Last year, the editors of MaximumPC magazine tossed a challenge my way. “David, design your own dream machine.” So I wrote a column, specifying what kind of hardware I felt should be inside the box. The result was the Star Trek themed PC, designed by Mike Okuda and built by Bill Owen and the other fine folks at MNPCTECH.
But despite the lustworthy appeal of this machine, there’s another more important point to make. As much fun as it is to build an impressive dream machine and show it off at Comic-Con, the ultimate goal of any computer has to be functionality, because MaximumPC isn’t just about maximum specs or even maximum performance. It’s about maximum usability.
My personal dream machine was always intended to be a high-powered working environment, but the irony of that goal is that a high-powered working environment can only exist as a subset of a high-powered gaming environment.
What the history of personal computing demonstrates is that gaming is the engine that drives the bleeding edge. Thirty years ago, you bought a 386 machine, with a VGA card and a Sound Blaster, so you could play Wolfenstein 3D and Flight Simulator, and a year later, Doom. Ever since then we’ve been upgrading motherboards, processors, monitors, graphics cards, sound cards, RAM, hard drives, and mice so we could play Halo and Half-Life and Crysis and Starcraft II with frame rates larger than our underwear size.
The hardware manufacturers know this—it’s the gamers who are first to snap up the high-end technology so they can have decent frame rates for the newest games. And of course, the gaming companies write ever more sophisticated graphics routines and AI engines, to use up those newly available clock cycles. Many games in development are planned and written with that steady advance of hardware in mind.
It’s generally expected that more powerful processors will hit in the market in time to provide the necessary hellaflops to run that code—and along the way, every other piece of the technological eco-system has enjoyed the benefits of that evolutionary process. If you can find a picture or a description of the machine you were using ten years ago and compare it with what’s on your desk today, you’ll see just how far we’ve come.
But back to the Star Trek PC, which represented the state-of-the-art at the moment it was constructed—and held onto that distinction for about twenty minutes, until the next big thing was announced. But state-of-the-art was never the goal here. Computers are like cameras—the most useful one is the one you’re actually using. And this one was designed for usability.
My son and I made room in the car, drove up to South San Francisco, and arrived at the offices of the magazine on a bright crisp morning. We spent some time chatting with Gordon and Nathan and Alex, and even more time ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the machine’s beautiful case. Gordon opened it up so we could see how meticulously assembled the innards were. Then he booted it up to prove it was a real computer and not just a beautiful movie prop. After a lot more ooh-ing and ahh-ing, Gordon found a travel case for it, we loaded it into the car and headed home.
For the record, this thing weighs over a hundred pounds. Nobody is going to pick up this box and walk off with it. Not without a forklift. It’s all that beautiful machined aluminum. It’s not just gorgeous, it’s heavy. Aluminum has a tendency to tarnish with time, but I’m making a special effort to keep this case clean and free of scratches. We’ll see how it looks in a few years.
It’s not quiet. It’s got a big fan in front and another big fan in back. The flow-through is pretty good. The average temperature inside the box is 75 degrees. Sometimes as low as 69, occasionally as high as 80. I expect summertime temperatures to be higher, of course, but the machine has been installed in a cooler room than was originally planned, so I’m not worried we’re going to be running a space-heater here.
The Star Trek PC is too big for the average computer desk and too beautiful to be put on the floor, so I bought a sturdy wheeled stand for it, and while I was shopping, I found a nice glass-topped desk for my monitor and keyboard. This turned out to be an excellent working arrangement, much better than the computer desk I was using for the previous machine.
The machine that the Star Trek PC replaces is a Gateway FX-6801, running an i7-920, with 9gb of RAM and a Geforce 260 video card. Not bleeding edge, but certainly at the high end of the sweet spot when I bought it. (I bought it because it matched the specs of the machine I intended to build, but didn’t have time—I needed it immediately.) Booting up the Gateway means turning the machine on, going into the kitchen, heating a cup of tea in the microwave for 90 seconds, then wandering back into the office to watch the machine finish setting up the desktop. Approximately a three-minute process—not bad for impulse power, but who wants to go anywhere on impulse power?
The Star Trek PC goes to warp eleven. First you turn it on, then it turns you on.
It’s running an i7-2600K at 3.4ghz. It’s got 16gb of RAM and it’s running Windows 7 Professional, 64-bit. Ideally, the operating system should be Windows 7 Enterprise edition, just for the pun. That would be a very expensive in-joke, limited to an audience of one, but this Trekkie would certainly appreciate it. The Windows Experience Index is 7.6.
The machine boots in less than 30 seconds. In fact, it’s actually fun to watch it flash quickly through its startup screens and go almost immediately to those little colored balls that circle around into a glowing Windows logo. A plain vanilla startup without sprinkles is deliciously fast.
Of course, the more crap that gets added to Windows’ startup routine, the longer it can take to get from there to the actual desktop, but the overall bootup time is still in the realm of “Dude! That’s awesome!” (Not all of my friends have English as their first language.) At least once a month, I do check the startup list and eliminate every program that doesn’t need to boot with Windows.
The rapid bootup time is the smallest part of the daily routine. This box has a 240gb SSD as its C: drive, so access to software and the most frequently used files isn’t just near-instantaneous. It is instantaneous. And it does make a difference. The first few days of use, some operations happened so fast I had to double check to see that they’d actually completed.
But it’s very easy to get used to instantaneous response—so much so that going back to the older machine for anything feels tedious and painful. (At some point, I’ll probably upgrade the Gateway to an SSD and 12gb of RAM. It’s a good backup machine, I can use it as a server.)
I admit I’m a sloppy user. My worst habit is having lots of tabs open in Chrome. Chrome tends to eat up memory. When I bought the Gateway, I thought 9gb of RAM was plenty. Nope. It turned out that I could slow it down or simply bring it to a shuddering halt by having too many tabs open. The Star Trek PC has 16gb of RAM and I’ve only been able to slow it down twice in the first four months. So it may be that 16gb of RAM is the current sweet-spot.
On a scale of 10, this machine is a 9.4. (I’m taking a half point off because the fans are noticeably loud, but I often wear headphones. Perhaps if they sounded more like a starship idling, they’d be less bothersome. And another tenth of a point off because the SD-card slot is hibernating, I’ll have to open it up to fix the cable.)
From the beginning, the goal here was to build state-of-the-art usability. That means having the computer be invisible, leaving only the workflow. Rapid access to software and files requires a machine designed for the fastest throughput possible. The Star Trek PC is more than just another pretty face—it’s a reliable workhorse. Like the starship it’s named after, this Enterprise is big, beautiful, fast, and a joy to operate. It lets me boldly go to work where none of my computers have gone before.
What do you think? When you design your dream machine, what would you require for maximum usability?
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