(digressing a bit from the normal topics of my blog…)
As well as the right software tools, productive development requires the right hardware. This basically means a decently fast machine, and preferably two good-sized monitors. I’m fortunate to have both provided at work, but my personal 2006 Acer Aspire 5672WLMi is struggling a bit by now so I decided it was time to look for something new.
After much deliberation between buying a laptop or desktop, or building a desktop, I settled for the latter. My laptop hasn’t left my desk much over the past few years, where it’s been attached to my excellent 24″ Samsung 2443BW (although I do prefer two monitors for development, even if they are smaller). So it didn’t seem like a good use of money, especially given that the Aspire is still plenty quick enough for non-development tasks. I wasn’t impressed by the retail desktop offerings due to the configurations available, lack of Windows 7 availability, and concern over how noisy one would be. Therefore a home-build quiet desktop was the way to go.
The last time I built a desktop in mid-2003 was also my first. I bought the parts at a local computer fair, and assembled it in our loft with a friend. This was the spec:
- AMD AthlonXP 2600+ (PassMark of 365)
- 512MB DDR400 unbranded RAM (2x 256MB)
- 80GB Maxtor hard drive
- MSI K7N2G-ILSR motherboard
- Cooler Master cheapo CPU cooler
- “Aries” beige tower case with PSU
- CD-RW and DVD-ROM drives
- Floppy disk drive
Total cost of hardware was about £500 from what I remember. That’s roughly £675 in 2013’s money.
It’s been a very reliable machine and still works, although it’s rarely used. I didn’t leave it alone once finished though:
- 2003: added MSI DVD-RW drive, cost about £100
- 2004: replaced noisy CPU cooler with Cooler Master Aero blower
- Added various ports at the front of the case in a spare 5.25″ drive bay, with cables going though the case, out through a PCI card opening and into the connectors at the rear of the case (yuck!)
- replaced worn out northbridge fan with Zalman heatsink
- cut hole in side of the case and added a 92mm fan
For £800 (around £980 today) at Comet, I bought an Acer Aspire 5672WLMi:
- Intel Core Duo T2300 (PassMark of 774, 2.1 times that of the Athlon)
- 2GB RAM
- 120GB 5400rpm hard drive
- DVD-RW drive
- ATI Mobility Radeon X1400
- 1280×800 screen
This has been a great laptop but it suffers from cooling problems and poor battery life, I think it was in the “desktop replacement” category. To help live with those issues, I used an external keyboard most of the time, and a Zalman cooling tray with 3 USB powered fans. It was (and still would be) a lot of money to spend on a laptop, but I don’t regret it.
I spent £650 on components:
- Intel Core i5 3470S (PassMark of 6535, 17.9 times that of my 2003 build, 8.4 times that of the Aspire)
- 8GB Corsair 8GB DDR3 RAM (2x 4GB)
- 128GB Plextor M5 Pro SSD
- 1TB Western Digital Red NAS series hard drive
- Asus P8Z77-V LX motherboard
- Noctua NH-C12P SE14 CPU cooler
- Antec Solo II black tower case
- Samsung SH-224BB DVD Writer
- Nexus NX-5000 R3 530W power supply
So yes, this was a higher end build than any of my two previous machines were when they were new, and the choice of quiet components probably added about £140 to the cost. Not the most interesting component, but the DVD writer is the one that’s probably changed the least and had the most dramatic price drop – from £135 down to £13 in 2013’s money.
Most of the component choices were driven by noise concerns and of course price. S series CPU has slightly lower heat emission than the standard ones. WD Red hard drive is quiet but without the performance issues that green drives often have. The case, CPU cooler and power supply were chosen for quietness based on reviews from the excellent silentpcreview.com. The Plextor M5 Pro SSD is highly rated and from what I remember the only one that had a 5 year warranty.
Having not done pretty much anything with hardware for many years, it was easy to see some notable changes:
- the community of component review sites has greatly expanded and improved, making selection easier
- SSDs give a huge performance boost
- SATA cables make the inside of cases much tidier than the old ribbon cables
- BIOS screens now have friendly mouse operated GUIs
- there’s much more performance available for your money, so even for a small amount of money it’s possible to build something way faster than most people’s needs