Opinion on a Physics Personal Computer Setup

An article on Slashdot, Choosing a Laptop to Support Physics Research?, received many responses. It seems that the Apple MacBook Pro and Dell Precision Mobile Workstation lines are the consensus winners. The next level of good options seem to be Lenovo ThinkPad followed by Asus Zenbook. System76 also garnered a few mentions.

Apple is Tops

Many emphasized the usability of the Apple MacBook Pro for both Unix compatibility (Apple OS X is certified UNIX) and Microsoft Office support. VirtualBox was cited frequently as a way to incorporate Linux seamlessly. In terms of a standardized Unix system, I also see the value of Apple MacBook. I am making a distinction between certified Unix and Free Software Foundation style Linux.

Linux Hardware Choices

When the discussion turns towards Linux, the chief advantage is flexibility. What is the best machine for Linux specifically? Based on the comments on the article, I think it was almost a draw between DELL Precision and Lenovo ThinkPad. Lenovo is said to have defacto Linux support on ThinkPads in general. In the case of Lenovo machines, that can be a good reason to pick one and setup Linux on it.

Dell has had some press recently from Ars Technica who reviewed the DELL Precision M3800. What I like about Dell’s approach to Ubuntu Linux is that they have software drivers and official support for those machines they pre-install Linux. You can get a turbo charged machine from Dell that handles professional grade tasks such as heavy physics computations appropriate for the performance level of a personal computer.

Second, Dell is the only company I know of, from the Ars Technica article, that has a dedicated team for the effort. I always believed there should be tailored support for Linux. Dell’s approach is high touch service and that could smooth things for those organizations that choose to go with hardware with perfect Linux support. Dell has recreated the Apple MacBook Pro in their own image.

Next is System76 who makes laptops that are pure Linux machines. Their machines would be the best machine for Linux in terms of flexibility. A System76 machine can handle Linux in a more generic way. That means you can stretch out the investment but you may not get the same class of performance as you would with the Dell machines. It comes down to install, upgrade, and reconfiguration flexibility versus performance.

Linux Hardware Recommendations

What if I had to choose? If someone is on a budget and still needs a good quality Linux machine, I’d say go for the System76 model. A good overall machine for a startup physics career, research organization, and personal study. System76 does have higher end choices but one of the unique aspects of what they do is offer affordable models as well that have top Linux support.

Medium and large organizations would have to choose between Lenovo and Dell. Both companies are geared for the level of production and support for large accounts. Their processes are already in alignment with structured IT.

A Superior Option

Those are some of the choices in terms of mobility. You can gain a greater balance between mobility and performance with a mid-level laptop with an Intel i5 Processor and a workstation with a quad-core Intel i7. Specifically, those workstations or desktops able to handle a highest end Nvidia graphics card, like the Nvidia Titan X. Combine that with several SSD drives in RAID 0 configuration and 1TB of RAM and you have strong solution for computational exploration. That setup would be the best for long running batch jobs. The laptop could then link to the desktop to pickup results for refined edge post processing and presentation. There is a lot you could do with that setup. It is a scenario where the highest spec wins.


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