Planning a future computer purchase

Our main desktop computer is now over 5 years old. It’s a P4 2.4GHz with an 800MHz FSB and 1.5GB of RAM.  It’s adequate for much of what we do, but it’s definitely showing its age when it comes to more demanding tasks, like processing my RAW photos, which I shoot in Pentax PEF format but convert to Adobe DNG during import.

So, at some point in the not-too-distant future I’d like to upgrade and I’ve been keeping my eye on what’s in the pipeline…

Fortunately, there is something great in the pipeline: Core i7 aka Nehalem.  With this chip, Intel is finally doing away with its antiquated front-side bus architecture and going with a 3-channel on-die memory controller.  This will prevent Intel CPUs from being chronically bandwidth starved any longer.  Plus, last I heard, Nehalem is 30% faster than Penryn cores at the same clock speed in scenarios in which the CPU is not bandwidth-limited.  Recently published benchmarks show that this processor is a beast and very well-suited for demanding media applications.

However, hardware is only one part of the equation.  The other part of the equation is the operating system.  I still haven’t used Vista at all, so I can’t comment on it from personal experience.  However, I know some people who like it and some people who hate it.  What is universally agreed upon, though,  is that it is a resource hog.  One of the main guiding principles in the development of Windows 7 seems to be keeping things lean.  Plus, first impressions of the Windows 7 pre-beta seem to be very positive.  So, I’m tempted to skip Vista altogether and wait for Windows 7.  This would be in keeping with my history of skipping alternate versions of Windows.  As an undergrad, I used NT 4 until I began using XP in grad school, totally skipping Windows 2000.

I would like to move to a 64-bit operating system with my next computer and it seems like driver support is getting good enough that this is becoming a possibility.  I’m hopeful that, with the introduction of Windows 7, the 32-bit version of the OS will sink further into the background and the Windows ecosystem will move more fully toward 64-bit.  I’d still like to be able to use some legacy peripherals but, if I have a beastly CPU and lots of RAM, I could easily run a 32-bit OS as a virtual machine to cover my legacy compatibility needs. I’ll probably also run Linux as a VM.

In the end, I’m left with the question of how long it will take for these things to emerge from the pipeline and whether I’m prepared to wait for them.  It appears that Nehalem will beat Windows 7 to market by a sizable margin.  I think the first Nehalem processors for desktop applications will become available at the end of this month.  However, it probably will take a while before affordable Core i7 systems are widely available.

The timeframe for the arrival of Windows 7, on the other hand, seems a bit less well-defined.  I’ve heard early 2010, late 2009, and summer 2009 as possible timeframes for the Windows 7 launch.  I definitely don’t expect to see it before summer 2009, which means it’s at least 8 months away.  However, it could be 12 months away or more.  Ideally, I think I’d like to get a new machine next spring or summer, but I could probably be pursuaded to wait a few more months in order to get Windows 7 rather than Vista.  On the other hand, at that point, Vista will be very mature and thoroughly tested on lots of different configurations, while Windows 7 will be brand new and will probably need to have some kinks worked out.

In any case, there is some seriously powerful hardware on its way and I’m looking forward to using it, whether it’s with Vista or Windows 7.

5 Responses to “Planning a future computer purchase”

  1. 1 SFJ
    November 9, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    You could just save yourself a lot of trouble and buy a Mac. Snow Leopard is going to make Mac OS run even better than it does now (which beats Vista on equivalent hardware). There won’t be nearly the driver headaches Windows 7 will bring. Plus you can dual boot Windows and have a Linux VM on both partitions. The fit-and-finish on the new MacBooks is unparalleled. The MacBook in general, acc. to numerous accounts, is one of the best Windows machines available, plus you get a fully 64-bit OS preinstalled (in addition to the iLife suite, for which there is no equivalent on Windows). Both Aperture and Lightroom are super fast on Macs. Overall, much more wife and kid friendly. This seems to me a no-brainer.

  2. 2 Colin
    November 10, 2008 at 12:25 am

    SFJ- I knew this comment was coming; if not from you, then from someone else. However, I will respectfully disagree with you on your suggestion that buying a Mac would save me lots of trouble.

    While choosing OS X might save me some software-related trouble, I have seen Apple hardware create all kinds of trouble. In my research group, we have had major problems with at least half of our Macs. The most spectacular was the PowerMac G5 that had its liquid cooling system leak, frying the logic board just after its warranty expired. The most recent was Dan’s 8-core Mac Pro which, in the end, basically had to have everything replaced but the case. Finally, since the first-generation X-Serves are widely regarded as a disaster, I won’t even recount the problems we had with those.

    With all the problems I’ve experienced with Mac hardware, I just can’t consider buying a Mac. My experiences may be outliers but they are my experiences nonetheless.

  3. 3 Milkshake
    November 13, 2008 at 5:23 am

    Don’t forget there is a 64-bit version of XP you can get (I think you can only use 4G of RAM max however)

  4. 4 Colin
    November 13, 2008 at 9:29 am

    Milkshake, thanks for reminding me of that. I had assumed that it wasn’t really possible to get it legitimately anymore since Microsoft is phasing XP out. After quickly checking around, however, it appears that I could still buy it, but it also appears that I can get it through MIT and retain the right to use it after I graduate. Driver support could still be a problem but it’s probably worth looking into.

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November 2008

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