Workstation Recommendations?

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As I told James this morning, my venerable Windows workstation – a Dell Dimension XPS that was top of the line circa 1997 – is finally showing signs of winding down its long and meritorious service life. The PII 400 box’s primary hard drive is increasingly given to producing cricket-like chirping noises that, in my experience, presage the doom of a hard drive failure. I’m not particularly worried about the data – it’s more or less all been backed up on an external Maxtor One Touch – but it does mean that I’m probably not going to be able to wait for a Vista equipped workstation as I’d planned.

So I throw the question out to all of you: what would you recommend as a replacement for the box? Granted, compared to a 6 year old machine just about anything’s going to be a massive upgrade. But I need something that will run Vista, not to mention other rather performance hungry Windows software that I’m required to test – something borderline server-ish, in other words. Form factor for this one is desktop – I don’t need it to be portable.

Before someone gets paranoid that I’m “switching” back to Windows – as did Russell Beattie – put your mind at ease. I’m as happy as ever with Gentoo (despite Friend of RedMonk Jeff Waugh’s continuing jokes at my distro’s expense ;), and that will remain my primary OS. But I do need a Windows box not only to test the Windows OS and software I cover, but also for my iPod (yes, I’m aware that Ubuntu does support iPods, but I prefer iTunes to Banshee/GTKPod and the like – at least for now).

Any ideas? My first thought, actually, was one of Sun’s new Ultra workstations that Alex thought about and Tim mostly liked, but Ben’s lukewarm review gives me pause. While I’m far from a hard core gamer – apart from a problematic addiction to Team Fortress a couple of years back that I kicked only by removing the game from my current Windows box – I do want to be able to leverage the graphics hungry Vista features whenever they should arrive. Whatever I get, my preference is for the AMD chips at this point, based on what I keep hearing from hardware folks left and right.

The other important consideration here is price: I’d prefer not to spend tons of money, given that it’s not even my primary machine. I’m not restricted to a hundred bucks, but neither do I want to drop three or four grand. It’d be one thing if I was doing full time development, but my coding these days is mainly limited to shell scripts here and there, operating system and application testing, mucking around with MySQL or Postgres, or hacking up previously existing PHP/Ruby apps. Not exactly the kind of things I need a bleeding edge machine for.

So the question is, do any of you have any hardware they’re particularly fond of? Hardware’s not my thing, so I leave myself in your capable hands.


  1. Any modern box is going to be pretty great. I’d say get a lot of RAM and run Windows in VMWare.

    Shuttle makes some pretty nice small AMD based systems.

    Something like this:


    would probably last awhile.

    I’ve had good look with the NVIDIA chipsets paired with AMD processors.

  2. i’ll keep sending you the employee deals, have sent 2 recently. But you have to make the decision of speed, price, quality….pick 2.

  3. Vmware! (doh someone beat me too)… I’m a fan of Amd64 procs and might as well go with a nice nvidia motherbaord (again, second to this). I still prefer to build my own machines even though that doesn’t save you too much anymore.

    If you do plan on running Vista on this box, then make sure that you leave room to upgrade. All you need is a medicore graphics card now (make sure it is pci express) and headroom for a faster processor (maybe an Athlon 64 3200+ for now and dual-core for later). When … it … eveually … arrives then you can get the nicer pieces for cheap(er).

    The small shuttle cases are nice, but I’d say to stick with a mid/full tower. That way you can always throw more hard drives in there for backup (RAID 1?).

    I’d say that you could get a nice box like this for around $1000 in parts or less (sans monitor, and for that matter, support contract). I think I spent a bit more than that during my recent upgrade (about 9 months ago) to a similar box.

    Maybe you can use the fancy new machine to speed up your compilations :). I won’t give you a hard time though, I want to stay a Gentooer at heart (though I’ve made the switch to that jungle-ish disro now).

  4. Or you could buy a Mac.

  5. Christopher: interesting suggestion – i wasn’t familiar with Shuttle. i’m a little unclear on what’s included in their barebones systems – have you bought them before? i don’t mind doing some assembly, but i don’t want to start from a pure case and build up.

    one other question – how does VMWare handle the hardware side, e.g. for iPods?

    John: argh – hoisted by my own petard 😉

    timmfin: well, seeing as this will be a Windows box, compilations shouldn’t be a problem 😉 but a grand is about what i’m shooting for – little over, maybe. trying to figure out how much upgradability will matter for this box – not sure. particularly given that most of my drives now are external.

    Geof: i probably will, at some point, but right now i need a Windows box for testing and evaluation purposes.

  6. I quite enjoying my Quad. 🙂

  7. You pretty much get everything but the processor, RAM, and drives. I built one for my home entertainment box. Pretty quick assembly, and nifty cooling.

    You can also get them pre-built.

  8. But I know! There is always cygwin + distcc to make compilations for any computer on the network faster :). http://gentoo-wiki.com/HOWTO_Distcc_server_on_Windows

  9. Stephen:

    this is a pretty good time to upgrade – we’re into a period of significant new intros, so you can get decent specs at very good prices.

    Shuttle are great esp re size and noise, but will be difficult to work with given their tight physical layout.

    Cleaner alternative to VMware: use different hard drives, they are cheap enough ($60 for 7200 rom 8mb cache hd)- just switch the SATA plug

    Branded PC’s are always a little behind the times re: what is best today, plus they usually have some proprietary parts.

    Better use best of breed components that are standard too, which helps re driver support, repairs etc. And no weak link: you get to specify all the way down to the quality of the power supply, so you get server like reliability for a few dollars more (50 .. )

    Assembling & testing can now be farmed out at relatively good prices by respectable houses, under $100 usually and you can have tech support for your handpicked PC if you need/want it.

    My current parts recommendations below. (disclaimer: I have no special interests in the companies mentioned, except maybe investments, but I invest/short based on the tech, not the reverse – and if Dell ever crossed your mind, please look at HP or eMachines instead; some day I will post my Dell horror stories, reminiscent of AOL in the 2000-01, similar ad bombardment & dirty tricks)

    cpu: socket 939 AMD 64 3400+ 1MB Cache – depending on the prix du jour

    motherboard: Giga-Byte GA-K8NXP-9: better no SLI for compatibilty reasons, unless you need 3D performance; uses topnotch industry standard nVidia nForce4 chip; full complement of SATA /ATA hard drive support, including v. good RAID, enabling SATA/ATA mix – and hardware firewall chip (! better than software solutions like ZoneAlarm etc – can be enabled/disabled in bios)

    memory: Corsair’s pretty decent, load to max 4GB

    case: Antec Sonata w/Power supply (very quiet and easy to get in and out of)

    Video: nVidia PCIe 5200+ – inexpensive, well supported w/all OS; swap for higher grade if necessary, or ATI for some Microsoft early adoption releases -ATI is notoriously more troublesome in my experience to *uninstall*, even when you stay within ATI – really –

    Hard drive: 36GB Western Digital SATA 10,000 rpm (!) for boot drive, and either Seagate/WD /Samsung /Hitachi but *not* Maxtor for data drives up to 200 GB

    Note: if you are interested in super compatibility with the SUN Ultra 20 X86 entry workstation or SUN Galaxy X2100 Dell-killer servers, you could specify a Tyan Tomcat K8E motherboard and Opteron cpu, since the SUN’s are custom (disabled USB etc) versions (see Anandtech for details)

    Can’t speak of recommended assemblers without being somewhat partial to my limited experience. Hope this helps

    “Computers will give us more leisure time, free us from drudgery so we can all enjoy life more fully in a cleaner environment” Lao Tzu

  10. I’ve had great experiences with Monarch Computer. The last computer I bought was from them (about 3 1/2 years ago) and is my current desktop and essentially a low-end server. Dual Athlon 2000’s, 1 gig RAM, etc. Solid value and quality, staff did a great job of recommending exactly what I needed.

    They also have great deals on mobo+processor+memory combo’s if you’re into construction.

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