On not buying Apple hardware…

For the first time in twenty years, I decided to build a PC.  This project isn’t born of an idle whim – it’s born of my dislike for the Virgin+ box.  Seldom have I seen a more ill-conceived piece of hardware.  I’ve certainly never seen a system which glows more brightly on standby than it does when it’s ‘on’.

The requirements started simply.  Any box that I build will be able to record freeview television programmes, convert them to a format that I can play on my Mac or my iPhone, and make them available on my home network so that they can be copied off easily.  I don’t have time to watch much TV at home, so I’d really like to be able to watch my recordings on the train to and from work.  The box will also need to be able to play DVDs and I’d really like it to be able to play my MP3 files too.  If it can connect to Boxee then so much the better.

As for the hardware requirements, it will need to be exceedingly parsimonious.  A box that records will need to be on standby much of the time, and I don’t want it to chug though the juice like an alcoholic in a brewery.  I’d like it to be remote controlled from the sofa just like all my other kit. An LCD front panel would be nice too – if only to make it look more like a hifi separate and less like a computer.  While we’re on the subject, it’ll need to be quiet as well.

I decided not to skimp on the quality.  The kit I bought is all good, albeit at rather less than the manufacturers RRP.  I decided what I wanted and then went looking for it at the lowest possible price.  My shopping list, and my rationale, went as follows:

  • Antec Micro Fusion 350.  The Antec Micro Fusion 350 is a nicely compact PC case, a good match for my hifi.  On paper at least, it’s quiet and it boasts an efficient power supply.  It comes with a remote control and it has an LCD front panel, so it disguises the computer quite well.
  • Asus E35M1-M PRO.  ASUS are a good brand, a big PC name that I trust.  Their website isn’t bad (by PC manufacturer standards) and I was able to find their support pages fairly easily.  On the whole, I don’t buy products if the provider doesn’t offer solid and usable support.  I chose this board for its AMD Zacate CPU which uses very little power whilst still offering reasonable performance. I’m impressed.
  • Western Digital Caviar Green Power.  I’ve used these hard drives before, for archive on my Mac.  The Green Power range isn’t fast, but it is power efficient and it does seem to be reliable.  This is the first time I’ve used one as a startup disk – but power efficiency is more important than speed for my media player.
  • Memory.  I get mine from Crucial, and I’ve installed 4GB.  The board will take up to 8GB so I may upgrade again before too long.  I don’t want page faulting to occur at all if I can help it, and especially not with a slow hard drive.

For this posting, I’d like to leave aside the issue of OS (I chose Mythbuntu, but I may yet decide to use Windows Media Centre).  The Mac vs. Windows vs. Linux is a meme as old as the hills, and not as interesting.  I know which is best for me, and I know which is most likely to crash with a virus and a blue screen.  I’d like to pick a different fight today…

…Hardware.  Good lord, common PC hardware is crappy.  The stuff I bought isn’t bargain basement – but it doesn’t even come close to the quality that I’ve come to expect from a computer.  And even if I’d spent thousands on the most expensive kit possible, it’d still lag behind Apple because of the need to maintain compatibility with the woeful generic PC standard.  I beleive in elegance.  I don’t want to see a rat nest of cable inside my computer.  In fact, I don’t want to see any cable – I want all the wires to be hidden neatly away so that they don’t bugger up the airflow inside my machine.  It isn’t just a matter of aesthetics, it’s a matter of longevity.

This home build isn’t my only experience of generic PCs. As well as my Macs, I do have a bog standard generic PC.  It’s a Dell XPS tower (not the latest generation – and I certainly won’t be buying another).  It’s crap.  It’s a professionally built machine, the top of Dell’s line, and it still looks like it was assembled by a crazed magpie. To use the car analogy, this isn’t Mercedes engineering.  This is Trabant.  On a bad day.

Sadly, it isn’t possible to do what I’m attempting to do with Apple hardware.  Apple doesn’t make a machine with the form factor that I’d like.  So I’m making the best of a bad job.  Software-wise though, I’m very much open to conversion. Suggestions for alternative software stacks and improvements that I might make to my system will be gratefully received.

If, on the other hand, you don’t need a custom computer, if all you want is a machine that you can work on and, perhaps, use to play the odd game, if you don’t want shoddy build quality and worries about reliability then I’m afraid that you don’t have a great deal of choice.  Only one manufacturer offers the machine you want. Guess who?

A Nuclear Future

There is no dispute that coal is a dirty fuel and also that coal generates radioactive byproducts too – radioactive byproducts which are largely vented into the atmosphere. But here’s the thing – you can’t actually make a bomb, dirty or ‘clean’ from coal ash. What’s more, if you wanted to dispose of the ash you could just stuff it back down the mine or quarry that it came from – we have enough abandoned workings after all. We just don’t have the political willpower to do so. Ash is largely safe – yes, I know about the heavy metals and other pollutants in the ash – but generations of Welsh communities have demonstrated that it’s quite possible to live your life and raise your family in the shadow of the ash pile. Perhaps not nice and yes, fatal if it slips onto your head, but ultimately fairly safe. Besides, after years of plant growth (yes, plants can grow on an ash pile – some even like it), the ash pile stabilises – and many of the nastier waste products get locked up.

Good luck doing that with current, and even next generation, Nuclear reactors. I’d rather live in Aberfan than Pripyat. Even the most vocal adherent of Nuclear has to admit that ash is easier to deal with than nuclear waste.

I don’t actually have a problem with building Nuclear – provided we know what we’ll do with the waste. And we don’t. We keep lobbing ideas around, none of which work so far, and the piles of toxic and radioactive waste continue to build. And the two Nuclear solutions which seem to be cleanest (Hybrid reactors – which would reduce the overall amount of high level waste – theoretically, they could ‘burn’ waste from other reactors, and burn old nuclear warheads, and Fusion) are either too expensive or too impossible with current technology or lack the political will to implement. So yes. Fuck new Nuclear until we do the job cleanly and properly.

But (whinge, whine, moan) we won’t have enough power if we don’t have nuclear! Boo Hoo. Turn your computer off at night. Buy less gadgets. Get rid of your energy hungry plasma TV. Recycle. Reuse. Use public transport. Problem solved. Sure, you’ll have less toys – but you’ll also have a cleaner world. You’ll thank me for it one day.