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Now and Then
Future-proofing has been a controversial topic among PC enthusiasts for as long as PC hardware as been available to consumers. Those in favor of future-proofing are proponents of making big investments into seriously fast computer hardware, while those against future-proofing favor value above everything else. Both sides have points for and against their arguments and there is much at stake for those looking to build a new computer. The path chosen could mean the difference between a PC costing $600 dollars and one costing twice as much.
Which side is correct? There unfortunately not a definitive answer - but perhaps one side is more right than the other.
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The Case for Future-proofing
Future-proofing a computer means building a computer with components that are so advanced that they will continue to be relevant even years down the road. The obvious benefit of this is that, at least for a time, anyone who chooses to future-proof their computer will a damn fast PC. It is nice to have a computer which contains all the luxuries, and the bragging rights among fellow enthusiasts are nothing to sneeze at. Future-proofing a computer also means that certain components that don't need to be upgraded often, such as hard drives or the case, will be useful as long as possible.
Having the best PC on the block is not the only benefit, however. Future-proofing a computer means getting rid of the hassle of computer upgrades. Dropping in respectably performing new motherboard and processor can cost under $300 dollars, but the installation can take hours. A reformat will be needed if Windows is to recognize the new motherboard, and the physical process of replacing a motherboard is nearly as exhausting as building an entirely new computer. And every new upgrade, no matter how minor, opens up the potential for driver conflicts and other issues.
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The Case Against Future-proofing
It is true that those who future-proof their computers will, for a time, have the fastest computer possible. But what is new today is ancient in five years, and such will be the case with the entire future-proof computer. Future-proofing a computer by buying the most current hardware can keep the computer competitive for a surprising amount of time, but computer hardware advances too quickly for all scenarios to be predicted. A new, revolutionary technology could make the entire build obsolete.
Worse, future-proofing has a massive initial cost. While the future-proofed PC may not be penalized by the cost of upgrades as the years go by, the high cost of buying cutting-edge PC components means that any future-proof PC is going to take a large chunk out of the average person's savings account. It is better to disperse the cost over time through upgraded components. These components won't be cutting edge, but it is simple to switch out a video card with a new when the older card is no longer cutting the mustard.
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The Cost Issue
The issue at the core of future-proofing is cost. Those who promote future proofing do so in the belief that the cost of upgrading will, over time, be more than the cost of buying or building an expensive but powerful PC. Those against future-proofing believe the costs of upgrades is minimal, and does not compare to the price premium attached to cutting-edge PC components.
With the pace of development and increasing quality of low cost parts, most choose to lean in the direction of not future-proofing a PC. The reason, ultimately, is this; PCs include numerous non-core components that do not need to be frequently upgraded. This includes the enclosure, the power supply, and the hard drives. Future-proofing a computer often means having to invest heavily into these areas in order to support components like processors, motherboards, and video cards. For example, a future-proofed PC built today would likely need a large video card, such as a Radeon 4870 X2. This card will not fit well in smaller, less expensive cases, which means the future-proof computer has to incur a cost that those who do not attempt to future-proof their computer will not have to deal with. Power supplies fall under the exact same rules.
It should be noted that this comparison is becoming less significant as the prices of PC components and pre-manufactured PCs fall across all market segments. A few years ago, a person attempting to future proof a PC would likely have bought an 8800GTX video card which cost around $600 dollars. Today, the fastest video card solutions can be purchased for between $200 and $400 dollars.
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That was Unexpected
The more pressing issue against future-proofing, however, is the difficulty of for-seeing where the PC hardware industry is going at any given time. For example, it is impossible to know with certainty when AMD might change sockets. It is also impossible to say with certainty that Nvidia won't abandon SLI in the next few years. Educated guesses can be made, but hardware advances can be unpredictable.
This problem is complicated by future-proofing's reliance on technology which may not be proven. For example, those trying to build a future-proofed PC in the last half of a year likely went with Nehalem. But it is unclear how well those first Core i7 products will hold up against the release of the new models that will be debuting less than a year later. Solid State Drives are another example. Future-proof computers would likely include a Solid State Drive. But what if Intel releases a new storage controller which gives their new Solid State Drives a huge performance increase over their old ones?
Of course, these are what-if scenarios. The past unpredictability of PC hardware does not mean that the industry will make wild moves in the future, though the trend shows no signs of stopping. But it is often better to be safe than sorry.
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Overall, future-proofing is probably not a worthwhile endeavour. The cost of buying cutting edge components is always extremely high compared to purchasing something which is merely adequate. But if the arguments above did not seem to be absolute evidence against it, there are reasons for that.
There is no refuting the simplicity inherent in future-proofing. Building a future-proof computer that will last the next five years means not having to deal with upgrades for five years. In addition, there are certain components which can last for an extremely long time. The case is a great example. A high-quality PC case might seem expensive, but such a case might be usable for ten years. Ugrading is not always an easy process, and negating the hassle can be worthwhile. People building their own PCs, or with access to these services, can mix and match future-proof and easy to upgrade parts, putting money into long term (the case) and difficult to upgrade (the motherboard) components, while saving on cards, chips, memory, drives and parts that are easier to pop in and out.
Speaking from a sensible, budget oriented perspective, future-proofing is unwise. But it is not so unwise that doing so would be foolish, and a compromised approach that future-proofs some parts of a build is attractive. Anyone who does not want to have the hassel of upgrading or simply prefers to buy the fastest components possible, either for top performance or bragging rights, wll likely find the cost of a future-proofed PC worthwhile.