Sunday, March 11, 2007

Kaput computer kvetch

Who knew?

Seriously, who knew that the computer we bought for our son when he was planning to major in computer engineering technology would not have sufficient number-crunching ability to handle his switch to physics? At least my sister got a reasonably-new (two-year-old) computer out of that mistake.

But who knew that leaving a laptop turned on and working on physics problems for hours at a time would create such serious heat-dissipation problems that we would have to purchase a new computer for the Son-ster less than four months before his graduation? He learned, at our expense, that physicists can’t use laptops for serious number-crunching, and/or whatever (else) physicists do. They need the larger surface of a separate CPU to dissipate the heat thus generated.

A word to the wise for physicists, physics students, future physics students and/or their parents: A physicist needs a really good desktop computer, designed for serious number-crunching and for being left on and working for hours at a time, to do the actual work, and, optimally, a cheap laptop to carry the finished work around and make any last-minute changes.

Silver lining: The Son-ster and a bunch of geek friends from his college will be constructing a homemade computer for him out of standard components. And he's kicking in a few hundred dollars of his earnings from his on-campus job. So the new computer will cost a lot less than we would have expected to pay.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who came close to triple majoring as an undergrad (math, physics and computer science, and is now almost finished w/ a phd in one of said fields after discovering that he didn't really care for the other 2, did about 20 credits in both of the others). A laptop can survive, but one needs a good laptop. Namely, a thinkpad, with a 3 year or preferably extended to 4 or 5 year warranty.

My other question is, if one is doing serious number crunching, one is presumably doing research. If that's the case, the research advisor should be providing machines for the research programs to run on, at least that's the case at any university I've attended.

Typing this on a laptop that has basically been running Linux 24/7 (albiet not used for a bit over 1/7 of that time) for the past 2.5 years (though it gets shutdown when I am traveling with it.

From a pure research point of view, it makes life much easier to always be able to have the data you are working on with you and not have to depend on a network connection to get to it if possible.

Currently, my main desktop computer, which runs windows is a machine I built, but from scratch 5 years ago and have upgraded piecemeal from time to time, but I probably wouldn't repeat it as its generally cheaper to buy a dell than it is to build a machine of your own today. (I've bought machines from Dell where the total price of the machine was less than one component would cost me if purchased separately).

Sun Mar 11, 02:29:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Thanks for the info, though I'm not sure my son places quite as much confidence in Linux as you obviously do. I'm going to copy this post and comment and e-mail it to the Son-ster. (I mean, it's not as if he ever reads my blog, or anything.)

Sun Mar 11, 07:45:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Our son responds that, while it may be possible to get the specifications necessary for a laptop to work appropriately, it would probably be hideously expensive. Even a desktop, if ordered from, say, Dell, would be hideously expensive in comparison to the "homemade" computer that he'll be putting together from components. (Apparently, he's having the opposite experience from what you've had--he finds purchasing components much cheaper). He'd rather take his chances on relying on the warrants that come with the individual components. He can get two-year service-and-replacement plans on the really worrisome components, such as the motherboard and the graphics card.

The advantage of a desktop over a laptop is that, should he need to update (for example, by adding RAM or an extra heat-dissipation fan), he can just open the CPU case and add parts himself, rather than replacing the whole computer or sending it in for upgrading. He'll have enough room for two (or more) different hard drives, which will make reformatting a drive much easier (as he'll be able simply to copy everything from one drive to another), and will even give him the ability to run two different operating systems (say, Windows and Linux), should he decide to do so.

And yes, Agnoxodox, he is hoping that his graduate school will provide a laptop by the time he's in his second year and is doing serious research.

Sun Mar 11, 09:00:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Eliyahu said...

i just recently built the 2 replacement desktops i am using. dell might have a slightly better price, but i believe i got better quality parts. the case has fans that are noticeably quieter than dell and the motherboard has more flexibility. that being said, if i have the extra bucks, i probably will call my computer tech guy to put it together next time. but it did go very smoothly, and win xp pro seems to work as well as win 2000 pro. good for your son!

Sun Mar 11, 10:29:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Eliyahu, our son doesn't have as much confidence in Dell as he used to, and truly believes that he can build a better computer for less money. So, as you said, good for him.

Mon Mar 12, 08:21:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He's sort of right that a top of the line computer probably costs more form Dell, but one can buy a decent entry level computer for much cheaper, unless one wants to risk rebate deals.

A machine I have that is a 3.2ghz pentium-4 cost me $450-500 from Dell 3 years ago? This was at the time when the cheapest I was able to buy the same microprocessor was $613 (yea, the number is easy to remember). it was a stripped down machine, but if one does the math.

lets look at this machine

it's $600 (with e6300 processor)

now lets do the math

the processor costs around $200
getting a decent case (and dell's cases are decent) is going to cost at least $50 (I'd say dell's is worth closer to $100)
getting a decent motherboard (and dell's motherboard are usually a little better than decent) is going to cost at least $50 (I'd say Dell's is probably closer to $100)
It comes with a GB of ram, that's about $100
It comes with a 160GB hard drive which is anywhere from $50-$100 (lets say $50)
it comes with a dvd drive, a keyboard and a mouse, lets say in total $30

it comes with a windows license (say $50).

at this point, for a dell that's not on sale and which I'm pricing relatively generously, you end up paying at least mid $500s So perhaps one can save $50 over a dell that's not on sale, but when they have sale's or coupons, the prices are generally $100 to $200 lower than this.

Hence, is it fun to build a computer? yeah. Is it really worth it from a financial pov? nope. Could you make it more worthwhile w/ rebates? yeah, but again their a factor of cost of time.

I'm also not that keen on buying top of the line computers anymore due to the fact that if I spend 1/3 to half the money I can buy a new computer in a year for the same amount of money that will be faster than the top of the line computer I would have bought.

I've been building and buying computers for the past 10+ years. The value in building one's own computer has decreased in that same time. It's a nice right of passage, but it could be that I'm just old and cranky and view my time better spent doing real work.

Tue Mar 13, 12:16:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Eliyahu and Agnoxodox, thanks. I've e-mail your latest comments to our son.

Tue Mar 13, 11:37:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given the circumstances, I have decided to make a rare, personal appearance on my mom's board.
While it is true that I can get the computer from dell for nearly the same price as the components of the one I am building, there are several reasons why I am not, not the least of which is that after the hassle I have had with my current laptop, I am not exactly confident in their service.
The first reason is junk. Getting a system from them will mean having a load of junk pre-installed. I can get programs such as Microsoft Office for up to 50% off at the school store, but there is no option to remove it completely from a pre-built dell system. They will also pre-install junky, crippled versions of burning, and DVD software, among others. The biggest waste, though, would be windows vista. I no plan to leave XP behind anytime soon for this glitchy, incompatible OS. XP was not stable and fit for general use before SP1, so I didn't expect Vista to be, and microsoft has not surprised me.
The Other big reason is warranty. The parts used to make Dell systems do not come with there own warranty. Instead, you must buy a warranty plan separately form Dell for an additional $50-$400, depending on the length of coverage. I already stated earlier what I think of their support. All the hardware components in a Self-Built PC come with at least a 2-year manufacturer's warranty, at no added cost. While it's true that there may be some failure, over a 2 year period, the cost of replacement will almost certainly be less than a comparable service plan (Barring the compete meltdown, which is just as much a risk from dell and just as likely to be covered).
In summary, I don't see any particular advantages to ordering from dell aside from the prebuilt angle.

I plan to order from I can post up the configuration I'm thing of, if people want to see. Opinions would be welcome. I don't know how badly formatted things would get, though; part names are very long.

Wed Mar 14, 12:19:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's What I think I'm going with. I dumped the floppy Drive cause there's no point, and went to nVidia so I'd have no Linux troubles. Don't know the brand, though, so if they suck, let me know.

1 LITE-ON 16X DVD±R DVD Burner Black SATA Model SH-16A7S-05 - OEM
Item #: N82E16827106047 $31.99

1 GIGABYTE GZ-XA1CA-STB Black Front bezel : Aluminum Body : SECC ATX Mid Tower Computer Case - Retail
Item #: N82E16811233006 $89.99

2 Seagate Barracuda ES ST3320620NS 320GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive - OEM
Item #: N82E16822148215 $189.98 ($94.99 each)

1 EPoX EP-MF570SLI Socket AM2 NVIDIA nForce 570 SLI MCP ATX AMD Motherboard - Retail
Item #: N82E16813123005 $139.99

1 XFX PVT73GUGD3 GeForce 7600GT 256MB GDDR3 PCI Express x16 HDCP Video Card - Retail
Item #: N82E16814150182 $142.99

1 BFG Tech BFGR650PSU ATX 12v 2.0 / EPS 12V 650Watts Power Supply - Retail
Item #: N82E16817702003 $119.99

1 Kingston 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 667 (PC2 5300) Dual Channel Kit Desktop Memory Model KVR667D2K2/2GR - Retail
Item #: N82E16820134384 $139.99

1 AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600+(65W) Windsor 2.4GHz Socket AM2 Processor Model ADO4600CUBOX - Retail
Item #: N82E16819103749 $189.00

Subtotal: $1,043.92
Shipping: $32.52
Grand Total: $1,076.44

Sorry about the bad formatting.

Wed Mar 14, 12:40:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something to be careful about. From my experiences with warranties.

My Tyan Tiger MP motherboard died, it was still under warranty but it took Tyan 2 Months to replace it! (It was an old motherboard, and they didn't have any in stock, I eventually convinced them to send me the newer MPX model). My 3ware raid card died, it took 3ware 3 months to replace it! (they claim they were going through a merger and some things fell through the cracks).

Compare this to the support I get with IBM on my thinkpad. Which either goes like this.

1) Monday - Laptop Breaks - I call IBM
2) Tuesday - Overnight box is there for me
3) Wed - IBM gets the laptop
4) Thurs morning - I have laptop backed, fixed.


1) Monday - Laptop Breaks
2) Monday Afternoon/Eve I take it to local IBM authorized warranty place
3) Monday Afternoon/Eve they order part from IBM
4) Tuesday afternoon/eve I pick up fixed laptop.

Now, you have pretty specific wants, so probably cant get that with Dell, the only question is, is it worth spending half as much now and the same in a year or 2 (if you're in physics, clustering is always good).

In regards to your needs, as you are building it yourself.

Look for Ultra's midtower cases on Frys. They are sold for Free after rebate (and free shipping from time to time). The rebate place seems reasonable . They also have a huge tower case that goes for like $20 after rebate from time to time.

Fry's also sells 400GB Sata drives for $100 (without rebate) from time to time. I have 5 in a RAID5 array in the box I built (oh and it took western digitial a month to replace a HD that died under warrenty!)

You can also get a free after rebate ultra power supply from fry's from time to time (and again, free shipping pops up from time to time too). (I'm a sucker for free after rebate, its a good thing I'm not married or my wife would hate the clutter, or I'd have to build her machine for her, which is somewhat ironic).

Frys =

Also, buy it on a credit card that extends the warrenty one year. With my AmEx, they don't even replace the item, they just refund you the cost! So with computer parts think "free upgrades!" (one of my Athlon MPs died a year or 2 ago about 3.5 years after I bought it, the cost I paid for one was greater than the cost for 2 decently faster versions).

Wed Mar 14, 01:10:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your input. I have now ordered the parts.

Prayers are appreciated.

Wed Mar 14, 03:37:00 PM 2007  

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