Archive for September 3rd, 2007

Having barely recovered from getting my new laptop set up, I spent this weekend setting up my new workstation. Since I only buy a new computer every three or four years, it’s a labor-intensive job – a real busman’s holiday, since I do a dozen or more installations of operating systems each year as a reviewer. It’s also a chance to learn first hand the recent changes to hardware.

Because I’ve used alternative operating systems as long as I’ve had a computer, I always buy my workstation from a shop that does custom work. That way, I can be sure that I buy both quality parts and ones that will work with my preferred operating system. The shop I’ve dealt with for my last purchases is Sprite Computers, a Surrey store that I recommend unreservedly to anyone in the Lower Mainland.

This year, buying a custom machine backfired unexpectedly: My Debian GNU/Linux system worked perfectly because I had checked everything I bought, but I had to download drivers for the ethernet, sound, and video cards for Windows. Apparently, GNU/Linux hardware support may have finally surpassed that on Windows, as some pundits have been saying. But it’s been ten months since I’ve had a Windows installation about the house, and the added bother makes me feel that I haven’t been missing anything (aside from some games, which I never have time to play any more, anyway). I keep a small Windows partition because I sometimes need to check a reference to the operating system in a review, but for personal use, I wouldn’t miss it (nor the twinge of guilt I feel as a free software advocate for having a copy of Windows in the first place).

Another advantage of getting a custom computer is that, in placing my order, I always hear the latest trends in the business. Talking over my order with a sales rep, I learned that Windows XP was outselling Vista by a ration of fifty to one. Furthermore, Windows XP is expected to stop selling next Febuary, but computer businesses are already stockpiling copies. So much for claims about Vista’s sales.

I also learned that LightScribe, the DVD-etching technology I tried for the first time on my new laptop, is in no greater demand, either. The drives and DVDs cost more for LightScribe, and it’s a slow, currently monochromatic technology that isn’t essential.

Similarly, the store sells video cards from NVIDIA than from ATI. That trend was already obvious the last time I bought, but it seems to have accelerated, perhaps because of NVIDIA’s aggressive marketing of other hardware products makes a bundle deal attractive. ATI’s sale to AMD may also make a difference, since manufacturers might be waiting to see what happens.

Of course, those who order custom computers are a small percentage of the public, but the comments I heard are interesting, all the same, since they are some of the few available from an unbiased source (that is, not from the manufacturer or a fan-boy review).

I infer other buying trends by the point at which increases in size or functionality suddenly take a jump in price. Sometime, this point is obvious from sales flyers that come to the door, but not always. For video cards, that point is 256 gigabytes of RAM. For hard drivers, it’s 500 gigabytes. For flat screen monitors, it’s 22 inches. Total system RAM is stalled at two gigabytes, apparently because Windows, which is the largest market, can’t handle more without an adjustment that most lay users don’t know. Generally, I find that ordering a system according to this point means that, three or four years in the future, I still have an adequate system, if no longer a cutting edge one.

For now, I appreciate a number of features in my new workstation. I can appreciate the increase speed, especially on GNU/Linux, which now zips along quite nicely. The dual-core processor, now standard on all new machines, makes multi-tasking smoother, too.

As for the wide screen monitor, which barely fits on the desk, that’s a practical change that I took to at once.

Yet I think the most welcome innovation is the cube case. Its dimensions – – 9 x 10 x 14 inches — small enough that I plan to put both my main and test computers under the same desk and use a KVM switch to move between them. Its blue light, although garish, means that I can crawl around under the desk chasing wires without carrying a flashlight. But, best of all, both sides are so well-ventilated that the overheating problems I’ve had in the hot weather may be a thing of the past.

These aren’t dramatic changes. Their relative modesty compared to changes in previous buying cycles suggests that the computer market is largely saturated and likely to remain so unless a breakthrough technology emerges. So, probably sooner than later, I will take the changes for granted. Just now, I shake my head when I realize that I now have flash drives with more memory than my first computer, but, on the whole, I don’t have a hardware fetish. Model numbers and stats seep through my head faster than they enter, and, so long as hardware works as advertised, I’m content. And I’m happier still to stop thinking of hardware, and get back to the business of writing.

Read Full Post »