Technological Dissonance

Welcome to the Benchmarking Sweatshop
— 5:56 PM on May 31, 2012

For years, I've been meaning to do a blog post about the Benchmarking Sweatshop. Thing is, every time there's an opening in my schedule, my lab is a complete mess. "I'll take pictures the next time I clean up in here," I say to myself. And I do clean up, occasionally, but that only makes a small dent in the chaos of hardware that lines every free surface and the pile of boxes spilling onto the floor. Without an attached warehouse, it's difficult to keep up with the flow of new hotness delivered sometimes several times a week.

Screw it. The Benchmarking Sweatshop is never a pristine, clutter-free environment; showing it as such would be disingenuous at best. Besides, it would take hours to really clear the decks in here. There really isn't anywhere for all the boxes to go, since the laundry room that doubles as TR storage is still in the midst of repairs due to a blown water main. One wall in my living room is already lined with motherboard and PSU boxes displaced by the flooding, and a shipping container in the driveway is brimming with even more refugee hardware.

Really, I don't have it that bad. My current lab is larger than previous iterations of the Benchmarking Sweatshop, which got its name from a particularly toasty duplex I lived in years ago. The place was really quite nice, but the black tar roof and lack of air conditioning were a toxic combination during the height of summer. It didn't help that I was running a desktop, multiple monitors, and several test systems from the Prescott era, all of which conspired to raise temperatures past 35°C. Good thing I have a flexible dress code. Pants are optional, at least until FedEx knocks on the door.

Remarkably, much of the furniture in my lab has been with me since I left university residence about a decade ago. The configuration has never been completely overhauled, but it's been subtly refined in each move. Let's start with mission control, which has received the most attention.

The crown jewel of my workstation is the six-screen monitor array hooked up to my desktop and test systems. That's a whole other blog post, so I won't go into much detail. The bottom two screens on the right are connected to my desktop, while the remainder are linked to test systems on an adjacent shelving unit. In a pinch, I can switch my desktop to the top-mounted displays and enjoy a three-screen config for surround graphics, ahem, testing.

Despite the mix of papers, receipts, sunglasses, thumb drives, and other widgets that clutter my desk, there's still room for a trio of keyboards and mice. The lower combo on the left is attached to an ancient Avocent KVM switch, while the Corsair duo on the tray above makes a direct connection to one of my test rigs. The speakers perched above the monitors, plus the headset hanging on the wall to the right, are connected to my main PC. Test systems share the headphones on the left. One of these days, I'm going to spring for a receiver and revamp the audio system completely.

Perhaps the most important detail in the shot above is the chair, which cradles my butt for entirely too many hours in a given week. I've had this Nightingale 6200 CXO for probably close to eight years now, and it's showing no signs of wear despite heavy use. The chair is extremely comfortable, whether I'm leaning forward and typing intently or reclining back to wait for a benchmark run to finish. My only complaint is the so-called "soft" casters, which are supposed to keep floors scratch-free but inevitably get impregnated with little bits of dirt that have left a faint halo on the faux-wood flooring beneath my feet.

To the left of my workstation sits The Rack. This Ikea Ivar shelving unit has hosted my test systems for what feels like forever, and I've grown quite fond of its ability to stack four rigs within a relatively small footprint. The testing we do often requires benching multiple systems concurrently, and this seems to be the most space-efficient approach outside purpose-built test stations. I do have to be careful not to have the shelves too close together, though. The Rack's only airflow is generated by each system's CPU fans, GPU coolers, and PSU. Occasionally, collection of auxiliary 120-mm spinners will be deployed to troubleshoot problems that might be heat-related.

Obviously, running four test rigs alongside six screens, a desktop, and a handful of other systems requires quite a lot of cabling. I'm content with the modest jungle as long as it stays out of my way, which it does thanks to the liberal use of zip ties. I've even taken to color-coding the ends of various cables using smaller ties, so that I know which plugs go where. The residue left behind by adhesive labels always bugged me when I had to re-tag things after a move and subsequent layout tweak.

Getting to The Rack involves negotiating the pile of boxes and hardware slowly eating away at the only free floor space in my lab. Those boxes on the floor are from just the last week. Admittedly, though, the towers over on the right have been sitting there for months. Those are older systems waiting to be broken down for parts. If they weren't there, you'd be able to see The Beast, our custom PSU tester, which is tucked away in a half-height Ivar shelving unit.

Apart from my chair and a filing cabinet, the Benchmarking Sweatshop is made up exclusively of Ikea furniture. It's cheap. Also, the Ivar's adjustable shelves and multiple size options are perfect for the mix of items I need to store in the lab and anywhere else there's room for a few rows of motherboard boxes.

Atop the units pictured above is what can only be described as my junk drawer. Everything from swimming goggles to power adapters to loose change litters the top shelves, plus a few props for product shots, a bundle of business cards, and yet more boxes. There's a small TV, too, but it's rarely on unless I'm benching into the evening. 99% of those optical discs haven't moved in years. It's probably time to put them in the garage in a box labeled "dead media."

Our tour continues at the back corner of the lab, which hosts another Ivar shelving unit sitting on a Jerker desk that's been raised on a stack of 2x4s. I build all my test systems here, always while standing, so it helps to have a higher work surface. If you think this station looks busy now, you should see it in the midst of a motherboard round-up.

All the little things tend to live in this corner: DDR memory, solid-state drives, CPU coolers, fans, and drawers filled with the different screws needed to put together a PC. There's also a generous supply of isopropyl alcohol used to scrub off thermal paste, several screwdrivers, and a roll of duct tape—of course.

The last stop on our panoramic journey through the Benchmarking Sweatshop is its makeshift photo studio. Cyril has a nicer setup, but these hardware-store work lights seem to do the trick. It helps that the walls and ceiling are painted a neutral white. I can bounce the light off them without worrying about diffusing umbrellas

Like Cyril, I use a big sheet of white paper as the backdrop for product shots. Several microfiber cloths are at hand to buff away fingerprints and smudges, and an old brush designed to clean graphics cooling fans does a good job of banishing dust particles. The camera, which I used to take these pictures, is a Canon Rebel T2i. For product shots, it's usually paired with a tripod and a wired remote shutter. Having my PC serve as the control station for the photo studio doesn't really work, since it's difficult to walk between the two when the lights are in place. A combined 2000W of lighting gets really hot. It's best not to get too close, but the path between box mountain and the lab's gargantuan beanbag chair is pretty narrow.

The beanbag is necessary for the security system I have in place to protect all this hardware.

Vargas, a two-year-old Vizsla, is the final fixture in the lab. He can most often be found sleeping on the beanbag, one eye on the entrance. Truth be told, he's a lousy guard dog, more likely to lick a burglar than to bare his teeth. Thankfully, he's agile enough to avoid the stacks of hardware and webs of cabling that permeate the lab. Only occasionally do I have to interrupt his snoring for noise testing.

28 comments — Last by superjawes at 10:22 AM on 06/06/12

Have Internet, will travel
— 12:00 AM on May 25, 2012

To borrow the first line from The Streets' magnificent A Grand Don't Come for Free, it was supposed to be so easy. After a brutally long crunch period that lasted from late March through the first week of May, I set out on vacation. For two weeks, I would be roaming through the Italian countryside, girlfriend by my side, and the rigors of life as a hardware reviewer left behind.

Yeah, we get to play with the latest and greatest techno-toys all the time—and we get paid for it. But we also endure tight deadlines and last-minute releases that come without warning. The reviews we create here at TR take a lot of time, and I don't even want to contemplate my hourly wage between the latter part of March and the first week of May. During the month of April, I think I maybe spent two days away from TR-related work completely. Admittedly, a lot of the hurt is self-inflicted, in the pursuit of higher quality, so I'm not complaining.

My epic crunch is simply relevant because it explains why I didn't have time to do much planning for the trip. Neither did my feminine side, who was in the middle of her own work-related flurry. We were going to wing it. For two weeks, we'd road-trip from Lake Como to the Amalfi Coast. We'd done a little research and made a handful of reservations ahead of time, but the rest we were going to figure out along the way.

As I signed off from TR Friday afternoon, I felt optimistic that it would all work out. I had a secret weapon: the Internet.

Most folks eschew the thought of connectivity while taking time off from their everyday lives. In this situation, I was hoping to embrace it. While I planned to be dead to the world in terms of calls and text messages, I would have a 3G data device with an unlimited plan and support for up to five Wi-Fi devices. Add a Transformer tablet, two smartphones, and the power of Google—and its maps. What could possibly to wrong?

A couple of things, actually. But first, I should first take a moment to talk about this Internet device. I've seen smartphone and SIM rental services in airports before, but my smartphone is region-locked, and I didn't want to be hampered by a cramped keyboard and screen. Cellular Abroad promised a MiFi hotspot with 3G connectivity and support for up to five simultaneous Wi-Fi devices within a 10-meter radius. My girlfriend could post Facebook updates while I read up on the day's Giro d'Italia stage without having to make sense of Italian.

Although most of Cellular Abroad's services have restrictive usage limits, the MiFi Italy plan offers unlimited data pretty much throughout the country. The first 10GB is available over a speedy 3G connection that offers 2.5/0.9MBps of downstream/upstream bandwidth. After that, you're stuck on a slower 2G link.

For two weeks of connectivity, I paid $168 plus shipping. That's not cheap, but the daily price goes down for longer durations. Given what some hotels charge for Internet access these days, I figured I was getting a pretty good deal for a device I could take anywhere. There would be no need to pay for a GPS to go along with the rental car, either.

A few days before we left Vancouver, the MiFi device arrived at my door. It was tiny and came with all the requisite power adapters. There were also instructions not to turn on the device in the US. Worried that Canadian cellular networks might mess with its programming, I kept the hotspot in its case until we arrived in Milan. I didn't even charge the thing.

Upon arrival, my pocket ace got off to a good start. The hotspot had a full charge, and it took only seconds to establish a 3G connection. Connecting my tablet was no more complicated than joining the encrypted Wi-Fi network. We were soon barreling down the Autostrade, following Google Maps' directions to our hotel in Como. The Transformer's GPS tracked our location, and I was able to send out a quick email while sitting at a gas station, waiting for my navigator to combat jet-lag with a couple of espressos.

Although things started off well, we quickly ran into a problem. While walking about that evening in search of a quick bite, our hotspot dropped its data connection and displayed an "SMS only" message. Restarting the device didn't fix the problem, and the few instructions provided with it gave no clues about what to do next. Initially, I figured we were too close to the border with Switzerland and had somehow latched onto a foreign cell tower that wouldn't work with the service package I'd ordered. But the disruption persisted when we traveled south, guided by horribly antiquated maps printed on sheets of dead tree.

Turns out Cellular Abroad screwed up my order. Fortunately, and as in A Grand Don't Come for Free, everything worked out in the end. The error was corrected, and the several-day blackout confirmed the value of an omnipresent Internet connection. Traveling through a foreign country is much easier when the Internet has your back. Languages can be translated, routes mapped, hotel reservations made, and restaurant reviews perused without having to do more than tap a few times on a touchscreen.

Google Maps was probably the biggest asset during the trip. It made navigating a snap and saved me having to defy my male programming and ask for directions. However, real-time mapping did little to ease the butt-clenching stress of sharing impossibly narrow roads with oncoming tour busses. Italian drivers are insane and have seemingly no use for lane dividers or turn signals.

Interestingly, the Transformer's GPS proved more accurate and reliable than my girlfriend's iPhone 4S both in the city and on the road. Both struggled to establish our location when driving at high speed, though. Once the Transformer had a fix, speed wasn't an issue. Its larger 10" screen made directions easier to follow than on the iPhone, anyway. We brought bicycles, too, and the ability to overlay terrain maps proved valuable when planning each day's ride. I like hills, but my girlfriend does not.

Then there's Google Maps' ability to find just about anything. We tracked down laundry services, supermarkets, wine shops, and restaurants with little trouble, usually while strolling with the iPhone, which is considerably more discreet than a tablet. Online restaurant reviews were helpful and easier to trust than the recommendations of hotel receptionists, whose directions weren't as good. Reviews also informed our decisions on the final few hotels left to book. We booked those online with little trouble, of course.

The Internet came in handy for a bunch of little things, like checking hourly weather forecasts to figure out the best time to ride or to relax in the sun. Wikipedia answered questions like "what's that mountain range over there?" as we raced from Tuscany toward Rome. While munching a porchetta sandwich at an early morning market, I hit the Canada Customs website to confirm that cured meats could be imported, so long as they were pork-based, vacuum-sealed, and totaled less than 20 kg. Jackpot! During downtime and while waiting for the occasional train, I kept up with my favorite sports. I even sent a few emails to friends and family, which were banged out quickly and enjoyably on the Transformer's keyboard.

The point of this exercise wasn't to stay connected to my life back home, though; it was to have access to the incredible information resource I've grown accustom to having at my fingertips. We rarely had the hotspot on unless we were actively searching for something, in part because the battery only seemed to last about half a day. Connection speeds were typically slow outside major centers, but that was rarely an issue. We weren't streaming videos or downloading files. Scoping the scenic potential of a ride while zooming in and out of Google Maps' satellite view was probably the most bandwidth-intensive task.

Connection snafu aside, the service was absolutely worth the money. I probably wouldn't bother for shorter trips or for those confined to all-inclusive resorts, but the hotspot was a vital resource in an adventure that covered close to 3,000 km of roads, trails, and the narrow alleyways that pass for old-world city streets.

That said, when the time comes to plan another trip, I'll be looking for alternatives to Cellular Abroad. The service plainly states that emails may take up to 48 hours to answer, which is too long for paying customers who might have urgent needs. Three days have passed since I inquired about getting a refund for the days of service I lost, with no response yet. Also, the mix of power adapters provided with the MiFi device didn't inspire much confidence. Three adapters needed to be daisy chained to charge the unit, and the last one was looser than Fox News' interpretation of the term "fair and balanced." I had to prop up the adapters every time I charged the device, or it wouldn't stay plugged in.

Those complaints apply to this particular service rather than the general concept, though. The Internet has become a fixture in our lives in part because it's an unparalleled source of information. I can tell you from first-hand experience that travel is much more civilized with it than without.

34 comments — Last by Squeazle at 12:45 PM on 06/03/12

If data can be lost, it will
— 3:03 AM on May 11, 2012

Murphy was right. If something can go wrong, it will... eventually. Earlier this week, the water main connected to our house burst, submerging much of the laundry room in inches of water. The house's main shut-off valve was little help, since the break was between the house and the main line from the city, so I spent several hours bailing until the water could be turned off completely.

The laundry room sits just behind my office and, thankfully, a little bit below it. The water level didn't rise high enough to trickle into the Benchmarking Sweatshop. It did soak a few older motherboards and graphics cards, though; the laundry room also doubles as storage for the endless stream of hardware that FedEx delivers to my door.

Fortunately, the damage appears to be minimal. It certainly could have been worse. Not that long ago, my file server was sitting in what became the flood zone. But it, too, suffered a spectacular failure. While I was visiting family over the Christmas holidays, two of the three drives in the systems's RAID 5 array died. A sagging 5V rail in the PSU was to blame, and my 2TB array was toast. I probably should have been keeping a closer eye on the system, but home file servers are the sort of thing one stuffs into a closet and kind of forgets about. This one had been running for years without so much as a hiccup.

My initial response was panic. Two terabytes of data was gone: high-bitrate MP3s ripped carefully from my collection of over 500 CDs, countless digital photos, priceless home movies, a decade's worth of TR-related files, and a healthy helping of, er, Linux ISOs that would take forever to grab off BitTorrent again.

Wait, I have backups!

A couple months earlier, I'd backed up the entire file server to a single 2TB hard drive that was sitting on the shelf in my office. It wasn't completely up to date, but almost everything that was missing was sitting on other machines. My desktop has had its contents protected by a RAID 1 array for years, and it's a dumping ground for most of my data. A fairly recent version of the essential stuff is also kept on my laptop and on the USB key on my keyring. There's an old notebook drive sitting at my parents' house loaded with my most critical data, too.

In the end, I only ended up losing a couple days worth of benchmark data and a few frantic hours. But then I've always been pretty good about keeping things backed up. It all started with my high-school computer lab teacher, who would randomly turn off entire banks of machines to make sure we saved our work regularly. Thanks for the compulsive Ctrl+S tick, Mr. Knowles.

For years, my data was protected by a mix of RAID 1 on the desktop and a closet file server with its own array. Scheduled DOS batch files copied gigabytes from my desktop nightly, and the server was backed up to a separate hard drive periodically. When I moved to Windows 7, the batch files were replaced with the OS's built-in backup routine, which has the handy ability to create an entire system image instead of just saving a selection of files.

Although I've considered resurrecting my file server, the home-theater PC in the living room has been filling in admirably. I tossed in an extra low-RPM hard drive, which doesn't add much noise, and I could even do RAID if this turns into a permanent solution. It likely will, if only because that will save me the trouble of putting together—and monitoring—a new box. Plus, most of my home storage is media, which makes sense to have in the living room.

Windows can shuffle files between systems on a home network easily enough, but getting them onto an external drive is an extra step. It's also an additional backup job on top of my nightly network copy. This creates problems for Windows 7, whose backup routine doesn't support multiple jobs.

There are, of course, numerous external hard drives that come with their own backup software. Thing is, an external drive is really no safer than the secondary drive in my HTPC, which at least sits in a different room than my desktop. To be truly secure, data really needs to be duplicated at an off-site location. Doing that manually takes actual effort.

Fortunately, cloud-based storage has become a viable solution... provided you trust anyone else with your data. Even if you don't, files can be encrypted beforehand and uploaded once scrambled. Free options abound, with Dropbox, SkyDrive, and now Google Drive offering gigabytes of remote storage. None of those services have enough free capacity to meet my needs, though. Ideally, I need hundreds of gigabytes to keep all my precious data safe.

While I'm loathe to shell out for online storage when I have terabytes of disk capacity sitting idle in my lab, I'm also realistic about how often off-site backups happen around here—and how many close calls I've had in the last few months. It's worthwhile for me to pay to have software take care of the problem. Since our resident developer likes CrashPlan so much, I gave the free trial a shot. After a month of it sitting unobtrusively in my system tray, silently backing up files without me even noticing its presence, I sprang for two years of unlimited storage for $90. That's less than the cost of the average terabyte hard drive, and it comes with a lot more peace of mind.

I'm not really worried about someone hax0ring my CrashPlan account and digging through my data, but it's nice to know that the service has strong encryption and the ability to set a private password that even the company's techs won't know. The CrashPlan app allows local backups, too, but there's no native support for networked shares, which is a little annoying. I'm more interested in CrashPlan's ability to use other computers as backup sites. The app needs to be running on the target systems, but users can create their own cloud to complement—or supplant—CrashPlan's own servers. This feature is included in the free version, although it's limited to once-a-day backups rather than the real-time approach taken by the full-blown product.

Once my initial dump has finished uploading to CrashPlan's servers, I'll have three layers of protection, all fully automated. I'll sleep better at night knowing I'm no longer the weak link for my off-site backups. But I'll also keep refreshing my USB key and filling the occasional backup drive because, hey, you never know. If Gmail can go down, surely CrashPlan can, too.

43 comments — Last by demani at 3:07 PM on 05/18/12

Daddy's got a brand new ride
— 10:23 AM on April 27, 2012

Man, I cannot wait to get started on my next build. Nearly all the necessary components are already laid out on my workbench. Some were pulled from the parts bin, cast-offs from previous rigs. Others are brand new, still mint in box, awaiting their maiden voyage. Once the last few stragglers arrive, I'll be able to get my hands dirty and put the whole thing together.

As an enthusiast, I've selected all the components carefully, after much research and deliberation. Substitutes won't do, which is why I sit in a frustrating holding pattern waiting for the last crucial pieces. But the wait will be worth it in the end, because the final product will be uniquely my own.

Since you've gotta be curious, my new ride is based on Surly's Disc Trucker frame (which is what's holding up the show, by the way). The wheels are custom-built for heavy touring, with Velocity Dyad rims laced to Shimano XT hubs. For the drivetrain, I've pulled a triple-crank Ultegra gruppo out of my parts bin. The bars, stem, and seatpost are being recycled, as well, but the Crank Bros pedals and Avid disc brakes are new. So is the WTB seat, which was chosen because it perfectly matches the one I love so much on my road bike.

Oh, you thought I was talking about building a computer. I do that, too, and often several times a day when in crunch mode. Those are all test systems, though. Rarely do I take the time to build a new system for myself.

There are a couple of reasons my infrequent PC upgrades. My desktop PC is my primary work system, for example. I can't afford downtime, so once I get a stable config, I'm loathe to mess with it. Then there's the sheer amount of time I spend slapping together parts for the Benchmarking Sweatshop.  When I have a free moment, I want to be doing anything but—like wrenching a new touring bike.

Sticking with the same desktop is surprisingly easy when it's primarily a work machine. The writing, Excel data analysis, photo editing, web surfing, and email that make up the majority of my desktop tasks hardly require potent hardware. Games are more demanding, but I have a dedicated box hooked up to the big screen in the living room and a fleet of test systems that's constantly being refreshed with the latest goodies.

A little while ago, I finally gave in and decided to freshen up my desktop. My old Core 2-based rig was still running strong, but I had just finished a particularly brutal string of reviews, and this was a reward of sorts. Also, Battlefield 3 multiplayer beckoned; it's a lousy experience from across the room on the couch, and playing on my revolving collection of test rigs was becoming more trouble than it's worth.

I had already upgraded various other elements of my workstation, first moving to a mechanical keyboard and then replacing my aging LCDs with a monitor array fit for the Batcave. Now, it was time to tackle the tower lurking under my desk. Off to the parts bin I went.

When you review PC hardware for a living, you end up with one heck of a parts bin. However, when you do as much comparative testing as we do, you also have to leave a lot of cutting-edge hardware on the shelf, lest it be needed down the line. That last thing I want to do is pull apart my work machine to benchmark one of its components. Rebooting is tolerated only for the most critical of Windows updates.

The fastest unneeded CPU on my shelf was a Core i7-870 from the Lynnfield generation. It fit nicely into a Gigabyte P55A-UD6 motherboard, which was chosen primarily for its USB 3.0 ports and the fact that its fan speed control, while extremely limited, works with the three-pin spinners on the Noctua NH-U12P heatsink I'd set aside for the system.

The Noctua cooler was chosen for its low noise levels, as was the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 470 graphics card, which has a quiet three-fan cooler and enough horsepower to maintain smooth frame rates with the detail cranked in Battlefield 3. In keeping with the low-noise theme, I pulled a Seasonic X Series 750W power supply from the pile. I'm not sure I can go back to non-modular PSUs.

8GB of unassuming DDR3 memory came next, followed by a pair of 2TB WD RE4 hard drives. The drives were configured in a mirrored RAID 1 array and paired with an Intel 510 Series 250GB SSD, the newest component in the entire system. That SSD is one of a pair, so I still have a backup ready should the 510 Series be needed again for testing. There's a DVD burner, too, but it was more of an afterthought. Blu-ray is reserved for my home-theater PC, which has a much bigger screen across from a very comfortable couch.

On the audio front, I settled on a Xonar Xense because, well, it's the best sound card I have in-house. The Xense appears to be discontinued, so it has less value as a comparative reference for future reviews, or so I tell myself.

Everything is squeezed into a Corsair Obsidian 650D enclosure, which I've been eying ever since Cyril reviewed it last year. The 650D's smart design made building the new system a painless process. Even tidying the wiring was a breeze. Modern cable management features make it ridiculously easy to assemble a clean-looking system—just don't open the right side panel.

The finished tower was put through a grueling gauntlet of CPU, graphics, and disk stress tests until it proved stable. No overclocking for this machine, though. I've experienced data corruption when turning up clocks in the past, and it's just not worth the risk on my work machine.

Naturally, the new system feels quite a bit faster than the old one. Most of that's down to the solid-state drive, I think, because the difference is most noticeable when loading multiple applications and data at the same time. Window Backup is configured to image the SSD on a nightly basis, lest any flakiness compromises my OS, applications, and critical data.

There's also the graphics card upgrade (from a GeForce 8600 GT), which has allowed me to enjoy a number of quick gaming sessions in the evenings without having to mess with my test rack. Getting to play more often is even better than not having to turn down the graphics detail.

Despite the horsepower upgrade, the new box is delightfully silent, producing little more than a low hum. Having in-line resistors on the CPU and system fans definitely helps. There's audible chatter when the hard drives are seeking, but they're secondary storage and rarely accessed.

The external storage interfaces are surprisingly high on my list of high-impact upgrades. I can't decide which I like more, the front USB 3.0 ports or the top-mounted docking station. I shudder to think of living without either. If only my DSLR had a SuperSpeed USB hookup.

In a lot of ways, my new desktop is exactly like my touring bike. The parts for both were picked to suit my needs—and what I had available already. My hands built the PC, and the same ones will assemble the bike, making both machines uniquely my own.

Sadly, those elements are missing from the portable devices that make up and increasingly prominent part of the computing landscape. Laptops are cutting options as they pursue thinner profiles, it seems, and tablets and smartphones offer little more than custom ROMs to tailor the experience. These new devices are becoming pervasive in our lives, yet they're distinctly less personal than the PCs we piece together ourselves. No wonder I've become so attached to the new tower sitting discreetly under my desk.

40 comments — Last by emroz_2272 at 4:24 AM on 05/17/12

When super-sized smartphones become pocketable tablets
— 11:16 PM on April 12, 2012

I thought I lost my smartphone the other week. Somewhere between walking my dog in the morning and heading out for lunch, my trusty Palm Pre vanished into thin air. I tried calling it with Skype but heard no ring. Next, I retraced that morning's route. It had been raining steadily, making the odds of survival low for an unprotected electronics device. Even if it lay lifeless, I was at least determined to recover the body. Leave no technology behind.

As I trudged through the park, my eyes scanning every shrub my dog had sniffed, I found myself not bummed out about losing the phone but excited by the prospect of replacing it. That was surprising, because up until very recently, modern smartphones haven't really held much appeal for me.

The last phone I really loved was the Motorola Razr, which had not an ounce of smarts but was the perfect size and weight for a portable device: small enough to almost disappear into a pocket yet just heavy enough to let you know it was there. Smartphones feel positively portly in comparison. Their much larger footprints demand deeper pockets, which had always seemed like a step backwards.

Turns out I was thinking about it all wrong.

In everyday life, my smartphone is used far more often to read email, surf the web, and take quick notes than to make actual calls. It's much more computer than telephone. So, rather than looking at 4" handsets as oversized phones, I've begun seeing them as smaller tablets. That simple shift in perspective changes everything.

The iPhone 4 (left) and Galaxy Note (right): jumbo smartphones or pocketable tablets?

Much of the inspiration for my new stance on jumbo smartphones comes not from my experiences with the Pre, but from the time I've spent with Asus' Transformer tablet. The 10" device delivers a genuinely satisfying computing experience—the sort of experience I want to bring everywhere. It's too big to carry around without a hipster man-purse, of course, but the latest and greatest handsets offer similar horsepower and comparable display resolutions in 4-5" devices that actually fit into a pocket. You'll be able to see them in my pocket—quite possibly from across the room—but I'm willing to trade a little discomfort and some social awkwardness for a compelling portable computer.

The snappy performance of the latest SoCs drives a good chunk of my upgrade itch. Older smartphones have always felt like they were struggling to keep up with the demands of the software and even the base operating system. Newer devices, like the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S II, are much more responsive. Some of that's software streamlining, but a lot of it comes down to more powerful hardware.

More pressing than my desire for moar power is a yearning for something with a larger screen and loads of pixels. Perhaps because I've been squeezed into the Pre's 3.1" 320x480 display, I find myself drawn to the Galaxy Note for its humongous 5.3" screen, whose 1280x800 resolution is a perfect match for my Transformer tablet. I've also caught myself lusting after the Galaxy Nexus, which serves up 1280x720 pixels in a slightly smaller 4.6" screen. Could I get by with less? Sure, but giving up inches means losing valuable screen real estate and crucial input area. My fat, clumsy thumbs far prefer the larger on-screen keyboards and UI elements that bigger screens can provide.

Cyril hand-models the iPhone 4 and Galaxy Note

Until roll-up or folding displays become a reality, there's no way to get a big screen without a similarly large device. The one thing I most desire in a pocketable computer is the very thing I don't want to have to have in my pocket. But the bigger screen wins, because it's attached to something I'd actually consider a computer.

I'm still worried about warping or otherwise damaging a larger handset by sitting when it's still in my pocket. However, societal norms seem to be solving that problem. The last time I was seated with a decent-sized group at the pub across the street, just about everyone had their smartphones sitting on the table rather than in their pockets or purses. Amazingly, not one drop of beer was spilled on any of them.

Alas, I didn't pour one out for my dead Pre. As it turns out, it was never left out in the rain to meet an untimely demise. Instead, it had fallen out of my pocket when I went to change the pants that had been soaked by the early morning downpour. The Pre ended up buried in the duvet on my bed, ringer muffled, snuggling with my girlfriend's cat.

Ultimately, I felt relief upon finding the Pre. The prospect of paying full price for a new handset while mid-way through my cellular contract was not appealing, no matter how fast the processor or how beautiful the screen. There was another thing, too. I was certain the Pre wouldn't survive being left out in the wet, and I've been leery of using any smartphone in the rain, which falls in Vancouver roughly half of the year. As much as I long to carry a powerful portable computer on my person, I don't want it to be a fair-weather device.

Ruggedized smartphones like Samsung's Rugby Smart are purportedly impervious to the elements, but they're a little behind the curve in terms of processing power and screen quality. They're chunkier, too, although certainly more durable than the average handset. I'd settle for water resistance, which may soon be a common feature thanks to hydrophobic coatings that several companies are now applying to existing devices.

My cellular contract comes up for renewal next summer. By then, the market will surely be flooded with supersized handsets even more capable than the ones available now. I dreaded the thought of larger smartphones even a few months ago, but today, I can't help but look forward to the next generation of pocketable tablets.

56 comments — Last by funko at 10:39 PM on 05/16/12

The death of the Apple tax
— 11:05 PM on March 29, 2012

The old adage says there are only two certainties in this world: death and taxes. Steve Jobs proved that not even the Reality Distortion Field is strong enough to resist the reaper. However, the company he spawned and subsequently resurrected seems to be doing away with the tax that came to be associated with its products. This so-called "Apple tax" refers to the price premium that used to be attached to each and every new product to roll out of Cupertino. These days, though, Apple's highest-profile offerings tend to be pretty competitive on price.

Take the new iPad, for example. With a Retina display that quadruples the pixel density of its predecessor, many expected the third-gen tablet to cost a little bit more than the iPad 2, but Apple's latest creation arrived at the same $499 price, knocking the old model down to $399. After all those years spent hyping the thinness of its products, perhaps Apple simply wasn't prepared to ask more for a fatter tablet, regardless of the resolution.

Whatever the rationale, the fact is both iPads offer pretty good value. The new model has the best screen on any mobile device, plus better graphics performance than Nvidia's Tegra 3 SoC for the same starting price as the Transformer Prime, our favorite Tegra tablet. The Prime offers more storage and other perks, but that's wading into details. Asus was expected to charge closer to $600 for the high-DPI Transformer Infinity Series, whose 1920x1200 display has fewer pixels than the iPad's Retina panel.

Right now, the 16GB iPad 2 may be the best tablet deal around. The $100 price cut brings the least expensive iPad down to $399, where it'll end up going toe-to-toe with Asus' next budget 10-incher, the Transformer Pad 300. Samsung's last-gen Galaxy Tab 10.1 has been discounted, too, but only to $439—and it's still without an official Ice Cream Sandwich update.

The Apple tax never really applied to tablets. After all, the iPad debuted at $499, a much lower price than many had expected, yours truly included. Perhaps Jobs learned his lesson with the first iPhone, whose price was slashed by 33% just two months after the initial launch at an exorbitant $599. (That was for the 8GB version, by the way; the 4GB model debuted at $499 but was discontinued two months later.) We haven't seen a new iPhone priced that high since. If I were to renew my cellular contract today, the iPhone 4S would cost about the same as the latest and greatest Android handset. The older iPhone models are basically free on contract.

To be fair, Macs remain relatively expensive compared to their PC counterparts. The gap is shrinking as PC makers chase ultra-slim designs to gain Intel's ultrabook seal of approval, though. Apple proved that a market does exist for high-end computers, and it seems everyone wants a piece.

Although they share similar lines and live in a walled garden adjacent to the one that contains iPads and iPhones, Macs are a very different breed. Those iDevices are much closer to consumer electronics products: there are fewer models and configuration options, the underlying hardware is simpler than what you'll find inside a notebook, and more of the component parts bear Apple's name. Those attributes, combined with the organizational influence of former COO (and now CEO) Tim Cook, have allowed Apple to continue reaping huge profits while doing away with lofty premiums. Cook reduced inventory levels and traded in-house fabrication for contract manufacturing. At the same time, he used Apple's massive cash stockpile to lock up supply of vital components like flash memory. We've heard that Apple is flexing its monetary muscle to fund entire factories dedicated to producing Retina displays—and that its carefully worded manufacturing contracts make it difficult for competitors to secure supply of high-DPI screens.

Part of me cringes at the thought that Apple might be actively trying to lock its competitors out of certain technologies, either by buying up all the available production capacity or keeping its suppliers from working with anyone else. But my bachelor's degree comes from UBC's Sauder School of Business, so part of me appreciates Cook's shrewdness, even if it has a ruthless undercurrent. That's probably that same part of me that was fond of the Machiavelli readings in my political philosophy elective.

Let's not forget Apple also has a formidable marketing machine that remains integral to the appeal of its products. Apple does a great job of convincing consumers they want the latest iDevices; the cheaper those products are, the less magical they need to be in order to get folks to whip out their credit cards. Had the iPad and iPhone maintained Apple's history of premium prices, I don't think either would be nearly as popular today. Whatever has been lost on markup has surely been returned several times over on volume. Remember, too, that these devices are tightly integrated with iTunes and the App Store, which contribute a healthy cut of each transaction. No wonder Apple's sitting on a cash stockpile that totals nearly $100 billion.

Even back when it was a vendor of high-priced Macs with relatively little market share, Apple had a disproportionately heavy influence on the PC industry. Now, thanks to a lineup of reasonably priced smartphones and tablets, it owns a huge chunk of the market for devices that make up an increasingly important part of the modern personal computing experience. That's kind of a big deal if you're at all interested in the direction of computer technology.

Now, you may not agree with the locked-down nature of iOS; the lack of built-in SD slots, USB ports, and HDMI outputs; the high cost of accessories; or the general smugness exuded by all too many Apple fanboys. I don't. However, I did encourage my girlfriend to get an iPhone 4S over the alternatives, and I have found myself recommending the new and second-gen iPads to others on more than one occasion in the past couple of weeks. Apple may not be earning my dollar, but these days, it's certainly asking for fewer of everyone else's.

165 comments — Last by BobbinThreadbare at 9:14 PM on 04/09/12

Six screens, one desk
— 6:32 PM on March 8, 2012

When I sit down at my desk in the Benchmarking Sweatshop, it feels like maybe I could tap into the Matrix. I've slowly added monitors and other hardware over the years, and my most recent upgrade left me with no fewer than six displays; 137 inches of liquid-crystal goodness is wrapped around the seat I occupy for all too many hours each day. Along with the LCDs, there are three keyboard-and-mouse combos and a KVM switch within my reach, plus stereo speakers all perched on a single desk.

Yeah, it's pretty awesome.

My work space wasn't always this well-equipped, but amazingly, I've been using the same basic desk for nearly a decade now. This monstrosity started as an Ikea Jerker, which sounds like someone who should be on a national registry. Instead, it's one of the most beloved pieces of furniture to be produced by the Swedish manufacturer. This modular desk hasn't been sold for years, but the Internet is littered with fan sites dedicated to its memory and even petitions calling for its return to Ikea's lineup.

Although the Jerker was available with all kinds of shelving and PC-specific accessories in its heyday, I opted for the basic desk to start. My needs were simple and, to be honest, I was broke. All I needed was a giant surface on which to place a massive CRT monitor, a couple of small LCDs, and speakers old enough to be beige.

That single flat surface proved sufficient until just a few years ago, when I moved into my current home office and was forced to rearrange some furniture to make everything fit. The room isn't wide enough to accommodate the Ikea Ivar shelving unit that used to serve as a makeshift extension to the Jerker, leaving nowhere for my speakers to sit. At the time, the desk's generous surface was completely consumed by a pair of 24" Dell 2408WFP LCDs and a hulking Mitsubishi 19" CRT. The surrounding walls aren't terribly conducive to hanging anything heavier than a picture, so I tried my hand at crafting a custom solution.

After wandering the local hardware store for inspiration, I struck gold with banister spindles and the double-sided screws used to anchor them in place. Scrap wood was trimmed to make platforms for the end of each spindle, and within minutes, I had a pair of Abit iDome speakers perched perfectly above my then-modest monitor array. Total cost? Less than $20.

My next desk mod was prompted by a monitor upgrade. The CRT tied to test systems was being replaced by a cheap 24" LCD to give me an HDCP-compliant HDMI input for integrated graphics testing. I was also spending an awful lot of time benching hard drives, and I wanted to resurrect an older 17" LCD to keep an eye on my dedicated storage rig. For that, I needed to add another keyboard and mouse alongside the combo already connected to my KVM. Once again, the Jerker was out of real estate.

This time, my girlfriend served as muse. As an occupational therapist, she was appalled by the ergonomics of my work space. The monitors were too low, she said, so I built up—and out. Go big or go home, right?

After another trip to the hardware store, my desk gained an expansive—if slightly ghetto—second floor. Atop supports chopped from a 2x8, I laid down a shaped slab of 3/4" plywood, adding just the right amount of height for my monitors while effectively widening the desk by a foot. The extra width provided plenty of room for all four LCDs, but I didn't have a good angle on all of them from my usual seat. The solution: mounting the 17-incher on a strut cut from some leftover 2x8. I found an adjustable-tilt VESA bracket for less than $30, which suited the desk's budget roots and cost way less than a full monitor arm.

The extra keyboard and mouse still needed a home, and Ikea delivered in the form of an inexpensive sliding tray to hang under the Jerker's new shelf. Although the tray hung a little too low at first, tweaking its metal frame in a vice gave me just enough clearance to stack two peripheral combos. Phase two was complete, if a little ugly.

I'm a fairly handy guy, having spent a good chunk of my youth helping my dad with construction projects around the house, but I have little patience for finishing work. Sanding, staining, and painting aren't nearly as fun as building, which is why my desk upgrades have done little to improve the overall aesthetics. Utility reigns supreme in the Benchmarking Sweatshop.

As with phase two, a monitor upgrade spurred my most recent modification. After years of flawless service, the 2408WFPs attached to my primary desktop began displaying vertical lines a few pixels wide. The screens were replaced by a trio of Asus PA246Q IPS panels: two for my desktop and a third attached to the KVM switch that manages most of my test systems. I wanted a surround gaming setup for graphics testing, and I was sick of the lackluster colors produced by the TN panel dedicated to test rigs.

Swapping in the Asus LCDs didn't require any desk hacking. It did get me thinking about what to do with the old Dells, though. Vertical artifacts were only annoying on my primary displays and would only be a mild distraction while benchmarking.

With no room to widen my desk further, I was forced to think vertically—and a little bit about weight. The venerable Jerker had started to sag, something I noticed when using a level to align the three Asus displays. (OCD? Yeah, maybe just a little.) Wall-mounting the extra screens seemed like the best option, but since the space behind my desk is mostly window, I had to put up studs of my own. The scrap wood pile in the garage provided a pair of 2x4s, which are now anchored to a 4x4 on the floor and tied into the desk with shelving brackets. A 2x8 spanning the studs serves as my wall, suspending the Dell LCDs at just the right height.

Getting the screens dialed in took more effort than building the entire structure. Articulated monitor arms would've saved me some time, but I again went the budget route, using two more tilting brackets and spare wood as a spacer. The top two screens will rarely be connected to the same system, so they're split and angled in to give me a perfect view with minimal head movement.

Although I've yet to take full advantage of the six-screen setup, I can already foresee the payoff for the next benchmarking crunch. There have been times I've had four test systems running in parallel, and I can now monitor all of them simultaneously—and without sharing the monitors hooked up to my dual-screen desktop PC. I'll be able to migrate that dually display upstairs when I need to test surround gaming setups, too. That capability alone is worth the hours it took to get everything just right. Seeing blondes, brunettes, and redheads spread across six screens is just a bonus.

47 comments — Last by anotherengineer at 8:27 PM on 03/12/12