Operation Austere Thunderbolt is (finally) on

During the summer a big unanticipated DIY project shoved Operation Austere Thunderbolt onto the back burner. Now that project is finally out of the way, and my current rig is literally expiring before my eyes, I know I can’t put off the purchase of a new PC any longer. Later this week I intend to buy everything on one of these pcpartpicker.com component lists…

Based on advice proffered by knowledgeable/helpful Cornerites in the Spring, I’ve drawn-up three possible builds. Which one should I go for? Can any of the lists be improved? Your input would be greatly appreciated.

– Austere Thunderbolt (AM4)

As its name suggests Austere Thunderbolt (AM4) utilises an AM4 socket motherboard. Like the other two builds, it incorporates a donated (Thanks VFRHawk!) Asus STRIX-GTX980TI graphics card, and utilises a swish Fractal Design North case. Having sat beside a seriously dreary computer casket for the past twelve years, I have no wish to spend the next decade in the company of something equally uninspired.

– Austere Thunderbolt (AM4) budget version

In the ‘budget version’ of Austere Thunderbolt (AM4), the £285 Ryzen 7 5800X3D 3.4 GHz 8-Core CPU is replaced with a wallet-gentle £136 Ryzen 5 5600X 3.7 GHz 6-Core CPU. A false economy bearing in mind I’m planning to use my new machine for demanding vehicle sims such as Flight Simulator and SimRail?

– Austere Thunderbolt (AM5)

The most forward-looking/pricey build is Austere Thunderbolt (AM5). Isla, THC’s accountant, visibly blanched when I told her I was contemplating spending £1000 on a new PC, but, assuming I can perusade her that this option might actually prove more economical than the others in the long run, it’s a possibility.

(Although none of the lists include a copy of Windows 10, unless some kind soul has an unwanted OEM licence they’d be willing to donate, or knows a legal way to turn a Windows 7 licence into something more modern, I will need to purchase an OS to go with my new hardware.)


  1. For Windowsd I’ve used premiumcdkeys.com with good results. I have a Windows 11 Professional Retail Key that I would happily gift to you, just let me know.

    The Ryzen 5 5600X does come with a cooler (I have one) and it’s quiet. The CPU is fast but I don’t know if it’ll be fast enough for you.

    My youngest son has that case and it’s very nice 🙂

  2. “Buy nice or buy twice.” It’s easy to say when it’s not your money, but when I’ve been able to, I’ve generally been happier spending more money on something I really like instead of less money on something I don’t.

    I can also vouch for premiumcdkeys.com. I’m sure there’s some amount of dubiousness to it (probably something to do with foreign currency) but it seems legit enough.

  3. AM5

    Downgrade the processor to a 7600X to save £130
    See if faster (6000) memory is available for just a few quid more.

    What’s cheap now?
    – memory (RAM and SSDs) apparently, so you can get almost twice the storage space for the same price you’d’ve paid last year

    What’s pricey?
    – GPUs don’t need me to point out
    – PSUs. Seem twice the price they used to be. Not sure if that’s from the change to ATX3. I’d really try to get a lightly used, slightly older model. After all, at this rate Tim isn’t gonna need a 16pin PCIE power connector until Austere Thunderbolt is long dead.

    Not sure I understand Tim’s mention of the case: is it something he’s already got, or his heart’s set on?
    I didn’t check its’ specs, but trust it has an accessible USB-C port. I wouldn’t know Tim’s stance on the Devil’s tabulae, but my most recent smartphone came with a cable usb-c at both ends.

    • Oh yeah, motherboards are pricier than they used to be.
      There might be a few notes saved by going mATX instead of ATX,
      BUT, particularly given the size of graphics cards, you’d be limited in what else you could slot in. It would probably be just three things:
      GPU, main m.2 SSD, secondary m.2 SSD
      It might be ok if you connect to the internet via the ethernet port.

      CPU cooler-wise, my advice would be to go for something with standard 12cm fans. These can easily be replaced when they get noisy.
      ETA: check a YouTube vid to see how the fans are attached.

  4. Thanks, all. The budget build is now reliant on the stock cooler, and the AM5 build price has been reduced to an attractive £862 by Colonel_K’s CPU suggestion (I’ve gone for faster RAM too). I’ll be using premiumcdkeys for my Windows licence.

    • Would switching to a 7600 (non-X) get you below 800?
      It’s meant to be 2-3% slower than the X but is about 20 quid cheaper and is supposed to come with an adequate cooler.
      That said, its’ price history shows it rising since August. I might be inclined to be bold and hold out on the CPU + mobo until Black Friday.

  5. Until very recently, if you had (or freshly installed) a legal copy of Win7, then you could run the Windows 10 installer, and it would upgrade your license key. Alas, they finally stopped doing that last month 🙁

    As far as the different systems go, the benefit of an AM5 system is that it should still be supported for at least a few years, so it will be possible to upgrade the CPU down the line. (Wait until AM6 comes out, and you’ll be able to pick up a top-of-the-line AM5 CPU, second hand, for cheap). Plus upgrading other components later (GPU, SSD etc) will be slightly easier being on a newer platform.

    Unless you’re planning to plug in a lot of 3.5″ hard drives (or some other power hungry device), you’ll also be fine with a 650W power supply (as long it’s a quality one).
    Definitely go for at least a ‘Gold’ efficiency PSU, the energy savings over a year will save you a few quid on your ‘leccy bill. A good PSU will last at least five years, and each bump up the efficiency ratings (bronze<silver<gold<platinum<titanium) saves you 2%, which could be £10 saved per year. Plus the higher efficiency units are better built, so will last longer.

    Definitely try to hold on until the sales in November if you can, and you can often save £5-10 by buying a CPU+motherboard bundle should you spot one on sale.

    • Strangely, 650w PSUs seem to be more expensive than 750w ones, so I’ll probably stick with the currently selected one.

      Waiting until Black Friday is tempting, but having already postponed my build once, and with Windows 7 becoming a real problem (I suspect my recent issues are linked to my old OS) I may well pull the trigger at the end of the week.

  6. Personally I wouldn’t go the AM5 route. “Buy nice or buy twice” is good advice. What’s lacking in the AM5 build is the lack of PCI-E 5 support on the bus and storage interface. The upgradability is hampered by that. My main concern would be that when the time comes for a new GPU the motherboard is restricting the potential of the GPU and CPU. The new processor on the AM-5 build is nice, i do wonder if your getting the most out of it with the components selected. . Unfortunately motherboards that do have PCI-E 5 are at least twice the price. You’ll be paying a premium for AM5 and DDR5 while an AM4 build with fast components (SSD, Mem, CPU) will be just as fast and more economical.

    For the AM4 build I would tweak it like this:

    Further notes:
    The SN770 SSD is not that fast, as SSD’s are quite cheap i would recommend looking at something like a Samsung Pro 980. Probably the biggest performance boost compared to the other components.

    The memory in the AM4 build is 3200MT/s. The processor and chipset can easily handle 3600MT/s. Which costs the same.

    “Install nice, not twice” Windows 10 support is ending two years from now. I’ve had no issues at all with Windows 11, all the annoying new AI and search functions can be disabled. I can’t comment on backwards compatability with games. (Only thing retro i played recently was Hidden and Dangerous 2, which ran fine)

    • Thanks, Bootlaf. Isla really likes Austere Thunderbolt Block 60, and with the Fractal Design North case switched for a Fractal Design Pop Silent (perhaps quietness is more important than style) the price can be brought down to a deeply sensible £620.

  7. Sorry, in a rush so not checked whats been suggested already, but your old crew had a suggestion for this a few weeks ago:


    Covers a reasonable CPU and mobo (and as they say it just needs slotting in to the case presumably the CPU comes with a fan), just needs the RAM added which they list for around £100, so basically £400 without RAM, £500 with. Does that fit the needs and just leave you needing a case, and maybe save a few bob?

  8. Summary: I think Bootlaf came up with a great spec and I recommend you buy that, but I have a couple small thoughts.

    This Micro-ATX motherboard appears to be equivalent in price and performance to what you have picked out, and also has Wifi 5. I always think I won’t need wifi on a desktop and I’m always proven wrong when I bring it to my folks’ house for the holidays or someone trips on an ethernet cord.

    I’m going to agree with Bootlaf: cheapest performance boost you can get. The Samsung 970 and 980s are both really good. You won’t see a performance boost from a 990.

    I just built a Fractal North machine and I adore it. You’re gonna be happy with that case. However, if you are serious about considering the pop silent, consider these three things:

    1. The case fans on the North can be swapped out if you care about noise. I bought a pair of Noctua for about $25 each and I can’t even hear my PC when it’s running normally (naturally the graphics card isn’t silent when on full).

    2. If you go with the Micro-atx motherboard, you could go for the Pop Mini Silent case. You aren’t likely to overheat your proposed setup and a smaller PC can really make for a nicer experience.

    3. The North is finicky with larger graphics cards. A GPU as long as yours blocks the front drive bays. Shouldn’t be a problem with your build, but something to keep in mind. A mounting bracket could block the USB headers on your motherboard too, should your GPU require one. The Pop Silents have a little more room for bigger cards in that respect.

    I definitely feel that 6 cores is going to be fine for most gaming. In fact tons of wargames tends to be very single-core hungry when it comes to things like their AI, so you might actually be better off with a 3.7ghz 5600 over the 3.4ghz 5800. Plus then you get the included cooler, so you save even more.

    I’m very excited for your upgrade and I hope our input is helpful.

  9. Having pondered everyone’s (very helpful) suggestions, and consulted the keeper of the THC purse, I’ve decided to go with Bootlaf’s ‘Block 60’ component list. Expect prettier screenshots and more hands-on sim articles in coming months!

  10. I always buy ‘just under the best’ as it’s a nice middle ground of not super expensive and lasts a good number of years.

    Cutting edge = ridiculously expensive and sometimes broken…

  11. Used desktop at Computer Exchange:

    Custom Ryzen7 5800x/16GB DDR4/2TB HDD/RX 6600 XT/W11/B – – – £475.00

    Doesn’t specify the mobo generation nor speed of memory. Ought to be returnable under distance selling regs if not to your liking; not sure where it’s located.
    Might just benefit from m.2 ssd and extra 16gb ram.

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