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The Desktop Computer is Dead. Long Live the Desktop!

hardware case miditower
hardware case miditower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
December 5, 2011 Deadline
January 2012 Issue

The Desktop Computer is Dead. Long Live the Desktop!

Prognosticators keep telling us the “Dark Tower” personal computer is dead. The experts have predicted the year of the handheld, netbook, tablet, all-in-one and media computer. Each of these smaller devices was supposed to mark the end of the tall tower or hulking desktop computer.

Yes, for many people the huge tower is dead. If you want to type and surf the Web, you can use almost any new computing device. But for many of us the desktop computer not only lives, it is essential to our work (and play).

Most of my students are content with inexpensive notebook or netbook computers. Some of my colleagues at the university use iPads with portable keyboards. The average computer user does not need a huge tower next to his or her desk. For most people, a $2500 computer is an unnecessary expense.

But, I know some people willing to spend $10,000 or more on a computer. Sometimes, a lot more. From architects to programmers, with millions of gamers between, there are “power users” for whom inexpensive computers are not up to the task.

Does anyone need a $15,000 computer? Yes, some people do need these computers. But, the truth is that most Windows computers costing more than $5000 are used for gaming. The high-end Mac Pro market is dominated by video and audio production.

The Maximum PC Christmas 2011 issue included their annual “Dream Machine” Windows PC. The estimated price was $12,000. Once you start using high-end components, the price of a power user system skyrockets. Of course, the system also screams through tests (literally thanks to a liquid cooling system and six fans).

I am sometimes asked why the Mac Pro and Alienware Aurora Extreme towers are $3000 computers. Many people assume it is the “Apple Tax” for buying the cool case for the iSnobby crowd. As I’ve written before, when you break down systems from similar vendors, the pricing is only slightly more for the Apple. You cannot buy a “low-end” Mac Pro or Alienware PC.

Let us imagine you want to build a “power” system. Money is no object because you’re going to create the next great animated feature film. Or maybe you just want to own the fastest gaming system in the neighborhood.

If you’re a power user, you’re going to want the latest central processing unit (CPU) from Intel or AMD. The top Intel CPU, the i7-980X is $1500 from several online retailers. That’s just a CPU, not a complete computer. One chip. Most power users want two CPUs. The current Mac Pro uses two Zeon E5620 CPUs, which cost $500 each online. The extreme Mac Pro can be ordered with two Xeon X5670 chips, which can be found for $1600 each online. Two would cost $3200.

Chip prices alone start to explain why Mac Pros and high-end Windows machines are so expensive. And these chips have to go somewhere.

If you purchase the best chips, you also need a great motherboard. I’m a fan of MSI and Gigabyte motherboards. Expect to pay $300 to $500 for an “extreme” motherboard to house your blazingly fast CPU.

That fast CPU and motherboard still need a video card (or two). A high-end graphics card starts at $500 and can cost $1500 or more. For our example machine, we’ll use two NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 cards. The two cards can work together, increasing overall speed even with a single huge monitor. That speed will cost you $1200 for the pair. Apple Mac Pro systems use the ATI Radeon HD 5800-series. These cards sell for $550 each, a little less than the GeForce cards.

Whether we’re building the killer Windows PC or recreating the top-end Mac Pro, we’re already at $4700 for the CPUs, motherboard and graphics card. We haven’t ordered memory, hard drives, DVD burners or the basic peripherals to use this dream computer.

I priced my dream machine using the Computer Shopper and Maximum PC websites. I obtained pricing from Newegg.com, as well. Then, I went to the online Apple Store and configured a similar Mac Pro.

If I assembled the parts for my dream computer, it would include 12 to 16 gigabytes of RAM, a Blu-ray drive, one solid state drive, two to three hard drives and more. I’d top it off with my favorite $200 keyboard. I included 30-inch monitors, since anything smaller seemed inappropriate. Final price? $15,000 for a Windows version and $15,600 for a Mac Pro with matching specifications.

You could order a basic Mac Pro model and add the dream parts you want, which is what many Mac users do. Some Windows users take this approach, too. You buy a “barebones” system and add the dream machine parts. You will not save money, but you will be able to install the best components. Again, performance is the goal, not savings.

You do get what you pay for when it comes to computer parts. There are huge differences in performance and capabilities when you compare a $300 computer to a $15,000 system. There was a time, not that long ago, when building your own computer was about saving money. Today, hobbyists building computers are focused on creating the equivalent of a hot-rod.



Buying Tips for Assembling a Dream Computer:

  • Build a mid-range test machine or two before trying to assemble your dream machine. Practice is a good idea and we can all use an extra mid-range system around the office.
  • Order from reputable parts suppliers. Read leading computer magazines and websites for advice on suppliers if you’re unsure of which websites to trust.
  • Invest in a great case; it does more than hold the parts. A great case helps guide air around components and prevents overheating.
  • Find a power supply with plenty of “tails” for growth. It isn’t uncommon to find a $500 power supply unit (PSU) with a dozen connectors to power various components. Cheap PSUs will overheat. 
  • Buy a motherboard based on features, not cool colors. Yes, there are companies trying to sell boards in red, black and neon colors.
  • Stick to brand name components. “White box” parts might be cheap, but you want a warranty whenever possible. Gray market parts might also be substandard rejects.
  • Be patient. Assembling a dream machine will take time and testing. You might have to open the case a few times to correct minor issues with cables or cooling.


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