Rethinking my next desktop computer

A few weeks ago, I made a post here talking about what I’m doing lately in technology (cleverly labeled “What I’m doing lately in technology” ;)) and some of the comments on it really got me thinking about the approach that I have been taking on the specs for my next desktop computer will/should be. What am I going to use it for? Do I really NEED as much modularity as I’ve always insisted upon in the past? Should I be thinking “sleek, powerful, and small”, rather than “big, modular, and does everything”?

So I thought I’d sort some of this out here, by doing some thinking out loud, and hopefully getting some feedback from the rest of you.

Recap: what I’ve got

As I mentioned in my last post (linked above), “Azalin” is my current, aging, “does everything” box. It’s a server: it stores lots of data which I can access from anywhere, hosts virtual machines, acts as an ssh portal for my home network if I’m coming in from outside, et cetera.

But it’s also a desktop machine: I do most of my serious writing on it, I watch videos/DVDs on it, listen to music on it, play games on it, et cetera.

It’s a solid computer, even though it’s going on six years old and only has a single-core CPU in it. It has no hardware acting up on it, it has plenty of RAM for my day-to-day expectations of what it does, and its CPU is even adequate for most of what I ask of it when it comes to its server functionality (even as a virtual host).

However, it’s starting to seriously show its age as a desktop PC. It’s slow when it comes to multitasking, and my demands of it as a desktop occasionally interfere with its reliability and responsiveness as a server.

What I thought I wanted

My initial thoughts on the subject were pretty simple and straightforward: the same basic idea (“big, modular, and does everything”), only newer. I like the idea that even though Azalin was built back in March of 2005, here it is, November of 2010 and I’m still sitting in front of it, writing a blog post, and it’s not painful to use.

That modularity is what has kept Azalin alive and useful all this time in all of its roles. I’ve been able to swap out bad components, double the amount of RAM I started with, and I’m about to add another 500GB of storage to it.

And during all this time, it’s just kept dutifully chugging along, running whatever Linux distro I decide I want to run on it, and shows no signs of failing any time soon. It’s been a wonderful, reliable, and flexible machine, and it’s been the “swiss army knife” in my home technology arsenal for almost six years.

So, needless to say, as I’m noticing its age and more and more difficulty in keeping up with my demands of it as a desktop machine, my first thought is just to replace it with a similar, powerful, and flexible, newer technology swiss army knife.

Seems to make sense, right?

What I think I might need

Considering how well Azalin still performs its server functions (serving up files, and music, and virtual machines, and ssh services, and FreeNX remote environment), I had planned — and still do plan — to keep it in those roles. It’s rock solid reliable for these things, and performance-wise, it’s perfectly adequate, and probably will be for at least a few more years to come. I don’t feel the need to rock that boat, and I’m reluctant to replace it with something else when it still performs just fine in that arena.

So, that said… why, exactly, do I need to replace Azalin with something JUST as modular, JUST as big, and JUST as multifunctional, if I’m not going to be using my new machine in that way?

My new machine, after all, really only needs to be a desktop computer. I’m still leaving most of my home server needs, my “private cloud” if you will, to Azalin. In fact, as a result of one of the comments on my last post, I’m thinking I’ll even pull the fairly big, power-hungry video card out of Azalin at that point, and replace it with something cheap and low-performing, and I’ll likely run a command-line only environment on it (I’m leaning towards vanilla Debian), so it’ll be using less juice, running more efficiently, and need even less tweaking and maintenance going forward.

So why does my new desktop PC need to be that flexible and multifunctional?

Well, as I’ve had a few weeks to think about it, it really doesn’t. Because of what I ask of it, Azalin runs all the time, 24/7. The only time it isn’t is during one of our frequent power outages here (thanks to a somewhat rural, over capacity, outdated electrical infrastructure in the region in which my wife and I live) or if I’ve powered it down on purpose to swap out a piece of hardware or something.

Which means that my new computer doesn’t have to be running all the time. In fact, it shouldn’t. It should be something I power up when I need to use it as a desktop computer, and I power it down again when I’m done with it. So it doesn’t need the robust, over-designed architecture that makes up Azalin.

It only needs to handle the demands of usage in bursts, followed by blissful, powered-down rest.

This rather changes everything. Because I won’t be making the kinds of demands on it that a 24/7 machine puts up with, my new desktop computer doesn’t need to be as modular and robust. I can get something powerful, but low-profile. Fast and beefy, but more compact and less versatile.

Rather than building this myself, like I originally had done with Azalin, or even ordering a desktop behemoth like I had been eyeing at System76.com, I can get something smaller and less modular, but still powerful and modern, and leave the more robust needs to Azalin, since it’s still performing well for that purpose, and still will going forward for at least a few more years.

Conclusion

So I’m taking a different approach to this. I still want something with a good video card, a good amount of RAM (with the ability to update that at least a little bit down the road if I need to), and from a company that doesn’t saddle consumers with the Windows tax.

But if I’m going that way, I’ve decided that I’m not going to build it myself. I want to buy it ready to go. At most, I’ll buy something into which I can install my own RAM, but it has to have the capacity for a good video card right off the bat, and be Linux friendly.

So what do you guys suggest?

– Trent

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8 thoughts on “Rethinking my next desktop computer

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Rethinking my next desktop computer « The Linux Critic -- Topsy.com
  2. Well, I don’t buy machines. I build them. You can build a screaming monster for about 1/3 of what you’d pay for something similar in a retail environment; that’s assuming you could even find one comparable to what you can build yourself.

    Most retail systems are pretty ho-hum. They’re not set up anywhere near their potential, but the retailers don’t care about that. They’re more about profit than stocking something that’s going to appeal to Trent or Eric.

    I say build your own. Another good reason to build-it-yourself is that the machine you buy will surely be obsolete shortly after the Christmas season. However, depending on your choices and setup, the machine you build could still be very viable unit in three or four years.

    My desktop machine was built by me in ’06. It’s still a screamer compared to the vast majority of the ones belonging to family and friends. Their machines (eMachine, Compaq, Gateway, etc.) were all bought at retail stores much more recently than ’06.

    Of course, if you’re actually Bill Gates fav nephew, and money is no object, have someone else build that screamer for you. However you do it, stay away from the computer shelf over at PCs R; mostly do-do there meant for little Johnny to watch Flash porn or Grandma to read her emails.

    Oh, and one last thing (mentioned elsewhere previously)… AMD processors are the ONLY way to go; and the same goes for Nvidia graphics.

    Rock on!

    ~Eric

    P.S. +1 for the Debian… very stable. Slack would, of course, be another choice. :)

  3. I’m an “AU” average user, pretty untech. I want to get away from windows and have been researching Linux. I have run into a problem, many Linux OS’s. I was considering Ubuntu 10.10, but now I see choices like Mint, Peppermint, Debian…, this leaves me at a loss on what system to go for.
    First, I use my computer mainly for email, browsing, watching you tube and powerpoint presentations. Pretty basic stuff, but I still want to shed windows and would like a system that is easy to get started with.
    Frankly, all the choices confuse me somewhat, so if you would kindly offer your opinion as to which OS might be the easiest transition for an “AU”, I would appreciate it.

    Thanks, Gary

    • The easy answer to that is Linux Mint (the main edition, not one of the offshoots). For someone used to the Windows way of doing things, it’s probably the easiest transition into the Linux world. In fact, I have a completely non-technical aunt who is currently using Linux Mint as her OS.

      That said, it will be different from what you’re used to. The important thing is to not give up. When you don’t know what to do, Google is your friend. That’s true of anything technical, but in Linux pretty much all the answers are out there. And when you can’t find an answer, there are always forums and blogs like mine where even the “average user” can usually post a question and get a response.

      Good luck! :D

  4. Hi Trent :)

    This is always a difficult decision, and a wholly personal one. :) I main dev w/s is just over 3 years old, and needs upgrading, so I am going through this process now. Unfortunately, it’s been accelerated because I made a mistake a few months ago, and got 3 WD Green 1TB HD (WD10EARS) and discovered 1. They are unreliable, 2 they hate linux! One failed after a month with over 500 hard-sector errors, the other died because of the IntelliPark feature that parks the heads after 8sec’s, and linux causes them to work every 15-20 secs (so they will reach their rated life of 1mill park/unpark cycles pretty quickly). Also, these drives are not RAID compatible. My own fault, i was in a rush after two 500GB Seagate’s died after almost 3 years of use within a month of each other. I have a Samsung 750GB HDD (that I essentially wanted to see how good they were first hand) that has been working hard, and thus far, flawlessly for about 3 years now. :)

    Now, my dev CRT is on the way out. It’s a 5+ YO DELL P1130 21″ Trinitron that’s been brilliant! I run it at 1600×1200 x 85Hz. It was my backup monitor to a Sony GDM-FW900 Flat WS 24″ FD Trinitron CRT display that finally died 6 months ago. It ran at 2,304×1,440 @ 100Hz. To get an equivalent LCD, would cost over $2k (and be at least 30″). I’m trying to find a 1600×1200 or 1920×1200 LCD, but it seems all the companies are stopping making them! Samsung still has a 24″ 2443BW+ that I can get at a bargain price of AU$295! So I’m grabbing one (or two) on Monday. :) However… I *REALLY* miss the Sony! It cost me over US$3k, but I got my money’s worth out of it over almost 6 years. The Dell I got as part of a deal for some work at a company that got them cheap as they had a contract with Dell for all their equipment. :) I’ve seen these P1130’s on eBay for about $40-$50, but they would be 2003 vintage, and just about at the end of their useful life. *shrug*

    I am just starting (restarting?) research into exactly what I need for my new W/S. So far, I have item 1: RELIABILITY! ;) So, onwards… :)

  5. Upgrade options used to be my overriding priority. I wanted a system with the most card slots and drive bays. Things have changed.

    Most upgrade options are facilitated through USB ports these days. And the evolution of upgrade options has taught us a lot. Remember Firewire and USB 1.0? System boards with early implementations of USB 2.x had buggy bios and buggier bios updates. Operating system drivers for these early implementations were a nightmare.

    So today I look for a system board from a major manufacturer. And I want external bus technology that they have marketed for at least a year. It has been a couple years since I upgraded, so current offerings are not my strong point. But USB 3.x should be that mature by now.

    For price-performance reasons, last year’s model is usually my choice. Standing back from the bleeding edge gives me stability and value.

    The mid-tier CPU offerings are usually in my price-performance range. Still, I want a system board that can take today’s high end CPUs. This gives me the option to upgrade my CPU in a couple years when today’s hot stuff is reasonable.

    It is also important to choose a system board that can handle a lot more RAM than I need today. RAM will be a reasonable upgrade in a couple years, too.

    Strangely enough, for 24/7 server tasks, notebook computers rank pretty high for me. Any system that could run four hours on a battery is bound to be a green alternative. Plus, it would probably chug right through all the power issues that my neighborhood faces. If I put the router and cable modem on a UPS, I can probably serve web pages through our worst blackout. It depends on how my ISP powers their network.

    So, if it were me, I would delegate the server tasks to a dated notebook and replace the desktop’s system board, CPU and RAM for about $250 – $300.

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