Another "What Computer Should I Buy" Question
September 14, 2020 2:05 PM   Subscribe

I need some advice on buying a computer. I am historically a Mac user, but for a variety or reasons I think I would like to get a Desktop PC. I am totally overwhelmed by the options.

I'm smart about some things but computers are not really one of them so please have mercy.

For the past decade+ I have done almost all of my work on a Macbook. My current Macbook is aging and I don't really want to spend/have all the money for another mac. Plus, the lab I work in uses PCs and transferring files back and forth between a Mac and PC (like Matlab files) is sometimes a huge pain. Pre-covid I could do a lot of my work on the computers in my lab (I am working on my PhD), but this isn't possible anymore, with all but seeing subjects having been moved out of the lab. This is unlikely to change anytime soon.

I know there is a whole community of people who swear by building a PC. While I love the idea of that and understand the benefits, I just don't know if that's something I can take on right now.

I don't know that much about computer specs. However, I know enough that, because I often work with large Matlab and R files, I need enough memory and storage to handle that type of processing without always needing it to run overnight. From my experience with the computers in the lab, I probably need at least something with an SSD.

The primary work I do on the computer (besides basic things like word processing) is manipulating and analyzing often large data sets in Matlab and in R. Sometimes this involves storing large datasets as well, though I can often do that through the University server. That's it. I'm not a gamer or content creator and I don't need to stream super-hi-res videos or anything of that nature.

I will need to buy two monitors and all of that as well, but I am fine with buying those separately, I just don't really want to build the whole thing from scratch.

Ideally the max I would like to spend on this is $1000. If I could do it for <$800 that would be awesome, but I don't want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Any suggestions or pointing to resources to figure out what I need is much appreciated.

Thank you all so much.
posted by Lutoslawski to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
While I don't have much in the way of specific brand recommendations, for working with large data sets, you'll probably want to favor a machine with more RAM and more processing cores, and an SSD with enough capacity to hold your OS, programs and your datasets at least. MATLAB has even published some hardware considerations and recommendations for using MATLAB.

I like Dell as far as desktops go, but especially if you're not building for gaming, any of the big names will probably make an acceptable desktop.
posted by Aleyn at 2:44 PM on September 14 [4 favorites]

At the start of the year, I bought a refurbed Lenovo desktop ("Lenovo ThinkCentre M900 Workstation Desktop, Quad-Core i7 6700 Upto 4.0GHz, 32GB DDR4, 1TB SSD, 4K 3-Monitor Support (2X DP 1 x VGA), WiFi, Windows 10 Pro (Renewed)") for about $800 with tax, and I suspect this would be ample for your needs. You could go up on the chip to an i9, and that might get you a motherboard that will go to 64GB DDR4 RAM, which in theory matlab and R would appreciate, but I suspect you'd be fine as-is. I'm running MS SQL Server and occasionally doing massive queries with no real issues, and I don't think anything is as inefficient as SQL Server.

Mine came from the Amazon Renewed Store, it was clearly a third-party refurbisher, but it's a totally legit machine, was packed well, and has a 90-day warranty. It's been hard finding any refurbs on any of the big brands' own outlets, since the pandemic.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:08 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]

> often work with large Matlab and R files, I need enough memory and storage to handle that type of processing without always needing it to run overnight

If you can give any rough numbers to quantify this, you'll get more helpful recommendations. E.g. do you often do data processing workloads that involve reading or writing 1GB / 10GB / 100GB / 1TB of data from files? Do you often need to run matlab or R scripts that need to allocate 1GB / 10GB / 100GB / 1TB of memory? There may be very large difference in performance if the working data set that a matlab or R script requires can fit completely in the machine's RAM vs partially fitting in RAM and partially needing to read data from a slower storage device.

I'd suggest getting a machine with at least 16GB of RAM and at least 1TB of fast storage (SSD). There's probably little point in paying more money for lots of CPU cores or a dedicated GPU unless you know you're doing something highly compute-intensive (such as encoding video or training deep learning neural network models or whatnot).

Re: the DIY option of assembling a PC from parts, one website that can make it much easier to plan is pcpartpicker. For example, here's pcpartpicker's recommendation for a budget desktop PC -- that's quoted as USD $408 but it might be convenient to pay a bit extra to buy all the parts from one or two suppliers -- maybe that'd end up costing around USD $450. It is quite likely that the above budget desktop PC build would perform absolutely fine for the workloads you describe -- but if you have a bit of extra cash to spend, another $50 to upgrade to a 1TB drive and another $50 to double the amount of RAM to 32GB may improve the machine's ability to handle large data sets.

One advantage of assembling a PC from individual parts compared to buying a complete machine from Dell/Lenovo etc is that by buying individual parts you can end up with a machine that has more options for future upgrades -- easier to add a new component or replace a component to extend the working life of the machine. But it is a bit more time and effort to do, and a new skill to learn ( not too hard if there's youtube tutorials to refer to or an experienced friend you can ask for help ).
posted by are-coral-made at 3:12 PM on September 14 [4 favorites]

My last couple of desktop PCs have been Dell workstations. The build quality and performance have been decent. And I like that Dell lets me configure all kinds of options on their site before ordering, but I don't have to build the machine myself, and I don't have to do exhaustive research to know that the RAM, drives, graphics card, etc., that I select are all going to work together.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 3:29 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

Mac Mini?
posted by oceanjesse at 3:32 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]

Intel NUC might be an option. You decide how much RAM and solid state works. They are tiny too. I have one for Power BI data sets and it works peachy keen.
posted by museum of fire ants at 4:04 PM on September 14

Can you look at the brand & model of a PC you use in the lab and buy the same thing?

Or, barring that, copy down the specs of a machine in the lab (something that you know copes fine with your usual work), and use that as a baseline?
posted by floppyroofing at 4:27 PM on September 14

I have no idea how common this is in academia, but remote desktop software is a thing, and it can allow you to run your programs on the lab computer from the comfort of your home computer. If you could get it set up, it would enable the lab computer to do the heavy processing, so you would need a computer of more modest specs.

Do you know how much RAM the lab computers have? which CPU? Alternately is there someone at the lab you can consult about recommended specs to run your programs? At the very least, do you think the computer is very old or very new?*

*One research lab I am familiar with still had a desktop running windows 98 well into the Bush presidency.

If your goal is to get your project up and running as soon as possible, consider buying a desktop tower that is upgradable instead of completely building it yourself. Also consider buying a refurbished one.
posted by oceano at 4:35 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

I've had good luck in the past buying a PowerSpec computer for Micro Center. It is their in-house brand which I believe they just have employees of each store assemble. If you're physically near a Micro Center this is an option to consider.

Assembling a computer yourself is not that hard, but getting parts and making sure they're compatible takes some care, and there is a lot of tacit knowledge, so seems wise to buy one pre-built.

If your main problem is loading big files into Matlab you might as well aim for 32GB RAM and a big SSD. That plus a decent processor should be doable for under $800, since you do not need a separate graphics card. Matlab will happily use more processor cores so you might as well spend as much as you're comfortable with getting a faster processor, but most things you can buy will be more than fine.

AMD's Ryzen CPUs have outpaced Intel recently, but beware -- versions of Matlab before 2020a will perform some numerical tasks more slowly on these processors. So if you have to use an old version of Matlab for compatibility or license reasons, aim for Intel.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:27 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]

Ask your lab mates, and if your lab uses psychtoolbox, check these requirements (or browse the forum for recommended hardwar)
posted by nicodine at 8:22 PM on September 14

Adding to oceano's suggestion of running remotely, I did that for a couple years. It was close to 100% acceptable, but it did require the cooperation of the IT dept. to permit the VPN access.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:54 AM on September 15

I say absolutely no to Mac Mini or a'll be super limited. The Lenovo described by Lyn Never sounds like a good bet. You could also pay a bit more and go with a specialty PC builder. For instance, we've bought PCs from Silent PC, who market to audio people, but whose PCs should work well for most use cases. Their PCs are AWESOME in terms of parts and build quality, so although you pay a bit more for the same specs, if it's in your budget, I think it's worth it. (Still significantly cheaper than a Mac.) Their support is fantastic as well, if you do end up with any problems or questions.
posted by nosila at 7:32 AM on September 15

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