Computer Advice

I’m looking to redo a few computers for myself this summer. I can either build or buy. Not sure which is more economical. I’m looking for three systems, a desktop, laptop, and home-theater PC. Below, I’ll list what I need them to do. I’m interested in hearing your hardware or system recommendations. Also, the Lenovo Outlet has some pretty good looking deals right now. I was wondering if any might be suitable.

I’m thinking this should probably be a mid-tower form factor. The desktop needs to run Inventor and Solidworks well (large models such as FRC robots) without lag, and needs to output to two monitors. I’ll sometimes watch TV on one monitor while working on the other. Occasionally I might want to convert some recorded video and burn it to DVD without it taking an eternity. Rarely I might edit some video in Windows Movie Maker or something of the sort. I want it to be lightning fast for any normal mundane tasks such as web browsing or MS Office, which most computers nowadays are anyway. I often web browse with up to 20 tabs open in Firefox. I’ll probably re-use my WD Caviar Black 1TB hard drive that is about 18 months old. I might stick a TV tuner in this system and record a bit, or I might record to this system over the network from the HTPC tuner. I don’t think a Windows 7 PC can yet act as an HTPC extender right? So I might stick in a second drive for recording. Although I could just have a network share on the HTPC. One oddity is that I’d prefer this machine to have an internal floppy drive. (I still use the sneakernet to get files to my CNC which runs DOS).

The laptop needs to run SolidWorks and Inventor reasonably well, to the point where it doesn’t have to be blazing fast, but still usable for models such as an FRC robot. I’m not super concerned about battery life, but of course longer would be better. I’d prefer something without a 10-key. I really like my current Acer laptop. Built in bluetooth would be good. I need at a minimum a 250 gig drive. 7200 RPM would be nice, but it wouldn’t kill me if it was the standard 5400 RPM.

I want to use a Ceton InfiniTV 4 cablecard tuner. So, it needs to record up to 4 digital HD channels at once, and potentially offer its tuner over the network. Probably a single Terabyte drive would be fine for my TV watching habits. Not sure that I need Blu-Ray yet. Output would be over HDMI to a 42" LCD. This machine would also be used for web browsing and e-mail. This machine needs to be as small and quiet as possible and have as little power consumption as possible.

All systems will be running Windows 7 64-bit.

I’d like to keep the cost under $700 each. I’d be happier if the laptop was closer to $500. Not sure if a $500 laptop will do what I want with CAD.
I’d like them all to last me at least the next 3, preferably more, years before doing any big upgrades or replacement.

My current desktop is a P4/2.4/512/533 (going on 8 years!) with 3 gigs of DDR RAM, a tuner, Windows 7 32-bit, and an Nvidea Geforce 6200 AGP 8X.
The laptop is an Acer Aspire 4720Z with a Pentium T2330 with 2 gigs of RAM and Vista 32-bit.
Solidworks is far too slow on both of these machines.
No HTPC yet.
Anyhow, time to upgrade.

So, any recommendations?

Why such stiff performance requirements for the media machine? We use an old old P4 and it works great…but then we also don’t record stuff, since we don’t have anything other than free broadcast TV and internet as an input. A cheap hdmi output video card works fine for us with a 46" sony TV.

The laptop is tough…but see what you can find in a core 2 or i3 machine.

You’ll probably want to spend a fair bit of money on the cpu/mobo/video card for the desktop, although you might be able to get away with a cheap workstation type video card if you don’t plan any gaming.

Keep in mind that I’m an old geezer and I’m sure some of the younger folks will have better advice…especially since they’re spending your money, not theirs!

Planning to keep the new computers running forever too? Upgradeability vs. integrated peripherals becomes a factor in the medium-to-long term. (I handed my 7-year-old P4 2.8 down to my parents about a year ago, so I’m quite familiar with that situation.)

I can vouch for the Lenovo Thinkpads being nice computers, and generally very durable and capable. However, even (indeed especially) with the latest driver update, mine has been misbehaving a bit, and actually needs a bit of minor warranty service. In any event, if the laptop is only for occasional use, don’t bother with a new Thinkpad: they’re too expensive not to use every single day. (Refurbished or used might make sense though.)

Here’s what I’m looking at so far for my new desktop. I figure I can try onboard video to start, then add the card if I feel I need it. Will the motherboard listed below run dual screens?

CPU - Core i5 2500K
Mobo - Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD3H-B3 (Z68 chipset)
RAM - Gskill F3-12800CL9D-8GBXL
Optical Drive - Lite-On iHAS424-98
Power Supply - OCZ500MXSP
Video Card - ati firepro v4800
I’ll probably re-use my existing case
Probably add a drive bay card reader.

I think this should set me good to go for at least a few years.

Good choices?

That motherboard and processor look very good. (Check out Tech Report’s articles on them: & This Core i5 processor has turbo mode which will be handy for CAD applications that can only effectively use one core (it effectively overclocks some cores, and underclocks other parts of the chip, in order to maximize performance while staying within thermal limits).

The motherboard has 4 video outputs (3 of which can be used as DVI, with appropriate adapters), so it’s likely that it can run dual screens from the on-CPU graphics. It also has a graphics-switching mode (like laptops), so you might be able to pipe the output of the graphics card through the motherboard, on the fly. (I’ve never seen that on a desktop, so I have no idea how well it works.) You could definitely try it only using the integrated Intel graphics first—the Core processors with on-CPU graphics are quite impressive, and actually stand a reasonable chance of working all on their own.

The video card is surprisingly inexpensive, and at that price point, you can afford to upgrade in a couple years if it ceases to meet your needs. (It’s got driver support for CAD applications, which is nice.)

The RAM, optical drive and power supply look fine; no sense going crazy with those.

What’s the total price of the system, and will the existing hard drive be the only mass storage? Any plans for using the HTPC as a backup server for the desktop, or vice versa?

Thanks for the feedback. The more I read about it, I think I’m on the right path here. One of the reasons I chose the motherboard was for its Z68 chipset. The Intel Smart Response Technology looks pretty cool. I could stick in a caching drive in 6 months when prices come down a bit.

Backup storage is something I need to address. Currently, I have only a 500 gig external USB 2.0 drive, which is not large enough, and terribly slow. Originally, RAID had crossed my mind but there’s too many horror stories. Perhaps I’ll do a NAS for the house, or I’ll grab another drive to stick in it to back things up onto.

Total cost is $735 including the video card, but without hard drive, case, or card reader. How does that seem? Now that I think about it, I’ll probably get a case. Also, I’ll probably cheap out and skip the video card initially, and see how it is without. That will let me get going on the other two systems I need. If I need it I can always get it later.

I noticed that your choice for the CPU is the Core i5 2500k. Are you planning to overclock your PC in the future? If not, you can save $20 by purchasing the plain i5 2500 which doesn’t have the CPU multiplier unlocked.

Also, the i5 2500k’s integrated graphics HD Graphics 3000, compared to all other non-K-series CPUs which have HD Graphics 2000. It is equivalent to entry level AMD graphics cards (ATI Radeon HD 5450 and 4550) for comparison. The HD Graphics 2000 is not as exciting.

I selected the K model to have the option for overclocking in the future. I did decide on a case for the desktop too. Antec model One Hundred.

Here’s what I’m looking at for the HTPC. Let me know what you think:

Motherboard JHZ03-GT-V2-LF
RAM F3-10600CL9D-4GBNS
Hard drive Deskstar 7K1000.C 0F10383
Optical Drive SH-B123L/RSBP
Tuner - Ceton InfiniTV 4
Remote RRC-126
Keyboard/Mouse IOGEAR GKM551R

Total - $693

This is really becoming a rather pricey endeavor. The awesome tuner is what’s eating up the HTPC budget. Any way to make this thing cheaper? I could knock $20 off the motherboard by going to a slightly less capable model, and I could knock $15 or $20 off the hard drive price by going to something smaller, but that’s not much savings. I’m thrilled with the idea of this, but $700 to play with television seems a bit steep.

Assuming I get the V4800 for the desktop, that’ll total roughly $800. HTPC will be $700. Haven’t even thought about laptop. And, I need a couple new displays for the desktop: $250-$300. I’ll hold off on the laptop until August though.

My desktop is still the same case and CPU and motherboard I put in it in 2003. Since then, I’ve put in a new $40 graphics card, maybe $60 of RAM, $50 PSU, $15 tuner, and $160 of hard drives. My current laptop was about $500 back in March of 2008. I have not bought any displays.

So, I haven’t spent a whole lot on computer hardware over the last several years, but it’s just a bit much to make a $2000+ plunge all at once.

One thought I had was to stick the tuner and second drive in the desktop machine and just run an extender in the living room. That would save me the other case, ram, processor, power supply. However, there is reduced functionality. I want to be able to use a computer normally (web surfing, etc) in the living room on the TV screen. Am I correct in saying a PC cannot act as a WMC extender? If it could, I could do what I mention above, and just stick some super cheap computer in the living room.