A comparison of two laptops

Full disclosure: this is more or less going to be however many words of me hating on my MacBook Pro. Just so you know.

I have a 2019 13” MacBook Pro system, the base two USB-C port model with slightly upgraded storage (256GB from the base 128GB). I bought this system to do software development and as a general purpose daily driver to replace the hodgepodge of machines I was using so I could be a more effective software developer on a project I was working on. The choice to get this particular model machine came down to cost, capabilities over the similar tier MacBook Air model, and desire to have a macOS-based system (as my dev toolchain works best on a Unix-y system). This was a $1,500 system when I bought it, after my educator discount and fortuitous timing to get it during a tax-free weekend.

This thing was a mistake. (This is the bit where I just complain about this dumb computer.) On paper, it seems pretty nice for the time, but there’s problems. The 8th generation Core i5 CPU in there was getting old, even in 2019, and it doesn’t help that it’s a laptop efficiency SKU so base clock on it is 1.4GHz (and no HyperThreading). The 256GB storage is far more limiting than it seemed it would be. The keyboard, well.. this one’s got the 3rd generation butterfly switches, so it doesn’t fail if you look at it wrong or happen to not live in a clean room, but the switch feel is terrible. Some of this I tried to remedy - really, this thing mostly lived as a desktop, so I’ve amassed a bunch of USB-C dongle docks and one quite fancy CalDigit one, and so I had additional storage hooked in and screens and a real keyboard - but then you have to deal with macOS getting confused by there being things attached and then generally sometimes forgetting that there are screens, getting stuck in beachball mode, etc. All the while, WSL kept getting better, and PC parts kept getting cheaper, so ultimately I ended up building (now a handful of times - fiddling with things is fun!) a desktop system that’s now my daily driver and the Mac rarely gets used anymore. I didn’t even miss it when it had to spend a week or so out at AppleCare for service. (The keyboard broke. But not in the way everyone’s did - my backlight gave up. So, it’s got a new keyboard now. And a new screen, because the shitty webcam also failed. First time I’ve sent a machine in for service in maybe a decade.)

Now, the easy fix for this is one you can do on the front-end: don’t buy the base model. I thought 8GB RAM, especially coupled with Apple’s “fast” SSDs, would be OK, but really with the stuff I tend to need to have running (which includes Docker, IDEs, all that) it doesn’t work out. I thought too that I could make do with 256GB but that just meant I was running the SSD close to full all the time, which is bad. And sorry 1.4GHz Core i5 sucks. Just does. Almost as much as the keyboard. So, why didn’t I get the 4-port model instead? In this case, because the cost went up dramatically - I got this thing during a tax-free weekend, so not only would stepping up mean going to the $1,800 system or so, it’d also mean paying another roughly 10% more in sales tax, so really instead of a $300 difference, it’s closer to $600. (In Tennessee, tax-free weekends cover computer purchases up to $1,500 as long as they’re entirely under that amount. Go a penny over and the entire purchase price becomes taxable again.) Plus, the obvious - I had the money for that machine, and not more than that. So, I dealt with it and as things went on built up my daily driver desktop PC into the fairly ridiculous system it is.

Laptops are nice to have and it’s also nice to be able to do stuff from not my desk with the questionable ergonomics, so I’ve been looking and thinking about getting a new system. I’m also now mostly a Windows user again - Docker and WSL 2 especially make things a lot nicer for the things I need to do - so I’ve been considering those things too. I’d mostly thought on a Dell XPS 13” or HP Spectre x360 13”, as I like the form factor of the smaller machine. Either of those would run about $1,500 - of those, the Spectre was the winner since Dell likes to run warranty scams and it just had better specs for less money. But, I saw that Best Buy actually had a Lenovo system for pretty cheap that had pretty nice specs. Poor impulse control said I could get it, so I did.

The machine I got is a Lenovo Yoga 6, which I suppose is nominally part of their ideapad line, so not a fancy ThinkPad system. It’s a 13.3” machine again, occupying the same 2d space as the MacBook Pro but somewhat thicker (maybe about 33%? Both of these machines are super thin) largely due to its convertible nature (has touchscreen, folds backwards). The screen isn’t quite as nice as the Mac’s - just a 1080p panel versus the sort of 2.5k that the Mac has that you can’t actually run at native resolution - but it’s close enough. The trackpad isn’t as nice but it’s worth noting that Windows Precision trackpads are leaps and bounds better than what used to come on Windows laptops. (Again, it’s close enough.) Port selection is way, way better - 2 USB-Cs and 2 USB-As, though only one of the USB-Cs supports PD, and no headphone jack on the Lenovo. The keyboard is so much better and mine’s even slightly broken - the LEft Shift Key Sticks Occasionally - but the layout is comparable to the Mac and is even backlit. No touch bar, which I prefer but I wasn’t a touch bar hater. (Escape is still roughly in the same place either way but tactile feedback is nice, but on that same token, the touch bar does some neat things too that I sort of miss a bit.) Has a fingerprint reader! The webcam sucks - it’s a 720p thing, but it works, I guess - but as a nice touch it has a physical shutter you can activate. Mine came in a nice darkish blue with a denim cover on the screen, which I like a lot. Needless to say, this is a plastic machine, but it’s nice plastic.

The guts are where the thing really stands out. Even adjusting for time, it’s way better. The Lenovo came with an AMD Ryzen 7 5700 CPU, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD that’s actually upgradable. This means it’s got a CPU that’s pretty comparable to my desktop and better graphics than most anything Intel has, especially the UHD stuff that’s in the 8th gen. (Prob worth noting that despite the name the laptop 5700 Ryzen is internally a Zen 2 CPU, so it is really the baby laptop-style sibling of my main machine’s Ryzen 7 3700X. Same architecture, same 16 threads, but clocks and TDP are different, and the laptop CPU’s got graphics where the desktop one does not.) 16GB RAM is good too, especially since that isn’t upgradable, and though it’s limited to PCI-Express 3.0 I can swap in a bigger SSD easily. The SSD itself is a Western Digital Black model, even, that I believe benchmarks faster than the one in the Mac too. (I can feel the difference between it and the ridiculous Sabrent Rocket PCIe 4.0 one in the desktop but that’s a ridiculous drive.)

Price comparisons are a fun thing to do, so let’s do that. I looked on the Internet’s favorite auction and corporate intimidation site, eBay, and found that my MacBook Pro can be had for around the $600-$700 mark at this point. Which is handy, because the Lenovo was $700. Yep. Granted, I saw this system on Best Buy via the Ars Technical deals thing, so it was on sale - normally it’s $950.

Basically, this all made me somewhat more annoyed than I was with the Mac before - if I stripped out the macOS requirement when I was looking initially, I’d have ended up with a much better laptop, and now, barely 2 years later, I spent about half the price of the Mac and got easily way more machine. Oh well. At least the USB-C dongles and such are still useful - while the Lenovo lacks Thunderbolt (it’s an AMD machine), it’s still got a couple of whatever the fast USB C ports are so I can still use ‘em. (And part of my annoyance was/is those things - I have like 3 of the dongle dock things, and the CalDigit one wasn’t cheap.)

So, moral of the story: don’t buy the base model, and, yeah, look at the damned Windows machines. I’d have been happier with either a contemporary Dell XPS or HP Spectre/Envy or something or by saving a bit more and getting one of the 4-port MacBook Pros. (Or even the Air, really - 512GB storage would be better. Or being able to upgrade the storage. Damned Apple SSDs aren’t even that fast. They’re not magic.) I am, though, real impressed with this cheap Lenovo.

Other thoughts: Battery life is still pretty great - I get a good 8 hours at least depending on what I’m doing. Lenovo gives you a year warranty and adding on up to 4 years is pretty cheap - something like $200ish to go up to 4 total years with on-site support; less if you’re good with shipping it out. Mine didn’t have too much bloat crap on it, just a handful of annoying Lenovo apps and McAfee (or the ghost thereof), all of which (other than a couple of Lenovo things to make the support site work) went away when I reformatted and installed Windows 10 Pro. I can’t unlock it with my watch, but then most of the time I unlocked the Mac with the Touch ID sensor because the watch unlock is really slow. The convertible bit is pretty nice, though I won’t use it much. Still nice to have and because of poor impulse control I did get a Wacom Bamboo pen for it, which works pretty well (at least as good as my ancient Surface Pro 4 pen). I have in fact used it a few times in the short time I’ve had it so far. And man the keyboard. It’s like it was designed by people who actually use their computers for things and who might want to type on them occasionally. Nice travel, nice tactile bump, and this isn’t even the nicer ThinkPad keyboard. Being able to actually do things from the couch is nice.

Easy HiFi Streaming

In my office, I have an actual component stereo system set up. It’s got a receiver, CD player, turntable, and speakers - most of which is circa 1990. And, it’s a fun thing for playing my ever-expanding record collection and CD collection on (and occasionally terrestrial radio, mostly WEVL and WYXR, though the RF noise from computers and such in there makes that difficult). It couldn’t do any sort of streaming, though. This is unsurprising as the newest thing in the stack hails from the era of the 9600bps modem. But, I thought it’d be nice to have a way to stream audio from a computer to it, or to maybe be able to queue up stuff from a service on it directly.

The obvious first step here was a Bluetooth receiver. I got a cheap one off of Amazon - which seemed to be a rebranded Logitech unit maybe? - and tried that out, but there’s a lot of 2.4GHz.. stuff so that was a bit of a no-go, even at the relatively short distance I had to go. Also, Bluetooth streaming is a pain in the ass. Sometimes I have stuff playing on my main PC, sometimes it’s coming from the Mac, sometimes a phone, and sometimes something else entirely, and switching between all of those requires re-pairing the device. It’s less than ideal.

But then I stumbled across an old Android phone, and had an epiphany - what if I could use that instead? At worst, I could probably load it up with Spotify and do stuff that way, or use YouTube on the device, but maybe there’s an app that’ll receive Chromecast or AirPlay I can get. So, I did a bit of searching and yep, there’s actually a bunch of those, most of which had demo versions. I did some testing of things, paid the ungodly sum of like $3 USD, and now I have AirPlay and Chromecast streaming to my stereo system. Initially, I used some cables I had lying around - all that was needed was a charger and an audio cable to go from the headphone socket to the receiver - but I cleaned it up a bit with some right-angle cables and some zip ties and stick-on mounting bits so that it could be anchored to the shelves the system sits on. I also added a fancy live wallpaper/screensaver thing and Nova Launcher, with settings tuned for always-on use, so it’s got a nice backdrop and some handy info on it too (the weather and the current time). With everything situated, it looks like this:

m not sure how.

I suppose this picture could be worse, but I'm not sure how.

This is the hardware bill for this particular project:

  • The phone itself: in my case, a Samsung Galaxy Sol, locked to Cricket Wireless. A burner phone that I think cost me all of $20 that I got literally to have phone while my number was porting some years ago. (In this case, it’s nice because it has an HD-resolution screen - actual 1920x1080 - that looks really quite nice.) This device has really not enough onboard flash to handle the ancient Android 6 install it has on it; it’s not fancy or well known enough to have a LineageOS build; it’s basically frozen in time, which makes it great for this - no worries about wanting to repurpose the thing for use for anything more than this.
  • The streaming app: the most important part of this. I tried a bunch of them but the one I ended up liking the best was AirReceiver. There’s a lite/free version available of that. It supports Miracast, and can be an AirPlay and Chromecast target, the latter of which were the best options. What sealed the deal for me specifically was that it supports AirPlay Audio specifically - in my AirPlay sources list, I can choose to stream just audio, which is essential. I really just want audio routed through the thing. (You can use it to do full AirPlay video mirroring too, but that’s less than ideal on a 5” screen, even if it is 1080p. Would be handy for a larger device, like a tablet, though.)
  • Cables and such: The two I had to buy were this StarTech right-angle micro USB cable and this Hosa right-angle audio cable. I sought these two out specifically because I’d planned on zip tying the phone to the front of the wire shelf, so I wanted the cables to run straight back from there. These are obviously optional - you can use whatever cables you have - but it’s important to note that the right-angle USB cables can be a bit tricky to source as some careful consideration has to be taken to ensure you don’t end up with one that goes backwards. That StarTech cable specifically had the USB port oriented correctly so the cable would exit behind the phone - you can get them with the port oriented the opposite way too. (There’s also some concern about data speed on those things - I didn’t care about that so much as this thing will forever live hooked to a simple charger.) For the charger, I just rummaged around and found a spare USB charger; I did have to try a couple because some of the older ones were very noisy, which came through the stereo speakers.
  • Other stuff: Nova Launcher, set to not time out and set up with the widgets I wanted, and the Wave screensaver because I thought it looked neat. The built-in Samsung launcher on that phone sucks and I didn’t just want a static background. This is entirely personal preference, though. I also turned off notifications and generally set the device to ignore the top drawer, and set the screen to never time out. (This will decrease the life of the screen but I don’t really care, and honestly most of the time it stays off anyway because I’ve turned it off and I’m too lazy to power it back up. AirReceiver works whether or not the phone is locked.)

The device is mounted just by sticky-backed mount loops I got from Monoprice; they’re meant to be stuck to flat surfaces and have a zip tie go through them so cables can be anchored to them. I put them on the back case and cinched them down with some zip ties to the wire shelf.

There are some things to keep in mind about this setup - having the screen on will reduce its lifespan, and it’ll be on the charger all the time so the battery will fry itself sooner rather than later. If you’re using a slightly nicer device, this may be something to think about. However, for me, part of the great thing about this is it mostly uses things that were lying around: an audio cable that was kicking around, a spare phone charger, the phone itself, though I did replace the cables with nicer ones. You’ve probably got an old phone in a drawer that works but is largely too old to be useful for much of anything, and that would be perfect for this. (Or, an old Android TV box - I have one of these too, running either Android 5 or 6, and it does this job quite well too. I preferred having a screen, though.) If you don’t have a spare phone, a second-hand one is easy enough to pick up, or there are some really good deals on pay-as-you-go Android phones out there as of this writing. (And, another nice thing is that I’ve now put that app on some other Android devices, including my straight up Android TV, so it too has AirPlay and all that now where it didn’t before.)

But, for just a little bit of work and a few dollars (plus a few more for fancy cables), I can now get a whole lot more use out of my stereo system. AirPlay works wonderfully on my MacBook and on my iPhone and via iTunes on Windows, and I can stream other stuff to it as necessary too quickly and easily.

Refurbing a PowerBook G4

So, I have this PowerBook G4 that’s been sitting on a shelf for a while. It’s not a terribly interesting model - just a regular 15” one, second-to-last generation, that’s basically stock except for a slightly upgraded hard drive (faster, but not any more spacious). I believe I originally got the machine maybe 12-13 years ago as a “it’s gonna get thrown out otherwise” deal from one of the various jobs I’ve had, just as an extra machine to do things with. (It’s old enough that Intel machines were out by this point, and this was even then skirting the edge of usefulness as a PowerPC Mac.) At some point, it got given to a friend to use for audio stuff, and then ended up back in my hands a year or two ago, where it’s sat since then. I think I tried to power it up once and it really wasn’t having it, so it got turned back off and shelved.

Always run OS X Installer with the computer half apart, for better horsepower.

I ran across the thing the other day while doing some reorganizing and decided, why not see if this thing works? So, I pulled a power adapter (fortunately I actually have a couple!) and gave it a shot. Lo and behold, it actually did power back up and at least tried to boot! This was pretty surprising. It didn’t boot successfully, but it at least got to a point where I could start it in verbose mode, so that was nice. A burned Tiger DVD later and.. yeah, the hard drive gave up the ghost. I happened to be watching one of the myriad YouTube channels about retro computing, and ended up watching a video about putting a mSATA SSD into a Titanium Powerbook G4. Fortunately, it also listed the specific parts necessary for this, so I headed to Amazon and made a quick purchase. (You do have to be a bit careful with the SSDs - chips to convert SATA to old-style parallel ATA are pretty easy to come by, as are enclosures that give you that plus an m.2 slot for an actual drive. But, the drive itself needs to support mSATA specifically - a sufficiently fancy NVMe one may not. So, it was nice to have specifically an enclosure and drive pair that worked, and worked in a PowerBook G4 specifically, even if it was a much older one.) Once all that arrived, I pulled the machine apart (which is simply a case of “take out all the screws, use a bit of prying, hope you remember where the screws went”) and swapped out the now-dead hard drive with the assembled mSATA enclosure. Reassembled and hey! now I have an actually working PowerBook G4 running Tiger.

As a side note: it’s pretty impressive how much faster even a really cheap, probably somewhat iffy SSD is over a spinning rust disk.

With Tiger installed, I put a couple of older games on there and a few useful things, like TenFourFox (a modern version of Firefox compiled to work on old versions of Mac OS X and with old PowerPC processors). The next step was getting Linux on it, because of course. I tried Adelie Linux, which still produces a PowerPC version (and also because the channel that did the TiBook upgrade has a video on putting that on a G3 iMac) but it seemed like too much work. (There’s no installer, so you’re basically bootstrapping it via chroot by hand. The “too much work” thing.. well, that’s a pretty dubious line.) So, it got Debian Linux 8, which does have a proper installer. It works pretty well! Obviously, with some caveats, given the age of the CPU in it and the limitations of the hardware in general, but Firefox seemed to work OK. Really, the biggest pain was resizing the existing Tiger install - mainly because that OS is old enough that it doesn’t understand resizing partitions, so I had to clone it to a flash drive (which it can’t boot from, because Open Firmware), repartition the drive, then clone it back, and oh did I mention that this machine just has USB 2.0? That took awhile. All in all, though, it did work, and now it will dual-boot into Debian and Tiger.

Remember when you could do this?

Now, because I am a terrible nerd, I also recalled that OS X used to ship with X11. Not installed by default, but it was on the DVD, so that got installed too. Now I can do stupid Unix tricks with the much, much, much faster Core i5-4570 Ubuntu system sitting headless on a shelf behind it. Unfortunately, the version of X that comes with Tiger is rather old, so it’s not particularly happy working with modern things (and modern things aren’t particularly forgiving of this, and therefore crash). There is, of course, more than one way to do this.. so a download of Xcode 2.5 was initiated, and, lo and behold, MacPorts actually still supports OSes all the way back to Tiger. With Xcode installed, I went ahead and installed MacPorts as well. Some hours later, I have now a working MacPorts setup on here.

Another aside: I also installed WebObjects. Ask your elders. I have a boxed copy of this on my shelf, so printed manuals that might not be too horribly out of date with the copy that’s installed on here. Maybe I’ll do something with it!

The MacPorts setup on older platforms like this basically works by replacing all the development tools with its own toolchain. So, while you need Xcode installed so it can at least bootstrap itself, it’ll install its own copy of gcc and all that so it can bring up whatever package you’re trying to install. (This is basically a BSD ports-style distribution, after all - it’s less a package manager like apt and more a build script manager. Everything is compiled, except where it’s not a compiled language or whatever.)

So, “sudo port install xorg-server” was run. And that’s where this story ends for now, because that was.. quite literally 12 hours ago. It’s not done yet. It’s still compiling libgcc. It stopped in the middle, even, because it required manual intervention (literally, running a command, but still) to disable a library so it could continue building things successfully. Perhaps it will be done in the morning, but I doubt it; there were a lot of packages that needed to be done up and just the bzip2 install alone took an hour or so.

Needless to say, the takeaway so far is: 1.5GHz G4s were really fast in 2005. They aren’t so much now. Bootstrapping a modern compiler toolchain on such a machine - even one with an SSD - takes a while, because there’s only one core, because that wasn’t a thing yet. (Not in consumer applications, anyway.) On the plus side, I know this machine definitely works fine, because the load average on it has sat at 1.3 since this process started.

I do have some more stuff to do with it - it’s only got 1GB RAM, so I’ve got another DIMM on the way - but really this will be around to play old games on and maybe fiddle with old developer tools and stuff. And stupid Unix tricks.

Final aside: because old games, I did have to get Mac OS 9 installed on it. Problem: this machine is too new to boot OS 9. (It being a PowerPC means it runs in Classic on this system.) So, I had to figure out how to install OS 9 via Classic without the restore CDs, which would have included a disk image Classic environment to work with. I did figure that out! So it actually, technically, runs 3 OSes - OS 9, OS X 10.4.11, and Debian Linux 8. (And maybe Leopard if I can find my DVD of it. I don’t know that I want to buy a spindle of dual-layer DVD-Rs.)

s still at this point.)

Compiling... forever. (This was taken now 12 hours ago. It's still at this point.)

Cheap computer = go

So, at the beginning of the lockdown situation I had a go at refurbishing an old corporate desktop class machine for use by a friend. This thing was an Optiplex 790 or some such tomfoolery, which was a first-generation Core i7 machine in the small form factor case (closer to a Mac mini in size, low-profile PCIe slots, etc.). It actually impressed me when it was done - it was a perfectly capable lightweight computing machine. My refurbishing extended to all of fitting 16GB RAM to the thing (it had none at the time) and putting Windows 10 on it (which activated with the 7 license it had - corporate desktop!), and even with the spinning disk inside as a boot drive, it’s perfectly fine even for some rather older games, and handles basic tasks like web browsing and Office perfectly well. I did hold off on replacing the hard drive with an SSD, though - some quick looking showed that the price of doing that (even with how cheap SSDs are now) wouldn’t have been a good idea.

The looking did give me ideas, though, as to what you can get for not much money. The dumb-no-longer-dumb-but-real-PC really started up as an experiment to see how cheaply you could build a decent PC, and that got pretty cheap but some more eBay searching and benchmarking indicated that you could do, perhaps, a bit better. So, I started looking at some of these business PCs, specifically the small form factor ones, and basically came up with this: for between $100 and $150, you can get a 3rd or 4th-gen Core i3/i5 system with some memory (generally about 8GB) and a spinning disk drive (usually around 500GB, though sometimes bigger or sometimes SSD), and it will likely have Windows 10 on it. That’s a complete computer (unless you want to get a bit tetchy about it not having a keyboard, mouse or monitor). To put that into perspective, the new build involved a Pentium Gold CPU for about $70, and about another $50 on the motherboard, and that doesn’t include even RAM or storage.

Prices spike after the 4th gen CPUs at this point in time, and systems with i7s in them come at a premium as well that I’m not entirely sure is worth the additional cost or jump down to a 2nd-gen CPU. (I’d rather have a i5-4560 rather than a i7-2660, personally.) You’re also not going to get a real GPU most of the time with these - onboard or bust - and if you get an SSD, it’s going to be a 120GB one. (I did look, and while I was more after a SFF system, a regular midtower doesn’t incur a price premium, other than maybe additional shipping cost.) But, that’s still a complete system, with a licensed and activated copy of Windows 10, for about $150. And, that’s a fair amount of computer too - it’s not going to be the thing you want to depend on to do your 4k renders for YouTube, but for most anything else it’ll be perfectly acceptable. Even some software development stuff shouldn’t be too hard to do on a machine like this.

I did end up putting a bit of money where my mouth is on this one, and I ended up with an HP ProDesk 600 G1 SFF machine. Spec-wise, this thing came with 8GB DDR3, a 500GB spinning disk (with two! empty bays and matching SATA ports for each, one of which a 2.5” one), a DVD-DL RW drive, a Core i5-4570 CPU (3.2GHz, burst to 3.6), and Windows 10 Pro. Also handy: 3 PCIe slots (one 16x and two 1x), DisplayPort, and USB 3 ports. And a serial port. Because business. It’s also a vPro capable system, so it even has some rudimentary LOM stuff on board and ready to be an attack vector because Intel has problems with that. I’m going to drop a 240GB or so SSD in it (those run about $30 these days) and another 8GB RAM to.. bring it half to max - did I also mention it’s got 4 RAM slots and supports up to 32GB RAM? No? Well, it does - and then basically leave it alone. The spinning disk in there hurts performance a good deal, as they always do, but it’s a pretty decent machine otherwise, and it did for sure boot into an activated install of Windows 10 Pro. With shipping costs, this ran me a total of $105.

I like the way the Dell SFFs are done up - they just seem really solid and.. dense, really, which is nice - but I actually think I prefer the HP layout. It’s a bit bigger than the Optiplex SFFs but all of the bays are on a swing-out bracket, and there was even spare mounting screws included (in a designated spot, from the factory) for adding additional drives. There’s a 3.5” and a slim 5.25” external bay, and a 2.5” and 3.5” internal bay each. So, with some additional commodity mounting brackets, you could slot a total of 3 SSDs in here and have a pretty decent little storage server. Expandability is pretty nice on here - it of course uses low-profile cards, as do most any SFF-style machine, but three total slots is pretty good, and there’s a good number of USB 3 ports on the front and back. (And, of course, vPro management stuff and the one somewhat neat thing that tends to get glossed over: the internal speaker’s hooked to the sound card, so you have actual audio without having to hook up speakers. Not good audio, but not just the 1981-style PC beeper either.) One big drawback here, though, is that the power supply is totally nonstandard; sometimes these things will have an SFX or TFX power supply, which is at least pin-compatible with ATX, but in a weird size. This doesn’t; the power going to the motherboard is totally weird. There’s like 3 different, beefy 6-pin connectors that would be at home in an Amiga. It’s a good PSU in there, but if it goes out, the machine is unlikely to be salvageable. Still, that’s a lot of good machine and options for the $105.

Now, am I going to use this as a desktop PC? Of course not. It’ll work fine for that purpose, but that’s not really why I wanted to get one. I also got a 4-port GigE card (also HP, with an Intel chipset) that uses a PCIe x4 slot, and that’s been added to it. In essence, this is going to become a router. Commodity WiFi routers cost about this same amount, but not ones that can be loaded down with Proxmox (and/or maybe Kubernetes) and pfSesne. (And obviously WiFi routers have WiFi, and this doesn’t. But, I’m just going to keep using my cheap TP-Link router, and just make it not do routing anymore. It’ll just have to manage WiFi and the what-passes-for-mesh networking I have.) So, for $100, another $30 or so for the NIC (you don’t have to get a quad-port one, but they all run about the same price via the eBay) and about another $60 in some upgrades I don’t really have to do, I’ll have a pretty decent home router and edge server. And it’ll be way easier to do WireGuard up to real cloud stuff too. And I can maybe finally use the IPv6 block I’ve had forever. And VLANs, because what every home network needs is 4 more networks laid on top of it!

In conclusion, if you need a decent amount of computing power, but don’t have or don’t want to spend a bunch of cash on a new build.. old business desktops are a thing to check out. $125ish for a machine that you can then slap an SSD and some sort of half-height video card into, and play some games or get some work done is a great deal - it’s excessively hard to compete with that by building your own from scratch.

At the end of Pinnochio, the puppet becomes real

Or, the continuing saga of the original “dumb PC”!

The “dumb PC” has seen a lot of changing roles and changing uses since I set it up. Originally, its purpose in life was “I have this case, what’s about the cheapest PC I can build into it?” and part of that goal was to re-use some spare parts I had from refurbishing and upgrading an HP all-in-one I managed to take home. Ultimately, building a system with even used parts around an old Athlon II X2 CPU was pretty cost prohibitive, and I ended up putting together a pretty cheap 9th-gen Intel Core system. Doing that gave way to trying to use a Linux desktop for the first time in.. well, decades, which went well, but, yano, games, so Windows 10 it was, and it got a fairly decent video card. It ended up becoming my main system, especially after the pandemic hit and working from home was the order, and more upgrades ensued until it ended up moving from an 8GB/240GB machine to a 16GB system with a 500GB M.2 SSD and a 1TB SATA SSD. It’s got both my 4k screens on it, and I even got it a cheapish webcam (once demand settled a bit) that actually works pretty well and support Windows Hello.

At this point, the machine really is my main system - all of my main job stuff is done there, most of the screwing around I do is done there, games are on there (when I have time and interest in playing them), etc. But, one of the things I started to run into was a lack of processor. This was supposed to be a cheap machine and as such it’s got a cheap processor in it - a Pentium Gold G5400, which is based on the 9th generation Core architecture, but is intended for budget systems and appliance use more than anything. It’s only got 2 cores, and does do HyperThreading, but my workflow now depends on virtual machines and Docker and all that more and more and that’s a bit much for that CPU. So, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and move from “let’s build a PC for cheap, it’ll be fun!” to “yep let’s build a pretty serious system.”

The one thing I didn’t do is actually stick with Intel. The 9th-gen Cores are great and all, and I’ve had an eye on a i5-9600 that’d swap right into the board, but it bothered me that I’d then have this basically new, current CPU floating around not doing anything, and it’s both too modern and too budget to really get anything out of it on the used market, so I’d want to also get another motherboard to slot it into and use for, I dunno, something. (Plus with previous upgrades I did have 8GB of DDR4 and the original 240gb SSD not doing anything.) But, looking at prices for the motherboard plus CPU kinda put me off. And, I kept seeing things on YouTube and whatnot talking about the Ryzen CPUs, and I hadn’t had a really good AMD system in a while.. so that’s what I went with: a Ryzen 7 3700x. That’s an 8 core/16 thread CPU for about the same money as the i5 (6 core/12 thread). On top of that, the new B550/X570 chipsets also just came out, so why not do all the new things?

As a quick aside, one of the first real modern systems (or maybe the first real modern system) I built was a 1.2GHz Athlon Thunderbird. It’s been a long, long time - arguably since the Pentium 4/Athlon XP Barton days - since AMD was not only a power player but legitimately better than Intel. Processors sure are ridiculous these days but it’s nice to kind of revisit those days of building systems and playing Unreal endlessly, and loading up games because it’s just so damned weird to have things that look so good. (And if you want to go back further.. we had a 386DX-40 system back in the halcyon days of Windows 3.1, CPU lawsuits, and the very early Internet. Me and AMD go back a ways, and those DX-40s were fast as hell and bulletproof in the day.)

Anywho, so aside from the processor, I also ended up with an ASUS Prime B550 motherboard to slot it into. The nice thing about the B550 is that it’s PCI-Express 4 capable now, and will support the new Zen 3 processors when those come out too. (So in 6 months or whatever, my VM infrastructure will become properly ridiculous.) It’s also got two PCI-Express M.2 SSD slots, one that maxes out at 2280 and one that goes up to 22110 or whatever the longer one is. And better I/O - the Intel board I have (also an ASUS Prime) has like 4 on-board USB ports total; this one has 6, at least, 4 of them USB 3.1 and two 3.2s on top of that. The one thing that kinda sucks about it over the other B550 boards I was looking at is that the LAN port is only 1Gb where other ones have 2.5Gb Ethernet. But on that same token I’m totally not putting the money down yet for 10GBaseT infrastructure so not gonna worry too hard on that.

I threw that all together and.. holy crap Docker starts so fast now. I did a test Windows install to the 240GB SSD and kept getting up while it was doing its thing, to come back 20 seconds later to a reboot, and then confusion because it wasn’t erroring out, it just blew through the install steps that quickly. I did run a Cinebench R20 test, and it benches about 6 times faster. The NVMe stuff is also vastly improved - somehow or another, my drive was running at PCI-E 2.0 with just 2 lanes, where it supports PCI-E 3 x4. (Why this was I don’t know.) I haven’t run games or 3DMark yet, but I don’t expect a huge increase there; I’m still on the older RX 570 GPU and I have a hard time justifying that expense. That said, it’s definitely snappier, which alone is an accomplishment - things are just so damned fast nowadays that it’s hard to really get a machine that feels faster, but this is a move that does it. To be sure, this was a pretty massive upgrade - it’s 4 times the cores and threads, and on an architecture that’s perhaps a bit faster than the Coffee Lake stuff now - but when you factor in the cost, it’s pretty impressive.

So, loads of SSD, a video card I’m pretty happy with, and a real fast processor. This thing is a pretty properly good computer now. The current final specs on it:

  • AMD Ryzen 7 3700x 8-core/16-thread unlocked CPU (3.6GHz factory)
  • ASUS PRIME B550M-A/CSM B550 chipset motherboard
  • 16GB Crucial 2666MHz DDR4 RAM (2x8GB)
  • AMD Radeon RX 570XT GPU (6GB I think? Maybe 3)
  • 500GB Mushkin M.2 NVMe SSD (PCI-E 3.0 x4)
  • 1TB Patriot Burst SATA SSD

I’m pretty happy with it. So, I’m done now, right? Well, of course not! I am a terrible nerd after all, and there are slots and things that aren’t being used.

The first thing in line is the case and PSU - the Rosewill case it’s in is cheap and I’ve cut myself each time I’ve had to work in it, and it’s cramped and yeah basically no cable management. Airflow is OK given the case fans and mesh front but cable routing is a pain. And, the RAIDMAX 500 watt PSU that’s in it now makes odd noises sometimes. (The fan’s dying.) I’m not terribly worried about power consumption - the UPS that runs the whole nine yards there, including the screens, the MacBook Pro, its screens, and the dock/charger, all together use about 300wt - but bad fan is no bueno, and I want a modular PSU anyway. So, probably going with a Thermaltake or Fractal Design case and some sort of real PSU (Tt, Corsair, or Silverstone probably) for the next round. I have like maybe 1cm of clearance between the GPU fans and the front panel cabling/bottom of the case on the current one so this is now pretty needful.

Next up is RAM. 16GB good, 32GB better, RAM is cheap. 4x8GB DDR4-3200 or whatever runs like $130, and that board has 4 slots for a maximum of either 64 or 128GB. NVMe SSDs are cool but actual RAM is better. Speaking of, I’d also love to jettison the SATA SSD and drop in a NVMe 1TB one (or two!) in there. Even those are pretty inexpensive - I won’t get a Samsung 970EVO PRO for $100ish but the WD Black drives are pretty damned good too. (I believe I get RAID on the 3700x CPU too so a RAID 0 of two NVMe drives sounds like I need a moist towelette.)

I’d like to do up a faster video card but until case and power supply (and probably RAM) I’d rather not. It’s just too cramped in there as is. And I kinda want an RTX card (yes, for Minecraft), and those are still way more than I want to pay.

So, not but a few months in, and the fun plaything modern PC turned into my main machine, then turned into a real boy. I mean computer. And, I’ve already repurposed the Intel stuff into a new machine - the new and improved sinbox! So many weird computing projects.

Even More Dumb Things

So, I’m going to have to stop referring to the dumb PC as the “dumb PC”, as I’ve recently acquired two new (to me) systems that actually really do count as.. dumb PCs. The dumb PC I built - dumb PC Prime, essentially - is actually a modern, relatively up-to-date PC build that is reasonably fast and is, for all intents and purposes, a decent PC. (It even got a new 1TB or so SATA-3 SSD, since the spinny disk that was in it was slowly dying and I just hate mechanical storage, so it’s now got a terabyte and a half of all-solid-state storage.)

In contrast, the new dumb PCs are.. actually quite dumb, at least for spending money on in this day and age. One’s not even really a PC. These were both eBay finds, and were sold as non-working systems for repair or part out. I am, of course, a dork, and therefore have at least mostly fixed both.

Dumb PC 1 is an actual PC. It’s an HP Vectra VL400 desktop system, featuring a spry 866MHz Intel Pentium III (a Coppermine variant, with a 133MHz bus speed), 256MB RAM, 40GB hard disk, floppy, and a fancy 56X Max CD-ROM only drive. It refused to boot with a BIOS error stating that it had some issues with the fans and wouldn’t boot. A quick look at the various fans in the system indicated that someone at some point plugged the fan into the wrong header. Redid that and booted fine - or at least tried, into some sort of NT-based Windows install that was broken. I put Windows 2000 Pro SP4 on it initially - it had a COA for it! - and used that temporarily.

While Win2K was a nice blast from the past, it was kinda pointless - it’s hard to find any sort of web browser that’ll work with it and it’s sufficiently old that modern Windows won’t talk to it, and it’s also just weird enough that using it as a game machine is kind of out of the question with that OS. (Win2k is close enough to XP that stuff may be doable on there but it’s not really all that well supported, and that’s not even getting into the video card, which it doesn’t have. Yep, this thing has one of the first couple generations of integrated Intel video, which only nominally has 3D support! They’re really more fancy framebuffers.) I already have a Windows 98 system (the P133), so on this one I went Linux. Amazingly, there are still distributions that come in 32-bit flavors and will install on a P3! And they happen to be Debian Linux. So, it’s now running Debian Buster. (No, Ubuntu doesn’t provide a 32-bit build anymore.)

As an aside, I did initially try to do Slackware on there, just to really, really blast off into the wild blue past. Slackware was really my first real Linux distro back in the day, and it’s still around (sort of), so I tried that first. Unfortunately, the only writable CD media I had were old CD-RWs that are 650MB only, and the first install disk ISO is bigger than that, so Debian net install it was. (Slackware doesn’t do a net install - the last release for it was in 2016, so it’s only sort of still around anyway - and the machine is of that nice age to both have USB but not be able to boot from it.) Getting a GUI on it was a no go, as I have no idea how to set up.. Xorg or whatever the hell they use now, so it’s console-only. (I did put Firefox on there and tried to use it over an SSH tunnel to my MacBook Pro, which worked! Slowly. Very very slowly. Tens of minutes slowly, to load the initial internal pages and chrome. It really illustrates just how far software and hardware has come in 10 years, as that machine is roughly circa 2000, and even my 10-year-old MacBook can reasonably browse the web and such with ease, where as it.. can sort of load the browser. But not really.)

I capped it off by hooking the Apple IIc to it as a serial terminal (surprisingly easy!) and installing some text-based fun things, like nethack and the first three Zorks. I may open this (more) to friends as a sort of tilde.club clone. It’s a pretty fun type thing so far, though, and it’s pretty nice that I can still at least sort of run modern software on it.

Dumb PC 2 is.. more of a work in progress at this point, and isn’t a PC, technically. I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve had or used a bunch of non-mainstream computers, and.. yeah. It’s a Sun Blade 100 workstation.

A Sun Blade 100 is an entry-level workstation from back when Sun actually.. existed and contains a 500MHz UltraSPARC IIe processor. Mine’s got a 20GBish disk and 256MB RAM. It’s also got a dead IDPROM/NVRAM chip in it. These are relatively uncommon on standard PC hardware in execution - it basically fills the role of the CMOS or UEFI setup on a regular PC, and stores a bunch of system settings and stuff. Unlike a (newer) PC, though, this is done up with a single “chip” type thing that contains the RAM itself, a realtime clock, and the (non-rechargeable lithium) battery, and it is of course dead. Also unlike a PC, this also means the system doesn’t know what its ID is and (more importantly) the Ethernet MAC address on it is now wiped. So, this causes a whole lot of fun problems and makes you have to work with the OpenBoot firmware in the system to get it to do anything. Once you know what to do it’s more tedious than anything but it’s a lot of “hey let’s poke hex values into straight memory locations until it works!” kind of stuff. Also: remember how really, really old PCs and Apple IIs and Commodore 64s and stuff all booted up and you could write BASIC programs immediately? Sun systems do that too, except they use Forth, which really, really doesn’t work like most other C-style or BASIC languages. (Techncially, it’s Open Firmware, which also exists on all PowerPC-based Macs, amongst other things. On real Unix workstations, though, it’s a lot easier to get into and very much more likely you’ll have to interact with it. Though it used to be a bit of a fun party trick to drop into it on a then-modern PPC Mac, like a Power Mac G5 or iBook G4, to do stuff.)

Another side note: the way Sun did this whole system settings/real-time clock arrangement isn’t necessarily new, or even unknown in the PC realm. A number of PCs up through even the 386 age would use a similar chip provided by Dallas Semiconductor to provide these things, until at least the clock functionality started getting baked into the chipset. (And until there were things like chipsets that were more highly integrated. You must remember that, in the early days of PCs, the “chipset” was really more just the glue logic that held everything together and the specialized bus management chips and such, and going back further meant not even that much - you’d just get a board with a ton of discrete logic on it. It was no joke late into the 486 era that you’d even get a IDE interface or Super I/O - meaning floppy drives and serial and parallel ports - integrated into the motherboard. Nowadays, the chipset arbitrates the various busses in the system and provides bootstrapping and some legacy I/O and stuff - most everything is integrated directly into the CPU - but back in the day a motherboard and a CPU wasn’t even half the equation. But, that’s reminiscing for another time.) Sun (and presumably other workstation vendors) held on to this setup for far, far longer. The Blade 100 and 150 machines are circa 2001/2002 - PCs really stopped using these things in the late 80s/early 90s.

Anyway, I did some searching and found at least a few of the incantations necessary to get it to boot up off of the built-in storage, and lo and behold, it does indeed boot. The machine’s got Solaris 8 on it. That was nice to know. It’s also got a password, which is unsurprising. I obviously don’t know what this is - the seller got as far as “NVRAM invalid” and an ok? prompt and stopped - but at least I do know the hard drive works. I did venture into the world of burning ISOs on the command line with Linux and got an OpenBSD 6.6 ISO written to a disk, but it doesn’t appear that the drive in there much likes CD-RWs (or that I should have also read the documentation), so it wouldn’t boot off of that. Solaris, as a general rule, was very much not a free operating system, so getting a set of 8 ISOs is a no-go either (as far as I could find - no, WinWorldPC doesn’t have it, they have the Intel version). I may yet try to find a Solaris 10 ISO and try that, as I actually kinda do want to see what’s on the drive, but..

Booting a Sun machine, especially one with a dead IDPROM, is a pain in the ass. It’s even more of a pain in the ass if you don’t have a proper keyboard for it. This one at least has USB, so I can use a regular USB keyboard, which is a plus as it didn’t come with a Sun one and the Type 5 keyboards are wildly different interface-wise from a PC keyboard. But, as one of the things that happens with Unix workstations in general, the input devices are still somewhat special, and a Sun keyboard has a bunch of extra keys on it to do various things. (This extends, to an extent, to the mouse. Fun fact: Apple’s Lisa and Mac had a one button mouse. This you knew. PCs generally settled on two-button ones, though now there’s at least a third, usually the wheel, but you basically have to have two. This you also knew. Unix workstations pretty well always have 3. And you really need the third one. And it’s a bit annoying to have a somewhat crap 2-button-plus-mousewheel one on a system that really, really wants a 3-button mouse.) I can’t do a Stop-A, which drops you into the OpenBoot monitor, on a PC keyboard, and there are some other key combos that can’t be done and the modifier keys (Ctrl/Alt/Windows on your average PC keyboard) are different too, or at least differently named. And, as noted, the dead IDPROM means the Ethernet address doesn’t work, so networking isn’t really functional. (And it’s like 20 lines of code to reset it each. time. you. boot.)

So, I will probably migrate the SD-to-IDE setup from the P133 into the Sun (I have a second on order) so I don’t have to erase the original drive, and try harder to get OpenBSD or NetBSD working on there, and then just never turn it off. But, this is really a bit of a work in progress as the system really does need a new PROM and a Sun keyboard. Those seem to be pretty easy to find - the Type 6 and Type 7 USB keyboards/mice especially - but the official Sun replacement IDPROMs are prohibitively expensive. (I got this on a bit of a lark - since it didn’t work it was already cheap and I used the eBay “Make Offer” thing that was, surprisingly, accepted. The NVRAM chip thing is easily 2/3rds of the way to what I bought the entire machine for.) eBay seems to have questionably new-old-stock supplies of the actual chip itself (it’s just a STMicro Timekeeper chip) so I may try that first and then see how that goes. But, I am remembering all the fun things about working with real Unix hardware. It’s sort of like working on old cars - the HP is like having a nice older Accord or a Ford Explorer or a GM truck or something: the parts are pretty easy to find, or there are newer replacements or things can be adapted pretty easily. Working on this Sun is more like fixing a BMW or something - the concepts are all largely the same, some things can be replaced pretty easily with cross-compatible parts, but there’s a lot of just straight up “we did it this way because we were doing X in 1981 where PCs didn’t get to that until like 1999” and stuff. This thing is at least mostly PC stuff inside - PCI, an ATi Rage video chip, USB and FireWire 400, IDE - so it’s not the pain and suffering of wiring out your own weird-ass serial adapters or figuring out how to hook a modern LCD into a 13W3 connector or SBus. I am kind of excited to see how this thing compares to the HP, though, since they’re about the same age but very, very different architecturally, and even more different as far as clock speed and such goes (866MHz P3 vs. 500MHz UltraSPARC IIe). SPARC64 hadn’t yet lost the plot at this point - that’d come later, and it’s worth noting that this CPU is 64-bit where the P3 isn’t - but this, even though it was lower-end, was serious Unix hardware for serious people and very much did command a price premium over commodity PC gear (though it was very, very rapidly catching up here). I’d also like to try to hunt down the US-III based Blade 1500 because.. well, look at it. Also it’s Taco, and what does Grover need but a Taco?

So, those are the new fun toy things I’m playing with. The ultimate goal is to actually get Linux or something up on them and maybe on a limited basis open them up for use for people (as noted, like a lower-powered and even more exclusive tilde.club), but for now it’s just a bit of fun to play with some older machines. And there may be a third one. I haven’t pulled the trigger on that one yet,though.

Oh, and the real reason I did all this crap? I’m going to upgrade the modern PC again with a Core i5 or somesuch soonish and will be a power supply, case, and motherboard away from another modern PC. And the Vectra seemed to be mostly ATX form factor. And was cheap. (I’ve been on the hunt for a while for a Dell Dimension XPS H or D series - the ATX-style Pentium MMX or early Pentium II-based ones with the weird racing fins on the front - just for the case, but they’re a bit pricy.) Turns out the system isn’t really ATX. I could probably force it to work but the power supply is a small-form-factor type thing that’s hard to find replacements for. May still try it, though, and either way I was going to keep the P3 setup around anyway as some of this older stuff is downright hard to come by at any sort of reasonable cost no i’m not gonna pay $300 for your half-assed K6-2/450 clone. It is kinda fun to know I have computers that can serve web pages using modern software and languages much more aptly than they can render them.

New experiment time!

For about half a week now, I’ve been performing a bit of an experiment with my main computing environment. This has been triggered by my frustrations with macOS Catalina - it’s no secret that Catalina isn’t perhaps as well baked as it should have been, and my complaints with it aren’t new. There came a point where I just got tired of dealing with it not remembering that I had extra monitors, or getting all sorts of chewed up because of.. reasons (never really could figure that one out), or the admittedly small boot volume in it being damned near full all the time. I finally got fed up with it and decided to do two things: reimage the damned thing (which I honestly should have done to begin with - never trust the base image in the box) and switch up the environment some.

With that in mind, I took the silly Linux/Windows desktop I’d built up and began looking at what it’d take to push it into full-time use. The answer to that question was “not much”: most of the stack I use nowadays really works just as well on Linux as it does anywhere else, and I’d really just need to find a way to hook my screens into it. (If you’ll recall, this is a Pentium Gold-base system on a pretty entry-level H310 chipset board - integrated graphics here, and the board itself only has VGA and HDMI video outputs.) A bit of looking and some quick education on video cards pointed me in the direction of an AMD (weird) Radeon RX 570 GPU, and one in particular with 3x DisplayPort 1.4 outputs on it, so I grabbed that. For good measure, and certainly not because it was really necessary, I also opted to upgrade the storage to 500GB of M.2 SSD (it was on sale). I figured that, worst case scenario, this would mean I’d have a decent enough gaming PC to work with if the experiment failed. I do have a pretty long list of things in Steam and such that I either haven’t played or couldn’t play because of a lack of Mac support.

The SSD and video card came in on a Saturday and I went ahead and got everything installed and configured. And, of course, I started out by testing it out with some games. Intel has certainly come a long, long way from the i810 chipset video, and even the cut-down stuff in the Pentium Gold CPUs is pretty decent (especially for the older games I tend to like to play), but that RX 570 is so, so much faster.

After a lot of cultivating was done - Farming Simulator ‘19 is surprisingly fun - I went ahead with the core of the thing and got Xubuntu installed and going on the machine. That went pretty well, outside of some issues that were more caused by my router being dumb intermittently, and I got my normal stack installed and all that. Xubuntu got the Radeon configured and set up fine and it’s humming along nicely with my ridiculous mouse and the two 4K displays I’ve got for the main system. I’ve got my SSH and other access set up and working and have deployed some code and all that. So far, so good, and I’ve been able to be pretty productive on the system without it being too weird. There are very much some differences between macOS and Xfce on Linux but a lot of my work revolves around using PhpStorm, Sublime Text, Chrome, and a terminal, so all of that generally works just fine.

There are, of course, a few quibbles.

  • The ATI–er, I mean, AMD Radeon Linux drivers don’t work with non-LTS Ubuntu. Sensible but I’m running 19 so I’m out of luck for the “real” drivers. Game support is even less on Linux than on macOS - far better than I can remember it ever being but still not great - so that’s not a big deal; the 2D performance on this thing is performant to the point of it not mattering.
  • GRUB still can’t figure out that I have a Windows installation. I didn’t reinstall it - it’s on a separate disk - but the standard install nonsense didn’t pick it up. The workaround is just to hit F8 to get a boot menu and force it into Windows when I need that, which kinda sucks, but whatever.
  • There are oddities with the screensaver on Xubuntu. Something something compositing, something something xfce4, I dunno, sometimes I come back and the screensaver can’t figure out that it actually needs to stop and give me a login prompt. I can go in and switch to another text console, log in, and kill the screensaver, but that obviously sucks. (Although, yeah, text console is really graphics now and so text console at 4k res with a 9x16 font is like watching the Matrix in real life. I would totally screw with a DESQview-type grid-based text windowing interface for a while if there were decent tools to do my stuff there.) I’ve got xscreensaver installed now and we’ll see if that works out better but I’m not holding my breath.
  • Mail clients are terrible. I’m spoiled, though; I really actually do like Outlook now. Mailspring comes closest but it doesn’t support calendaring and real Exchange server environments so I can’t get my University mail. (Yes, there’s IMAP/POP as an option in Mailspring. No, I can’t use it. And neither should you.) The other option seems to be Thunderbird, which hey guys remember Netscape 3? It works well enough but meh. I’m sticking with Mailspring for now but I may be looking for something else in the near future.

The one of these that’s really a big deal is the screensaver - one reasonably expects that to, yano, actually work, and to be able to get back into your machine when you’ve wandered off. Perhaps moving to regular xscreensaver over xfce4’s one will help. And, there’s little things that macOS does (and the tight integration that Apple can provide when you’re all-in on the ecosystem) that I miss. I never turn my phone off now because if I do it’s just that much more of a pain to talk to people. Unlocking my computer via my Watch is neat (even if I can only do that at home for now). The keys are in the wrong damned place now and I miss having Alfred and less shitty access to my Apple Music library. These (other than screensaver stupidity of course) are all fairly minor and ultimately I can get my stuff done without really noticing that I’m on a Linux system.

That said, I’m half of a week into it, during a week in which I’m not being particularly productive, so we’ll see what happens when I get back into gear and do stuff. But, who knows - this might just be the wave of the future for me. It’s been a really, really, really long time since I’ve actually wanted to and enjoyed using Linux on the desktop.

Oh - and that Pentium Gold CPU? Perfectly acceptable. I honestly can’t tell that much of a difference between it (2-core, 4-thread, 3.7GHz nominal speed, 9th gen Coffee Lake architecture) over the Core i5 in the laptop (4-core, 4-thread, 1.4GHz nominal speed, 8th gen Coffee Lake). Yes, they’re cut from the same cloth, but the Pentium chips slot under the Core i3 CPUs and the difference between 8th gen and 9th gen aren’t much. But, I have to say, this thing flies.

Sounds Good, Man

One bit of the new PC build I glossed over: I also ordered a set of computer speakers with the new build on a whim. I’m real happy with them! Allow me to provide far more detail than anyone cares about to explain why.

I’ve completely redone my computing setup over the past year and change, as I got rid of the desk I had in the last move. (It was a solid-core door on some 4x4s that were too tall. I did not spend a lot of time building it, and it showed, and it was time to get rid of it.) That, coupled with my old Klipsch speakers dying and moving to new screens that weren’t on VESA mounts this time, meant that I had issues with computer sound. I’d had an old set of harmon/kardon 2.0 speakers that came from Dell a couple decades ago hooked up - they sound pretty good, but somewhat muddy, and they’re pretty tall, so they don’t really fit under my screens or really next to them due to cable length. Anyway, it was time for them to go too.

Amazingly, I like stereo imaging, so a new set would need to either fit under the screens or, ideally, to the sides. They also needed to be fairly small - new desk isn’t terribly large, and if they’re gonna be big they’d better also be fancy studio monitors. Ideally, what I’d like is a set of JBL Creature speakers, which are small ones they haven’t made since around the time of the first iPhone. (I’d had a set of older ones, from circa 2001, that I liked a whole lot - good sound, small sub, and satellites no bigger than a soda can.)

As luck would have it, NewEgg had a set of Logitech Z313 speakers on cheap as refurbished when I got the parts together for the PC build, and I went ahead and added them in. For under $25 refurb (or slightly more new, evidently), I’m honestly really impressed. Even before listening to them, I was entirely too happy about how the satellites work. They connect to the sub via a standard TRS connector, which splits off into two separate cables about 3” from the plug. The cable is captive, but there’s just an absurd amount of cable between the satellite and where it joins together to go into the plug - it’s seriously like four feet of cable per channel. That alone would have gotten me to keep ‘em. The sub itself is tiny - roughly a 7”x7”x4” box - and has a small down-firing ported woofer, and contains the connector for the satellites, the power cable (also captive), and the input jack, which is actually connected to a pod with a headphone jack, volume knob and power button. The cable situation on that, even, is ridiculous - the input cable on its own is rather long and terminates at the pod, and there’s another good length of cable between the pod and the sub. I could about literally have my machine across the room long-ways and still have the speakers hooked in if I wanted. That will make some people cringe, but I really do need a bunch of cable to position these things where they’ll make sense and any excess can be handled with zip ties anyway (as it should be).

The icing on the cake? They sound really good. Perhaps a bit bass heavy, surprisingly - I had Apple Music EQed to boost bass a good bit and yeah, that became a bit much, but just due to sheer volume and not distortion - but otherwise clear and pleasant. They are, of course, no match for the Advents I have plugged into the Onkyo receiver but that setup is way too unwieldy for the computer desk, and these really just do sound good on their own merits.

The only things I’d change would be to add some weight to both the pod and the satellites. I may do that; 10-15 cents worth of pennies would be more than adequate. And I might change that I only have one set. The JBLs I liked aren’t made anymore and are incredibly hard to come by - truth be told, the Creatures weren’t the ones I had, and the model I had I can’t even find anymore online - and I’d like to have a backup set for when these eventually die. Of course, one of these days I will set up with a nice set of studio monitors and a real amp and audio interface, but I am more than satisfied for now. If anything, that setup will be pushed back a good bit.

In between the HKs and the Logitechs, I did try a set of the amazonbasics 2.0 pod-type speakers. They’re very small and they have very good weight - they’re surprisingly heavy, and a bit bigger than a nice hand-held rock - but the sound is not great and the cable situation is terrible. (One side connects to the other, and the other has the USB power and audio in, and all the cables are way too short, and, of course, the input one is on the right channel, which works great since my computer is on my left.) They’re a good enough basic speaker for the $16 they cost but the additional $6-$10 or so to get the Logitech set is very, very worth it.

Here’s the Logitech speakers, via NewEgg (and, of course, readily available on Amazon as well).

Adventures in New Computing

So, in the interim of remembering what I did and writing down the nuts and bolts of the Pentium 133 build, I decided to (for one) redo it now that it’s mostly working and I remember how to work things like Windows 95 and DOS, and, secondly, to utilize some spare parts I had to build a somewhat newer machine. (In a future post, I plan on going over this HP all-in-one I’ve got, and what I did to upgrade it in a not particularly intelligent sort of way. The gist of it, though, is that I had some spare disks and a spare CPU or two to use.)

Armed with a fairly meager array of spare CPUs and such and a new case acquired by trade, I went off and went through the normal channels to find matching motherboards and such. And.. ended up just building a modern PC. The CPUs I had floating around were both of the AM3-socket Athlon II variety, which meant new motherboards are still being built to support them, which also means that really stupidly inexpensive parts were sort of hard to come by, which then leads to replacing the handful of parts I had with new stuff being not much more expensive.

The parts I ended up getting included an ASUS H310M chipset (such that there are chipsets these days) motherboard, coupled with a Raidmax 500 watt power supply, 8GB of Crucial DDR4 RAM, a really cheap NVMe 256GB M.2 SSD, and a Pentium Gold G5400 CPU running at 3.7GHz, all of which slotted into a Rosewill Raider-M case or somesuch. In essence, this is a cut-down Core i3-based system - the CPU has a crappier version of the GPU that the Core i3 does, and it’s got 2 cores with HyperThreading rather than 4 without. There’s some evidence that at least some of these are binned CPUs so there may very well be 4 actual cores in there, and it’s a 9th-gen Core architecture CPU so easy to swap in a Core i9 when I finally actually do go insane. I went with Xubuntu 19.10 on it - Eoan Ermine - with ZFS roots and whatnot. For the $250ish I paid for the parts, it’s really damned quick, though playing games in Linux still sucks a bit.

In terms of the computer itself, I came away with two main things:

  • Even this cheap no-name 256GB NVMe SSD can push a full GB/s, in my totally unscientific and probably pointless GParted benchmarks I ran when I was also installing games in Steam.
  • Parts to first boot - everything just sitting on the desk for sanity/functionality check - took like 10 minutes. No kidding. Another 10-15 to put things in the case, and maybe 20 more to install Ubuntu, and.. like.. a few more to make sure the front-panel USB and audio worked before I closed everything up. Had I actually prepared, this would have been a 30-minute build.

On a whim, I bought a regular SATA SSD with an odd name (Alertseal! Almost as good as Fatty Duck Racing) and then slapped that in there haphazardly for a Windows 10 install. It’s also real fast, and now I’m using a disk drive that has a picture of a happy seal on it. And a 5-year Wrrnty. Whatever that is.

I haven’t put it through paces with coding and such but VirtualBox.. runs.. on it (admittedly with Windows 10, which isn’t the best of ideas given limited resources) and it’s certainly snappy enough to play high-def YouTube videos OK. Games are a bit more of a mixed bag; I’ve only tried GTA:IV and Portal 2 so far. Portal 2 is totally cool at 1920x1200 - hits the 60FPS limiter - on Windows but dips into the 20s on Linux and is happier at 1280x800. GTA:IV on Windows needs a lot of things turned down/off but is playable at 1280x800 or so. (I’m just happy to actually be able to play it finally. I bought that years and years ago and have never really been able to run it - either my computer wasn’t good enough for it at all, or it doesn’t work well in virtualization, or something. So far, it’s.. not really all that great but we’ll see.)

Next steps for ridiculous stupidity include trying to get macOS on it, because I obviously need a crap Hackintosh to run along side my real MacBook Pro. And then, I dunno.. maybe more fiddling with Docker/K8s, media serving, Android dev, stuff like that. Or a Core i3 sans video and a real video card for gaming funtimes. (I have a bunch of games I’ve never played because no Mac versions.) In any case, throwing together a machine was pretty fun, if quick and somewhat anticlimactic.

Some More Information For Y'all

Hi, I'm James. Some people call me 'murgee'.

I'm a web developer, general computer nerd, and music geek based in Memphis, TN.

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Background image: unsplash-logoTara Evans

Because I have to: unless otherwise noted, © 2019-2023 James Kachel.

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