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Himeji Castle

The Year that Was Part III, Tech

Although I swore off PC games last year, I did build myself a new home workstation all the same. It was mainly to save me carting my enormous desktop replacement class laptop to and from work each day, but I'd completely forgotten the performance that a good desktop machine can deliver. The key difference is hard drive speed, which is where modern PCs are bottlenecked for most tasks. I went from a "performance" laptop drive that seemed about as fast as a hamster with three legs, to a Velociraptor, the fastest SATA hard drive available at the moment. Any tasks that made any use of the disk (and pretty much everything does these days, from browsers to music players and beyond) were suddenly significantly quicker, and disk intensive tasks like searches, video conversions, virus scans and copying files (duh) were galaxies faster. If SSDs take off (like I think they're going to), laptops might finally catch up to their desktop brethren in the performance stakes, but for now it's not even close.

Deciding between dual or quad cores for the new machine was a tough call. For gaming, the general rule is to go dual core, since most games aren't multi-threaded, which makes CPU performance pretty much dependant on the speed of a single core. Duals are clocked slightly faster than quads at the same price point, so they run games faster, so they win. This is a narrow view of the world though, particularly when multi-core has been held up as the way of the future by the chip industry when they realized they couldn't just keep dialling up the Mhz. The other thing to remember is that just about everyone runs multiple apps simultaneously these days, so being able to run each of them on a separate core is very handy indeed, even if the apps are only single threaded.

After those thoughts, I went with a Core Quad Q9300, and it seems to work really well. Everything seems to run smooth as butter, even when I'm transcoding a video in the background, messing with some database queries or when an obnoxious Flash app tries to leap out of a webpage and eat the machine. Having four hungry cores does tend to hammer the hard drive when things get busy and everything wants lots of IO, but I guess that's why I'll have to grab an SSD (or two) when they get a bit cheaper. To tide me over, I added a 1TB Caviar Black drive to the system, and shifted all my data files onto it, leaving the system and apps on the Raptor. This divides the load, leaving me to happily mess about with files on my data drive without causing my system drive to chunk.

While I planned ahead with a quad core CPU, I stuck with good old DDR2 memory. DDR3 is still very expensive, as are motherboards that support it. I'm not sure why I picked DDR2-800 though - my Gigabyte GA-EP45-DS3L board certainly supports DDR2-1066, so that might've been a bit of an oversight. I wasn't brave enough to try Vista, so I was limited to a little under 4GB total RAM with 32 bit XP. This is actually fairly harsh, because my work SQL database is around 30GB and needs rather more memory than I have to run even remotely well. I really hope Windows 7 doesn't suck, as I'd really like to make the jump to 64-bit and smash through that silly memory limit. 16GB RAM sounds very comfortable from where I'm sitting.

I grabbed a few other bits and bobs during the year, although not all of them worked out. I tried Microsoft Habu and Razer Salmosa mice without success. I tried to clear some cables off my desk with a Silverstone FP34 internal card reader, but it looks like the interface from the reader slots is only USB1.1, so I might have to just throw that away. Notably absent from my workstation (named Bunk, after Bunk Moreland from The Wire) is a DVD drive of any description. I'm going to try and do without one for now - I'm going to use internal SATA drives for live storage, external USB2 drives for backups and moving big stuff around, and a couple of 8GB USB sticks for day to day files. The age of dividing my data into 4.7GB chunks, slowly burning them all to DVDs and then filing them away in CD folders is over, at least for me.

It's great to be back tinkering with a home desktop machine again, even though leaning over a computer case isn't really a pleasant position for me to be in at the moment. I'm not really interested in overclocking or wacky stuff like water cooling, but arranging components to improve the overall system is quietly rewarding, as well as being enormously nerdy. Plus it's cheaper than collecting antique cars.