The Next Computer

Over the last two months I've been doing some passive research on what sort of computer I should request from the day job when the eventual order comes down that I stop using my personal devices for company work. I've been fortunate enough to have the luxury of using my own machines since returning to the company in 2012 however, as the company gears up to meet a number of ISO and security compliance standards, a change will need to be made. Two years ago I was given a Lenovo W541 notebook that was quickly upgraded and turned into a development web and database server, but this won't become a development machine. The unit is a server for a reason, after all. Oddly enough, my direct managers agreed that I could put in a request1 for just about any kind of computer I might need and, if the sticker price exceeds a certain threshold, sign-off would be required from a number of senior management. Most computers targeted at professionals start at the cost limit, but this doesn't mean that there aren't options.

The vast majority of the company is run on Windows machines, which means that the standard companies that the IT department will order without raising too much of a fuss include Dell, Microsoft, Lenovo, and Panasonic. I've been told that it would be possible to request a Mac if I wanted but, given that the newer models will not run Linux natively, it doesn't make sense to give Apple the business. The computers I use to create software are tools, and I expect them to be versatile as such. This means that a lot of the modern hardware is immediately disqualified from any shortlist as it's either impossible to upgrade or comes so locked down that it's insulting. Dell, Microsoft, Lenovo, and Panasonic also ship with their share of pros and cons, but I feel I can trust the enterprise staples a little more. But which one would be better?

Having used a pair of Panasonic Let'sNote devices over the years, the company is immediately blacklisted from all consideration. Mind you, this ban extends across all Japanese-made computers. The prices are double what they should be given what's in the box, and the number of compromises that have to be afforded just to use a Japanese computer is unacceptable.

A number of colleagues have Microsoft Surface devices and the units do look nice. That said, a larger screen is generally better for development, which disqualifies these sleek units from contention. External monitors are certainly an option, given that I use them extensively, but the 4K screens I use would put a great deal of strain on the video card resulting in a lot of heat and visual stutter.

Of course, running a pair of 4K screens will put a lot of strain on just about any notebook, resulting in heat and stutter. These are some problems that I face currently with my MacBook Pro. Modern notebooks can ship with some beefy video cards, however, I feel that this upcoming hardware request might be a fine opportunity to request a desktop unit; something I haven't used in well over a decade.

A tower would have a number of advantages over notebooks, including better cooling, faster hardware, and more expansion. While the vast majority of my day is spent working with text in one form or another, I do make heavy use of databases and virtual machines. Notebooks can certainly handle these tasks, but a desktop could (theoretically) handle more work simultaneously. This doesn't necessarily mean trying to get something with a Xeon or ThreadRipper CPU, of course. The Core i5-series processors generally have enough power to keep up and the 6-core chips look like an attractive alternative to an i7 or i9 that employs HyperThreading2.

Preamble complete, what I'm looking for is this:

  • a 6-core i5 or better CPU
  • 32GB RAM (an option to upgrade to more later is a plus)
  • a minimum of two 3.5" hard disk bays
  • a decent graphics card

Looking at the Dell website, most of the configurations that I can get in Japan that meet this criteria will sell for over 440,000円 (just over $4500 USD), which I will not even entertain. Just because the day job will foot the bill for the hardware does not mean that I'll try to take advantage of the offer. My luck, a senior manager would be in a foul mood when they saw the request and reject it as greedy.

What would a decent Lenovo cost?

Interestingly enough, the Lenovos are priced to move. A "prosumer"-grade ThinkCentre M920t with a Core i5-8600, 32GB RAM, 4TB of spinning storage and 256GB of fast SSD, and NVIDIA GeForce GT 730 w/2GB would be 206,021円 (about $2000 USD) after discounts. The entry-level workstation that is the ThinkStation P330 with a Core i5-8600, 32GB RAM, 12TB of spinning storage in RAID5, 512GB of fast SSD in RAID0, and NVIDIA Quadro P620 w/2GB is 272,160円 (about $2750 USD) after discounts.

Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Extreme

Just for giggles, how about the incredibly nice Thinkpad X1 Extreme notebook? With a Core i5-8400H, 15.6" UHD (3840 x 2160 IPS) display, 32GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050Ti, and 1TB M.2 2280 NVMe (as a pair of 512GB devices in RAID0), the sticker price works out to 307,022円 (about $3000 USD) after discounts. Less than I paid for the "worthless" semi-recent MacBook Pro I'm currently writing this on.

Generally the company wants its IT people to use notebooks so, should a request for a desktop not go through, perhaps the Thinkpad X1 Extreme could be suggested. A couple of colleagues requested the smaller Thinkpad X1 Carbon and had their requests approved despite the similar pricing.

All this aside, the company has not yet asked me to switch to company-supplied hardware, so I'll continue using my Ubuntu-powered MacBook Pro with the sub-optimal screen and external displays. When the time comes to make the change, though, I'll have done enough research to know generally what to go with.

  1. I can request, but this doesn't mean the company will agree.

  2. As with everything, there are lots of pros and cons to HyperThreading. I generally find that the heat an i7 puts out at any given time is far too much, though, which makes the i5 an attractive alternative.