Computer Hardware

Help Me Decide!!!

So I find myself in possession of one too many computers, and I need your help.  Which one should I get rid of?

Computer one is my Hackintosh.  This one is not up for debate.  I have to keep this computer.  This little Dell Mini 9 running Snow Leopard is so useful I wonder how I ever lived without it.  I only note it because…

Computer two is my Lenovo T400 notebook.  As a notebook, it’s a hoss.  8 GB of RAM, 128 GB SSD, 320 GB 7200 RPM data drive, WXGA+, you name it, it’s got it. Even a “real” docking station.  It’s awesome, and if I ever get around to doing more “real” consulting work, I’ll need a good notebook PC.  But then, there’s…

Computer three – the StudioCat Ultra DAW workstation.  6 GB RAM, Intel i7 975 Extreme Edition, 3 TB of disk, in an awesome Antec P183 case.  It’s big, it’s solid, it’s deathly quiet, and an amazing workstation.

So I need to get rid of number 2 or number 3.  I don’t need two portable computers… unless I get a consulting gig that demands one.  And I don’t need all the power of the StudioCat PC… but it’s pretty amazing.

I don’t need all three.  Which one do I dump, and why?


So I’m writing this with my new $350 Hackintosh netbook.

I learned about Hackintoshing a few months ago, and was intrigued. I love the Mac OS, but there are things about Apple that seriously bother me. iTunes? Can’t stand it. The closed nature of the Mac platform? Not so much. You have to buy a $2600 Mac Pro just to get an expandable computer. And the prices generally. Lordy.

I tried using a Mac as my main computer for a few days and gave up. It is a lovely operating system and a MacBook Pro is a very nice laptop, but the cost – about 2X of the (more powerful) Lenovo – and inability to live “natively” on it (being a Windows guy in Real Life) caused me to give up on it.

But I liked the Mac experience. OSX is a terrific operating system. It’s so clean. It’s delightfully Unixy. I’ve owned several Macs back in the day, and it has always bothered me when I go to someone’s Mac and don’t remember how to use it.

And then there’s these nifty netbooks everyone is running around with now. The form factor is intriguing. Tiny, lightweight, cheap, and powerful enough for most day-to-day tasks.

I finally saw one in real life at Stack Overflow DevDays, and was convinced. It was a Dell Mini 9 – universally recognized as the easiest, most compatible Hackintosh platform (apparently the 10v is also a very good Hackintosh). It essentially runs OSX natively, right out of the box, and supports it almost completely. Dell no longer makes the Mini 9, but you can pick up a refurb unit cheap. I got mine for $220, with free shipping. I already had a copy of Snow Leopard from my aborted attempt at Mac Ownership. I dropped a 64 GB RunCore SSD into it and set about installing OSX on it.

It was completely painless. I followed these simple instructions and in about an hour had the thing up and running. The only thing that didn’t work correctly was Sleep and Hibernate (the computer would hang when you tried to put it to sleep) which was resolved by installing the free SmartSleep utility from Apple which fixed the Sleep but not the Hibernate problem.

The main complaint – common to any computer with this tiny form factor – is the usability of the keyboard. It is cramped, and the apostrophe / quote key is in a terrible location. However it is usable – I am able to type at about 80% of the rate I achieve on my Lenovo (which may have the perfect keyboard). Productive, but not enjoyable. If you are a serious touch-typist then you will have more problems. I am sort of a four-fingered typist so I think that I am probably more adaptable to this keyboard.

I have read a few people who say that they can type better on an iPhone than the keyboard on a Mini 9. That is balderdash. The Mini 9 does take some getting used to, but it’s a lot faster than typing with one or two fingers. Some people have swapped the keyboard for the Euro / US version which trades smaller keys for a better key layout. I think it comes down to one thing: if you’re writing code, or a novel, or any other large text that makes heavy use of apostrophes and / or quotes, then the Mini 9 is going to be pretty frustrating. Otherwise, you should be able to make it work for you.

On the good side, the screen is small (1024×600) but lovely. It is bright and white and sharp and very pleasant to look at. And with 2 GB of RAM and a 64 GB SSD the computer is quite fast. Totally inadequate for serious CPU work like A/V, but for 90% of what I use a computer for, it’s just great. It will play videos nicely, too – and they look terrific on the LCD. I/Os are good – ethernet, VGA, 3 USB, audio, and an SD slot. It is the perfect travel companion.

It is also silent – has no moving parts at all – and cool. The bottom warms up a little but doesn’t ever get anywhere near “hot”.

Dell sells the Mini 9 with Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a great little operating system, and is nicely configured to be netbook-friendly on the Mini 9 – but it doesn’t compare to OSX. OSX may be the perfect netbook OS. I haven’t yet installed iLife on this computer, but I can see it coming.

And finally, there’s the cool factor. You’re running the best consumer OS money can buy, on a small, quick, nifty, and very cheap piece of hardware. It’s Mac-cool without the Mac-cost.

If you want a Mac netbook, you have a choice. You can wait for Apple to make one, or you can just Hackintosh a Dell Mini 9 or 10v.

The Angel of Death

So I decided last Wednesday to finally retire my aging desktop.  It died a peaceful, natural death.

The rest were not so lucky….

For some time I have wanted to replace my aging desktop + laptop combo with a single portable notebook that could serve double duty as an easy traveller as well as a desktop replacement.  I finally found a machine that met my needs well: the Dell Studio XPS 1340.
xps131_01The Studio XPS 1340 is small, weighing about 5.5 pounds, which makes it nicely portable.  And, in an affordable configuration offered at Best Buy, it sports a 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo (1066 MHz FSB), 4 GB RAM, and a 500 GB 7200 RPM hard disk – all of which make it a reasonably strong performer.  It has a nice backlit keyboard, strong metal hinges, a tasteful design with leather accents, and other appointments that seem well thought-out.  And, at $899 from Best Buy, the package was irresistable.  This was the machine for me.

I disassembled my desktop to harvest the data drive out of it and set about getting it ready to eBay, then headed off to pick up my new computer at Best Buy.  Like all new PCs I purchase, my first step when I got it home was to delete the drive partitions and set up Windows sans bloatware.  By the time I had installed Vista (and updates), and Office 2007 (and updates), and Visual Studio 2008 (and updates), and SQL Server (and updates) and other apps, most of my day was gone.  Late that night I inserted a CD-ROM to hear an angry clicking sound from the slot-loaded drive, followed by a diminishing whirring noise.  Yep, the optical drive had failed.

Next day dawned bright and early, as I disappointedly headed back to Best Buy to return the dead machine.  This time I was buttonhooked by the Apple salesman – a slick, knowledgeable gentleman named Bruce.  Bruce wasted no time talking up the MacBook Pro and bashing Dell and Microsoft.  I’ve been saying for years that my next machine might well be a Mac.  It’s no secret that Apple’s building the best hardware out there, and that OSX is the best desktop operating system yet built.  It’s also not lost on me that the virtual machines available to run Windows apps have become robust and powerful, and are strong performers.  After almost an hour of brainwashing from Bruce – as well as the lure of the seductive aluminum lovelies on display – I dropped an additional $1600 and walked out of the store with a MacBook Pro and a copy of VMware Fusion.

It wasn’t 30 minutes before I was truly in love with the Mac (and Leopard).  It does so many things so well.  But 12 hours later – after installing Snow Leopard, Fusion (and updates), Vista (and updates), Office (and updates), et al – I was faced with the ugly truth that however slick and powerful the 2.8 GHz MacBook Pro might be, running Microsoft apps in VMware is still a clumsy and slow way to run a development environment. I’m sure that the MacBook Pro will outrun any Windows notebook when dual-booting Vista natively, but running Vista in a VM is definitely not as fast as running it natively on the 2.4 GHz Dell.  Sorry guys, as a Microsoft development environment, it isn’t as good.  If I could live in MacWorld and rarely use the Windows apps, it would be worth it.  It’s awesome.  But if you live in the Windows world (as I do), the MacBook ends up being a very, very expensive Windows machine.

So, next day.  Back the MacBook went.  I get working on the replacement Dell 1340.  It’s not as slick as the MacBook Pro but it’s pretty sweet.  And I have $1600 back in my pocket.

12 hours later, the thing up and died.  This time, the motherboard.

Bummer.  Another day lost.  That’s three days now that have been spent setting up (and returning) computers.

So, third time’s a charm, right?  Wrong.  That was the last Dell 1340 in all of North Texas.  Maybe all of Texas.

I’m not a deeply religious man, but sometimes I get the idea that God is sending me a clear sign.  Maybe I’m not supposed to have a new computer right this moment.  OK, I get that.

So I decide to go ahead with Plan A (getting rid of the old desktop) but figure I can drop an extra gig of RAM in the old notebook and make it last another year or so.  Plus, I got my hands on a Win7 install and from all i can tell, Win7 outperforms Vista.

So, I fdisk that puppy and install Win7 on it.  Late that night, as the Win7 install is wrapping up, the installer throws errors.  The computer reboots.  CHKDSK is running.  CHKDSK is not happy.  Yep, the hard drive has failed.  Another one bites the dust.  Three down.  Four including the original desktop that died a natural death.

OK.  Now I’m considering a career in home and garden, or perhaps food preparation.

I shake off these thoughts and resolutely turn my mind to positive thinking.  Life hands you lemons?  Make tarte au citron, that’s what I always say.

So I decide to drop the coin for a solid state drive for the notebook.  $300 later, and the notebook is now equipped with the 128 GB SSD from Crucial.  250 MB/sec read, 200 MB/sec write.  Holy Mother of God is this thing fast.  I’ll save that for my next blog post, but I was blown away by the speed.

So Sunday I spent the day reloading Win7 (and updates), installing apps (and updates) — you know the drill.  The computer was super fast now.  I rearranged my desk to be notebook-friendly.  Life is looking good.

Late Sunday night.  No, make that Monday morning.  1:30 AM.  I finish a last set of updates.  The computer reboots.

Why is CHKDSK running?

I think the SSD may be bad…

… I think I’m going to cry now.

True Believer

Joel Spolsky is a big fan of SSDs.  Even when he’s wrong, I like reading his stuff.  But when he’s right, he’s oh-so-right.

So, if you’re keeping up, I recently installed an SSD in my laptop.  This is the summary.


Now, this is not a serious benchmark review.  I”m just calling ’em like I see ’em here.  But this old notebook is now the fastest computer I’ve ever used.

Not really.  If I had to throw a big video rendering project, or a big compilation project at it, it would feel pretty slow.  It only has a Core Duo 1.7 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM.  The ATI Mobility 1400 display adapter doesn’t completely suck for a notebook, but it’s no award winner either.

In fact the only fast piece of hardware in the whole system is drive.  This is one of – if not THE – fastest SSDs available: with 250 MB/sec reads and 200 MB/sec writes, this 128 GB model from Crucial is really, really damned fast.  About twice as fast as a pair of 10,000 RPM Raptors in RAID0.  In the bidness, we call that “crazy fast”.

So this three year old computer simply feels like the fastest machine I’ve ever used.  And I own a really fast machine – a quad processor box with 4 GB of RAM and a nice display adapter I built for my studio.  The laptop feels much, much snappier.

Click on an app, and it just opens.  Boom.  Open a file – no waits.  And the impact on the swapfile can’t be underestimated, either.  When you’re running a lot of apps – even when you have lots of RAM – Windows will use the swapfile heavily.  With this uber-fast drive, you almost never notice swapfile activity.  It just happens too fast.

Which goes to show you – most of the time we’re waiting on our PCs, we’re really waiting on our hard disk.  Don’t believe me?  Throw an SSD in your old PC and get back to me on that.  Like me and Joel, you’ll be a true believer.