The ATP gents recently compared their buying philosophies when it came to new computer hardware. Casey and John discussed the idea of going all out upgrading the specs on a consumer device, or whether at that stage and cost it’s worth just buying the workstation-class model.

(They were referring to the iMac versus the iMac Pro, then it morphed into Hondas versus BMWs, because everyone loves a good car analogy. But I think the same logic could apply elsewhere).

Which approach is better?

Each approach has its pros and cons. Even a better spec’d consumer machine may still lack the workstation features you need, such as ECC memory. The workstation may have better cooling, whereas a consumer machine may struggle to use its higher-end components effectively. Workstations may also be easier to upgrade, and theoretically last longer.

That said, a consumer device would still work out cheaper, even perhaps with better specs than a workstation. It may even perform better in the workloads you need, such as having fewer but faster CPU cores, or a consumer GPU for gaming.

Marco concluded that it ultimately depended on what the machine was to be used for, which makes sense.

How I buy machines

These all used to be considerations that kept me up at night, in a good way. I loved pouring over price sheets and specification charts, angling to see what the best possible machine I could build was. My first PC I built from winnings in a school writing contest came down to the Pentium with MMX or the Pentium Pro, and whether more RAM or a better GPU were worth it.

Fast forward to last year, and I bought a 27-inch Retina iMac. I didn’t want the bigger screen, but it had the best only decent GPU Apple offered. It was the best machine I could build, and I subsequently barely used it. I knew things were a bit off when it failed to supplant my MacBook and FreeBSD tower, both of which were laughably old and far lower spec’d.

What the hell changed? Everyone has their own requirements, but for me computing became less of a sports car, and more an instrument. That was a terrible analogy, but hear me out: I used to need the best, fastest, shiniest. Now I revel in finding gems, and holding onto machines for longer amounts of time. The machine I’m typing on is a tiny, underpowered, second-hand Panasonic I bought in Akihabara during AsiaBSDCon 2019. It runs FreeBSD, and its the most fun I’ve had with a computer in years.

Because truth be told, the way I use computers has barely changed since my dad’s first DOS machine. I may edit photos sometimes, and I may have offloaded much of the stuff behind the scenes to home servers and cloud instances, but most of my life is still spent in a text editor or shell. About all I refuse to sacrifice is display quality; you can’t go back after seeing crisp fonts and photos on Retina/HiDPI.

So to address the earlier conundrum: I lived most of my life thinking I needed that fancy workstation. But my calculus is now what I need it to do, not whether I can spec a machine to the max. Which, ironically, is how Apple used to advertise their computers in the first place.