For the last three years, my daily driver has been 2015 MacBook Air. When my wife bought it for me for my birthday back in 2016, it marked my return to the Mac after using Linux exclusively for two years. It’s a wonderful laptop, and I love it; I hope to get many more years of use out of it as my writing and coding machine.
However, lately, I’ve been doing a lot more with it aside from writing. I’ve been recording and editing podcasts, making maps, and experimenting with screencasts. For the most part, MacBook handles these tasks well. However, its storage capacity is slight, and well… it’s a laptop. As my output increases, so too will I have to make more demands on the system.
So, I decided I wanted a desktop — a big capable machine with a desktop-class CPU, lots of RAM, dedicated graphics, and expandable storage. Being a Mac user for the last 15 years, my first thought was to get an iMac, or perhaps another Mac mini1. Both have limitations in terms of expandability — and, let’s face it; they are costly, even second hand.
Another consideration is that I needed an Nvidia graphics card for a very particular purpose — running Wonderdraft. Wonderdraft is an inexpensive cross-platform map-making program that relies heavily on a graphics card to render the map’s effects in real-time. While it will work with Intel and AMD graphics chips for small maps, the developer has noted Wonderdraft is optimised for Nvidia cards. My own experience of testing the app on my MacBook (Intel HD6000 graphics) and my old gaming PC (AMD Radeon 7000 series graphics) bore out this claim.
One problem with the iMac idea is Apple hasn’t shipped Nvidia graphics in any Mac for years. Even if I forked out thousands on an iMac, the experience would be subpar. This led me to consider the PC path once again. My existing gaming PC was ancient (first gen i5), and it was housed in a mammoth media PC case sized to fit in an old-fashioned component stack. It ran Windows 10 — badly — and was relegated to playing games like Minecraft and Anno 1404 for my kids.
As luck would have it, I acquired a Dell Optiplex 9020 my employer had marked to be recycled. You can find this model cheap on Amazon, eBay and discount computer sellers thanks to its popularity in corporate environments.
The unit I acquired has a Haswell i7 processor and 32GB of RAM. There was no hard-drive and the stock AMD graphics card was woeful. The case is the small-form-factor version, but critically for my purposes, it supports a low profile graphics card and will take two SSDs easily with a 3.5-to-dual-2.5inch drive caddy.
Haswell CPUs are a generation older than the Broadwell CPU in my MacBook Air. However, the difference between a low watt laptop i5 and a desktop-class i7 with eight cores is considerable. 32GB of RAM is also a significant boost over my laptop’s 8GB.
Until yesterday I didn’t spend a cent on it. When I first brought it home, I shoved in an old 3.5-inch desktop hard-drive I had lying around and installed Ubuntu 18.04. At some point, I will buy two SSDs and run both Ubuntu and Windows, but for now, Ubuntu is adequate for my needs. Wonderdraft even has a Linux version, though the performance was terrible on the stock AMD GPU.
Yesterday, I took the plunge and bought a new graphics card. It’s the first time I’ve ever purchased a new GPU. It took me a little research because I needed a low profile card to fit the case while being performant enough to give me a pleasant experience with Wonderdraft. Noting the developer’s recommended requirements (see below), I needed something between a GTX 760, and the unadulterated experience of a GTX 1080.
So, I finally bought an MSI GTX 1050 TI 4GT LP card for $A239. This low profile card fits within the small-form-factor chassis of the Optiplex. It has modest power requirement (powered directly from the PCI slot) and comes with 4GB of DDR5 RAM. It’s best described as a mid-range gaming card from the previous generation, and I hoped it would give me the performance I needed.
Installation was easy enough, despite the cramped confines of the case. One thing to note is the card is too wide to fit in the 9020’s oddly placed PCIe 16x slot. I had to put it in the 4x slot — yes, I know I’m taking a performance penalty of 10-15% doing this, but this is acceptable for my use case.
To ensure compatibility, I updated to the latest BIOS which I found on Dell’s support pages. In Ubuntu, I installed the proprietary Nvidia drivers and loaded up Wonderdraft.
So far, my initial testing has been very positive. Where previously the app would lag on anything larger than 1024x1024px map, the 1050TI let me create a high-resolution 3508x4961px2 map with no discernible lag.
I also ran popular 3D benchmark, Unigine Heaven, to get a measure of performance. With the stock AMD card and open source driver, I managed only 1-4 FPS at 800x600px. With the 1050TI I managed 180+ FPS @ 800x600 and a respectable 60-90 FPS @ 1080p. While I didn’t buy the card for gaming, it’s nice to know it will easily handle most titles I would care to throw at it.
In all, I’m thrilled with the unit. While it’s not as pretty as an iMac, it’s a perfectly serviceable workstation for my needs. The computer is modular and easy to maintain, upgrade and repair. I can’t say this about a Mac, which is starting to bother me in our age of climate change, resource depletion, and the falling Australian dollar3.
Most importantly, this computer will help to improve my productivity. I’ll be able to produce more and better maps, edit podcasts and audiobooks faster, and hopefully create screencasts and other such things.