      heh damn.. that's almost as old as my pre-upgrade system! Might well be worth it!

        actually, that got me curious. My system might have been even older than I thought! I don't recall exactly when I bought it, but I'm sure it wasn't too long after launch (within a year I'd say.) Looks like my cpu was released in q4 08! :0 That'd make it around 8 yrs since my last upgrade!
        The i5 2500K came out in 2011, so a little younger, but same general era as my system was.

          You must have a 920 or similar then.... Yeah I would recommend scraping something together for a Kaby- or Skylake. I definitely have had my money's worth from the i5 2500k over a 5 year period. Been running at 4GHz since day dot.

            haha yeah I had a 920, but about 2 weeks ago, I upgraded to an i7 6850, so I'm good now :) Also got a 1080ti!

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