Keeping my desktop computer fresh with recent upgrades

Yes, I still have and use a desktop computer. This post might be a little geeky for some of you, but I wanted to document this!

I bought my current desktop computer back in June 2010. It’s a Dell Studio XPS 9000 and I paid just over $1,500 for it at the time. I ordered it with a Core i7-920 processor (it’s a quad-core) and 12 GB of DDR3 SDRAM, so it was pretty powerful right from the start. I also included an NVIDIA GeForce GTS 240 video card and 1 TB 7200 RPM SATA hard drive.

Dell Studio XPS 9000

I have upgraded it over the years, which is one of the great capabilities that a desktop offers. I’ve added additional hard drives for data, I updated my dual monitors to 23″ displays, and I’ve added lots of peripherals like webcams, and various mice and keyboards. I have also upgraded the OS of course, from Windows 7 to Windows 8.1, and I plan to upgrade it again to Windows 10 when it is available later this year.

My desktop will be five years old this summer, and I have thought about replacing it. But I have also thought, as a I do more with mobile devices, that perhaps I don’t need a new desktop. Maybe I could extend the life of this one instead?

The main limitation to further upgrades is the motherboard, which only supports the LGA 1366 socket for processors. That limits me to Core processors built back in 2011, as it has now been replaced by LGA 2011 and LGA 1150. I think the best processor I could get to replace my existing one is the Core i7-990X, released in February 2011, but availability is limited and prices are high. It just doesn’t seem worth it.

So after I eliminated the processor as a potential upgrade, I started to think about what else might give me a performance boost. The first thing I decided to do was add a USB 3 controller to make importing photos and video quicker.

inateck usb 3.0 expansion card

I did a bit of research and landed on the Inateck Superspeed 4-port PCI-E to USB 3.0 Expansion Card, which I got for $26.99 CDN on Amazon. I wasn’t familiar with Inateck, but their stuff seemed to have a ton of positive reviews. Installation was quick and straightforward, and Windows 8.1 recognized the card right away. I did experiment with a couple different driver versions, and found the best performance using the latest driver (unsurprisingly).

I have both an external USB 3 hard drive and a USB 3 hub hooked up to the card now, and everything has been working great. Even though it is hidden away under my desk, I like that the card has a dark face; it’s interesting and different. This was definitely a worthwhile and pretty inexpensive upgrade.

Speeding along with an SSD

After I had the USB 3.0 upgrade working, it didn’t take long to land on the hard drive as a possibility for the next improvement. I had been reading about solid-state drives and I knew that having an SSD could make a big difference with start and load times. I’ve always marvelled at how quick my Surface Pro starts up and I’m sure the SSD plays a big role in that.

So I decided to purchase an SSD. I went with a Samsung 250 GB 840 EVO, which I got at Memory Express for $149.99. It seemed like pretty good price for a reasonable amount of space and solid performance. It’s not the biggest or fastest SSD, but it’s definitely not the smallest or slowest either.

samsung evo 840 ssd

I already had one drive for the OS and applications and one for data, so I just replaced the OS drive with the SSD. I decided to do a fresh install of Windows 8.1 and all my apps, because I had read some negative things about trying to do a migration or backup/restore. Now clearly a fresh install of Windows 8.1 will make a difference when it comes to performance, but not this much!

Before the upgrade it took:

  • 43 seconds to get to the login screen
  • 23 seconds to get from the login screen to the desktop being visible
  • 2 minutes, 46 seconds until startup was done

After the upgrade (and after installing all updates and all the usual software I use) the times are:

  • 23 seconds to get to the login screen
  • 4 seconds to get from the login screen to the desktop being visible
  • 23 seconds until startup was done

That’s a big, very noticeable improvement (and yes the stuff running on startup is comparable if not identical). Application launch times are also noticeably quicker now that they are running from the SSD. Overall I’m really happy with the upgrade. It was definitely worth the money!

Will I have a desktop computer in the future?

This may be the last desktop I’ll ever own, actually. The performance and capability of mobile devices has come so far, there’s less and less need for standalone desktop machine. I can already use my Surface Pro for pretty much everything. Combined with external displays and input devices, it could definitely serve as my one and only computer.

On the other hand, the cloud is (for me at least) dramatically changing how I think about my devices. The days of “that’s on my desktop” or “that’s on my laptop” are long gone. So are the days of “that’s on my USB key”. Now my stuff is available on every device all the time, and the definition of “my stuff” is expanding too. With OneDrive, my files are accessible no matter where I am. When I log into Windows with my Microsoft account, my settings and apps are also available. When I sit down at my desktop computer, it looks pretty much the same as when I am working on my Surface. In other words, there’s no need or advantage to having just one computer.

So maybe it does make sense to have a computer that just sits at my desk, permanently hooked up to large displays and the ergonomic mouse and keyboard that I love. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the my current desktop is the last “tower” that I’ll ever own. I have been looking at is Intel’s “Next Unit of Computing” or NUC form factor. The idea is basically to shrink the desktop down into something that fits in your hand. I can imagine having a powerful, tiny box on the corner of my desk to drive a few large displays. They’re relatively inexpensive too. One day maybe.

Until then, I’ll make the most of these recent upgrades to my desktop!

My Dell Inspiron Mini 9

On January 1st, I decided to order a Dell Inspiron Mini 9 netbook. I had been reading a lot about netbooks, and was in the market for something smaller to carry around. My aging Toshiba M200 Tablet PC is fairly small and light, but it’s still quite big compared to a netbook. I went on the Dell site, customized my order, and waited for my new netbook to arrive.

And waited, and waited.

After my original ship date of January 21st was delayed, I tried to be patient. When I called for an update mid-February, I learned that my order was going to be cancelled and re-entered because of a software conflict with Adobe. I told Dell to forget it, and I cancelled my order completely. I then hopped on the Future Shop site, and ordered the same computer (minus the integrated Bluetooth) for about $100 less. It arrived a week later.

My Mini 9 has the integrated webcam, is black, and runs Windows XP. I upgraded the RAM to 2 GB, and the hard drive to 32 GB (the Mini 9 uses an SSD). Even with the extra components and shipping, the total price was only about $500.

I’ve been using it for a little over a month now, and I really like it. In no particular order, these are my favorite things about it:

  • Small and light. The main reasons for getting a netbook, obviously!
  • Clean, solid design. So many netbooks have a big gap between the screen and keyboard, and that just drives me nuts. The Mini 9 is solid with smooth, rounded edges.
  • Quiet and cool. Partly because of the SSD, the Mini 9 doesn’t have a fan. It runs extremely cool, and never makes any noise.
  • It’s fast! Resume from standby, boot up, shutdown, etc. are all fairly quick. The only slowness is from some applications that don’t work well with SSDs, such as Outlook.

Nothing is perfect – here are the things I don’t like about it:

  • The battery life is pretty good at about four hours, but I wish it were much longer.
  • The keyboard is small and hard to get used to. I still have to hunt for the quote key, located at the very bottom. I often close windows by accident when I try to type an exclamation point and hit the Esc key instead. There are no F11 or F12 keys or functions. If I could redesign the keyboard, I’d get rid of CAPS Lock and the context-menu button, would move the quote key to it’s proper place, and would give the right Shift key more space.
  • There are two LEDs on the front, one with the power icon and one with a battery with a lightning bolt in it. The battery light only comes on when the device is dangerously low on power…I’d rather it lit up when the battery was recharging too.
  • It has an external display port, but the resolution it outputs is pretty weak.

Overall, I’m quite happy with my Mini 9. It was relatively inexpensive, comes with me almost everywhere, and works perfectly for surfing, checking email, blogging, and Twittering.

Coming Soon: Dell Tablet PC

Post ImageAs you may know, I am a big fan of the Tablet PC. I’ve had a Toshiba Portege for a few years now, and before that I had the first Compaq model. Unfortunately, most people still buy regular laptops. I think there are two reasons for that:

  • Tablet PC’s are a little more expensive than regular laptop computers.
  • Computer stores don’t showcase tablets, so not as many people know about them.

Both of those things might change in the near future! According to a post on Dell’s blog today, the rumored Latitude Tablet PC is real. There’s a short video with a few details. I think there’s hope that Dell’s tablet will be cheaper than the competition, taking care of point #1. And as for point #2, I imagine the tablet will be included in Dell’s mailouts, which are kind of like the old AOL disks – everyone gets them!

Elsewhere in the world of Dell today: some really nice LCD monitor technology and design.

Read: Direct2Dell

Largest Consumer Electronics Recall Ever

Post ImageThis is one record you don’t want to be setting. Dell has announced what the Consumer Product Safety Commission is calling “the largest safety recall in the history of the consumer electronics industry.” That’s right, 4.1 million laptop batteries installed in Dell machines between April 2004 and July 18th, 2006. Is yours one of them?

Dell’s press release states the recall covers the following machines, so be aware! Dell Latitude D410, D500, D505, D510, D520, D600, D610, D620, D800, D810; Inspiron 6000, 8500, 8600, 9100, 9200, 9300, 500m, 510m, 600m, 6400, E1505, 700m, 710m, 9400, E1705; and Dell Precision M20, M60, M70 and M90 mobile workstations; and XPS, XPS Gen2, XPS M170 and XPS M1710. Also, you’re to go here, and to pop that batt post haste.

Even worse – the batteries were made by Sony, not Dell, which means other laptops might also be at risk if they too use Sony batteries (creative sabotage?). I’m pretty confident my Toshiba is safe. Keep an eye on this story!

I wonder what they do with the returned batteries? I think they should put them all in a big pile and explode it. That would make a great video! They could use it as a PR stunt of some sort. Though I’m sure the environmentalists would have a field day. Oh well.

Read: Engadget

Speak Clearly Please!

Post ImageAs I mentioned a few days ago, my desktop computer sort of died. Essentially the hard drive that I installed Windows and all my applications to failed (but my separate data drive is fine). Easy enough to fix, but it kind of happened at a good time too. We needed some computers around here at Paramagnus to do various bits of processing, and our development machines were getting fairly sluggish. So with that in mind, we’ll use our old ones for the processing, and we ordered some new machines from Dell.

Now I have read countless accounts in the blogosphere about how crappy Dell’s support is, and I have some friends who love Dell and some who hate it. The reason we went with Dell is that the price was just too good, and I like how they list the details of every component on the site. Everything went smoothly online, but for some reason, they called me and I had to call them back. Dickson also had to call (we did a couple of orders for various reasons). That’s where things went downhill.

Why can’t I speak to someone I can understand?! Everyone I have spoken with at Dell except for one person had a heavy Indian accent (or whatever nationality they are, it doesn’t matter). So much of an accent, that I can’t make our most of what they are saying! If you’re going to hire people to talk to customers, at least make sure the customers will be able to understand them!

Now don’t go getting all huffy at me. I’m not complaining so much about the accent as about the fact that I can’t understand the representatives. Whether they have a heavy accent, are slurring or mumbling, or for whatever other reason cannot speak clearly, it’s all the same to me – they shouldn’t be working in customer support.

Dell to buy Alienware?

Post ImageDid Dell buy Alienware or not? Word spread around the web yesterday that the deal was already done, but Dell has said otherwise:

Dell has moved to quash rumors that suggested the company has acquired rival PC vendor Alienware. Speculation about a possible buyout has been rife since Rahul Sood, CEO of original equipment manufacturer Voodoo PC, posted his thoughts on such a move on his blog two weeks ago.

Questioning the accuracy of the information, Paul McKeon, Dell Australia and New Zealand spokesman, said the original source–Voodoo PC–is unreliable since the company is an Alienware competitor.

I would be somewhat surprised if Dell did buy Alienware, simply because Dell is not known for making acquisitions. On the other hand, they haven’t denied it. All McKeon did is suggest reasons why it might not have happened.

Read: CNET News.com