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Picking Up Last Generation Bargains (Part 2)

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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 $481 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.

Radeon HD 7000 Series

Radeon HD 7000 Series

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 $401, 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 $240, 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 $240, 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 out price 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 $640.

 The 4th generation iPad is good, but how much better than the iPad 2

The 4th generation iPad is good, but how much better than the iPad 2

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 $528 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 recognize 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!

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