Replacing My Desktop Computer

Wanted: New Desktop PC. Must be the strong, silent type. Windows only. Laptops need not apply.

Warning: The following may well be a rationalization.

The arrival of the Logitech Brio webcam reminded me that my computers are now aged. Neither my desktop, nor laptop, are capable of reliably producing 1080p or 4K video streams.

In the case of the laptop, a second generation Lenovo X1 Carbon circa 2013, I’m not particularly bothered by this reality. I don’t expect a laptop, especially an ultrabook, to do such things.

Given that I optioned it well originally (8 GB memory, 256 GB SSD) the Lenovo is still a lovely device for the various tasks where I truly need portability. I can get another year from it without issue.

The desktop is another matter entirely. Its time has past. It has started to let me down in some significant ways. I’ve tinkered with its internals over these past five years. Its lone, traditional hard drive was augmented by an SSD boot volume early in its tenure, a third physical drive a little later on.

Its AMD FX6100 CPU, with 6 cores, first appeared in 2011. Clocked at 3.6 GHz it draws 95 watts. Upgrading the CPU would require a new motherboard, which in turn dictates a new power supply. While memory and storage can easily be upgraded, swapping out the host CPU is rarely worth the trouble on a system this old.

Never fear, we’re big believers in technology recycling. Our older computers often get demoted to lesser service hereabouts. For example, my previous desktop is our current music server. Alternatively, they may get wiped and gifted to someone who might have use of them despite their age.

Now, looking ahead…

Not long ago I revisited the state of small-form-factor desktops. I remain certain that I want a desktop. I just don’t want a hulking big box. After all, those big sheet metal boxes are mostly empty.

After much consideration (some would say waffling) I ordered an Airtop-PC direct from Compulab. Those of you paying attention will note that this is just over a year since I first mentioned the little wunderputer.

Weighing it against the competition I found it to be the best option for my purposes. What follows is an explanation of that thought process.

Why a Desktop?

There are several reasons why a desktop is still better than a laptop for my primary machine. Being less concerned with power consumption (no battery) they may have more capable CPUs. Video production generally takes as much CPU as you can muster.

Some of the software I use, like vMix, also takes advantage of the GPU. Desktop GPUs typically outperform their mobile cousins by a wide margin.

Desktops also accommodate more storage. I may not be funded for a Petabyte of hard drive on day one, but I’d like the ability to add storage, either fast or archival, later if necessary.

Why THAT Desktop?

Revisiting my little survey of SFF desktops, I came down to the Airtop and the Skull Canyon NUC as the two best options.

The Airtop is more costly, but also more expandable and completely fanless. The G version has both an embedded GPU and an nVidia GPU. It also has a vast array of ports; 2 HDMI, 2 Display Port, 1 DVI-D, 4 USB 3.0, 6 USB 2.0, dual Gigabit Ethernet. It even has 3 micro serial ports.

The Skull Canyon NUC has a newer CPU, but only an embedded GPU with two outputs. Although, it is Intel’s fastest embedded GPU. It lacks internal support for any kind of traditional hard drive. It only supports one PCIe NVMe SSD. That’s fast, but also costly.

I was especially interested in comparing the CPUs. The Airtop has a 5th generation Haswell i7-5775C, which was introduced in Q2-2015. With four cores and hyper-threading, it’s a desktop part that draws 65 watts.

In contrast, the NUC has a 7th generation Skylake i7-6770HQ, which was introduced in Q1-2016. It also has four cores and hyper-threading, but it’s a laptop part that draws just 45 watts.

I found it interesting that the older desktop CPU still soundly beats the newer laptop CPU. In fact, the i7-5775C still competes well with the current state-of-the-art in desktop CPUs.

Having completed my research, examined my budget, and become exasperated with my old desktop, I ordered the Airtop early in March. Since they’re made to order in Haifa, Israel delivery was projected for four weeks from time of order. It’s been in-house two weeks, just one week in service.

In a short while I’ll share the details for my experience configuring and using the unique, quiet, little Airtop.