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Hardware Advice? - F*cking with Clusters

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Since I'm spending the next semester working from home on my thesis (and hence saving around $3000 on plane flights and $2400 on rent... ), I have decided to get a new desktop comparable to a nice lab computer. I'm looking for something <$3000, and cheaper is better.

All I know so far is that I want a 64-bit PC with at least 2 and more likely 4 cores. My main use will be data analysis, but it would be nice to have a machine that can play Civ4 with all of the effects turned on while crunching numbers in the background ;-)

I'm thinking of starting from Ars Technica's Hot Rod system and adding RAM. Do any of you more hardware savvy folks have advice beyond this? I am a bit antsy about throwing down 2k after only a weekend of research, but I need to have this system up and running in the next week so I can get back to real work.

Also, if any of you know of a good pre-built manufacturer that is cheaper than Alienware, I'm interested. When I last looked at this sort of thing 5 years ago, Dell Business was exactly what I wanted, but the customization screen pissed me off by not letting me de-select all of the crap they pre-install and not giving me enough RAM options.
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take a penny
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Date:January 11th, 2007 11:30 am (UTC)

Try this; it's Dell's returned/refurbished/scratch&dent computers. They go for about half the price of an identical off-the shelf computer, so for however much cash you want to spend, you can get a much better box. The downside is that there's no customization possible; these are real, existing machines sitting on a shelf somewhere. There's enough computers available I'm sure you could find something close to what you really really want.

I got an XPS with a dual core Intel 2.8 GHz processor, 1 gig RAM, 320 Gig HD, DVD-RW, CD-RW, NVidia GeForce 7300 video card, lots of USB ports etc etc for $560 including tax and shipping. It was a "scratch & dent" machine, but I couldn't find any scratches or dents. I felt kinda jipped.

They all come with a 1 year warranty, but so far mine has been flawless.
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Date:January 11th, 2007 05:56 pm (UTC)
My friend had a horrible experience with Alienware. She's one of the commenters on this page. She also set up her own page about it, with the timeline of bad experiences on the left side.
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Date:January 11th, 2007 11:43 pm (UTC)
You can try finding some small local store that will build the computer to your specifications. I was too lazy to build my last computer, so I just took the box in, told the guy approximately what I wanted, and the maximum amount I was willing to spend, and he put it together and tested it. He was also pretty helpful about answering my questions (I'm mostly going to use the computer for X. Do I want A or B?). I'd done a little online research before I got lazy, so his answers were mostly confirmation.

I'm not sure, but Civ4 effects are mostly graphics as I understand it, and there's little data analysis number crunching that's going to use your video card (there is some research in that direction however). So as long as your games are graphic intensive rather than processor intensive you might be okay, so long as you have enough memory. Someone with more knowledge of games should correct me if I'm wrong. I never have enough memory; I usually have to set at least a gig of virtual memory (sometimes 2) to keep Matlab from crashing when I'm processing stuff. Thats on the image based stuff however. There have been times I couldn't even manage to run a browser or a simple text editor when Matlab's running. So I'd be more concerned about the memory than the processor.

When I was looking for computers, I was told that the extra cores and the 64 bit part weren't going to help me much because of the limitations of Windows (or maybe the combination of Windows and the software). I went with the 64 bit part anyway, although 32 of the bits aren't used. This was all several years ago, so maybe things have gotten better/more useful since. Over the summer my program was running on a quad core, but we had to multithread the program ourselves to actually take advantage of the fact.
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Date:January 11th, 2007 11:49 pm (UTC)
I like the small local store idea: did you do that in MI or Bay Area?

As for the rest, I don't think I'll need to use Windows much, and I'm currently using a 64 bit Debian install at school. Mostly, I want the 64 bit so I can have more than 4 gigs of RAM, because I have the same problem with the computer chugging through Matlab or Weka on big data sets. Ideally, I can just gave 8G of RAM and never need to swap out. The ability to play games concurrently would just be icing :-)
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Date:January 12th, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately the store was in MI. But you can probably find one similar in the Bay Area. I've seen small local stores all over the place. The guy in Ann Arbor was really reliable and took good care of my mom's computer, so I had a known recomendation.

Yeah, I've been too lazy to dual boot my computer (and I just found out my research work is taking up over 40gigs of space, so I can't put another partition on my current drive for a second OS yet anyway). If you're not using Windows, then you should be fine. The more memory the better of course. That's usually my bottleneck, more so than the processing speed. And the newer versions of Matlab are a lot nicer about memory sharing than the older version.

I got to abuse a quad core opteron(?) over the summer and fall. I don't know the amount of memory it had. But I went from 7-10 seconds/trace in Matlab on a slow Windows computer to ~.02 seconds/trace in C++ on the opteron. The multiple core stuff was good too; 3-4 hours for a day's data single threaded, to 1+ hours for a day's data with 4 threads.
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Date:January 12th, 2007 02:40 am (UTC)

There's one in Newark, and they will build to order, or at least they used to.

Dell bought Alienware in March, for what that's worth.
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Date:January 15th, 2007 02:58 pm (UTC)

This has nothing to do with your post.

Darlingest friend:

I have just purchased a present for you, and is it very important you do not purchase a second copy for yourself.

I'm going to do my best to not tell you the name of this present, so here are your buying restrictions for the foreseeable future.

DO NOT purchase anything you already have a copy of, even it it is new, improved, and visually remastered copy, until you run it by me first.

DO NOT purchase anything personalized until you run it by me first.

Now.  Please respond to this email and let me know you've received this message.  I will be leaving further messages with your email, voice mail, and husband (who's email address I do not have, coincidentally.  Hope his cell phone number works).

If you really want me to ruin the suprise, I will tell what your present is. Or, I'll just give it you in time for MY birthday. Speaking of which, I know what I want for it. If I ever speak to you on the telephone, I might even tell you what it is.

(take a penny)
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