Spring 2010 Hardware Recommendations

Since I am very interested in various PC-based hardware, and I make an effort to stay current on new developments, I thought I would make some generic hardware recommendations in case you are in the market for new hardware. I am not going to recommend specific brands or models, but instead make some general observations about some interesting developments over the past several months.

Netbooks – 10.1” netbooks have become very popular, due to their low cost and small size and weight. They typically have 1GB of RAM, and either a 160GB or 250GB 5400rpm hard drive, along with 1024×600 screen resolution. Most new machines now come with Windows 7 Basic Edition, which is not the best choice. These machines perform acceptably for light, casual use, and their small size and weight makes them easy to take with you. The 1024×600 resolution makes them hard to live with for serious daily use. The newer PineTrail based netbooks (with an Atom N450 processor) have 10-12 hours of battery life, and much better integrated graphics, which is a decent improvement over the previous generation Atom netbooks. These machines are in the $300-400 range right now.  One thing I have done in the past with a netbook is to upgrade to 2GB of RAM (for about $30-40), and to replace the stock hard drive with a 7200rpm 500GB hard drive (for about $80-100). Of course, by the time you do those upgrades, and perhaps upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium, you are up in the $550-650 range, which sort of erases the cost advantage over a typical 15” notebook machine. Personally, I prefer a 13” Core i3 system over a netbook in most situations.

Notebooks – The sweet spot right now in terms of bang for the buck is the Intel Core i3-330M processor. This processor is a dual-core with hyper-threading (so the operating system sees four logical processors). Decent systems with this processor have moved down to the $550-650 range, and they perform significantly better (with better battery life) than the Core2 Duo systems from last year. The improved integrated graphics are much better than previous generations, and they work very well unless you want to play graphically demanding games. You should try to buy a system with a 7200rpm hard drive (or an SSD, if your budget allows it). If you are willing to spend a little bit more money, you might consider moving up to a system with a Core i5-430M processor, which will give you a slightly higher clock speed and Intel TurboBoost technology, which overclocks one core when the other one is idle. I would not pay much extra for this feature in a notebook computer, since it is not as effective when you only have two real processor cores as it is when you have four or more real cores. I would also avoid paying much extra for a faster processor in either the Core i3 or Core i5 family, since the marginal added performance will not be very noticeable for the added price premium. You are better off getting a faster hard drive or an SSD with that money.

Desktops – I am a little amazed at how fast the market for desktop systems has collapsed (at least at the retail level) over the last year. On the other hand, I can see the strong appeal of a good laptop now that the price premium over a desktop system has nearly disappeared. If you want or need a good desktop system, I think the current sweet spot is a system that uses an Intel Core i7 860 or a Core i7 930 processor. These processors have four cores, plus hyper-threading, so the operating system sees eight logical cores. You can build or buy a very fast system based on either of those two processors for less than $1000.00. In my opinion, it is not worth the extra cost to move up to a faster model of either of these Core i7 processors.

Database Servers – For all but the most demanding workloads, it is very hard to beat a 2U system with either an Intel Xeon X5680 “Westmere-EP” processor or an AMD Opteron 6176 “Magny-Cours” processor. The Westmere-EP has six cores, plus hyper-threading, so that a two socket server would have 24 logical processors, and would support up to 144GB of RAM (with 8GB DDR3 RAM modules). The Magny-Cours has 12 cores, so that a two socket server would have 24 logical processors, and would support up to 192GB of RAM (with 8GB DDR3 RAM modules). Here is a recent TPC-E result for a Magny-Cours system. Either one of these type of systems will absolutely smoke a four-socket system from even a year or two ago (as long as 144GB or 192GB of RAM is enough for your workload), and the the savings in SQL Server processor license costs in going with a two socket system instead of a four socket system will pay for your hardware, even if you are using SQL Server Standard Edition.

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