Saturday, April 18, 2009

Review: HP m9600t Desktop PC

After returning from Australia, I had to buy a new PC to cope with the 100GB of pictures and run Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop CS4 to deal with the output from the Canon 5DMk II.

Interestingly enough, the HP m9600t went on sale the day after I returned. HP is kind enough to give Google employees a 10% discount, so for $973.59, I configured a machine with the ATI Radeon 4850 (1GB), 4GB of RAM, and a DVD writer. I did not upgrade either the hard drive or the memory, since those were much cheaper if you bought them and installed them yourself.

If you want to go over every nook and cranny of the machine, there's a more thorough review elsewhere. I'm just going to summarize my impressions of this machine.

First of all, the inside of the machine is cramped! To install memory or to install a hard drive, you have to pull the drive cage out. The first time I opened up the machine to install the hard drive, I had no problems --- following the instructions the cage came right off --- and then I discovered that in their infinite wisdom, HP had not left me even a spare SATA cable, so I had to run out and buy one. Once I had one, I discovered that I had to cut the zip tie to the power cables so that I could extract one and use it for the new drive. Not having any spare zip ties sitting around, I left the wire loose and one of them got into the fan of the video card, which created a god-awful noise until I figured that out and moved the wire out of the way and zip tied the cables.

The second time I opened up the machine it was to install memory --- and this time I just could not for the life of me get the drive cage out. Fortunately, I have slim fingers and good manual dexterity, so I worked the DIMMs down below the drive cage and plugged them in with no problems. The resulting total cost was around $1300 when all said and done (including taxes, shipping, and everything). I even got to figure out how good their tech support was --- I had an intermittent fan noise from the video card for a bit, and was surprised to get their weekend support crew, which while it seemed was staffed by high school kids, they seemed to know what they were doing.

My first impression is that the machine is quiet! It's much quieter than my Infrant NAS box, and it only makes noise when it first spins up. I'm very impressed. Secondly, it is fast. In fact, at this point, I'm completely disk-bound except for generating large panoramas in Photoshop or HDR involving 5 or 6 RAW files. What I did discover was that 4GB was insufficient for running Lightroom and Photoshop together. Photoshop wants about 3.7GB of RAM, while Lightroom wants about 700MB. That makes 6GB comfortable (until you're dealing with 5 RAW files), and 8GB just enough. Purists will want to go for 12GB to make use of the triple channel RAM, but since we're not CPU bound anyway, there's no point going for more speed --- the next step really would be getting a striped disk array to reduce the delay from reads, or solid state disks (which realistically speaking, isn't cheap enough for what is essentially an accessory to my SLR!).

I plugged in two Dell 2407wfp monitors, and the result is I can view all the thumbnails on one monitor while doing photo manipulation in the other. The extra real-estate is very nice, and my work-flow is now relatively efficient.

Games: wow! This is the first time I've got a machine with a graphics card powerful enough to play most PC games, and I'm impressed. Now if only I had more time --- I could get some gaming in and get my photo editing done, but I guess that's going to have to wait. All this super duper compute power does come at a cost --- the machine dissipates about 127W while browsing the web, and about 206W (peaking to 220W) when crunching through photos with all 4 cores busy. Fortunately, I expect not to have to keep the machine on all the time once the initial backup to off-site storage is done.

All in all, I'm very pleased with this machine. I usually like to keep machines for 5-6 years, but had to upgrade earlier than expected this time because of digital photography. I don't expect to have to upgrade for another 5 years. I did have the usual people bugging me to get a Mac, but realistically, a quad core Mac starts at $2500, which doesn't come with the Radeon 4850 video card. I like the Mac Pro's case, but I don't like it so much that I'd be willing to pay $1300 for it. Realistically, the next time I get a PC, I'm just going to have to build it from components if I want a less cramped case with more room for drives (or better yet, hot-swappable drives). But that's 5 years away.
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