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Once a month, I get together with friends for sushi. We call it ‘Sushi-Con’ and we descend on Sun-Sushi, on Reseda Blvd. in Northridge. (It’s an open invitation, check my Facebook wall for the next one. Or follow DavidGerrold on Twitter.) The conversation is generally free-spirited and meanders through such territory as favorite movies, science fiction books, ebooks, rock music, classical music, anecdotes about people not present, interesting scientific advances, current and future technologies, and whether or not the perfect cucumber roll includes oshinko.
A few weeks ago, one of the folks asked for advice on a new computer. Several folks made immediate recommendations, based on previous experiences both good and bad, but I, playing the part of wise-old-pundit, simply looked across the table and asked, “What do you intend to use it for?”
“You know. The usual stuff.”
“Ah. The usual stuff. Okay, what’s usual stuff?”
That’s when the fun began. Everybody at the table had a different definition of ‘usual stuff.’
At the table, we had a dozen people. Most use Windows, but two use Linux. Three were Mac users. One had an iPad.
Most used Word for writing, but several also used Final Draft. Three needed processing power for editing videos and artwork, they use Flash, Avid, Photoshop, and Illustrator. Several people at the table were avid gamers and needed high-end video cards and powerful processors. One or two needed large amounts of storage space for large media collections. The professional programmer wanted compile speed and multi-tasking. The two people who hosted websites were concerned about broadband speed. Someone else who kept in touch with her grandchildren via Skype wanted clear pictures going both ways, so she talked about camera quality and internet connections. The composer wanted a high-end sound card with MIDI plug-ins. And that was just the beginning. Everybody uses their computer differently, everybody self-mods, and everybody has a different set of ‘usual stuff.’
The conversation then wandered into, “Well, what’s your ‘usual stuff,’ David?’ and ‘What would you build for yourself?’” Good question. Always a head-scratcher. While my current machine is pretty much keeping up with my needs, I’ve noticed that I’m already designing my next one in my head.
First, the case. I want a tower case with lots of room inside and two hot-swappable drive bays in front. One of the bays will be for my music collection. When the 2tb drive is no longer sufficient to hold my music collection (and I am rapidly approaching that point), I want to be able to clone it onto a 3tb drive and keep going. (By the time the 3tb fills up, there should be 4tb drives available.) Just as important, I want to be able to pop an extra hard drive into one of those hot-swappable bays so I can clone my data drives and store backups safely offsite.
Still on the case, I want it big enough for a heavy duty video card, and roomy enough that ventilation will not be a problem. I want all the components to be as quiet as possible and wherever possible, soundproofed, because I don’t like an audible background hum, unless it’s me humming along like Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations. I recognize that adequate ventilation and silence are mutually exclusive conditions. Nevertheless, I shall dream.
Motherboard and chip? Sandy Bridge motherboard with USB 3.0. Something that will stay in the zone for a while, even as the zone moves forward. Intel hasn’t announced a 6-core CPU for Sandy Bridge yet, so I’ll settle for a 4-core CPU and keep my fingers crossed. Sandy Bridge promises a faster system architecture, so that has to be the deciding factor.
Water-cooling and over-clocking? Well, sure, okay, that would be nice, but not essential. I know my own habits—it’s more important to me that my machine be as silent as possible. I have to ask myself, am I shooting for raw speed and power because high numbers give me geek-cred—or am I shooting for overall usefulness? Obviously, usefulness. Your mileage may vary. As effective as the Bose noise-reduction headphones are, I want to wear them on the airplane, not in front of the computer.
RAM? In my current machine, an i7-920, I’ve discovered that 9gb of RAM is insufficient. 90% of what I do in life is research and it’s not unusual for me to have over a hundred tabs open in Chrome, at the same time puttering around in Photoshop with 6 or 8 large multi-layered files, and three humongus Excel spreadsheets, and 3 or 5 large files that I’m editing open in Word, and an assortment of additional utilities as well. To say that uses up a lot of memory is an understatement. 12gb would be my absolute bottom end for RAM, but ideally I’d shoot for at least 16gb of the fastest RAM I could find, I’d max out the motherboard.
Hard drives? Obviously, I want the operating system (Win7) to run on a solid-state drive, at least 160gb, but 250gb looks like the sweet spot to me, and then two inboard 3tb drives for data. I have more than 2tb of music in my collection and another 1tb of video files I’m editing. I’m tired of having them scattered across four or five smaller drives.
Video Card? I play Starcraft II. My old GTX-260 can run a 30-inch monitor with all the effects turned up to eleven at 105fps. So almost any of the current crop of video cards will likely suit my gaming needs. But more important, I also do a lot of video editing and photo-processing so video power is a consideration. I have a 30-inch screen. The HP ZR30W is a great display, especially where color accuracy is critical, such as in photo-editing or video-processing. But I want to run a second monitor next to it, another 30-incher? Or maybe a triptych of big screens, so the video capability has to be there for that eventuality. I want some serious RAM on that video card (or cards).
Sound Card? Most motherboards include pretty good sound capability these days, but I’ve always gone for the top-end Sound Blaster in the past and w ould want to do that here. I teach writing workshops and occasionally some organization or other asks me to give a speech. I record those courses and speeches and occasionally edit them for distribution. A couple times, I’ve recorded musical presentations as well, so I want a professional-level ability to record and edit and reproduce sound accurately. When I listen to music, I like multi-channel surround, so I want a sound board that will let me run 5.1 channels—and a speaker system good enough to do it justice.
Keyboard? I use an ergonomic board. I’m currently using a Northgate Evolution. It’s out of production, but it’s a great keyboard with old-fashioned clicky-style keys. The Avant Stellar also has the same clicky-feel, but it’s not an ergonomic design. I’ll stick with my current board for now, despite some of its quirks.
Mouse? I don’t need a gaming mouse that looks like the Batmobile. I do need one with good sensitivity, but almost any of the high-end Logitech or Microsoft mice will do.
Webcam? I don’t Skype very often, but when I do I want a good video signal going out. I do like the Logitech webcams that have HDTV capability.
And finally…the big question. Do I want a special case-mod?
I’ve always admired the graphic design that Mike Okuda did for Star Trek. (Remember the DS9 tribble episode where they recreated the look and feel of the original Enterprise? Thank Mike Okuda for taking the point on that.) So as long as I’m dreaming, let me dream of a case mod that looks like it belongs on the Enterprise, something that feels like the classic tricorder. For me, classic Star Trek is the real Star Trek. That’s the starship I grew up on.
This is my own particular dream machine—not necessarily yours. In my thinking, not every component needs to be a bleeding edge, screaming-fast, state of the art, next generation, wet-your-shorts, bust-your-wallet technology. I want a machine that is powerful enough and versatile enough to keep up with the demands of the next few years of software. For the kind of investment this machine would represent, it should have a projected lifespan of at least five years of usefulness. More if I’ve dreamed well.
This is the real point of the ‘David Gerrold Dream machine.’ It’s cost-effective to build for longevity. The usefulness of a computer should not be measured in months. And when a machine finally does get replaced, it should still enough life left in it that it can be used as a backup machine or a server. The machines we build today deserve to be more than boat-anchors tomorrow. That’s what I believe.
Okay, now I throw it open to you, the readers. What have I missed? What would you recommend?
David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com