A Custom Linux PC
Since I'll be running both the Mac and Linux in parallel, I hate dual-booting and I don't want to bog down my 2013 13" Retina MacBook Pro with a VM, I decided to build a new PC that will be dedicated to running Ubuntu.
Totally untypical for a Mac user, I don't like buying ready-made PCs. My needs (see below) are fairly specific and despite the plethora of pre-configured and BTO options, it's usually hard to find exactly what you need. If you're looking for a notebook, you have to choose from the available machines. But with a desktop PC, you can choose every component and configure the machine exactly how you want it to be.
If you've never done it before, building your own PC may seem like a daunting task. If you have zero experience with hardware components, clock speeds, cooling requirements, form factors, etc., you definitely have a learning curve ahead of you. But if the prospect of building your own computer sounds at least a bit intriguing or fun, it can be a great learning experience and very rewarding when you finally flick the power switch on your new machine and it actually turns on (hopefully!).
I built my first PC around 1994 and since then have probably built at least half a dozen machines. I actually enjoy the whole process of researching components, doing price comparisons and then putting it all together. It's rather relaxing in a nerdy, weird kind of way. And you really get to make the computer your own, from its inner workings all the way to how it looks.
Here's the rundown of my requirements for my new Linux PC.
- Desktop machine: My work computing takes place 100% sitting at a desk. I don't work at cafés, libraries, on the bus or train. My work style is not "mobile". I prefer my spacious 40" 3840x2160 pixel non-"Retina" monitor to being able to work in the park, so a notebook doesn't make much sense.
- Small case: I have a height-adjustable desk, so ideally the PC should fit on the desktop. A tower case sitting on the floor would potentially introduce cabling issues when the desk is elevated to a standing position.
- Quiet: Since the machine is going to sit close to me, I'd like its fans to be as few and as quiet as possible.
- No dedicated graphics card: A GTX "whatever" is only useful for gaming or 3D applications, which I don't plan on using this machine for.
- A budget of around € 1.000 (plus VAT): Compared to a current MacBook Pro (or even a top-of-the-line "current" Mac mini) this sounds ridiculously cheap, doesn't it?
I spent the better part of a Saturday researching all the components. Here's the shopping list I came up with and the reasoning behind each choice.
Case: Fractal Design Node 202
I've built a PC with the Node 605 before and I generally liked the build quality and case design. The Node 202 is a mini-ITX case that can be used both lying flat on a surface or in a vertical position. It's also small enough that it doesn't take up too much space on my desk. I can probably fit it under my wall-mounted monitor, where there's space I don't really use anyway.
APU: 600 Watt Corsair SF Series SF600 Modular 80+ Gold
Not much selection when it comes to APUs with an SFX form factor. But the SF600's 600 watts is more than plenty, given that I'm not installing a dedicated graphics card or other power hogs.
Mainboard: Asus Z170I Pro Gaming
The "Pro Gaming" in the name isn't why I selected this particular mainboard. It's its combination of features that I couldn't find in many other boards at this price.
I wanted Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on board so I would't have to use USB adapters (I can't use PCI extension cards because on a mini-ITX board you usually only have a single PCIe slot). I also need DisplayPort 1.2 so I can hook up my 40-inch monitor at 60 Hz. HDMI 1.4 only supports 30 Hz at 3840x2160 and HDMI 2.0, which supports it, isn't natively available on Intel CPUs (not even on the newest Kaby Lake CPUs, apparently).
I also wanted to be able to use an M.2 SSD instead of a 2.5" one. These install neatly into a slot on the rear side of the mainboard and therefore there's no cabling that takes up space in the case or interferes with the fans (which can be a problem in small cases).
Taking all these requirements into account, the Asus Z170I was the best choice.
CPU: Intel Core i7 6700 4x 3.40GHz So.1151
I checked out the new Kaby Lake i7 7700, but it doesn't appear to offer significant performance gains or power savings over the Skylake generation. And, as mentioned above, Kaby Lake still doesn't have native HDMI 2.0 support, your only option is to use an adapter on the DisplayPort connector.
So I stuck with the previous Skylake model. With Linux, it's generally a good idea to not be at the bleeding edge of hardware development. At least during the first couple of months after a new hardware generation is introduced, compatibility can be an issue.
I didn't get the "K" CPU model because I have no interest in overclocking. At 3.40 GHz I think this CPU will run plenty fast for the type of work I do.
CPU cooler + fan: EKL Alpenföhn Silvretta Topblow Cooler
Since the Node 202 is too small to fit a watercooling system without case modifications or disassembling the cooler to install it, I was limited to air cooling. The case supports fans of up to 56 mm height. I thought I'd leave a little headroom and narrowed my search down to a maximum of 53 mm. I picked the EKL because it has the highest airflow volume while still being very quiet even at higher speeds.
RAM: 32GB Corsair Vengeance LPX black DDR4-2133 DIMM CL13 Dual Kit
16 GB would have probably been sufficient, but I figured I might be running a VM or two, so more RAM can't hurt. The mainboard supports 2 x 16 GB modules, so at 32 GB it's maxed out. But 64 GB seems a bit ridiculous anyway, so this seems like the sweet spot.
SSD: 500GB Samsung 960 Evo M.2
I didn't find many options for a ~500 GB M.2 SSD. Samsung generally has a pretty good reputation in this department, so my choice was basically between the 850s, 950s and the newest 960s.
These all come in EVO and PRO flavors, with the PRO version offering more reliable MLC instead of the cheaper TLC modules used in the EVO models, and also including a longer guarantee (5 instead of 3 years for the 960s). But the PRO models are also a lot more expensive, and the theoretical benchmark speed advantages don't necessarily translate into real-world advantages. The 850s are a bit long in the tooth and the 950s don't differ much in price from the newest 960s. So I decided on the 960 EVO as the sweet spot.
If your computing environment has more or less always been made by Apple and you've never dipped your toe into the PC world, all these options, considerations and details will seem very foreign and confusing to you. And, to be honest, the PC hardware world IS confusing and you have to do a lot of research if you're building your own machine and want to make sure everything fits and works together.
On the other hand, this gives you something that you don't get from Apple, at least not nearly to this extent: choice. I was able to configure a PC that exactly fits my requirements; there's nothing missing and there's nothing in the machine that I don't need (like the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro).
As a bonus, my tailored PC costs a whole chunk less than anything I could buy from Apple: The above configuration adds up to € 1.150, including VAT.
Let me - just for shits and giggles - compare that to getting a 2016 MacBook Pro:
- If anything, I'd go for the 15" model, as 13" have proven to be too small for my aging eyesight. That means I could only get one with that stupid Touch Bar I have absolutely no use for, but that probably adds several hundred Euros to the price.
- Configuring the 2.9 GHz CPU instead of 2.6 GHz will add € 380 to the total, still slower than the PC's 3.4 GHz.
- Configuring the 512 GB SSD instead of 256 GB will add another € 240 to the total. That's almost exactly what I paid for my 512 GB SSD, but with Apple that's just the difference between the 256 GB and the 512 GB one.
- There's no way to get this MacBook Pro with more than 16 GB RAM.
- The machine is not upgradable (internally; of course you can hook up as many peripherals as you like using dongles).
- Total price: € 3.349
OK, so comparing my PC to the MacBook Pro isn't fair. You get a HiDPI screen, the Touch Bar (bleh), portability and more.
So let's compare the PC to the currently available Mac mini. To get the Mac mini even close to my PC's specs I'd have to choose the top of the line configuration, which still leaves a lot to be desired:
- The Mac mini has a 3.0 GHz Haswell i7 CPU which is now three generations old (Broadwell, Skylake and Kaby Lake came after).
- I could only get 16 GB of RAM, which costs an additional € 240 over the default 8 GB.
- Same deal with the SSD as with the MacBook Pro: € 240 extra to get 512 GB.
- The Mac mini can only drive 3840x2160 pixels at 30 Hz.
- Just like with the MacBook Pro, the configuration is not upgradable internally once you've purchased the machine.
- Total price: € 1.849
The only real advantage the Mac mini has is the form factor, but of course that comes at the expense of upgradability.
To be clear: I'm OK paying this "Apple tax", to an extent. In return for the higher price, I get an operating system and 3rd-party app ecosystem that allows me, for the most part and for the time being, to be productive and happy. As a bonus, Apple hardware has great resale value, further offsetting the higher price.
But the prices Apple charges for RAM and SSD upgrades is simply ridiculous. Back when you could still upgrade Macs with aftermarket components, I always bought the Mac with the base RAM and then upgraded using cheaper compatible RAM. But with current machines, you don't have that choice anymore (except in the Mac Pro and iMac).
In any case, it's interesting to look beyond the walled garden sometimes, just to see what's on the other side of the wall.
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