Originally Published: Monday, 4 December 2000 Author: Ross Sanders
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

A Different Approach (Part V of V): Decision Time

Over the past several weeks, Ross Sanders has asked the Linux.com readership to help him on his way to finding his Linux 'dream machine.' It's decision time, and Ross seems to have come up with a definitive answer. Will he choose the Power Macintosh? Will he choose the x86-based platform? Find out in Ross' final 'Different Approach' article!

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Thanks for your well considered comments and/or pointers during my hunt for a new computer system. The tips on graphics systems, individual types of chip combinations in the CPU classes, and even OS considerations are appreciated.

So which system did I choose? The G4, Alpha, and the SPARC were the final 3 contestants in a quest I started nearly 6 months ago. For various reasons I weeded out other systems including SGI, IBM, older PPCs, HPs, and clustered PCs. Some I dropped for compatibility reasons, the clustered PC for space/environmental reasons, like the sound of an additional 8 to 20 fans in an already crowded room.

This left me at the final 3 systems, seeking additional input before an expensive decision. Out of the final trio, the one I liked the least after digging into its hype a little was the G4. Its performance without the vector processor was extremely weak. After all the "Photoshop test" even with the benefit of the processor didn't justify spending twice as much as its comparison AMD system. Without the benefit of coding optimization for the vector processor, it performs even more poorly. So, why spend $3000 on a PowerMAC G4 when the same money could go to something more powerful?

SPARCs don't suffer as much from bloated hype as the home desktop world does. They are marketed to an different customer, and usually they're potential repeat buyers. Corporations invest millions of dollars in software and hardware. One way to protect their investments is to purchase, when possible, the same class of systems they started with. SPARC computers, and to a good degree Sun Microsystems as well, are generally solid performers in the higher end industry. Sun workstations are used many universities in the U.S. by both students and professionals. Software can be easily obtained, and you can painlessly buy equipment for the newer PCI based models. Their one major drawback is their price. A new Sun workstation of decent spec, i.e. one with sufficient memory and drive space to be useful, is quite expensive and beyond my price range. Prices above $10k are not uncommon for a single system.

My pick is the Alpha system, which is still very expensive. A new motherboard with CPU can easy run $3000 by itself. But, of the three systems, the Alpha is easiest to build piece by piece as if you were building a much cheaper Intel PC. A maximum of control over what goes into my system, coupled with rock solid quality and proven performance wins my vote here. The Alpha processor boasts several generations of revisions under its belt with extremely stable performance for them all. This, along with the speed that the Alpha has, software and drivers ported into its version of the Linux source tree makes it the best choice of all the computer systems considered. Added bonus to all the other attributes is that the software I wish to use has Alpha apps already compiled and optimized for it. The main drawback to Alpha based computers is binary executables and libraries tend to be 2 to 3 times the size of other systems, including other RISC based systems. With cheap hard drives of today, however, that's no longer an acute problem as when a 100 megabyte binary executable was taking up 10% of a 1 GB system disk of 5 years ago.

So, here is my shopping list:

Alpha Motherboard/CPU
256 MB RAM (one stick)
2 EIDE hard drives (one dedicated for each OS)
19" monitor (VGA)
trackball, keyboard, etc (ergonomic types)
video card (to be decided later)
100base ethernet
sound card

The list is pretty generic, I know. I'm keeping it that way on purpose, because you can never tell what deals you will uncover between decision and purchase. Sales, auctions, and scavenging all have their places in buying and putting together a computer. I remember scavenging entire backplanes and crates from national labs worth many thousands during the summer months of my college years. To narrow things down a bit though, there will be at least 30 GB space in the computer, the video card will have good OpenGL support and at least one of the 32 mbyte cards. Sound isn't a big deal since likely the most it will be doing is playing MP3s and CDs. If I want games, I still have my PC. As for the OS: Linux and NetBSD are my systems of choice.

As a side note, has anyone checked out running the ReiserFS on Alphas? I'm greatly impressed with it on my PC and will be trying it on my Alpha when I get it if it doesn't fail from Endian problems.

So there it is, my "dream system" for this budding astronomy enthusiast and wannabe games developer. Chess anyone?

Ross can be reached at wolf_fire@ithink.net.

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