Haswell vs. Sandy Bridge: Was the upgrade worth it?

I lost a day of work and computer use upgrading my PC, and what do I have to show for it?

It’s been my policy to upgrade my PC on Intel’s "tock" schedule, when they have a new architecture. There's really no reason to upgrade on the "ticks," since that's just a die shrink. Plus, my Sandy Bridge-based PC was starting to act a little funny, giving strange, random errors, and I hated the case. So I didn't need many excuses for a shopping spree at Fry's.

When my Core i7-4770K arrived (thanks, Intel), the shopping commenced. At first, I hesitated because the CPU had no heat sink, but my buddy Chris over at Tom's Hardware Guide said not to worry, any heat sink that works on a Socket 1156/1155 will work on the Socket 1150, which is the Haswell design.

For me, hardware construction is always the fun part, even though it's the most frustrating due to the design of the case and power supply. If I could design my own PC internals, they would be very different. The case, power supply, motherboard and heat sink were new. Everything else – memory, GPU, storage – came from the old PC.

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Windows Blue and Haswell: The Perfect Match?

Building this PC makes it abundantly clear why the at-home PC builder market has collapsed. I spent $400 on four parts. Right up the aisle from components, Fry's sells complete PCs for the same price. Yes, the specs aren't even close: the cheap desktops are a low-end AMD chip with integrated GPU, 4GB of memory, and 1TB of storage vs. my 3.8GHz Haswell chip, Nvidia GTX670 GPU, 16GB of memory, a 512GB SSD and 3TB of storage. But for a whole lot of people, the low-end PC is good enough.

I've never once bought a brand-name PC, except for laptops. Ever. My first PC on giving up on the Amiga some 20 years ago was built by a local screwdriver shop in Stamford, Connecticut, which I called home at the time. After that, it's all buying components and building them.

I'm pretty good at it, too. The computer started right up on the first try, no error beeps. And the first thing that hit me was a full UEFI interface. I've heard for years that UEFI was coming to retire the ancient BIOS that ran PCs, but this was the first time seeing it on one of my PCs, and it's a fantastic interface, prettier than Windows.

Unfortunately, that's where the fun ended. Windows wouldn't start. The hardware change was just too much for it. A reinstall was needed. I figured a quick erase of the SSD and reinstall would be academic. Wrong.

Installation took all of 15 minutes. The Nvidia drivers installed without a hitch, putting my two 24-inch monitors to full use. Gigabyte, the maker of my motherboard, had a very nice install disk that loaded up all drivers in just a few clicks.

Then began the fun. I keep Windows 7 Service Pack 1 stored on a local disk, and ran that first. Once it was done, there were still 126 updates to install. This makes Microsoft's lack of a second service pack for Windows 7 all the more frustrating. Those updates amounted to almost 1GB of downloads, a ridiculous amount. I really wish Microsoft would reconsider this decision.

Installing Office 2010 was held up because I'd saved my product key in an Office folder. So I couldn't install it since the key was in a PST file that only Outlook could open. Fortunately, I found a PST file viewer and got that installed. This resulted in another round of Windows updates to patch Office and .Net.

The biggest headache ended up being Rainmeter, which I can't live without any more. All my skins were lost, so a lot of time was spent downloading them and placing them just right.

Email was no issue. I store all of my email on my own domain, so Outlook brought down all my old mail again. Since Chrome is my browser, all I had to do was log in and all of my links appeared in the browser in a few seconds.

In the end, the hardest part of the install was the Microsoft end, due to the endless updates. Gigabyte did a fantastic job with a one-shot install and the way Chrome manages bookmarks saved me a ton of time. Windows needs a faster total install, because as of now, it's the most time-consuming by far.

So, after a day of reinstalls, what do I have to show for it? Well, I can't tell. In going from Sandy Bridge to Haswell, I see no visible difference. If I'm going to find a difference, I'll have to benchmark the system. When you can't tell the difference between hardware upgrades with your own eyes… you didn't get much. I will be doing the benchmark tests for our sister publication ITworld. For now, all I can say is I see no difference. When you need to benchmark a system to see if it's any faster, then it likely isn't, except in certain scenarios.

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