A Summer System

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This summer, I will want another system, and I thought it might be useful for some to think out loud and cover the points I think are important for a particular type of second system.

Not a performance system; I’ll no doubt pick up one or two Hammer systems by then, but rather one that will let me telecommute from my bed, or at least within sight of it. 🙂

Why? Bedroom ACd. Basement isn’t. Rewiring house/adding power lines not an option, have to try to do or juggle 8000 BTU AC and computer on one 15A line.

This machine:

  • needs to be low-powered
  • will include a flat-panel display
  • must be wireless
  • should still be pretty fast
  • should be fairly small
  • ought to have x86-64 capabilities
  • ought to cost no more than about $1,200, with monitor

    Looking ahead, I see I have four options (listed in order of purchasing likelihood):

    4) A notebook: If I planned to be at all mobile with it, the buck would stop here, but I have no need to move it around. This leaves me rather reluctant to
    accept the compromises found in any notebook, such as a relatively small screen, and relatively slow components for the dollar.

    A Dothan is certainly low-powered enough, but Intel has not made the slightest hint that its mobile processors/platforms will become x86-64 capable. I really don’t want to have to rip everything out should x86-64 take off two years from now.

    AMD certainly will, but it’s unclear whether they’ll have low-powered 90nm chips ready by the time I want to buy.

    Whether it’s AMD or Intel, the likely price of a configuration I want with a multi-year warranty is likely to be north of $1,500, which is not exactly what I want to pay for that much compromise.

    Yes, it’s there, but I consider this the last resort.

    3) A Mini-Mac On the one hand, I’ve said this machine isn’t quite enough to conquer the world. On the other hand, it’s not all that far away from it, and with the proper upgrades; even the first generation would be OK enough.

    The problem is after suitable upgrades (i.e. 1Gb RAM, mostly so that I won’t have to use the slow hard drive much, plus wireless), plus whatever Mac equivalent of the software I’d need to do the job (I’m sorry, but you really don’t want me using GarageBand to start rapping my articles :)), the mini Mac turns into a $900 or more box, even assuming I install the RAM myself. Add a good 19″ or 21″ inch LCD (I really like big monitors), and we’re looking at $1,300-$1,500.

    Then, of course, I’d have to learn the Mac way of doing things, which is probably not a big deal, but at least a little one. A matter of more concern is video memory, not because I want to game, but because I tend to leave a LOT of windows open. When I read items like this, which tells me that things get choppy with a Radeon 9600 with 64Mb, I have to wonder what will happen with a Radeon 9200 with 32Mb of RAM?

    If I want 64-bit capability on the x86 side to ensure longevity, I ought to want it for the same reason on the Mac side, too, which is not available on the mini Mac. In all likelihood, maybe I’d get my wish in the second generation of mini Macs with a low-end G5, but that’s not going to come out by the summer.

    2) A Dothan-based Intel HTPC-like box I don’t want a tower, but I don’t need something tiny, either. I’d rather be able to stick something like a Raptor and a normal CD/DVD drive into the enclosure.

    I’d rather have the enclosure look more like a DVD player (OK, a fat DVD player) than a box, but I’ll bend on this.

    The Dothan looks to be a good enough, low-powered enough processor for my needs; it’s the rest of the platform that’s a problem. As I mentioned in the notebook section, there’s no indication Intel is going to bring x86-64 anywhere near its mobile systems, or that Dothan-compatible mobos, old or new generations, would support it anyway.

    Cost is a big factor; this could be the most expensive of the bunch. Dothan CPUs aren’t cheap, and Dothan motherboards are even less so at the moment. While I don’t want the ideal Doom 3 machine, relying on integrated video doesn’t thrill me much, either. Maybe ATI can do better, but will they make a Dothan-compatible mobo? I doubt it.

    1) A Hammer-based AMD HTPC-like box The front-runner for my money so far looks to be a Hammer-based box; it naturally has x86-64, it will be more than fast enough, it should cost a reasonable sum given price/performance. However, even it has issues, mostly power-related. The Hammer doesn’t have to be quite as power-stingy as the Dothan, but it should come within hailing distance of it at equivalent frequencies. The 90nm mobile Hammers ought to be able to do this, the question is whether they’ll be available or not by the time I’m ready to buy.

    Size is a bit of a consideration. AMD hasn’t been big on small motherboards yet, and a Shuttle XPC box has a 240W power supply, which is hardly any less than the 250W power supply the current office box (it’s a Dell 400SC server) I use to write up these articles has (my testing platform is something else).

    Hmmmm . . . .

    The Winner? Cheap!

    Any of the above solutions is going to cost $1,200-$1,500 or maybe even a bit more. That’s quite a bit of money, and seems silly, if I’m only going to save ten watts going to the system I’d prefer.

    Of the four options listed, only the notebook would not require a new monitor (I use two fairly old power-hungry 21″ CRTs, and I’m not moving them. :))

    So I’ll have to buy a new monitor (and wireless setup) no matter what I do. $600 is a lot better than $1,600.

    Why not move the Dell upstairs and use that with an LCD? Yes, it’s big, but so is $1,000. Per power, if I really needed to, I could remove the current R9700 Pro and put in a less power-hungry card, and remove any excess hard drives.

    A 2.4GHz Northwood is quick enough to do this work. It’s not x86-64, but that’s a requirement for a new box that I want to last a while, not redeploying an old one. by the time I’d really need it for an office box, I’d rather toss this $500 box to get something better and cheaper than I could possibly get by next summer.

    If speed is more important than sweat for any particular task, I’ll have the Hammer setups down in the basement, anyway.

    And if it doesn’t work out, I can always buy a new box and be little worse off cash-wise than if I had bought it to begin with.

    I think I’m going to do that. 🙂

    What To Get/Not Get From This

    This is a personal decision, based on my personal situation and circumstances. This doesn’t mean that you have to come up with the same decision.

    For instance, if you really have the hots to try Mac OS X, or be able to carry a computer around with you, you might value having those experiences a lot more highly than I do, and you’ll probably make a different decision. The only comment I’d make to that is that you might want to wait for mini Mac 2.0 or the latest Intel/AMD notebooks coming out the next few months before you buy.

    What you should get out of this is that you should think about all your options, all the possibilities, and list the pros and cons of each decision, in as much or more detail than I have here. Think it out, consider whether something is really what you want, or falls short.

    Maybe most importantly, if you look at all the options, and don’t terribly like any of them, think outside the box and consider that your answer may not be computer-related at all; that you can do or at least make do with what you already have after doing something else. When I started writing this article, I did not have the option I’m choosing in my head; it only came up after thinking about this seriously for a while.

    It’s not just a matter of buying a computer; it’s really a matter of how you go about buying anything. Impulse buying is almost always a bad idea.

    Ed

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