Category Archives: hardware

First impressions of the Retina 13″ Macbook Pro

macbook pro retinaMy table planner software runs on Windows and Mac. Previously I took a Windows laptop with me when I was out of the office or on holiday, so that I could provide technical support to my customers. But it isn’t (legally) possible to run Mac OS X on Windows, so this made it hard to give Mac customers the best possible technical support. For example I couldn’t send them Mac screenshots or replicate Mac-only bugs from a Windows laptop. However it is legally possible to run both Mac OS X and Windows on a Mac. So I decided to buy a 13″ Retina Macbook Pro for my new laptop, so that I could have access to both OSs when out of the office. I was also attracted by the screen and design of the new Retina Macbook Pro. I choose the 13″ model, rather than than the 15″ model, simply because it is more portable (e.g. more likely to fit in a hotel safe). I also paid to upgrade the SSD from 128GB to 256GB to have room for both Mac OS X and Windows setups. I have now had my Macbook Pro for a few weeks, so I thought I would share my initial impressions.

The good points:

  • The 2560 x 1600 Retina screen is gorgeous, both in terms of sharpness and colour. It makes the display on my old Toshiba Windows laptop look very tired.
  • With a 2.5 GHz Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM and an SSD it is very responsive.
  • The aluminium chassis is beautifully designed. Despite being only 19mm thick and 1.6Kgs, it feels very sturdy. The power brick is quite small and light as well.
  • The keyboard is nice. Automatically backlighting the keys in low light is a nice touch.
  • The power cable attaches magnetically. This means it is easy to attach. But, more importantly, accidentally kicking the cable just pops the cable out, rather than the whole machine crashing onto the floor.
  • Gestures work very nicely on the touch pad. For example you can drag two fingers up and down to scroll or tap with 2 fingers to simulate right click.
  • I have Windows and Mac OS X  stored on separate partitions. I can access Window either by booting into Windows or from inside Mac OS X using Parallels (cost approx $80). Being able to access Windows from Mac OS X without a reboot is very useful.
  • The speakers are surprisingly good.

The not so good points:

  • The Macbook Pro is expensive compared to Windows ultrabooks with similar specs.
  • There are a limited number of ports:  2 USB, 2 Thunderbolt, 1 headphone, 1 HDMI and 1 unidentified (SD memory card?).
  • There is no Ethernet port. So if there is no Wifi, you are out of luck.
  • There is no Kensington slot, so you can’t physically lock it down. This is especially annoying given the price.
  • As someone who mainly uses Windows I’m still struggling to get used to the Mac keyboard. For example there is a Backspace key, but no Delete key. Also there is no Home or End key. Worst of all the cursor sometimes  jumps to a different line while I am typing. I have no idea why.
  • Parallels and Windows don’t do a brilliant job of handling the very high resolution of the Retina display. Fonts are sometimes shown very small or very large in Windows. Some applications, such as Keepass v1, looks very fuzzy. Hopefully this will improve with new versions of Parallels and Windows as Retina-like displays become  more common.
  • Not all applications support gestures. For example Firefox on Mac OS X doesn’t support pinch zoom. But I expect this will improve as new versions of applications are released.
  • Not having a built-in DVD drive is a pain. I was able to install Windows 7 by ripping a DVD to a USB stick using Infrarecorder (free). But this didn’t work for Photoshop Elements 11, so I had to download it from the app store, despite having it on DVD.
  • I couldn’t get Windows 8 to work. I installed it into a Bootcamp partition, but when I booted into Windows I just got a mouse pointer and  blue bar down the side of the screen. Apparently Windows 8 is not yet supported by Bootcamp.
  • I am told the graphics performance isn’t great. But I’m not intending to use it for games, so that doesn’t bother me much.

Overall it is an impressive machine and I’m pretty happy with it so far. In particular it is great to able to support Windows and Mac OS X on a single machine. But it does have some annoyances and I wouldn’t have purchased it to just to run Windows. No doubt PC ultrabook manufacturers will have copied its more innovative features fairly soon.

A couple of tips:

  • If you are  in the UK, consider purchasing from John Lewis. They will price match other ‘bricks and mortar’ vendors that have stock. But (at the time I purchased) they were offering 2 years additional warranty. I got them to price match PC World’s £100 off deal. I got £100 refunded and 2 years extra warranty. The service at John Lewis is usually also very good.
  • You probably want to get some form of case or sleeve to protect your lovely and expensive new Macbook. Beware that many of the existing cases are designed for the old Macbook Pros. Consequently they might not be a good fit for the thinner Retina models. I bought this Cool Bananas case. It is a good fit and quite well made. I just wish it had a bit more padding. No doubt more cases and sleeves will become available to fit the new models.

Buying a lean, mean, compiling machine

Nearly two years ago I wrote an article about speccing my ultimate development PC. Somehow there was always something more pressing to do. But I finally took delivery of my shiny new PC this week, partly spurred on by the fact that I wanted tried and trusted Windows 7 for the OS. Also my current development PC is getting increasingly crufty after 5 years of continual use.

I emailed my requirements to the top 3 custom PC companies in the UK as rated by PC Pro magazine : Chillblast, Cyberpower and CCL:

Hi,

I’m looking for a PC for developing software. Prime requirements in order of decreasing importance:

1. reliability
2. cpu + disk speed
3. quiet
4. value for money

Here is my wishlist of components:

-i5-3570K CPU
-an SSD (at least 128 GB) + 2 fast and reliable HDDs (7200 rpm, at least 1 TB each)
-ASUS, Gigabyte or EVGA motherboard supporting USB 3.0 and SATA/600.
-16 GB of fast RAM
-Windows 7 64 bit professional
-quiet is good, open to suggestions on sound insulation, fans and/or passive cooling
-AMD Radeon HD 6850 graphics card
-at least 2 USB ports on the front and 2 USB ports on the back (ideally more, ideally including USB 3.0)
-DVD drive
-Gigabit ethernet
-full size case
-kensington security slot, so I can lock it to the ground
-I don’t need a monitor, keyboard, mouse etc
-I don’t need WiFi
-It has to be *super reliable* – I want reliable SSD + HDDs, good quality motherboard, good quality branded power supply etc.
-target price, not more than 1,500 inc VAT, less is better obviously

Can you build something to meet this spec or get close? Please send me the spec and your price (including UK delivery).

Both Chillblast and Cyberpower sent me quotes for a system fairly close to what I wanted within 1 working day. I then spoke to their sales people and went online to tweak their suggested systems using their web based system ‘configurators’. In the end I chose Chillblast over Cyberpower due to:

  • higher rating from PC Pro readers
  • cheaper for a comparable system
  • better warranty
  • better online configurator (I found the number of choices on the Cyberpower online configurator a bit overwhelming)

However there really wasn’t a lot in it. CCL took nearly 2 whole working days to respond to my initial email,  so I discounted them as insufficiently responsive.

Following some suggestions made by the sales people I spoke to, this is the spec I ended up with:

  • Chillblast Fusion Longbow
  • Windows 7 Professional 64 bit
  • Onboard High Definition Audio
  • Corsair CX 750W 80 PLUS Bronze Certified PSU
  • Sony 24x DVD-RW Drive
  • Seagate Barrcuda 2TB 7200RPM Hard Disk
  • AMD Radeon HD 6850 1024MB Graphics Card
  • Intel 120GB 520 Series Solid State Drive
  • 16GB Corsair PC3-12800 1600MHz DDR3 Memory
  • Asus P8Z77-V LX Motherboard
  • Akasa Venom Voodoo Ultra Quiet CPU Cooler
  • Intel Core i5 3570K Processor 3.40 GHz (No Overclocking)
  • Fractal Design Define R3 Low Noise Case – Black Pearl – USB 3.0 Edition
  • Total price: £1089.80 + VAT (inc MSOffice Home Edition)

I take security fairly seriously. I have a motorbike style ground anchor in my office and I want my shiny new box physically locked to it. But I was told that almost no PC tower cases have a Kensington lock slot. This seems crazy to me. My current Dell tower has one and the cost of one tiny little extra slot in the chassis must be pennies. So I had to buy a lock adaptor kit. It’s not the most elegant solution, but it works fine.

I ordered the system on 02-Oct and it arrived on 22-Oct. Here are a couple of photos of the new system with the side panels off.

The PC took a few days longer than the originally advertised time to arrive. This wasn’t a big issue in my case. But I only found out it was going to be late when I emailed them after the expected completion date. It would have been a lot better if they had been more pro-active and emailed me first. Other than that I am fairly satisified with the service from Chillblast so far.

There are a few issues with the case, which aren’t really Chillblast’s fault. It looks rather lovely in its big, black, minimalist sort of way, a bit like an obelisk from ’2001 a space Odyssey’. But the case scratches rather easily if you lay it down to change a component on my laminate floor. The side panels are also a bit fiddly to get on and off (my old Dell PC is better in this regard). Worst of all, it has rubber grommets (is that the right word?) that fall out into the case (and potentially into the fan or heat sink) if you even look at them funny. This means lying the case down to retrieve them, struggling with the side panels and more scratches. I have had to do this at least 4 times so far. It seems that they have made them of rubber that is far too soft for the job. Grrr.

How fast is the new PC? It certainly feels very snappy. I benchmarked it against my old Dell development PC (Dual Core 2.13 Ghz, 4GB RAM) building my event table planner software from scratch. This is 83k executable lines of C++ according to SourceMonitor:

Build time Old PC New PC
Debug build 6 minutes 56 seconds 1 minute 32 seconds
Release build 6 minutes 23 seconds 1 minute 28 seconds

So it is more than 4 times faster than the old PC at its key task – building software. Admittedly it isn’t a ‘fair’ comparison of the hardware. The older machine has a different version of Visual Studio, a different OS and probably some unnecessary services running in the background. But it is the best I can do in the circumstances and I doubt a ‘fair’ test would be much different. Despite the fact that I only went for a mid-range graphics card, the new PC can also handle playing Half-Life 2 on full 1920 x 1200 resolution without any noticeable issues. Hopefully the faster build times will give a significant boost to my productivity (as long as I don’t play too much Half-Life 2).

The new PC is also eerily quiet. I would guess more than 4 times quieter than my old PC. Even when it is doing a build, all you can hear is the faint whir of a fan.

Only time will tell how reliable it is.

The world’s fastest Rubik cube solver is made from Lego!

CubeStormer II is the fastest Rubik cube solving robot in the world. It set a Guinness World Record of 5.270s for the fastest robot solving of a Rubik’s Cube in November 2011. I saw it in action on Saturday at the Swindon Lego show. Click the image below to watch a video I took.

(there is also a .mov version on screencast.com)

The project was commissioned by ARM Holdings and designed and built by Mike Dobson (who built the Lego robot) and David Gilday (who wrote the software). A custom Android app on a Samsung mobile phone images the cube and instructs the Lego robot what turns to make. The robot is made from 4 Lego Mindstorm NXT kits.

I got to speak briefly with David Gilday and he told me that the software is optimized for the robot’s capabilities, so it computes the quickest sequence for the robot, rather than the minimum number of moves. The software uses pre-computed look up tables of moves for speed. Apparently the limiting factor on the speed is the power of the motors. CubeStormer II can manage about 5 moves per second, whereas the best humans can manage 9 moves per second.

It didn’t work every time. But it is an impressive achievement. Especially considering the software was written by a hardware engineer! ;0)

(there is also a .mov version on screencast.com)

More details over at Wired.

Speccing my dream development PC

My main development machine is a 4 year old Dell desktop, PC running 32 bit Windows Vista. Time for a new PC. I have been doing a bit of research, mostly by looking through back copies of PC Pro magazine (which I recommend,  by the way). I am speccing it out here on my blog in the hope that I, and anyone else thinking about a new PC, can benefit from my research and (more importantly, given my limited knowledge of hardware) the assembled wisdom and experience of readers of this blog.

A system failure could lose me several days work and a lot of mental energy to sort out, so reliability is my number one requirement. After that I am interested in performance, particularly speeding up compilation and linking, as this has a significant effect on my productivity (my table planner software is now well over 100k lines of C++ code). Getting a fast machine also means it will last longer before it becomes obselete.

Form factor

Tower desktop. I don’t like using laptops for extended periods and there is plenty of space under the desk for a tower case. Having a bigger chassis means more options for upgrading and hopefully less chance of overheating. I like to have my PC physically locked to a ground anchor to reduce the possibility of theft. So the case needs to have a Kensington-compatible security slot I can attach a security cable to. Some LED bling wouldn’t hurt.

OS

Windows 7 64 bit Professional (or Ultimate is if I decide to use bitlocker drive encryption). Windows 7 is increasingly what my customers are using. 64 bit will allow me to address >4GB RAM.

As I develop for both Windows and Mac, I could use a Mac for my main development machine. But I am more familiar with Windows and its associated apps, you get more bang for your buck with a PC and I’m not keen on Apple’s authoritarian attitude to developers. So I prefer to use Windows for my main development machine and use a Mac Mini for porting.

RAM

8GB of DDR3 RAM. Maybe more, depending on cost. But I am not sure whether having more than 8GB of RAM will make much of a difference to real world performance. DDR3 memory seems to be fairly standard on high end PCs. I can’t imagine the clock speed of the memory (e.g. 1,333 MHz vs 1,600 MHz) affects development related performance much. I haven’t seen any data on this.

Storage

Possibly a 128GB Crucial RealSSD C300 SSD for storing \Windows and \Program files and a 600 GB 10,000 RPM WD Velociraptor HDD for storing everything else. SSDs seem to be increasingly the way to go for storage that is predominantly read-only and the prices are coming down. 128 GB should be ample for Windows and lots of applications. But there have been issues over the reliability and performance of some SSDs, notably those with Indilinx controllers. anandtech.com, Jeff Atwood and PC Pro all rate Crucial SSDs well. The WD Velociraptor is one of the fastest HDDs around and 600 GB is currently the biggest one you can buy. It is pricey though at around £0.30 per GB, with 7,200 RPM drives around £0.05 per GB. Especially if I buy an extra one to keep as a hot spare.

I am still making up my mind on this though. Having two separate drives means an extra possible point of failure. Also some people say that, while benchmark results are impressive, the difference in performance between SSD and fast HDDs isn’t that great in real world scenarios. I also wonder whether a 10,000 RPM HDD is going to be as reliable as a 7,200 RPM HDD, such as the Samsung Spinpoint F3. I don’t know of any independent data on HDD reliability between different makes and models. In the absense of such data I guess the next best bet is to look at how long the manufacturer warranties are. You need to be fairly confident on reliability to give a 5 year warrantly.

I am also considering encrypting the drives for extra security. This will keep my data secure in case of theft and it also means I can return a defective drive under warranty without worrying about the security of the data on it. The main alternatives are Truecrypt and Windows 7 Bitlocker. Tests show Truecrypt AES encryption adding a 5-12% performance penalty. Anecdotal reports seem to show that the difference is hardly noticeable in real world use, especially with a fast CPU. A comparison of Truecrypt and Bitlocker from April gives Bitlocker a small advantage for speed, but favours Truecrypt for its flexibility. Also Truecrypt is free, whereas Bitlocker is only available if you buy Windows 7 Ultimate.

My current PC has 2 disk HDDs in RAID1 (mirrored) configuration. This was intended to decrease the chance of data loss, but it has been a huge headache. I have had to replace one or other of the RAID1 HDDs 4 or 5 times while I have had this PC. I can only assume that RAID was responsible for this catastrophic failure rate, so I certainly won’t be going for RAID again.

Media

Any reputable make of DVD drive that can write dual layer DVDs should be fine. The 8.5 GB capacity of dual layer DVDs is useful for backups. I don’t see any need to pay a premium to get Bluray.

Motherboard

A Gigabyte or Asus motherboard with support for USB 3.0 and SATA/600. I have just bought a USB 3.0 external HDD for backup so I would like to make the most of the additional USB 3.0 performance and a fast SATA connection is necessary to get the most from a fast HDD. Gigabtye and Asus motherboards seem to do well in the PC Pro magazine tests.

Power supply

Any respectable make should be fine. If a power supply fails the power surge can wreck the whole machine, so it definitely isn’t worth risking a cheap and nasty power supply to save a few pounds.

USB ports

Lots, including some USB 3.0 ports.

Graphics card

AMD Radeon 6850. I don’t play a lot of computer games, but I want a graphics card fast enough to give me the option. I would also like to have the option of multiple monitors, so it needs to have at least 2 DVI outputs. PC Pro magazine are recommending the AMD Radeon 6850 as exellent value if you don’t need the fastest possible card.

CPU

Intel Core i5-750 (4 cores). Raw processor speed is obviously important, but you pay quite a premium to get the very fastest chip. The i5-750 seems like a good balance between price and performance. Multiple cores are useful for running VMs and compiling (apparently Visual Studio 2005 requires a tweak to use multiple cores for compilation). Quiet fans would be nice. I’m not interested in overclocking as I worry about the effect this could have on reliability.

Networking

Gigabit Ethernet.

VDU, keyboard and mouse

I will re-use my existing monitor, keyboard and mouse.

Software

The less crapware pre-installed with the OS the better.

Warranty

The longer and more comprehensive the better.

Manufacturer

I have neither the time, the inclination nor the aptitude to build a PC myself. So I will be looking for a UK company that can build a PC close to the above spec. I had a terrible experience trying to buy a media PC from gamingpc-guys.co.uk earlier this year (I had to do a chargeback to get my money back when neither PC or refund had appeared after a month), so I certainly won’t be approaching them. Thankfully they seem to have gone out of business anyway. Given the problems I have had with the current Dell and the ludicrous cost of Dell replacement parts, I won’t be going for Dell again either. UK PC manufacturers that regularly do well in PC Pro tests include:

So I will be investigating how close a system they can provide me to the above spec and for what price. Interestingly all these custom PC companies seem to have products aimed very much at gamers, not developers. Given that there are a lot of developers in the UK that seems surprising. I guess most developers get their PC bought for them by IT departments and don’t have the luxury of a custom built PC. I think these companies are missing a trick by not having a PC aimed at developers amongst their base specs.

If you had roughly £1000/$1700 to spend on a development machine, what would you choose differently from the above and why?