My, how plans change. I was all but dead set on waiting for Windows 8 to come out and then getting a new kick butt PC, but the more the Windows 8 story has publicly evolved, the more I realize that that's probably not a direction I want to go. This led me to go on a search for a new PC now, one that I've decided may end up lasting me until it no longer makes sense to have the type of PC we traditionally consider "killer." Let me explain why I think this is an inevitability...
First off, right or wrong, it seems obvious to me that Microsoft is acknowledging the reality of the industry moving to tablets and that they know they better get the whole company moving in that direction or else. This of course means making everything as touch friendly as possible, including traditional PCs, and shifting focus off of classic interface paradigms, with the software to match. Microsoft will still focus on all the enterprise stuff that is their bread and butter, but their consumer strategy seems clear--adapt or become marganlized, no better than a Linux (still waiting for that "year of the Linux desktop" by the way...). Interestingly, even enterprises may very well be moving to a type of tablet and thin client strategy--after all, most white collar workers make use of one or two key software programs, with a very small percentage falling into the classification of "power user."
For those keeping score on the other side, Apple's upcoming OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion has key iOS integrations, and that will only continue. Apple knows where its future is too. Notice also how there is no "Mac" anywhere near the OS X branding, and it's been that way for a while, much like the way "Computer" was unceremoniously dumped from the Apple corporate name not too long ago. When consumers speak with their dollars, clearly even large companies can chart a clear about-face in strategy. Some, like Apple, do it masterfully, while others, like Kodak - even though they knew and in fact had a hand in the changeover in their own industry from analog to digital - simply fail. How Microsoft ends up is anyone's guess, but at least their basic strategy seems sound, if not entirely too sluggish.
As for me, with the above in mind, I have a feeling that this new PC purchase will be my last "beast," a system designed to chew on and spit out reams of local processing and data. With Windows 7, that can still be a reality for me. Waiting for Windows 8, I'd almost feel like I'd HAVE to have a touchscreen monitor to make proper use of it, and then I'm not so sure I want to be part of the desktop/Metro will it or won't it installable software versus app transition that will surely frustrate for a time. Maybe in three or four years when the Microsoft Windows 8 app store is mature it won't matter, but perhaps by then I'll be able to stick with a dockable iPad 5 or something. Who knows, but right now I want that possibly last rush of a super PC when having a super PC still actually means something.
I say the above because there is a clearly increasing use of cloud services, featuring not only storage - which is key for data redundancy and easy sharing and collaboration - but also Web-based (Google Docs and Microsoft Office, to name two important ones) and streaming apps (seen most recently in game services like OnLive, which is even streaming the complete Microsoft Office to iPads!). In short, even though our portable devices are getting ever more powerful, even that power is becoming increasingly less important from an end user's perspective. It's almost like we're going back to a more empowered form of timesharing. By no means is this stuff perfect at present or even in most cases quite as good as what you can do locally with a good machine, but it's clearly getting better all the time. You can't stop progress and this is where the industry as a whole has decided it wants to go, driven both by consumer usage and, ultimately, demand.
My present desktop setup consists of a speedy Windows 7-based gaming laptop with a built-in 1080p 17" monitor and a companion 27" 1080p monitor, which I use primarily in an extended desktop configuration. My plan is to return my laptop to its intended use as a laptop and put a beefy box under the desk, placing a matching 27" 1080p monitor next to the existing one. In fact, I won an eBay auction last night for an exact match to my existing monitor (it's a discontinued Viewsonic LCD with a 1ms response time; hyperbole or not, I like the monitor and it's cheaper getting a second match than buying two new 27" monitors).
Since I'm primarily iOS with my mobile devices (iPhone and iPad, with secondary webOS and ICS tablets), I thought I would consider a Mac Pro, particularly considering the direction OS X is going--it's hard to argue with tight integration, and I like the idea of wirelessly sending my screen to an Apple TV device with the update. I could also do Boot Camp or run something like Parallels for the legacy Windows stuff I still want to deal with (and remember, I still have that great Windows 7 gaming laptop). Unfortunately, the STARTING price of a Mac Pro is $2499, and that's not even a configuration I'd be happy with, so by the time I configured it the way that I wanted, I'd be north of $3000. Forget that. Obviously an iMac is out because I want to use those two monitors, plus I want something I can swap some parts out if I'm so moved (it wouldn't be a very good power PC if I couldn't). I've been down the all-in-one route before and I haven't been happy, so never again if I can avoid it, until, yeah, the scenario that I mentioned above starts to play out and it suddenly doesn't matter much anymore. Certainly I see Christina getting an iMac later in the year, though, and transitioning her off of a Windows PC, so I can at least actively monitor the "other side."
Anyway, I took some joy in the research and settled on four companies that would meet my needs of performance and an approximately $2000 price tag: Maingear, Digital Storm, Alienware, and iBuyPower. My main goals were speedy processor I wouldn't have to upgrade, a Raid 1 or Raid 1+0 configuration for data redundancy (that's how my laptop is configured) that I would only have to touch if a drive in the array failed, preferably 16GB RAM, and a speedy video card that wouldn't necessarily have to be the latest and greatest since that would be the easiest piece to swap out in such a setup (and, quite frankly, if I'm stuck in a 1080p resolution, most video cards can easily handle that--I might want to experiment with spanning both screens occasionally, though). Being gaming PC's, I knew case access wouldn't be a problem, and I knew I wouldn't be overclocking, so I could reasonably expect with all the cooling doo-dads involved that I wouldn't necessarily have to worry too much about noise or overconsumption of power if I configured things right (this is going in our family room, so noise is a consideration).
You can see the results of my research in the attached spreadsheet or the image snapshot I took, shown below (click through and enlarge if you don't want to download the spreadsheet):
Obviously, all of the niche PC makers offer their own pluses and minuses - some do custom liquid cooling, some do custom wiring, some do safe overclocking, some have extra sound dampening materials, some have nicer case options, etc. - but when it comes right down to it, there's not a large enough gap with these companies to make the value-adds a serious differentiator.
Based on the comparison that I did, it looks like the Alienware setup is pretty hard to beat, right? Again, this is not necessarily taking into account all the niceties these various companies offer or the minor differentiators, but I think taken from a raw power standpoint, the Alienware is the one to get. In fact, I'd say they must have some secret stash of hard drives, because they're the only ones with reasonable prices considering all the well known supply issues. In fact, in that configuration, we're talking FOUR hard drives, which is all but rubbing it in the faces of the competition, which is also probably why they're the only ones offering Raid 1+0, which has a clear performance boost over straight up Raid 1 that the other guys have. Certainly I'd like SSD drives, but getting anywhere near a usable capacity without also needing to rely on a data drive is not really practical, so spinning disks it is.
The catch? I can't purchase it just yet, but I hope some things come to pass that will allow me to snag just such a setup in short order. After all, that second monitor should be reaching me any day now and it will be rather useless sitting in its box...
I'd love to hear your thoughts (and arguments against) on all that I've said, so sound off in the comments below!
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