Picking up last-gen bargains

Features James Hunt Jan 14, 2013

The newest components are tempting, but you can save a lot of money by going for hardware that’s a little older

There’s always something tempting about owning the latest hardware. It’s hard to say exactly what makes it so enticing. Could it be the buzz of being one of the first to try new features? Knowing that you’re on the cutting edge? Having access to technologies almost no-one else has - undoubtedly all this and more.

As much fun as it is to drop your hard-earned money on the latest components, there’s an inconvenient reality about the latest hardware. It’s not just desirable and impressive: it’s also over-priced and unnecessarily powerful. Let’s face it. We’re all aware that if the computing industry tried to keep up with the high end of technical capabilities, most of us wouldn’t have any hope of playing games or running common applications. The average computer is running on hardware several years old. If you have the money to keep up with it, that’s great, but most of us can’t afford to keep our systems on the cutting edge.

However, the shrewd buyer knows that the real bargains can be found in old, previous-generation hardware. When new stuff goes on sale, retailers and manufacturers are keen to get rid of their old stock to free up space, both in warehouses and on shelves. That means, if you’re willing to wait, you can have a computer that’s consistently a little way ahead of the curve without having a bank account that’s consistently behind it.

To help you achieve this Nirvana-like balance of desire and fulfilment, we’ve done a few case studies of current generation hardware and compared them to their previous iteration to see if we can come up with a few rules about how you should approach buying previous generation hardware.

Intel CPUs

Intel’s processors are currently the undisputed kings of desktop computing, having fended off competition from AMD at all but the lowest end of the market, where AMD’s competitiveness is only assured through massive price cuts on ostensibly ‘better’ CPUs. Intel’s dominance has led the company into a difficult situation, though: it’s now competing with itself.

Current Generation: Ivy Bridge CPUs

Launched in April 2012, Ivy Bridge is the codename for Intel’s latest iteration of their desktop CPUs. Following up on 2011’s Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge chips are distinguished by their die-shrink of the microarchitecture from 32nm to 22nm and use of new Tri-Gate Transistors. Since they use the same socket, the chips and motherboards are backwards compatible with Sandy Bridge chips. The chips also add support for PCI Express 3.0, faster RAM, and improved graphics support and performance. One of the most popular Ivy Bridge chips, the Core i5-3570k, retails for £180 and has a Passmark CPU Mark score of 7,126.

Last Generation: Sandy Bridge CPUs

Developed to replace Intel’s Nehalem architecture, Sandy Bridge CPUs contained new GPU components and allowed for up to 16 logical cores (on eight physical) through Hyper-threading. A shift away from previous design philosophies, Sandy Bridge chips integrated the memory controller, graphics processor and central processing unit onto a single die, packaged as a processor.

The Sandy Bridge equivalent of the Core i5-3570k is the Core i5-2550k, which retails for £150 and has a Passmark CPU Mark score of 6,735, making it only 6% slower than the Ivy Bridge chip, but 17% less expensive. A clear bargain.

This does, of course, assume that you can live without the additional features Ivy Bridge offers. Looking at the differences between the two generations, the bulk of Ivy Bridge’s additions are tilted at the high-end of the PC market. PCI Express 3.0 support, multiple 4k display output and better support for faster RAM are all features that are unlikely to trouble someone simply looking to upgrade their processor. Clearly, if you’re building a high-end system from scratch, Ivy Bridge’s features will prove necessary, but if the objective is to speed up an existing system, Sandy Bridge currently gives a better deal.

However, what this demonstrates is the importance of doing your maths when you’re trying to decide whether a last-generation purchase makes sense or not. Ideally, you should measure the difference in performance between two pieces of hardware, then compare the cost. We used Passmark’s readily available benchmark scores values as a way to quantify performance, but you can do it however you like - it could be the framerate of a specific game, SSD drive capacity or even case volume. Whichever quality of the hardware you’re basing your decision on, that’s the one to quantify.

To turn the difference between the absolute values into a quantifiable relative one, all you have to do is divide the last generation values by the current generation values (i.e. Passmark 6,735 divided by Passmark 7,126, £150 divided by £180). The resulting answer will show you how the two generations compare, giving you the last generation’s performance /price/etc. as a percentage of the current generation’s. The higher the performance percentage is than the price percentage, the better the deal - ideally, you want the performance to be as close to 100%, and the price to be as far away from it, because that situation means the last generation of technology is almost as good as the first, but costs far less.

Remember, though, that if the price value is higher than the performance value, that’s bad - it means the current generation is more expensive for what it offers, even if the actual price is lower.

Rule #1: Last generation hardware is usually better value than new hardware, but do some calculations to make sure!

AMD Graphics Cards

AMD’s current line of graphics cards is a good example of how new hardware can sometimes offer a better deal than old hardware. It goes against common sense, but AMD’s latest generation cards use new architecture and new production process. The results are revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, and that means all bets are off in terms of both performance and pricing. To illustrate, we’ll compare the two.

Current Generation: Radeon HD 7000 Series

The latest Radeon cards feature the company’s ‘Southern Islands’ chips (code-named Tahiti, Pitcairn and Cape Verde) which are notable for their 28nm process. The shrunken die size offers more speed and uses less power than the previous 40nm process, despite broadly similar fabrication costs. The hardware is the first to support DirectX 11.1 and OpenGL 4.2. Released in January 2012, the line’s flagship model, the Radeon HD 7970, is arguably the fastest single graphics card on the market and edges out the GeForce GTX 680 in many real-world tests, if not benchmarks. Such power doesn’t come cheap, though - expect to pay upwards of £300 for a reference design. At time of writing, Passmark Software’s online statistics give the HD 7970 a G3D rating of 5,030, making it the third fastest of all those aggregated.

Last Generation: Radeon HD 6000 Series

Released at the tail end of 2010, the HD 6000 series ran on chips code-named ‘Northern Isles’ which featured a 40nm process and had support for DirectX 11.0 and OpenGL 4.1, placing them barely a half step behind their HD 7000 counterparts in terms of the latest graphics standards. The difference in power, however, is more stark: the HD 7970’s last-generation ancestor is the HD 6970, which retails north of £250, has a gigabyte less RAM (2GB instead of 3GB) and is given a passmark rating of 3,423.

But here’s where things get problematic for buyers looking for a last-gen bargain. The HD 6970 is the sixth fastest Radeon, following the 7970, 7950, 7870, 7970M and the 7850. Crucially, because those cards all use a 28nm process, they’re almost all cheaper to buy at retail than the HD 6970. Only the HD 7970 is more expensive. You don’t need to do any complicated maths to see that better performance and lower price makes it worth buying a 7000 series card instead of a 6000 series card.

However, if we compare the HD 6000 to the HD 5000 series, the general rule that last generation hardware presents a better deal is reasserted, and it’s because both the HD 5000 and HD 6000 series used a 40nm process in their chips, meaning the difference is largely iterative. The faster 5000-series card, the Radeon HD 5970 has a passmark rating of 2,528, performing 25% slower than the HD6970. However, it typically sells for just £150, which is 40% cheaper than the HD6970. The disparity in pricing represents a clear bargain, especially since 5000 series cards have support for DirectX 11 and OpenGL 4.1 exactly as the 6000 series does.

Still, it’s possible to buy a 7000 series card for £150, so we’re not recommending you buy a 5000 series one for that amount. But hopefully seeing that the 5000 series is a better deal than the 6000 series helps you see that the superiority of the 7000 series is an anomaly related purely to the underlying tech. When the Radeon 8000 series is released in 2013, it too will use a 28nm process on its chips. For that reason, it’s likely that the 7000 series will still represent a better deal.

Rule #2: Beware of hardware redesigns which can outperform AND outprice last-generation technology.

Tablet PCs

When an industry is experiencing a period of rapid product turnover, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the new features and capabilities that are being inserted into each new release of the hardware and/or software. Such difficulties have been no more apparent than in the tablet and smartphone market these last few years, where Apple and Android-based manufacturers have been releasing hardware faster than any sane consumer can keep up in a constant attempt to outdo one another.

Current Generation: Apple iPad 4th Gen

Apple’s latest full-size tablet, announced in October alongside the iPad Mini, is the fourth-generation iPad. Upon release, it replaced the third-generation iPad in Apple’s product line, introducing the new Apple A6X chip, the upgraded ‘Lightning’ connector and iOS 6.0. Although not radically different from its predecessor, the release was notable for arriving fewer than eight months since the release of the third-generation iPad (the first with a Retina display) and costing the same price as it. A fourth-generation iPad with wi-fi-only connectivity and 16GB of storage currently costs £399.

Last Generation: Apple iPad 2

The Apple iPad 2 (the 2nd generation of the tablet) was originally released in March 2011, and persisted as the flagship design until March 2012, when it was superseded by the third-generation ‘New iPad’. Running on Apple’s A5 chip, it was primarily an iteration of the first iPad, adding a front-facing camera (for video conferencing) and a rear camera for photography. The iPad 2 remains on sale today and costs £329 when purchased with 16GB of storage and wi-fi-only connectivity.

If you’re thinking of buying an iPad, forget ‘last’ generation - the third-generation iPad isn’t even on sale anymore, having been wholly replaced by the fourth-generation equivalent. While you might prefer an Android tablet, just go with us on this, because the case study is a near-perfect representation of a very valid point about why you shouldn’t write off the last generation of hardware.

Think about it: as late as March this year, people were buying iPad 2s at full price and being entirely satisfied with them. True, people wanted to see a Retina display, but that didn’t stop the iPad being the most popular tablet in the world, representing over two thirds of all tablet sales. Then the iPad 3 was released. Suddenly, the iPad 2 was old news - now it’s not even Christmas (at time of writing) and the fourth-generation iPad has made the iPad 3 look out of date.

Now, admittedly, Apple has deliberately kept the iPad 2 on its books to ensure that consumers have access to a lower-cost, entry-level tablet within their line, but its rapid release cycle also helps illustrate a valid point: has the pace of life moved so completely on that a tablet PC people would have been overjoyed with in February 2011 is ready for the scrap heap now? If the answer is ‘no’ (and spoilers: the answer is indeed ‘no’) then it begs one question: why did anyone spend the extra money on an iPad 3, or indeed 4?
The answer is simple: because it’s there. The latest iPads do very little that the iPad 2 doesn’t. Aside from the admittedly superior screen, a marginally faster CPU, and a few features most users won’t take advantage of, there’s very little difference in practical terms.

The lesson we can learn here extends to other hardware too: the release of an improved model doesn’t mean the previous one wasn’t already good enough, so try to manage your expectations and try to recognise when you’re being fooled by marketing. Remember that whatever you buy might just be out of date within a few months anyway - think of the beleaguered folk who bought iPad 3s between March and October 2012 thinking they were on the cutting edge. Everything goes out of date eventually, but your needs will change at a slower pace than Apple’s sales targets will.

Rule #3: Don’t think that just because hardware isn’t the best, it’s inadequate.

So, stick to our advice when you’re looking for hardware purchases and maybe you’ll be able to find a last-generation bargain. Remember that there’s more to life than having the best hardware and spending the most money so that you can wave your temporarily top-of-the-heap system in people’s faces. What matters most is that you spent your money wisely. That’s something you’ll really be able to rub people’s noses in!