Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Separating work from play (Also Ubuntu on a PC)

My mac has hit end of life. I can no longer upgrade the OS (thanks, Apple.) Given a lifespan of 6 years, not including upgrades, my mac has cost me about $300 a year, give or take, and I can't replace it for what I spent on it. With upgrades, that figure goes to about $500. The upgradeable mac no longer makes sense. I can buy a mini for $700 and if it lasts me two years, I come out ahead. The minis can do everything my Pro can do, right?

Almost. I play exactly one high powered graphics game. Until now I've been running it on my mac. No mac except the pro has the video oomph and upgradeability to keep up. PCs, by contrast, do it much, much more economically.

To that end, I've put together a junk box pc, literally made up of stuff purchased at very low price from other peoples' junk boxes and slapped together with a new HD and a new power supply. It's noisy, it runs pretty hot, and it smells. (New power supply insulation volatiles cooking out, I hope.) The junkbox PC's video card is a Geforce 9600, running in a pci-express 2.0 slot behind a 3ghz core2duo CPU, running Ubuntu 12.10 (no stupid names here). This, as compared to my mac pro 1,1 with a Radeon 5870, pci-express 1.1 slots, and a 2.6ghz quad-core xeon running OS X 10.7.5

Results: Despite its video card having about 1/4 the graphics horsepower of the one in my mac (according to the specs I've read), the junk box linux machine consistently outperformed the mac, both in terms of out and out framerate, and in graphical options turned on at the same framerate. This, despite the notoriously convoluted Linux graphics stack and the fact that I'm running the geforce drivers from Ubuntu instead of the latest and greatest from Nvidia. (Perhaps on a card as old as this, it doesn't matter so much.) I think, as Adam Savage once said, that's a result.

Will I leave the Apple fold? Not any time soon. Literally all of my paid-for software runs on my mac. My family uses macs, so it behoves me to have at least one of them around so I can see what they're seeing for support purposes. And there's a real question whether I can be comfortable with my computing world slung across two completely different machines with very little software overlap. Right now I'm having a bad case of "it's on the other machine," which is annoying. There is also the usual total lack of polish in Linux. Sorry Linux guys. When you're used to OS X, everything else feels crude and sloppy. Especially if it's based on Xwindows. Especially if it has no safe mode mechanism, and you have to twiddle config files in the USB and Xserver to get your mouse to behave sanely. (One little mistake and you'd better pray you have SSH server running and another machine.) Especially if it takes a separate app to add applications to the Unity launcher. (Unity is pretty, but awful.) Still. For a gaming machine, it might just be enough. We'll see.


Erbo said...

I have both my main desktop and laptop set up to dual-boot Win7 and Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. Some things do work better under Linux, such as Minecraft (it doesn't heat up the CPU as much).

Jim Strickland said...

I can (theoretically) do that with Linux and OS X on my desktop mac (Laptop doesn't have the disk space) Given the difficulties of supporting Radeon cards in Ubuntu (I've read horror stories) I'm inclined not to bother. I can, as needed, probably consign the desktop mac (and its uber video card) for enough to buy either the mac mini or a bigger geforce card for the pc.

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