Retro box

Posted on Sun 26 July 2015 in Articles • 3 min read

For some time I've suspected that that computer hardware reached the point where it good enough for most tasks nearly ten years ago. By most tasks I mean the things we spend most of our time doing; that is office tasks, browsing, managing media and gaming.

I've been thinking of this for some time, not only based on my own experiences but seeing what others around me do.

Currently, my desktop computer is 2011 Mac Mini with an i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and AMD graphics card. I also have a meagre-spec Chromebook runing Ubuntu Mate. My experience with both has been something of an eye-opener. In short, the Mac Mini, thanks to the bloated mess that OS X has become has seriously disappointed me in everyday tasks. I briefly ran Windows 7 and Linux on it and in both cases, they performed better than Apple's own operating system.

My chromebook is another matter. It's specs are meagre (1.4ghz processor and 2GB of ram). I should note that I've installed a faster aftermarket SSD into it which certainly accounts for its boot time and general responsiveness. It also runs Ubuntu Mate which uses as little as 300-400 megabytes of RAM. It's my daily portable driver for writing, development and browsing.

I also have an old AMD Athlon based system that I built as a media PC when my wife and I lived in the UK. It's a solid workhorse that's still going to this day. However, as it's built into an Asus Pundit barebone chassis, I can't upgrade it any more than I have so it's stuck with 2GB of DDR2 Ram and integrated Nvidia graphics.

So I've decided to embark on an experiment. I'm going to relegate the Mac Mini to the living room where it can live out its days playing and recording videos. With its small form factor, low power consumption and remote control it's ideal for a media PC. That particular Mini never worked great with Linux thanks to Apple's shitty EFI implementation and the ATI Radeon graphics card. Moreover, I've personally reached the point where I'm finished with using OS X as a productivity platform.

As for my workstation, I'm going to see how far I can get by using older hardware. I suspect that I can do this because my needs in truth are modest. I do most of my gaming on a PS3, save for older RTS and RPG titles which run fine on older hardware.

I need the box to:

  • Run Ubuntu Mate
  • Handle text-driven productivity and development tasks
  • Run raster editors and desktop publishing programs
  • Play my catalogue of older games
  • Play HD video with hardware acceleration

At first I was looking to buy a new motherboard, case, more RAM and a new graphics card; the rest I'd planned on salvaging from the AMD system. However, after perusing eBay, I came across a ThinkCentre M58p selling for $35 without an Operating System. The specs are paltry, but it's upgradable and the model in question works very well with Linux. So I jumped at it figuring it would be more than adequate for my needs.

On paper the ThinkCentre will do everything I want, especially when I upgrade some of the key components with second-hand parts. I splurged on a Core 2 Quad CPU and 4GB of RAM and my total costs are under $100AUD. I'll replace the stock HDD with the 500GB drive from my Asus box and may shoehorn an SSD into optical drive slot. This particular model will also take a PCIe graphics card but it ships with an Intel GMA 4500 integrated GPU which may be enough for my use case. Time will tell.

At some point I may swap the ThinkCentre case for a modern tower, giving me more room top install drives and PCI/e cards and a more efficient power supply. After years of using Apple's locked down hardware it will be refreshing to go back to using an upgradable box built with parts that conform to industry standards. There's no reason why I can't slowly upgrade and expand the system, even replacing the whole motherboard with a full ATX monster if I want to.

Be a cool project, even if I find it's not as great an experience as I think it will!

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