Low-Power Computer + High-Power Computer = ???
April 16, 2009 6:11 PM   Subscribe

After 5+ years of working remarkably well, my desktop is finally giving out in multiple places, and it's time to move on. I use my desktop as an always-on computer, though, so I'd like to get something low-power.

While 90% of the time the desktop is for email, web, music, data processing & light programming, and I could get away with an incredibly low-power system with even a non-x86 embedded processor, once and a while I need to do some major number crunching, play a CPU & GPU intensive game, and or otherwise push the requirements for the system way up. I'm not entirely opposed to having two separate boxes with a KVM and booting up the big guy only when I need it, but it's not terribly elegant. Ideally, there'd be some way to bring a separate graphics card, processor, HD, etc. up when necessary, but have it all contained in one big box.

Short of having two full systems in one box, I have no idea how I would do this, though. I'd be building both systems up from components, so I have no problem getting a bit dirty with the hardware (or hacking up stuff like cases, if necessary), and I have plenty of experience in building up 'simple' systems.

Has something like this been done? Is there a solution? Is it really just not practical on a hardware level? Are there other solutions to the basic problem?
posted by devilsbrigade to Computers & Internet (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think a lot of people deal with this schism by pairing a laptop (or netbook) with a desktop, which has the added benefit of your email/web/music machine being portable. Just dock the laptop and kvm to the monitor and keyboard.

The only systems I am familiar with that do anything like you are describing are the new dual-GPU Macbook/Macbook Pros, and even Apple couldn't (so far, even controlling all aspects of the hardware, drivers, OS) get around having to require users to log out and log back in to switch between GPUs.

So I guess once you are having to log in/out to switch between hypothetical machines, they may as well be separate machines, as there is already going to be an experience "gap".
posted by misterbrandt at 7:24 PM on April 16, 2009

Not that it helps much, but many modern desktops are essentially already implementing what you want through power management. A friend of mine recently built an i7 based desktop, and its power consumption in "idle" is less than a third of peak consumption. At least on Linux, you can spin down unused hard drives as well.

Of course, this is still miles away from a 15W ARM box, but given the fact that Firefox seems to eat ever more memory and CPU anyway, I think it's an acceptable tradeoff.
posted by themel at 9:28 PM on April 16, 2009

Perhaps you could look at the new Nvidia Ion stuff coming out? Your gaming and number crunching would not be stellar, but they would be passable.
posted by jellywerker at 9:37 PM on April 16, 2009

I think themel is right.

Personally, I'd handle this by buying the high-powered gear and then booting linux (at least most of the time). Under linux, you can spin down and stop any hard drive you aren't using. You can turn off all 3d acceleration, and never bring the GPU above VGA mode if you don't need it.

If you buy the right processor (maybe all processors, but I can't trivially get my Athlon X2 to do it), you can also scale the CPU frequency. The last machine I had with scaling set up would let me bring the clockspeed down to about 10% of the rated speed (with a number of other increments along the way).

You can also save power in other places. For instance, you can get a latest-gen solid state harddrive. The good ones are apparently finally good enough, but all of them claim very low power requirements. Then, if you need massive storage, keep it on external USB drives or an external NAS unit. These can be completely powered down when not in use.

If you need the power sometimes, and you're going to want it, then you should get it. Then, try to trim where you can, and handle much of the power savings with software power management.
posted by Netzapper at 11:12 PM on April 16, 2009

At home, I switch between a Dell Mini 9 netbook for the 90% email, browsing, and light work and a custom built desktop for the 10% when I need more juice. I only turn on the desktop when I need it. With Windows 7 Beta, it boots up and shuts down incredibly fast.

You can buy the Mini 9 for $200 when there are deals and the desktop housed in a tiny Apevia X-QPack2 case was built with about $400 in components.

Dropbox keeps necessary files synced between the two machines so there's no need to copy files back and forth when switching.
posted by junesix at 2:29 PM on April 17, 2009

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