Hardware Recommendations

It seems I have server-issue reprieve, so I’ll take advantage of it by throwing up the first post in weeks. Don’t worry, it’s not Excel related. I mean, who can expect that from this site. I do have a couple posts in the hopper, I just can’t seem to login when I want to write the up.

I got an email from an old friend asking for my recommendations for a new desktop computer. I wrote a longer reply than I expected and figured I might as well post it here. That way you can give your two cents in the comments. First, I’ll summarize his question/requirements:

I want “serious scientific/number-crunching/math-oriented”, and things labeled “home”, “office”, and “gaming” don’t seem like the right fit. I would like to use this machine primarily for compiled Python, S Plus, Mathematica, and C++ dll’s I am coding for Excel and OpenOffice. Specific points:

  1. Is 8 GB RAM enough? Speed-wise, will 16 or more make a “significant” difference?
  2. Which processor: i7?
  3. Will a hybrid drive make any difference? Incidentally, I keep all of my documents on my NAS; I would, of course, keep development versions on the local HD, but really don’t need more than 150 MB (if that!) on it.
  4. Dell looks good – highly configurable — what’s your take?
  5. Monitor/Video Card: One of my Macs is 27″, and is awesome for my wife’s photo/cine avocation. I am writing you from a 17″ Mac ProBook. Works for me. So I won’t need a particularly large monitor (which one?!?); what I should do re the video card?
  6. I/O: Several USB 3.0; Wired Ethernet, of course; Bluetooth; Thunderbolt. DVD and SD drives would be great.

Here’s my reply:

I don’t profess to be an expert, but I’m happy to give you my opinion. Just take it for what it’s worth. My last three desktops were 1) custom built 2) HP HPE-150f and 3) custom built.

My Last Three Computers

  1. I read codinghorror.com about how he built his own home theater PC. I was cutting cable and needed something to run Windows Media Center for over the air TV. I somewhat followed his lead, but since mine would be out of sight, I didn’t worry about making it small or quiet. I wouldn’t recommend my particular build for your purposes because it was built with the new (at the time) Intel chipset that had HDMI out built-in.

    I was in a situation where I didn’t trust Dell anymore, didn’t know who to trust, and was interested in trying my hand at building hardware just for the experience. I made some errors along the way, but all-in-all it has been an outstanding machine. My biggest mistake was not buying a big enough power supply. I also had a hard drive go bad in the first year. Even with the missteps, the whole cost was about $1,400.

  2. I was ready to replace my Dell desktop because it was 7 years old. I had a reasonably good experience building a PC so I was going to go that route again. It was a different build, so I there was still some chances to make mistakes, but I priced it out on New Egg anyway. Then I went to HP to see what a comparable machine would cost. It was a few hundred dollars cheaper and it didn’t really make sense for me to build it myself. I got an i7 2.8Ghz with 8 GB.

    That was four years ago, or so, and this machine has been terrific. Zero problems and it does everything I want performance wise. My only problem with HP is that they have a lot of craziness going on – they announced they were getting out of the PC business, then retracted. It just gives me pause. We use HP exclusively at work (~1,000 desktops) and they are probably still my go-to manufacturer.

  3. The third desktop was for my son. It was still a better deal not to build it, but I wanted to give him the experience of building a PC from srcatch, so we went that route. It was a pretty good experience and it has been a good machine. If you’re interested in building your own, I’ll send you the component list.

Operating Systems

I run Win7 and my son runs Win8. He prefers Win8, but kids are stupid, so what are you going to do. On my HTPC, if I upgrade to Win8 I have to pay extra for Windows Media Center. In other words, I’m never upgrading. And when Win7 doesn’t work anymore, I’m going Linux/XMBC for the HTPC. Sorry Microsoft, but when you stopped building problems for guys like me you should have expected this.

Your Specific Questions

  1. I bought my HP with 4 GB (the stock amount) and bought another 4 from crucial.com. You can save some pretty good money that way, but price it both ways. Just make sure you get enough slots if you’re going to add after market RAM. If I were buying today, I wouldn’t get less than 12 GB because RAM is so cheap that even an incremental increase in performance is worth it. I’d look at 16 too. But really, I’ve been running 8 GB for a while, and I have no problems, so it might be a waste of money.
  2. I like my PCs to last 5-7 years, so I tend to over buy on CPU and RAM. I don’t what’s newer and better than i7, but I definitely would not go with i5.
  3. Another misstep on building my own was not having an SSD for a boot drive. If I were building again, I would get an SSD for a primary and a Western Digital for storage. SSDs are getting more reliable at a pretty quick pace.
  4. Six years ago, or so, I stopped buying Dell. I bought them exclusively for home and work for the 10 years prior, but the quality of the components was going down and I’d had enough. I’ve heard they’ve made a bit of a comeback, quality wise, but I’m not sold yet. Concurrent with them buying cheaper parts, they moved their customer service to India. Back in the day when I didn’t have to talk to Dell customer service because their shit just worked, I wouldn’t care where it was. But with failing parts, it was a problem. I’m not trying to denigrate an entire sub-continent. It was just that the company Dell hired really sucked. I’m sure the rest of India is very knowledgeable.
  5. I have two 22″ monitors side-by-side and love it. I can’t imagine coding in Excel without the VBE on one screen and Excel on the other. Even when I code in Ruby, Python, Java or whatever, I need to have stackoverflow on one screen and the IDE on the other. I will never have one monitor again – it is the single best productivity boost in my computing career (including my keyboard shortcut mania). Both my monitors are Acer that I got from Newegg. They’re slightly different heights, but I find that piano sheet music books level them up nicely. If you can get identical, that’s even better. My work monitors are identical 22″ ASUS and I’m very happy with those too.
  6. Don’t sacrifice on USB ports. They don’t all have to be 3.0, but make sure you have double what you think you need. Even if you don’t go with two monitors, you should consider a dual output video card in case you change your mind.

I’m a couple years away from replacing my desktop, but if I were forced to do it, I would price out HP, Lenovo, and Asus. And probably Dell for good measure, but I would have to be really convinced to go back to Dell. Lenovo and Asus have awesome reputations in laptops and I don’t know why that wouldn’t translate to desktops. I bought a used Asus convertible tablet several years ago and it still runs like a champ.

End of reply

If you have any opinions on desktop hardware, please leave them in the comments.

11 Comments

  1. Patrick says:

    Just a thought on memory, you should only use memory purchased as a kit. Anymore you do not want to mix memory chips, even from the same manufacturer, even the same model numbers. The chips in kits are tested to work together. I would consider 8GB the minimum for future-proofing the machine. More RAM is almost always better.

    Go for a SSD drive, yes yes yes!

    Building your own can have some advantages that overcome the price difference. Mid range gaming motherboards often have very high quality components, solid state capacitors for example, that you may not be able to get via HP or Dell. (However, HP and Dell will sell you additional warranty and support that is harder to get if your build yourself.) My current build is getting quite old, (Core 2 Duo), but I’ve upgraded the video card several times, added SSD drive and had to replace the power supply. The motherboard just keeps going and going… The CPU is finally starting to show it’s age.

    If you are going with a multiple monitor setup I would recommend a discrete video card, even a $100 card will drive two monitors without impacting system RAM.

    I’m not an expert either, just my two cents.

  2. Jon Peltier says:

    I received that email too, last month while on vacation, and it’s drifted well below the fold. I should go back and dig it up, send a reply. Mostly to say I don’t do anything fancy with my computers.

    I haven’t made my own computer in many years. It has seemed more cost-effective to get a Gateway, Compaq, Dell, or HP in which all the pieces work together. My father used to have a guy he knew build him computers, and there were always conflicts between components. But even he gave it up and started buying stock PCs.

    The last non-laptop I bought was around ten years ago, and I finally retired it about three years ago.

    I have six laptops I use with some regularity. Four are HP laptops which I bought off-the-shelf for around $600 or so. These all have 17″ wide screens, with the numeric keypad next to the full sized keyboard. I have a number of extra monitors, so I rarely use a laptop by itself, unless I’m traveling or sitting on the living room couch (like now). For my purposes, the RAM and processor speeds have been adequate, and I use Google Drive to sync all my laptops (10 TB = $10/month).

    Of these four laptops, one is still running Windows XP and Office 2000-2007, one Windows 7 with 32-bit Office 2003-2013, one Windows 7 with 64-bit Office 2010-2013, and one Windows 8.1 with 32-bit Office 2003-2013. Windows 8 makes me less productive than Windows 7, and I still have not recovered the productivity loss caused by Office 2007 and maintained by 2010-2013.

    The fifth isn’t really a laptop, it’s an HP netbook that I thought would be good while traveling, but the small screen and tight keyboard made working very difficult. The netbook is now working as a server for a handful of old external hard drives which I will soon be retiring.

    The sixth laptop is a MacBook Pro I bought in 2013 and use rarely (it’s great for browsing the web, but not for doing actual work). But I needed it to modify my Excel add-ins so they work on a Mac.

    I don’t know why I’ve gravitated to HP; they come loaded with tons of crapware, but I always clear all of that when I install Windows from my MSDN subscription. Aside from the bloatware, they are well-built and last a long time.

  3. My last two machines are Dell laptops. I purchased their high-end machines, because I travel a lot and need the sturdyness and the extra service that comes with them. Both were Precision models with the max spec available at the time.
    My current main machine is a Dell precision M4500 i7 16 Gb RAM, 500 Gb HDD, 4 years old. I recently upgraded the HD to a 500 Gb SSD. I bought a drive bay in which I stashed the old HDD, so this now holds the many (and huge) virtual PC files.
    With that upgrade the machine will last another 2 to 3 years I expect.
    I got the max available RAM which ensures you can run Virtual machines smoothly on the laptop, avoiding to have more than one laptop.

  4. gruff999 says:

    I can`t argue against buying a big brand name, especially if things like warranty and support are important to you. In the U.k. there are independant companies making good value PC`s to your specification (within reason) that have lower overheads than the big players, this is an avenue that is worth exploring now that the various components go together like Lego (or ‘Legos’).

    Not sure how scientific the processor needs to be. Wasn`t there an issue years ago with a particular chip doing something spectacularly ‘bespoke’ with floating-point calculations? Might have been IBM. Surely a modern Intel or AMD will be reliable on the maths-oriented stuff?

    Regardless of any of this I`d simply recommend building in some budget for regular imaging of the hard drive to elsewhere. Most of the hard drive manufacturers offer free versions of disk imaging software for this purpose.

  5. Dave Braden says:

    Thanks Dick, Patrick, John, Jan & “gruff99″-

    This has been a big help! Thanks to you guys, I am leaning towards having a company build one for me, quite possibly with a Xeon chip, though finding a motherboard with a Thunderbolt header isn’t easy except for what Apple already builds – the Mac Pro. The base version looks crazy powerful, costs $3,000 without academic discount (if indeed there is one). Would anyone be interested in buying my first-born? (dear NSA – it’s a joke!)

    Two votes for HP says a lot, and from what I just saw they seem to give a lot of value.

    Again, thanks, and all the best.

  6. Doug Jenkins says:

    Serious scientific/maths number crunching with Excel and Python?

    Does he have a blog/ web site?

  7. Sharper suggestions by yet another non-expert.

    1. No need for the hideous expense of a XEON system – no high apps needing driver compatibility, not a multiuser server, not customer facing – just a development machine. So you get half a dozen crashes a year, so what?
    http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2012/08/as-mac-pro-stagnates-pc-workstations-muscle-ahead/
    The clock speed on XEONS is slower than consumer cpu’s, the latter easily overclocked.

    2. Is 8GB enough? 2GB is enough for Windows, Office and a browser. Is 8GB enough? You tell me – where are your calculations on the data requirements of your targets? If you are all computation 4GB will be fine. You need to do these sort of calculations with your applications …
    http://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop/kb/optimize-performance-photoshop-cs4-cs5.html
    or
    http://macperformanceguide.com/topics/topic-HowTo.html
    which might have some stuff on Thunderbolt.

    3. Which processor? i7? How parallel are your applications? Need to know to decide between core count and speed of single cpu.

    4. Hybrid drive? No buy a SAMSUNG 256GB SSD, or similar after checking out http://www.anandtech.com/tag/ssd.

    5. DELL looks good. Yes, or any other major vendor. Instead of XEON replace your system every 2/3 years.

    6. I/O. Why thunderbolt? The rest is easy.

    7. Monitor and video card. If your applications can be highly parallelised how about trying to manipulate CUDA?
    https://developer.nvidia.com/cuda-toolkit
    In this case your graphics card choice may be far more important than the CPU selection.
    And just as you should avoid the expensive NVIDIA workstation QUADRO graphics cards (for XEON systems), so you should buy the equivalent consumer card instead.
    http://www.studio1productions.com/Articles/PremiereCS5.htm
    I like screen space: 2 x 24″ monitors.
    http://www.anandtech.com/tag/displays … or similar.

    8. Although I’ve listed Photoshop related optimisations, similar principles apply for all applications.
    Some systems to think about in conjunction with the above
    a. http://www.dell.com/uk/business/p/xps-8700/fs
    A consumer graphics PC might actually be good, with a better graphics card (you’d have to check the number of power connectors which might be a limitation of an off the shelf option).
    b. http://www.serversplus.com/servers/tower_servers/lenovo_tower_servers/70a5000kuk-ess
    Buy the graphics card for the x16 PCI slot and the SSD separately.
    c. http://3xs.scan.co.uk/custom/professional-gaming-pc/overclocked-bundles
    Pick your performance price point and get SCAN to build around? Or

    The new Intel 5820 looks good value for money.
    http://www.anandtech.com/show/8426/the-intel-haswell-e-cpu-review-core-i7-5960x-i7-5930k-i7-5820k-tested

    9. I agree with whoever said that cutting your nose off to spite your face and sticking with Windows 7 when you could have Windows 8 is being childish ;-) Go with Windows 8 already: you’ll spend all your time in Office, Mathematica, SAS, … or in the browser.
    Best time to buy a PC and Windows coming up soon: the month before Windows 9 comes out.
    At the last cusp I bought 5 upgrade copies of W8 at £25 each, downloaded 5 keys for the multimedia upgrade (free), a retail copy of Office 2010 … which entitled me to install on 3 machines and later upgrade one to Office 2013. No way am I subscribing until prices come WAAAY down.

    I’m done now.

  8. I see (or rather I don’t see) that my sharp comments did not pass the moderator. Your call.

    However I hope they were passéd on to the requestor, even if the moderator disagreed with them and the requestor has already purchased his new system.

    How ironic that a site dedicated to computation, receiving a query on the dimensioning of a PC, couldn’t muster a single calculation or measurement: resorting to hand-waving, guesswork and anecdotal experiences :-(

    Best wishes.

  9. … or maybe it’s a site problem and my comments just aren’t coming through?

  10. Jeff Weir says:

    Sorry, John…the spam filter didn’t like all those links, and I hadn’t checked it for a wee while.

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