New PC 2018: Parts chosen (until I change my mind)

Ironic note: This post was written on a Mac mini.

My current PC is about five years old and truthfully, it still does most things I need it to do without any major issues. I can browse the web, check email, write, read, play games, chat and so on, all without gnashing my teeth about the system being infernally slow, laggy or otherwise annoying to use.

It has an SSD as the main drive, so Windows 10 boots and restarts quickly (even if I notice that the Thinkpad X1 Carbon boots Windows 10 and programs even faster). It has 8 GB of ram, which still allows multitasking of as many programs as I’m likely to run. Its 4th generation Core i5 CPU is officially five generations behind, but it’s clocked at 3.3 GHz and still capable.

In the time I’ve had the PC, I’ve only upgraded three components:

  • The monitor, which isn’t even directly part of the PC. I went from a 24″ Samsung TN panel to a 24″ Asus IPS monitor, and the change was totally worth it. The color, clarity, viewing angles and brightness of an IPS monitor are so much better than a TN display. I still have the Samsung as an emergency backup.
  • The video card, from a GeForce GTX 570 to a GTX 770. This was also worth it, though I bungled things by not doing enough research, as the even-better GTX 970 came out just weeks after I got the 770.
  • The OS, from Windows 8 to Windows 10. And technically this isn’t a component of the PC, anyway.

Apart from that, the system is exactly the same as the day I put it together. I’m even using the same 2 TB hard disk from the previous PC as the secondary drive in the current one.

So with everything working, why build a new system?

The best answer might be that while everything works, I am starting to see the upper limits of what the current PC can manage. As programs–and especially browsers–become more bloated demanding, the 8 GB of ram is becoming an issue. Having a small primary drive (256 GB) is slowing down overall performance when loading and saving, because I simply don’t have room for everything on it. Older and less demanding games can still run fine on the GTX 770, but more often I have to turn down settings, accept lower framerates, or just play stuff released 10 years ago. Which Diablo 3 halfway to, luckily.

Also, we are at a point where technologies and pricing have both stabilized with some really good offerings.

If I stick to what I’ve picked out, here’s how the new system will compare to the current PC:

  • 4x the storage on the primary drive (1 TB vs. 256 GB). I would add additional storage on an as-needed basis.
  • 2x the memory (16 vs. 8 GB)
  • Faster video card with 4x the memory (RTX 2070 with 8 GB vs. GTX 770 with 2 GB)
  • A CPU with 2x the number of cores (8 core AMD Ryzen 2700 vs. 4 core Intel Core i5)
  • A larger case (microATX vs. mini-ITX)

The new case is an improvement because I’ve moved the PC back under the desk, so I don’t need a super-small case anymore. A taller one will make the front-facing ports and jacks easier to access, and the case itself should theoretically be easier to work with.

I’ve already gotten the video card, the next step is to figure out where to get everything else. Having amazon.ca ship everything to a locker is appealing (and simple) but amazon’s pricing and selection is surprisingly inconsistent, so I may be going to local dealers, like I did before NCIX self-immolated.

I am both excited (that new toy feeling) and filled with dread (piecing everything together, turning it on, nothing happening). And of course, it doesn’t address one critical aspect–I’m back to using Ulysses, a Mac-only writing app. I’m hoping the developers will eventually use their alleged subscription-fed largesse to port the program to Windows. I don’t think they will because they seem beholden to Apple’s ecosystem, but it would be nice. I like the app a lot more than I like macOS. Maybe I’m just too used to Windows after a hundred years of using it.

But maybe WriteMonkey 3.0 will eventually come out of beta, actually support indents and fulfill all my writing needs. It could happen!

Perhaps most importantly, my giant backlog of games can’t be played on a Mac mini. It’s new PC time.

End of the “executive” era (computer desk)

I got a new computer desk from IKEA. It is fairly simple–just a big plank of wood with four legs. It replaces an L-shaped desk that fit the nook I have the computer in, but it was kind of awkward, otherwise. It was too shallow, too narrow and too faux executive office-looking, with a fake dark wood surface.

The new desk comes with a fake light wood surface, which is brighter, happier and will inspire me to previously unforeseen levels of stuff and junk.

What you can’t see in the mediocre shot below is the printer has moved from the left side of the desk to a pseudo-printer stand to the left. I say pseudo because it’s really the old end table from the living room temporarily repurposed to hold the printer. It has two shelves which handily hold all the junk I had scattered across the old desk but did not need quick access to.

Also helping to inspire me is Edvard Munch’s The Scream, as seen on the all behind the desk.

The gear, from top-left, clockwise: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, Blue Yeti microphone (hidden partly by the monitor), Asus P248 24″ monitor (on the monitor stand are Tic Tacs and a WASD 6-key Cherry switch tester), two escapees from a Robax commercial, a Seagate 4TB backup drive, my gateway/router, Logitech G703 wireless gaming mouse, CTRL mechanical keyboard (Halo Clear switches), Sony MDR-7506 headphones with absurdly long cable, and iPad mini 4, which has a battery life similar to whatever bug dies after about four days.

Photo of the Day, December 29, 2018

I cleaned the innards of my PC today. This is the dust filter from the front of the case. You’d think the PC was 50 years old, but it’s not. Really!

Quest for a new laptop, Part 1

The most important parts of a laptop, from my perspective:

  • Keyboard. I use laptops primarily for writing, so the keyboard is paramount
  • Display. This is #2 because I am going to be looking at the screen intently, riveted by my deathless prose, and I need a sharp, high-resolution display. It doesn’t need to be 4K and probably shouldn’t be, given how it affects battery life. Speaking of…
  • Battery. I need enough battery to allow me to use the laptop multiple times throughout the day without needing to plug it in. The ideal is 10 hours, as this provides plenty of breathing room based on my typical usage.
  • Trackpad. A mediocre trackpad can make editing infuriating. I shouldn’t need to add a mouse to make the laptop feel usable. On the other hand, I can use a mouse if I really need to.
  • Light and compact. I don’t want something that I feel I’m lugging around. At the same time I don’t mind a bit of extra heft if it means not sacrificing anything else on this list.
  • SSD. This is pretty standard these days. It insures that loading programs and saving files happens fast, to minimize disruption.
  • CPU. A Core i5 of some sort is usually good enough. Faster is always better but here it’s more nice than essential.
  • Ports. I don’t really plug a lot of things in, so a wide port selection isn’t necessary. At least a couple of USB-C ports is nice, though lacking those I’d want at least a USB Type A and maybe something to connect to an external monitor, like mini-DP or HDMI.

Everything else would come after this. For a Windows laptop a touch screen is nice to have but not essential, as is the 2-in-1 form factor. I don’t really watch any media on a laptop so have little need for a tent mode. Being able to draw in a tablet mode can be handy at times, but again is merely nice to have.

What laptops meet these criteria? Next post!

Using the Surface Pro 3 as an actual laptop

Today I did something I had never done before. Admittedly this could be one of billions of possible things, but in this case I am referring to using my Surface Pro 3 as an actual laptop.

By this, I mean that I propped myself up on the bed with some pillows so I was sitting fully upright and placed the SP3 on my lap and started typing (I wrote the previous running update this way). The experience went better than expected but was still unsatisfying for a few reasons.

First, the good news: the SP3 was far more stable than I expected with it resting on my legs. I suspect this was largely due to my legs being laid out perfectly straight on the bed, creating the flattest possible surface (pun not intended). Though there was some slight bounce with the keyboard (I normally lay it flat on desks/tables but on the lap it really needs to be kept up so the magnetic strip can better stabilize it) but it was perfectly manageable, if a bit odd-feeling.

The less-good news: The DPI scaling is such that the text was just slightly on the small side from where I was sitting in relation to the screen. This could be corrected a couple of ways: magnifying the Firefox window (obviously this only works in Firefox or other browsers) or by increasing the DPI scaling (not a great option as inevitably some things end up cartoonishly big and changing DPI obnoxiously requires a reboot) or putting on my glasses. The text wasn’t fuzzy or anything like that, it was just small enough to be annoying and unpleasant to work with.

The bad news: I tested with the lights off, to see how the keyboard’s backlight would fare. Unfortunately, the backlight would switch off after only a short period of inactivity, leaving the keyboard in darkness. This entirely defeats the point of having the backlight. Also, the light bled through sufficiently that it actually made the keys more difficult to see.

Overall the Surface Pro 3 worked better than expected but I can honestly say that typing out a blog post using the onscreen keyboard of my iPad Air is a more pleasant experience when blogging from bed. Granted I don’t often blog from bed–I prefer using the bed for more traditional purposes, such as sleeping and “I’m not sleeping, I’m just resting my eyes!”–but still, I am left with the feeling that an actual laptop would be notably superior, to a degree that I would switch over to one were I to suddenly blog from bed regularly.

The DPI scaling is an ongoing concern in general for Windows laptops as more of them are now shipping with beyond-HD displays (see the Surface Book and its otherwise gorgeous 13.5″ 3,000 x 2,000 screen), so if I do get another laptop, it may be a MacBook of some flavor. I’ll test drive a few possible options before making a final decision. Conveniently, Metrotown has both an Apple store and a Microsoft store near to each other. Plus a food court so I can get a taco when all the test driving leaves me hungry.

Naughty with keyboards

Tonight, just because I could, I plugged a Mac keyboard into my PC. But wait, I didn’t just plug it into any USB port, I plugged it into one of the USB ports of my current PC keyboard.

Yes, I plugged a keyboard into a keyboard. It’s wrong and yet it works.

I kind of like the quiet of the Mac keyboard after the sturm und drang of my blue switch (extra clacky) mechanical keyboard. Still, this is silly so I’ll switch back after this post.

And a picture for posterity:

Dueling keyboards
Top: Das USB mechanical keyboard. Bottom: Apple USB keyboard. Not seen: Me being silly doing this.

Oh, mother(board)

Back in January I upgraded some components in my PC as it had been nearly four years and the itch to upgrade was no longer possible to resist. It turns out I picked a new Intel motherboard that had a nasty flaw in it and even though I never experienced the flaw and with the way my machine was configured, never would, I nonetheless took the opportunity to get it exchanged free for a newer revision sans flaw.

In the interim I also got a snazzy new case that was bigger because I hate working in cramped cases.

Yesterday at 2 p.m. I was back from NCIX with the new motherboard in hand.

When I went to bed at midnight I had:

a) missed my run
b) cut my thumb
c) missed dinner
d) was cramped and sore throughout my lower body due to all the stooping, bending, crouching and straining

and

e) did not have a functioning computer

I resigned myself to taking the motherboard back to NCIX today, explaining to them how it would not power up at all. Then I noticed I had inserted the power switch lead one pin too far to the left. I corrected this and the system powered up. Doh. Next I got a report that the CPU was too hot — 97ºC! And this after a few moment of being on. I eventually popped the motherboard back out and found that two of the four pins holding the HSF down had not gone all the way through the sockets in the motherboard, so it was slightly off-kilter and ‘hot’. I corrected this and the warning went away.

Finally, after hooking up the DVD drive and three hard drives, I discovered that I had forgotten to connect an SATA power cable to the DVD drive. The only way to fix this would be to disconnect and rearrange all of the drives. Or buy a $5 4-pin molex to SAT adapter cable and use that instead. Which I did.

So finally after numerous problems of my own making the PC is back together in its new case and working fine (for now). The fans are gigantic and a bit loud but I may tweak those later. For now, I am merely relieved to be done. No wonder people like iMacs. :P