Wednesday, January 27, 2016

That New Computer Smell

I replace my laptop every few years. It's been almost four years since I got my T430, and while it's OK overall, the Ethernet port is very flaky and the screen colours are so off by now that I no longer can edit pictures on it. It was time to start thinking about getting a new one. Except this time I didn't.

A long time ago when I was a student — a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I still had hair — I used to build my own desktops. Computers became obsolete within months, and laptops were slow, clumsy luxury items. A self-built desktop made sense.

But as the pace of improvement slowed you could use a computer for a few years before it became too old. And laptops improved hugely, even as the price dropped. By the time I came to Japan, I was a laptop user. Small and light was key. It was my only computer, and I'd bring it to work and back, to cafés, on day-trips and on vacations.

Then the smart-phone and tablet revolution happened, and I no longer had to bring a computer everywhere. A tablet is way better in a café than a computer ever was. I could get a larger, heavier, more capable laptop, the T430 I use now. With a larger, faster machine programming, writing and image editing all became easier. And I rediscovered gaming again, after more than ten years away from the hobby.

Today I have my own file server, and I have a separate laptop at work. I no longer actually bring the laptop anywhere. The T430 hardly moves from its spot on the dining table. And if I'm not going to bring it anywhere, a laptop doesn't make much sense. They're still a compromise after all, with high price, limited power and small screens.

Everything Old is New Again

I give myself a good-sized budget for my own computers. I rely on them every day for years after all, so I don't want to skimp on them. Last autumn I took a look at just what kind of desktop I could buy or build for myself for the cost of a new high-end laptop. I found out two things.

First, building your own desktop is still a lot cheaper than buying ready-made if you want a higher-end computer, especially if your needs don't match the machines on sale. Second, today you get a whole lot of desktop computer for the price of a good laptop.

My budget was 200k yen, and I wanted to spend 1/4 or so on the monitor. Never skimp on the monitor; that's the one thing you're constantly staring at after all. After some online searching and a couple of visits to Den-den town(1) I came home with a large pile of cardboard boxes, then spent a happy(2) weekend assembling the stuff.

I wanted a multi-core system for simulations and image processing, but a Xeon system was right out. I have a Xeon workstation at work and it's great, but I could have burned my entire budget just on the CPU. No dual-socket motherboards or beefy on-die caches for me.

Instead I got an Intel K7-5820K processor and motherboard. That's Intels not-quite newest, not-quite topmost enthusiast processor. Six cores (12 "cores" with hyperthreading), and a nice 15MB L3 cache. Overclocking it to 3.8Ghz gives me a nice speed boost, and still keeps it cool and quiet.

I added 32GB of RAM. Sufficient, but I'd have picked twice that with a larger budget. There's no such thing as too much memory after all, and a system really flies when you can put temporary files and caches in RAM. I also got a 250GB SSD as system drive. Again, with a roomier budget I would have doubled that size. A 2TB secondary HD serves as bulk storage.

An Nvidia GTX 750 graphics card is nowhere near the high end, but it's quite cheap and fairly capable. It's also very quiet. A micro-ATX motherboard, a CPU cooler (Intels stock cooler) and a quiet-running 500W power supply rounds off the machine. I reused an old case from a discarded desktop, and I already have a keyboard (the so very wonderful Happy Hacking Professional JP(3)) and mouse.

The computer came to about 150K yen. I spent the rest on an Eizo fs2434 flat panel display. Eizo monitors are well-known for good color reproduction and accurate rendering. I didn't have enough for their professional colour balanced image editing monitors, but their consumer monitors still have a very good reputation. I've been very happy with it so far.
My new computer (artists depiction). It's a plain box, invisible under the desk. The monitor is a featureless panel behind a black keyboard. Nothing much to photograph.

Using The Thing

I installed Ubuntu on it and I've used it since late autumn. While my laptop still is nice, this is a whole different experience. The large, clear, accurate screen is much easier on the eyes, and the speed, both for applications and graphics isn't even comparable. Source builds finish in moments. Drawing in Inkscape is so much easier on a large screen, and Gimp is fast fast fast.

Good as the Lenovo laptop keyboards are, I love being able to use my HHK keyboard. Kerbal Space Program is butter-smooth at all times. I now actually prefer my workroom even in the cold of winter as my desktop there is so much better than the laptop in the warm, cosy living room.

As an added bonus the computer is right at my workbench. When I was playing with electronics I had to use my tablet to search the net and look up things. Now I got a large monitor I can fill with information, circuit diagrams, drawings and search results, without taking up space on the table.

A desktop is very upgradeable and I intend to upgrade this machine over time. The CPU will still be fast enough in 6-8 years, and the monitor should be fine for a decade or longer. Games are usually limited by the graphics, so I'll perhaps replace the GPU in a couple of years (preferably AMD if they can get their Linux drivers in order). A larger SSD in 3-4 years is a good idea, and possibly more memory as well. With a better CPU cooler and case I could clock the CPU higher, but I don't really think it's worth it.

The laptop isn't going anywhere. It's useful to have a computer in the living room, and I like having a second system for experimentation. If or when it dies it's certain to be replaced with something very small, light and cheap. An Ubuntu tablet would not go amiss...

(1) I normally prefer buying in shops over doing it online. I happily pay a 10-20% premium for the convenience of asking for advice; getting the stuff right then and there; and being able to return or exchange it without hassle should I need to.

(2) Well, mostly. Protip: If the motherboard has a big power connector marked "CPU"; and the power supply has a separate power cord marked "CPU"; and the instructions tell you to plug in the CPU power; and the big diagram at the back shows a separate connection from the power supply to the CPU; do plug the power cord into the connector. Without CPU power the machine will not boot. Ask me how I know. Ask me how many hours it took to realize this.

(3) Notice how that site has static links to close-up pictures for people that disable Javascript. They know their customers.

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