Choosing a computer for long-term installation
August 13, 2012 7:42 AM   Subscribe

Help me choose a computer to be the brains of a long-term art installation. The main criterion is that it should sit there and behave well for months and years. I don't need the absolute best graphics or processing power.

Right now I'm leaning towards a current generation Mac Mini, or a refurbished 2010 Macbook Air, but that's just early research. It's probably easier for me to work with OSX, but I'd consider a Windows machine. The machine's just a host for Max/MSP.

If I get a Mini (or other desktop computer) I'd like to run it headless, and use remote desktop software if it ever needs attention. It's tiny and convenient, but if there ever comes a time that it doesn't boot up properly, someone will have to dig up a monitor and keyboard.

A laptop, on the other hand, has its own monitor and keyboard, but less brainpower for the price. A potential bonus of the Air is the solid state drive. For long term reliability, is that a better or worse bet than a spinning HD?

In general, I have the possibly mistaken impression that laptops are more fragile over the long term than desktops. On the other hand, I've been using the same Thinkpad for 10 years.

Bonus question: do you know if it's possible to run a Mac laptop with the lid closed and no monitor plugged in? If I go for the laptop option, it would be closed except when troubleshooting is needed.

I'm sure there are other issues I haven't thought of.
posted by moonmilk to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Many laptops are prone to overheating when the lid is closed, and for this kind of installation, you're definitely going to want to minimize heat.

Solid-state drives are going to be vastly better, too - no moving parts means higher reliability, easily.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:45 AM on August 13, 2012

I'd look to see if something like these fanless computers would do the job for you.

For the application you're talking about, I'd look to use a fanless computer with a solid state hard drives, and I'd shake it down for a few weeks to help expose early mortality problems.
posted by grudgebgon at 7:53 AM on August 13, 2012

Is liquid cooling out of the budget?
posted by griphus at 7:56 AM on August 13, 2012

Ideally, I'd go with a flash based single board computer, the current winner of the lot being the Raspberry Pi. Draws little power, so puts out little heat, and doesn't need a fan. No spinning disk means less heat and less like to fail. The tiny size means it's easy to install in the artwork.

The question is "what OS does it need to run." If you need MacOS, a SSD disk in a Mac Mini is probably your best bet. Unknown to me, however, is if the Mac Mini must be mounted horizontally, because of the fan.

And, yes, you want to burn it in -- and you want to have spares, because replacing that it a year, should it fail, could be hard -- the hardware may have evolved. If you have identical single board computers or whatever in stock, ready to go, all the guy who's maintaining has to do is swap and boot, and you can fix the broken one at your leisure, rather than rushing to try to wedge different hardware in -- and of course, if you can't replace it and you're out of spares, you'll have time to proof out a new set of hardware.
posted by eriko at 8:16 AM on August 13, 2012

Response by poster: I hadn't considered embedded computers like the Pi, which would be cheap enough that I could have a whole closet full of spares, and there's no OS upgrades or remote license servers to worry about. On the other hand, I'd have to take a very different approach to the software to make it work, if it's possible at all. (Looks like someone has managed to get Pure Data running on the Pi.) Thanks for giving me another approach to chew on, eriko.
posted by moonmilk at 8:28 AM on August 13, 2012

What is your budget, and what are you looking to drive with the device ? There are a number of embedded type jobbies that would handle a display, inhand makes one that I've worked with. Their boards come with windows or linux (ARM), so you may need to recompile pure data for that architecture, but ..
posted by k5.user at 8:33 AM on August 13, 2012

Response by poster: The budget is preferably under $1000. Software is probably Max/MSP, unless I'm convinced that it's worth using a machine that won't run Max. It will be driving MIDI and audio interfaces over USB, which might or might not rule out embedded devices. There will be no graphics and no display, or a small hidden one that's just for maintenance.
posted by moonmilk at 8:39 AM on August 13, 2012

One of the fanless Mini-ITX boards maybe a good fit, booting from flash
posted by Z303 at 8:41 AM on August 13, 2012

I have an oldish air, and I think heat would definitely be an issue over the long run if it were running audio tasks constantly. FWIW ableton live running pretty basic tasks causes constant fan running on it, though as I said it isn't current generation. Also, I think it would be more of a target for theft, if that is a worry. A mac mini is much cheaper for your purposes, and you can get them with an SSD as well.
posted by advil at 8:42 AM on August 13, 2012

I've done dozens of permanent and long term installations with Mac minis running Max patches. They have performed very well.
posted by tip120 at 8:42 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: tip120, what do you do about service calls? Do you bring a screen and keyboard, leave one on sight, bring a laptop and remote in? Or they just work and the issue never comes up?
posted by moonmilk at 8:52 AM on August 13, 2012

Response by poster: (argh, I meant "on site")
posted by moonmilk at 8:53 AM on August 13, 2012

I was coming in to suggest the Pi too, or something Arduino-based. Ask the Sketching crowd - this is what they do.
posted by judith at 9:21 AM on August 13, 2012

FWIW, little Atom/Ion boxes are going cheap right now, because newer platforms have left them behind. More grunt than you need, probably, but worth looking at.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:00 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think a Mac Mini is a great choice. Think how easy it will be to service it if you need to do something to it.

I've debated the embedded vs. desktop/laptop decision a few times for some installations. Getting things to run well on a standard desktop like a Mac Mini is simple. In my experience, getting things working in an embedded OS can take a lot more work and occasionally discovering that you just can't do what you wanted to.
posted by MonsieurBon at 10:06 AM on August 13, 2012

hah. I read this and thought "This sounds like a problem [moonmilk] would have.. I should forward this question to him."

I'd go Mac Mini or something like the tiny fanless PCs linked above.

Keep handy at the site: a spare PSU for the Mac, a mouse and keyboard (or, e.g. a keyboard with a trackpad built in) and monitor. Flip on the Mac's wifi and have it be an ad-hoc wireless network host (without radiating its SSID) and secure it down.

After that, you have the choice of laptop access or direct terminal access. The spare PSU is for when the first one overheats, maybe. Resell it new if you end up not needing it.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:41 AM on August 13, 2012

moonmilk, I typically set it all up beforehand so that it is simply a plug and play solution on site.

I'll do screen sharing with a crossover ethernet connection if necessary for any service issues.
posted by tip120 at 7:23 AM on August 14, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all your help! The Mac mini is looking like a pretty good option, though I will explore whether the project might fit on a raspberry pi or similar (it's too big for arduino).

Another question for those of you who have used Mac minis: can they be configured to boot up automatically when power is applied? Or is there a way to do remote startup / shutdown, whether wired or wireless?
posted by moonmilk at 1:04 PM on August 17, 2012

There's an option in the Energy Save pref panel for this, if your model supports it. I'm not positive, but I think the Mini does.
posted by snuffleupagus at 1:09 PM on August 17, 2012

Response by poster: I got a Mac Mini and it's working great. I'm installing it this afternoon! Drop me a line if you're in NYC and would like to see the thing.

The thing has its pluses and minuses - I'll list them here in case it's helpful to someone else. The particular model I got is the low end 2012 Mac Mini MC815LL with OSX Lion. I saved about $40 by picking it up at Adorama instead of an Apple Store.

The thing is tiny, works great right out of the box, and has more than enough processing power for my not very big Max/MSP/Jitter application. I set it up with its own dropbox account to sync with my mac laptop so I can work on and test the application on either place. I turned off automatic system updates, so that I could leave it on the network (for remote debugging) while reducing the chance of unexpected surprises.

To my surprise, it has a serviceable internal speaker, which was great for testing early versions this sound installation until I got around to plugging in a set of amplified speakers.

I was able to set it up to reboot automatically if power is interrupted (Energy Saver in System Prefs), and to automatically log in to my account and start my application (Users & Groups in System Prefs). On the other hand, I couldn't find a way to make the power button trigger an automatic shutdown. It puts up an "are you sure you want to shut down?" dialog box with no countdown timer, even if there is no monitor attached. There are some moderately complex workarounds, but nothing you can just fix in System Prefs. It's not a big deal for my application, but if I needed to fix it, I would probably use the aka.power Max external by Masayuki Akamatsu to allow Max to shut down the computer.

Another great Akamatsu external for Max is aka.remote, which intercepts the Apple IR remote control and turns it into Max events. I'll leave a remote at the site that they can use to adjust a few aspects of the installation.

The current Mac Minis have no slot for a security cable! I had to build a box to keep the thing from walking away from the exhibition.

Thanks to tip120, I've got screen sharing set up in case I need to do any debugging on site - instead of bringing keyboard, mouse, and monitor, I'll just bring my laptop. Simple screen sharing is built into OSX - no need for any client or server software. (Turn it on in Sharing in System Prefs; on the client OSX laptop, open the shared computer in the Finder and click the Share Screen button that appears in the upper right of the window. I mention that because it took me a while to notice the button.) I also set it up on (a remote screen sharing service) so that I might be able to fix things remotely if necessary. I could have tried using Apple's Back to my Mac service, but that apparently requires OSX Lion on the client computer, which I don't have.

I got frustrated trying to set up screen sharing over an ad hoc wifi network - OSX refuses to automatically create or automatically connect to an ad hoc network on reboot. There may be fixes for that, but I got wise and took tip120's suggestion to just plug in an ethernet cable. On recent Macs (don't know about older or non-macs) it doesn't even matter whether you use a crossover or regular cable - it just works.

The Mini has a two prong non-polarized power plug. No problem plugging it into a crappy extension cord or ancient wall sockets.

I'll post another update in a few weeks if the experience of the installation changes anything.
posted by moonmilk at 7:24 AM on September 13, 2012

Glad to hear it's all working well! I dont suppose it's still up?
posted by tip120 at 12:16 PM on October 2, 2012

Response by poster: It's not up any more, but there's a video on my website, linked from my mefi profile. I'm hoping to do a blog post about the whole experience of putting together the installation, including all the stuff in my previous comment.
posted by moonmilk at 1:19 PM on October 2, 2012

Response by poster: (Followup: the mini has hosted at least three art installations so far, and it's done a great job. The one big frustration is the power button - no way to power up except by hitting the physical button, and no way to skip the "are you sure you want to shut down?" dialog. Small frustration is the lack of a security cable slot.)
posted by moonmilk at 3:00 PM on May 25, 2013

and no way to skip the "are you sure you want to shut down?" dialog.

A little bit delayed from when you first asked this, but if you still want to be able to do remote shutdown / reboot, the unix terminal "shutdown" command works on OS X. So, in a terminal, "sudo shutdown -h now" immediately shuts down bypassing the dialog, "-r" instead will reboot. This needs the password of an admin user, so still isn't perfect if you are trying to do this in a completely automated way, but it skips the dialog; there's probably a way to let this happen without a password but I don't know it offhand for OS X. I haven't tested that it carefully closes all programs, but I did double check that it works on my mac mini.

(Also, "pmset sleepnow" forces immediate sleep in case that's useful; there's a lot more flexibility with remote wake/sleep if that works for some of your setups; pmset man page.)
posted by advil at 4:59 PM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

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