I bought a new computer

In the most recent episode of Bad Voltage I reviewed my new computer, but we diverged mainly into a discussion of why anyone should buy laptops at all, in which I was right and everyone else in the world was wrong. Anyway, I’ve been promising for a while that I’d talk about my lovely new machine once I had it, and I now have it. So, a review.

A few months ago, my laptop, a Lenovo ultrabook running Ubuntu, decided to corrupt its disk when resuming from suspend. Now, admittedly, I’d suspended it and then let it run out of battery, and I’d understand it if it’d lost my session. But, no, it wouldn’t boot at all. A few panicked hours later, and with quite a bit of help from the #ubuntu-uk IRC channel, I got it back and I hadn’t lost anything. However, tragically, this now meant that my formerly innocent SSD1 had learned about the existence of disk errors. If you’ve worked in an office you’ll know that you mustn’t use whiteboard cleaner, because once you’ve taught a whiteboard that special cleaning fluid exists, it sulks and refuses to be cleaned without it for ever more. Well, disks are just the same: once they’ve learned that they’re allowed to error and you’ll just fix it, they feel able — actually, they feel obliged — to throw more errors just to see how much you’ll put up with. So I started shopping around for a new laptop.

Over Christmas, my mum, who is lovely but is about as good with technology as I am with blindfolded rock climbing, said: why are you buying a laptop? Why not buy a desktop computer?

This is a better question than you might initially think.

What benefit is there to a laptop? Well, there are I think two things. The first is that it has a zillion peripherals built in. Speakers, mouse, webcam, keyboard, it’s all part of the one package. And the second is that you can use it without it being plugged in, in coffee shops and conferences and on the sofa and the like.2 Other than that, every single thing about a desktop computer is better. It’s more upgradeable. It’s cheaper. It’s prettier, if you try and buy prettiness rather than a ghastly beige case from the 1980s. It’s got more USB ports. And you can make one which works how you want it to rather than how your laptop manufacturer wants it to. I want loads of RAM and a gorgeous case and I couldn’t give a damn about graphics, as long as it can drive my 27 inch monitor. So that’s what I built.

There are quite a lot of custom PC builders. There’s no way on God’s green earth that I’m going to buy a bunch of components and fit them together myself. For a start, I don’t give a crap about which type of RAM fits in which motherboard — I want someone else to decide that for me. I don’t want to have to touch a radiator and wear an anti-static strip and lose all those tiny screws every nine seconds. So I shopped around a bit and ended up with PC Specialist, a custom PC builder here in the UK. I got an Inwin 904 case, which is stone cold gorgeous — tempered glass, brushed steel. It’s a bloody work of art is what it is. And all the RAM I can stuff in my pockets, and decent Logitech speakers and webcam and wireless mouse and keyboard and an Asus 27 inch monitor and HDMI and just everything I wanted, and it was pretty well priced… and I can stick with it almost forever. Remember Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses? It’d had 16 new heads and 14 new handles. This machine can be poked and have bits swapped out and keep on trucking long after any five laptops have been consigned to the laptop graveyard in your basement or the slow death of being given to your parents. So well done PC Specialist.

My requirements look roughly like this:

  1. machine will run Ubuntu, not Windows
  2. it’s not for gaming (I use my PS3 for that, and don’t use it much), so the integrated graphics is fine; I do not need a separate graphics card.
  3. I want my box to be attractive. This takes precedence over almost every other requirement, and is obviously massively subjective.
  4. I want a huge amount of RAM. Two years ago I bought the ultrabook laptop I’m typing this on, which has 4GB of RAM, and I thought that was loads. It’s now struggling a bit. I do not want to have to buy more memory a year from now, and Ubuntu is pretty heavy on RAM use, especially since I have about a zillion Chrome tabs open. So, 16GB for me. This will be sufficient for whatever Ubuntu requires for a couple of years at least, and will let me spin up VMs to my heart’s content. I did think about 32GB, but it’s just extra memory I don’t need, and because I have a desktop machine I can easily upgrade later if I need that, and not having it saves me a hundred notes or so now.
  5. I’d like a decent (that is: better than 1920 HD) monitor. However, 4K monitors are three grand each, which is way too much. So, 2560x1440 if I can. Note that the integrated graphics I pick has to support this.
  6. Other things needed: speakers (I’d like three-piece, but they don’t have to be great), keyboard and mouse (again, I’m not picky here, but wireless would be nice), wifi (doesn’t have to be good wifi, and I’ll be wired most of the time, but it’s a very handy fallback).
  7. Total budget: ~£1500
  8. adequate cooling. I don’t know anything about cooling.
  9. not overclocked.

The actual spec of the machine looks like this, which is a long boring list but can’t be helped:

Component type Component chosen notes
Case InWIN 904 so gorgeous a case. wow.
Processor (CPU) Intel® Core™i5 Quad Core Processor i5-4670 (3.4GHz) 6MB Cache didn’t get the K model because I don’t plan to overclock it. Haswell, because that’s the newest. Only an i5, though; the i7 was quite a bit extra and I decided I could do without it
Motherboard ASUS® Z87-A: ATX, USB3.0, SATA6GB/S, SLi, XFIRE
Memory (RAM) 16GB KINGSTON DUAL-DDR3 1600MHz (2 x 8GB) memory! yes! never going to run out again, ever
Graphics Card INTEGRATED GRAPHICS ACCELERATOR (GPU)
Hard Disk 180GB INTEL® 530 SERIES SSD, SATA 6 Gb/s (upto 540MB/sR 490MB/sW)
1st DVD/BLU-RAY Drive none, in the end
Memory Card Reader NONE irritatingly, this can’t go in my chosen case; they’re all to fit 3.5” spaces. I may buy a blanking plate and put one in the 5.25” slot.
Power Supply CORSAIR 350W VS SERIESVS-350 POWER SUPPLY
Processor Cooling Super Quiet 22dBA Triple Copper Heatpipe Intel CPU Cooler as per recommendation from the PC Specialist forums
Extra Case Fans & Fan Controller NONE because I am not a lunatic gamer
Sound Card ONBOARD 6 CHANNEL (5.1) HIGH DEF AUDIO
Wireless/Wired Networking WIRELESS 802.11N 150Mbps PCI-E CARD
Monitor ASUS 27” Professional SERIES PB278Q twenty seven inches of glory3
Keyboard & Mouse LOGITECH® MK520 WIRELESS KEYBOARD & MOUSE COMBO always rated Logitech stuff, personally
Speakers LOGITECH LS21 2.1 SILVER/BLACK SPEAKER SYSTEM ditto
Webcam Logitech® HD Webcam C525 - 720p HD Video, 8 Megapixel Photos ditto
Warranty 3 Year Silver Warranty (1 Year Collect & Return, 1 Year Parts, 3 Year Labour)
Price £1,365.00 have to skip lunch and save the money. Possibly several times a day.

I’m super-pleased with it. It looks gorgeous, which is precisely what I was hoping for. And the screen’s massive.

I’d like to live in a world where it’s possible to buy off-the-shelf gorgeous Ubuntu computers. At the moment, we’re not quite in that world. It is possible to buy pretty desktop PCs; in the UK, the place to go for that is Utopia Computers. Unfortunately, everyone who sells attractive machines rather than beige boxes is either (a) Apple or (b) primarily catering to an audience of gamers. So the machines you buy have super-high-end graphics cards and nutty cooling systems. I don’t want one of those; I’m not a gamer. I want raw power, but Intel graphics is enough for me, and it’s better supported by Ubuntu. So, annoyingly, that meant having to spec my own machine. I didn’t want to do that, because I have no idea which RAM to buy or which motherboard. PC Specialist did a pretty reasonable job of checking that sort of thing — their online wizard thing pops up saying “that card doesn’t fit with that motherboard”. Part of the issue here, I think, is that most people don’t consider it a good use of money to buy an attractive computer, and those that do are already in the Apple camp. Linux users are even worse at this — spending money on something because it looks nice is actively discouraged, which is thunderously wrong but I can’t stop people from doing it. Ubuntu is attempting to project a different vibe — that form is just as important as function — but because it’s still at least partially most popular among Linux people, it’s not making much headway. I surely can’t be the only person alive who appreciates the Apple aesthetic but wants Ubuntu machines, who thinks that we the Ubuntu community are allowed beautiful machines and should not be inured to the idea that you buy cheap-looking plastic stuff because that’s all you can get that runs Ubuntu. But it feels like I am, some days. I’d like to say that someone should set up a business selling pretty Ubuntu computers, but I fear that the subset of users who

  1. want a desktop rather than a laptop
  2. want Ubuntu
  3. value attractiveness over cheapness

is small enough that there’s not enough of a business model there.

Anyway, I shan’t rant. I have a lovely computer and I am happy. Hooray! I hope your machine is beautiful too. If not… maybe think about that, next time.

  1. even if it is some weird Lenovo-specific weird thing
  2. If you’re interested in further discussion of why having a laptop is important, and the idea that lots of people have one unmoving “main” laptop” and one small “conference” laptop, and that the “main” laptop could be a desktop instead, then see the Bad Voltage episode above
  3. an essential part of a good evening