Pimp my work desktop
March 22, 2010 1:13 PM   Subscribe

I've been given a (supposedly) blank check to get myself the best work desktop that I can.

I know very little about desktop computers, so I need help: what is the best that I can get for doing research. I use ArcGIS and SPSS on really, really big datasets nearly every day. I won't try to throw around a lot of computer lingo and embarrass myself, but good processing speed and a lot of memory are priorities. My boss has already turned me down on one of the computers that I chose (Dell Inspiron 580) because it was too low end.
posted by _cave to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You probably want a "workstation" grade PC.

Take a look at the offerings that Dell and HP have.

You could also buy a Mac Pro, and install Boot Camp on it to run Windows, as they're actually fairly price-competitive in the ultra-high-end sector, and are one of the only commercially-available 8-core systems.

Dell, HP, and Apple also all let you configure stupid amounts of memory in their workstations (dozens/hundreds of GBs). I find it difficult to imagine needing more than 8GB (and RAM is a very easy upgrade, and gets cheaper over time)

Also, buy a nice big monitor (or two). Avoid any of those awful 6-bit LCDs -- IPS technology used to be the "gold" standard, although that may have changed recently... It'll pay for itself in terms of productivity in a matter of weeks, especially in your line of work.
posted by schmod at 1:24 PM on March 22, 2010

Definitely go with a dual-monitor setup. You'll be amazed.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:37 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

No offense to you intended, but it strikes me as a little risky to delegate a specialized workstation purchase to someone who doesn't know much about PC hardware (and it doesn't sound like that's in your job description). Is there a colleague who can help you with this and ensure that you get something that meets the requirements for your software?
posted by scatter gather at 1:53 PM on March 22, 2010

You want a workstation, no question. Dell Precision, at least 6 GB of RAM, Windows 7 Pro or Ultimate 64-bit, Intel Xeon processors, discrete big graphics card, and two big Ultrasharp monitors.
posted by The Michael The at 2:03 PM on March 22, 2010

I have to agree with scatter here, you need help from someone who knows more about the software - someone within your company. Sure we can all give you general recommendations (mine would be for the Dell Precision as well), we could be way off the ball in what the requirements are for your specific tasks.
posted by Sonic_Molson at 2:13 PM on March 22, 2010

I have 8GB here and you'd be surprised at how fast that gets used up when you need it.

If I had a job that had anything to do with "really, really big datasets," I would start with a minimum of 12GB and workstation-grade hardware.
posted by circular at 2:42 PM on March 22, 2010

If I were buying it, 64-bit workstation with a high-end dual-head graphics card with dual 19" monitors, as much memory as you can cram in the thing, fast multi-core processor. If the data is local, fast hard drive(s), if over the LAN, fast network card.

Reasons: I've worked extensively with similar data, huge amounts of raster and vector graphics. 32-bit limits how much RAM you can use for loading the data. Processor speed limits how fast you can work with the data. Dual monitors are just damn useful, and a fast graphics card helps with rendering so you're not waiting for a refresh of the display(s).
posted by hungrysquirrels at 2:49 PM on March 22, 2010

One thing about ArcGIS is that it only runs on one core. So on my duo or quad core computers, it just runs on that core at 100% and everything else is zero, for a large job. So I presume getting the fastest core possible would be something else to consider.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 2:58 PM on March 22, 2010

(should have clarified - ArcGIS desktop runs on one core; which presumably is what you are using due to your new computer needs)
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 3:06 PM on March 22, 2010

@ scatter gather: yes, I hear you. But I work in a small research center and everyone I work with is approximately as knowledgeable as I am about this type of thing. When I went to IT with this question, they were also kind of clueless, beyond saying that I would probably want at least 4GB of RAM and 1 TB of memory. As long as the computer works with Windows, it should be fine with all of the other software that I need to install on it. This will also pass through the filter of my supervisor (who recommended spending more and getting high quality) and who has been told that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to upgrade our computers without our center paying for it. So no, it's not my job description, but it's sort of got to be done by someone. And this someone has access to random internet strangers.

Thanks for the suggestions so far!
posted by _cave at 5:07 PM on March 22, 2010

If money is really no object:

Dell Precision T7500 Workstation
• Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)
• Intel Xeon Quad 3.33GHz processor
• 512MB Nvidia Quadro NVS 420 video card
• 2 hard drives - 300GB 10K RPM drive (for your OS and software); 1TB 7200 RPM drive (for storage)
• 2x UltraSharp 22" monitors

That runs about $6000. You can probably find the same or similar configuration cheaper with another vendor. By no means is this the be-all-end-all system for you, it's just some guidelines and a good starting point.
posted by joshrholloway at 5:11 PM on March 22, 2010

I hate to be an evangelist, but the quality of Mac hardware and ease of upgrade is really top-notch. (My lab has dozens, all state of the art at one point.) Install Boot Camp, hide the CPU tower (with proper ventilation, of course), and you'll never know the difference.
posted by supercres at 5:16 PM on March 22, 2010

(Though we buy the "standard" amount of RAM and upgrade it 3rd-party after the fact. Much much cheaper.)
posted by supercres at 5:19 PM on March 22, 2010

everyone I work with is approximately as knowledgeable as I am about this type of thing

Fair enough. Then I'll throw in my $0.02: get ECC (error correcting and detecting) memory in your system if possible. I imagine the occasional undetected bit flip would wreak havoc on your data sets.
posted by scatter gather at 6:04 PM on March 22, 2010

I use a mac pro with 8 cores and 16gb memory for some seriously heavy processing applications. It is great to use and was actually not too bad value (bought the ram from from third party retailer at a substantial saving on the apple store prices). It is a pleasure to use for everyday applications too. Think it was about $4500 or there abouts.
posted by SueDenim at 6:35 PM on March 22, 2010

I 2nd JoshRHolloway's recommendation. If you start with a $6000 Dell, he can trim away costs, rather than starting with a $1000 Dell and trying to beef it up.
And, don't bother with a Mac' since all your apps are PC-based anyway. (My ¢2).
posted by Lukenlogs at 12:47 AM on March 23, 2010

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