Monday, December 31, 2007

Meet the New Egg, Same as the Old Egg

For a long time I've been claiming that I wouldn't upgrade my PC until Spore came out. When I made that claim, though I was thinking it would be coming out in early 2006. I've managed to keep going for a surprisingly long time, in large part because I rarely use my PC for gaming, and even an old machine is perfectly adequate for the surfing and Linux administration I generally do. In the last few months, though, I've been increasingly working on more challenging development projects at home, and as a result I've decided it's time for a face list. Eclipse is a phenomenal IDE, but it is becoming clear that its developers have more powerful machines than I do. It still runs fine, but I've had to endure patient waits for all its time-consuming global searches, refactoring, and similar operations.

This being the end of the year and all, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and do the upgrade. In this case, "upgrade" really means "build a whole new computer". I knew this at the time of my last revision - my current setup is stretched about as far as I can go with the previous generation of technology, using IDE hard drives, AGP video cards, DDR ram, etc. Everything but the case would need to be replaced, and as long as I was changing the guts, it only seemed fair to give it a face lift as well.

It didn't take too much deliberation for me to decide to build another system. It's fun, keeps me in practice, forces me to become intimately familiar with consumer technologies, and provides a relatively smooth upgrade path for the next generation. I had a few tempting alternatives. I've seriously considered buying a Mac for about a year now; OS X looks like a great operating system, and I've been impressed by what I've seen of the internals of my iPhone. I also liked the idea of getting a high-performance, ultra-compact laptop. In the end, I found it impossible to justify either alternative. Macs are great, but pricey and hard to upgrade, plus as cool as they are, they don't offer me anything I can't have on Linux and Windows (excepting xcode). The laptops look really sweet, but there too, I couldn't justify the price premium. I have a solid laptop workstation from the office, and my iPhone is more compact than any laptop... I didn't see myself doing development on a tiny keyboard, so why bother?

I next embarked on a remedial reeducation course. I've been out of the hardware game for a long time now - I remember when Andrew was making his computer, and I hadn't even heard of PCI-e slots (in my defense, this was several years ago). I compared the current generation of processors, the competing RAM standards, hard drive manufacturers, and so on. At each point, I was making a value-for-money analysis as well. This tends to be most obvious when looking at video cards, where a top of the line will set you back some $700, while a solid choice can be had for around $200. I tended to shoot for mid-range options - I'm not willing to pay twice the cost to win a 10% performance increase, and would rather keep that money for an upgrade a year or two down the line when prices have dropped further. I'm convinced that buying a PC at the top of the tech curve is a game for suckers and the obscenely wealthy.

I was pleased to discover that my old stand-bys for hardware info, namely Tom's Hardware and Ars Technica, seem to both still be healthy and thriving. And, of course, there are the phenomenal user reviews at NewEgg. I am a strong believer in the wisdom of crowds, and would always at least check NewEgg even if I wasn't going to buy from them. Between these three sources, I felt able to suss out both the general categories I wanted to shoot for (DDR2 vs DDR3, PCI-E 1 vs PCI-E 2, etc.), along with specific makes and models that people have had success with.

After making my selections, I hunted around online to find the best prices. I was stunned to discover that, here as well, NewEgg remains on top of the heap. I had a hard time even finding some items elsewhere, and when it was, the prices would not be better than what NewEgg had. This was even true after considering that I now have to pay sales tax on NewEgg purchases - something I never needed to worry about in Kansas City. The one exception was my case, which after paying for tax and $15.99 shipping was about two dollars more expensive than it would be at Fry's, but in the end I slapped that into the order as well. Hey, I'm not sure if Fry's even carries it now.

Here's a quick rundown on what I ended up selecting, along with my rationale.


Previously: AMD Athlon 2200+
New: Intel Core 2 Duo E6750 (2.66 GHz)
Rationale: I've been a partisan AMD user since the late 90's, so this was a painful decision for me to make - I don't particularly like the way Intel does business, am suspicious of their ties with the software industry, and have a tendency to root for the underdog. If I'd held off for another six months I probably could have gone with AMD's upcoming quad core solution, but for today's technology, AMD doesn't have anything to match the Core 2 Duo. Its performance is excellent, plus it runs cooler and uses less power than the equivalent AMD chips. On the other end, a year ago I would have been tempted to stick with a 32 bit architecture - you can get phenomenal prices if you can find the chips - but 64 is the way of the future, even if a lot of software currently performs worse on it. As a developer, I need to be able to write native 64-bit apps, so that choice was easy to make. Finally, the rated speed here just seems like a sweet spot. 3.0 GHz chips are available, but cost notably more. I can park on this for a year or two, then switch to a quad core when they come down in price.


Previously: 768 MB DDR Ram
New: 4 GB DDR2 800 Ram
Rationale: DDR3 is the way of the future, but based on all the reports I can see, current versions actually under-perform DDR2. Specifically, bandwidth increases, but latency increases as well. Down the line they will eventually win, but in the current generation only 1600-speed DDR3 beats the performance of DDR2, and that RAM is DARN expensive, as are boards that can take it. The only affordable DDR3 is 1066 or lower, which, again, is worse than the corresponding DDR2. So I went with DDR2. My board (see below) can take up to 1066-speed RAM, but there aren't many offerings at that level, so I opted to go with the 800 instead. I was going to get 2GB, but NewEgg had a phenomenal price on a 4GB pack, so I went with that. Between my desired OS and the fact I'll be doing development on it, I'm sure I'll never be able to have too much ram. (Incidentally, the fact that I'm using this much RAM also means that, for the first time in my life, I NEED a 64-bit processor.)


Previously: Asus something-or-other.
New: Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L 775
Rationale: This was another tough choice between brand loyalty and performance. I've been using Asus ever since I started building computers, and have never once regretted it. Their boards are stable, feature-rich, and best of all, they have excellent manuals. Still, I couldn't find an Asus that matched the features I wanted. The most advanced boards have DDR3, which I'm not interested in, and the older boards had too slow a FSB speed. A handful looked promising except for disappointing reviews on NewEgg - I hope Asus isn't slipping. I haven't used Gigabyte before, but this particular model was well-reviewed and met all my needs.

Hard Drive

Current: Seagate 120GB.
New: Western Digital Caviar SE16 750 GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0 GB/s transfer
Rationale: Back in the day, Seagate was the only sufficiently quiet hard drive for me. WD was really clackety, and IBM (yes, they used to make hard drives!) were whiny. That seems to have changed, and WD now are rated about as quiet as the Seagates. I'm tempted by some of the ultra-fast drives - you can now get 10k or 15k RPMs - and my first upgrade may be a small, fast drive to load my OS on. That wasn't feasible for an out-of-the-box system setup, though, so I opted for a solid midline performer. I vacillated between the 500GB and the 750GB, but the price was good enough that I went for the larger drive. It's far more space than I can use, but it also will allow me to relieve stress on my 300GB drive in my media PC, which has been bumping against the limit for several months now.

Video Card

Current: PNY GeForce 6600 AGP 8x.
New: MSI GeForce 8600 GT 256MB RAM 128 bit PCI-E.
This is the one component where I went super-cheap. I was tempted by the 8800's, which can be had for around $200-$250 and offer snappy performance. This is a budget card in comparison, but I have a hard time justifying spending any significant cash here when I have a lot of PS2 games that I haven't played yet. And, with a possible PS3 purchase ahead for me in 2008, it's just dumb to dump a lot into the card. This will still be a notable update of my current card, which in turn is the newest component in my PC - I picked it up specifically for Civilization IV over two years ago. Anyways, this card will be fine, it should let me play the games I've been wanting - Oblivion and HalfLife 2 - and, if need be, I can have this be my upgrade when Spore comes out.

Optical Drive

Current: DVD-ROM and CD RW
New: DVD+R
Rationale: Wow, I've been carrying around that DVD drive for about a decade now. It's never failed me. The CD drive has served me nearly as long. I don't burn discs, but it makes sense to move up to a DVD burner, just in case. The Samsung is well-reviewed, plus this way I can collapse both features into a single drive.

Network Adapter

Current: Netgear WG111 wireless + integrated 10/100 Ethernet
New: Netgear WG311 wireless + integrated gigabit Ethernet
Rationale: Gigabit ethernet is just stock with motherboards these days, and for my humble home network it doesn't make any difference, especially since this particular computer is not even plugged in. I love the form factor of my current WG111, but its Linux support is only middling... I had to wrestle with ndiswrapper for a while to make it work at all, and it still periodically poops out on me, requiring me to physically unplug it and put it back in. The WG311, by contrast, takes up a whole PCI slot, but it sounds like its Linux support is better, and it may have a better range.


Curent: Antec something-from-the-stone-age
New: Antec Solo
Rationale: Are you familiar with the idea of "Grandfather's axe"? "This is my grandfather's axe. Its head has been replaced two times, and the handle three times, but it's still my grandfather's axe." That's sort of the way I feel about "Aule," my current computer. Literally every component inside it has changed since I first built it in 2001: new motherboard, new CPU, new RAM, new video card, etc., etc. The one constant through all that has been the case. It's been a fine case, but it's an ugly beige, and the USB ports are hard to get to, so I've decided to make a switch. I love the Antec brand, so I wanted to stick with it. I'm not a LAN gamer, so I don't need a lightweight aluminum case. I'm not much of a gamer, period, so I didn't particularly want a flashy case. This won't be a server, so I wanted to go with a mid-tower instead of the much bulkier full tower. With all those requirements in mind, the Solo offered the most reasonable price and had good reviews.

Power Supply

Current: Some non-brand 350W
New: Thermaltake Purepower 500W

Rationale: The power supply is the noisiest component in my current system, so I knew I wanted to replace it. The "silent" power supplies are all really expensive, though, so I reluctantly compromised on a quiet supply instead. 500W is probably overkill, especially with my video card and single hard drive. Still, better safe than sorry.

Not Upgraded

Logitech Optical Mouse and IBM Keyboard
Rationale: If it ain't broke... I've been happy with both components, and there really isn't much innovation in either field. Both are very simple without extra features, just the way I like them. As an aside, I think the optical mouse was probably the best investment I ever made. I bought it after two consecutive Logitech MouseMan mice died in the space of about six months. This one has now been with me for eight years with nary a complaint.

Operating System

Current: Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon and Microsoft Windows XP
New: Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon and Microsoft Windows Vista Premium

Rationale: I love Ubuntu, so that was a no-brainer. I hope I'll be able to boot into it more often now - the aforementioned network problems I had were annoying and made me turn to XP more often. The XP-versus-Vista is one of the great debates of 2007, and my selection proves that what's good for the goose is not, in fact, good for the gander. I've recommended to everyone who's asked to stick with Windows XP. XP has better driver support, runs faster, and has fewer networking problems and more supported software. So why go with Vista? Mainly because I'm a masochist. I want to see for myself just how bad it gets. Also, though, Vista is long-term going to take over, and I figure I'd better get used to it sooner rather than later. I'm not a Windows developer, but if I need to use a new Visual Studio in the future I'll probably be wishing I was in Vista. Now, if I had to pay full price for these I'd probably still have stuck with XP for now, but NewEgg sells system builder (nee OEM) versions of Vista at a substantial discount. You can upgrade to a higher version of Windows after you install it through Microsoft's upgrade tool, so I didn't feel compelled to hit Ultimate out of the gate. Since I was getting Vista anyways, it would have seemed pointless if I didn't have Aero, so I opted for Premium.

Summary: About $960 total, including Vista but exclusive of tax and shipping.

And that's that! All components have been ordered, and I'm hopeful that they will get here before the weekend. I'm looking forward to putting this puppy together. It never goes smoothly, of course - this is the story of my life. Still, if all goes well, I'll be able to spend the next week migrating data over and reinstalling, and may get in a few levels of HalfLife 2 before I get back to work in Eclipse. 2008, here I come!

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