Thinking of buying a new mac?

This post was written on May 16 2013 before the Haswell chip rollout. While this information is now outdated, you can still get lots of new chips

So I’m writing this blog post basically because I’m thinking of buying a new mac. Well if there’s one thing I know about mac users, they fall into two distinct groups. There’s the ones who will go on the apple website every week and dream of upgrading, and there’s the ones who still own their color classic from 1990 and won’t admit that one has been released ever since.

For most of the users, they fall into the first category. That’s basically how they funded the revival of their business, by making their products have such appeal and a design evolution that makes each upgrade fairly distinct, but there is many upgrades that go unnoticed to the untrained eye, and these are the ones that the real number cruncher will get lost in a labyrinth of new possibility.

Understanding microarchitecture and chipsets

Quite often between major releases there will be a chipset or graphics card upgrade. Recently ,as they introduced the retina technology, they released the chipsets with those major releases. By chipset, I refer to what the processor architecture is like. There are many sub levels within chipsets, besides microarchitecture,but for the sake of keeping my blog post readable, I’ll skip that and let you research more if you want, so I’ll just stick to chipset when referring to that from now on.

You may be familiar with the A4,A5,A6x chipsets in the iPads and iPhones as they get people interested in those terms which they can easily grasp without the need of understanding them. Of course a higher number is better in that case. add and x and you’re probably getting something extra. But in this blog post, I’m specifically talking about the desktop. Anne laptop models as the upgrades are not as obvious.

Most people will definitely know when they changed to the intel chips, as they stopped calling their computers PowerPC (made by IBM and Motorola) and started calling them intel (made by, you guessed it , intel), we’ve been through quite a few revisions since that time and most recently are the “Sandy Bridge” and most recent the “Ivy Bridge” chipsets , the ivy bridge supporting USB 3.0 and thunderbolt natively, as well as making the components of the chip slightly smaller each time, and also allowing more cores (CPUs) on the same chip, allowing it to do parallel processes, which basically means its like having two CPUS in the same computer (called dual core). more cores mean faster, as long as the software you use is built for that technology. Cores are also not the only things you need to worry about, but thats a general overview.

So what does all this mean??

It means that’s there’s another hidden reason to feel like your computer is getting old. The chipset upgrades are by no means probably the most important upgrades in your computers. We’re all pretty familiar with the terms i5 and i7 these days, and these represent the chipsets. There’s even subcategories within them if you want to go that far, but you will end up going mental, and want to throw out you computer about a week after you bought it, as opposed to the mandatory two weeks of bliss for the common man/woman/monkey.

One thing to really remember that the numbers they show you are not all equal. Fro example a 2.0GHz i7 will be faster than a 2.0Ghz i5 computer. The Ghz stands for GigaHertz, adn that means (billions of cycles per second), so 2.0Ghz is two billion computational cycles every second. So youd think they would be the same. Well that are the same amount of cycles, but it depends how quickly they can relay that information and get the tasks done you asked it to. thats where the microarchitecture comes into play.

This all sounds pretty annoying to think about you say?

Yes it is. Unfortunately ignorance is bliss in the computer world, but that won’t get you a better machine. You gotta make the right choice for yourself and then put on headphones, or stick you fingers in your ears and say “lalalalalalalala” or something like that for a while anytime someone is talking about it after you just bought a new computer.

And the next news…

As awesome as the new ivy bridge architectures processors (like the i7 macs) are, there is another on its way I’ve been waiting for. It’s called Haswell and will be released on June 4, 2013. Right after that apple is launching the next round of MacBook Pro computers with retina screens, and hopefully all the kinks have been ironed out of them by now, so I plan to wait for that one. The price in Japan for MacBook Pros are almost 1000 dollars cheaper than in the US, so I’ll probably get one from there. There is a shop called pc-bomber that I recommend. Here’s the current MacBooks as of Friday may 17 2013 – http://www.pc-bomber.co.jp/shop/contents/index.aspxyou have to pick it up usually, and so if you don’t live in Japan then you might have some difficulty.

What improvements will the Haswell chip bring?

Well basically its all down to speed, right? The only other thing is physical rendering limitations, but that wont affect most of us. the speed of your workflow is key. Haswell is down to 22nm, which is 22 nanometers (as the later generation Ivy Bridge processors were i believe) which basically means they can fit more on the same size chip. A major amazement factor is the amount of power it needs to run is as low as 20 times lower than chips sold in 2011 (see pic). Intel has promised up to 40% increase in graphics delivery, especially in 3d graphics. This all means you get your shit done much faster> i guess the dream is a machine that runs in “real time”. no progress bars, it just does what you tell it to instantaneously. Were not there yet but you can see by the graphs that the parabolic curve is moving more towards vertical.

Is it just for Mac?

No, not at all. it will be in all computers across the board. Its just there are so many variations in the PC market I have no idea where it will surface first. Macbook releases are much more easy to predict and come in only a few flavors, and as a mac user since 1988, Im pretty happy staying there. That being said. Dont just blindly buy the same thing you bought before. The key is research and armed with knowledge you can vote with your dollar for whoever you think has the best product, company morals or whatever kind of company you want to succeed into the future.

Further reading:

Wikipedia: Haswell architecture click here

PC World: Intel lifts the veil on Haswell graphics click here

ExtremeTech: Haswell leaks: Significant performance boost mixed with odd design decisions click here

The Inquirer: Intel announces GPUs for its Haswell chips click here

So why am I talking about this now?

Because I’m thinking of rethinking my current computer setup, and wonder what’s the best configuration for my needs.i want to get the most bang for my buck, and be as flexible as possible when the time comes, without wasting the current technology I have.

So basically for most of you you can stop reading here. It’s all about me from now on. I’m going to write down my decision making process, party to help me decide, and if it helps any of you, then that’s a good thing..

So now to find my perfect computer setup…

My needs:

At home:

  • Play HD movies (up to 1080p 3D) output hdmi for my tv (actually I generally prefer 720p as I feel it has a “warmer” feel with a few compression artifacts in it, but I’m a nerd that way.
  • Do high level graphics, for web and massive print resolution (I do many banner print projects up to 10 meters or more so need a good graphics card)
  • Make and edit music in Ableton live , with multiple input sources.
  • Make and edit video on occasion ( just simple things for VJ gigs and stuff like that I do now and then)
  • Use Firefox (this may seem simple but it’s by far the biggest memory hog on my computer(you may say switch to chrome but I just don’t really like it))

Away from home:

  • For all of these, I need a laptop of some kind, so I can carry it, and use it (revolutionary!)
  • Do live music and dj gigs (with ableton and multiple USB powered devices, plus enough HDD space for a massive sample library)
  • The occasional VJ gig (so I need composite, VGA and possibly hdmi video out)
  • Make some pretty design mock ups at meetings ( ok graphics card is nice)
  • Be able to do fairly high CPU and GPU intensive graphics work (Banners or high resolution imagery especially)

My current computers:

  • Late 2008 24″ iMac which I have upgraded to 6GB ram and a 2TB are drive.
  • Late 2010 13.5″ MacBook which I have upgraded to 8gb ram and removed the original hard drive and replaced with a 1.5TB hard drive. I also removed the DVD drive and replaced with a 1TB hard drive, giving the computer a 2.5TB capacity.

My current problems and contentednesses:

They are both way to slow for someone like my need graphically. Both play music and video fine up to 1080p, with some delay on IMAX (18GB+ files) but generally fine with anything in .mkv format which I mainly use (and i recommend everyone use if possible). Both are fine for making music with more than 20 channels.

For live gigs my old laptop is fine. As I’m mainly doing more live music and improvised dj hybrid sets these days, I require a tough machine with loads of disk space and enough ram to load the tracks and samples fast. It’s also convenient to work on the same computer I perform on as I don’t have to worry about missing the vital music files, or have duplicates saved into multiple projects. The screen size is way too small and I would rather use my 24″ iMac for making music due to the screen real estate. As it is an older model, it has the tv ratio 4:3 shape, which means i can see more audio channels simulataneously, where the newer 21 inch widescreens allow you to see more of the track length at one time.

(Pic of the current Ahimsa Creative Studios)

My perceived options:

I believe it’s better to split the load, and have computers designated to certain tasks, so I don’t lose focus when I am on one of them.firefox is a memory hog, so doesn’t go too well with graphic intensive apps, but conversely is very necessary for researching label designs and receiving files while for the labels. Alternatives to this are using another computer for Internet and saving the files across wireless or into a Dropbox folder.

So which computer should be for graphics and which for music. I’d like to say I have all the answers, but it’s kind of up to personal preference. One thing I must say that if you can, use the apple screen for graphics as their color match technology is pretty much the industry standard. For any external screens you buy, you would generally have to pay at least 7-800 dollars to get an apple,quality screen if its above 21 inches (these days 27 inches). That being said, most screens these days have pretty advanced controls, so you could put them side by side , open the same image on both, and color calibrate that way.

In my years of experience, actually I think the main problem is having your monitor at the wrong brightness, as you may accidentally make your designs too light or dark. Colors are perceived different by everyone anyway, so there is no real need to have perfect color unless you need to compare printed matter to images your screen, but that rarely works anyway. Room lighting is also an important factor here.

My Solution

Here is what decided to do. Buy a 27 inch Samsung tv monitor to use with my laptop for making music (cost 200 Canadian dollars from a warehouse about an hour from the city). As the music is just CPU and ram intensive, it leaves my graphics card fairly open, so I decided to run all my movies and tv (netflix) from my laptop. Also my main Internet functions, so I now have my iMac pretty free to just focus on the design work. Its also pretty hard to watch a movie while making music, so i cant see myself doing the two simultaneously anyway.

When the Haswell MacBook comes out, I’ll get one of them, and then use the Samsung screen with the new laptop (depending on its color performance), and most likely switch my iMac to being my main music making station. Then my old laptop will be used for live music gigs and VJ events. Then im still in action with no wastage of my current computers. of course these days if you need to get rid of something, craigs list is a great way to sell. If you are happy with a little oilder technology you can buy some great stuff there too

(Pic of close up of the music area in Ahimsa Creative Studios)

Why all this thinking?

Well there’s three main reasons. One is that I’m a bit neurotic when planning this kind of thing. Two is that computers are expensive, and in my opinion, their resale value is not worth the fun and exciting tasks I could put the old computer too.

Lastly I must say that there are scientists out there that really need some computing power. I wish computers were like water and infinitely scalable, so that you could just “add” more power and speed to your current computer and have it for life. That day will come but for now old computers are just minor burdens to us which we generally let sit on a shelf and get even older.

One reason to keep using an old computer is due to the environmental risk of throwing them out. Hey are so complex and made from so many things that they are ridiculously hard to recycle.

Anyway my point is that you can “donate” your computing power to the “world community grid”. You run the program and it goes into a bank of computers that run simulations and other data intensive calculations and they use it to cure cancer, calibrate space shuttle launches, all kind of good things. Of course power consumption is not just a financial but global environment issue, but it’s an easy way to donate to awesome causes like that, and not just directly financially,but you can really feel a part of the solution. Who knows, YOUR computer may have been the one that made the final calculation to solve the cancer problem, or safely land a mars rover on our closest neighbor planet.

If you want to find out to about how they are using it to cure cancer, see this page or watch the webinar on May 29th

[button link=”http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org/about_us/viewNewsArticle.do?articleId=301″ target=”blank” size=”small”]News on the cure cancer webinar/[/button]

or just browse their website, and see thier current “research solar power” campaign

[button link=”http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org/” target=”blank” size=”small”]http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org/[/button]

to see how the whole idea works. I bet most of you never even knew that you could make a real difference so easily. Most of science is not glamorous, and just requires massive number crunching, especially calibrating space launches and decoding DNA. Goes to show the microverse is as complicated as the macroverse we observe.

Good luck with your future computer usage. Remember reinvent is better than re-use and reuse is better than recycle. And recycle is the least we can do.

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