What I'd like in a hypothetical new desktop machine in 2024

February 7, 2024

My current work desktop and home desktop are getting somewhat long in the tooth, which has caused me to periodically think about what I'd want in new hardware for them. Sometimes I even look at potential hardware choices for such a replacement desktop (which can lead to grumbling). Today I want to write down my ideal broad specifications for such a new desktop, what I'd get if I could get it all in one spot for an affordable price.

In addition to all of the expected things (like onboard sound), I'd like:

  • 64 GB of RAM instead of my current 32 GB. It would be nice if it was ECC RAM in a system that genuinely supported it, and it would also be nice if it was fast, but those two attributes are often in opposition to each other.

    (Today I suspect this means choosing DDR5 over DDR4.)

  • Three motherboard M.2 NVMe drive slots. I'd like three because I currently have a mirrored pair of NVMe drives, and having a third slot would let me replace one of the live two without having to pull it outright. Two motherboard M.2 NVMe slots (both operating at PCIe x4) is probably my minimum these days, and I already have a PCIe M.2 NVMe card for the current work desktop.

    My work desktop has 500 GB NVMe drives currently and I'd like to get bigger ones. My home desktop is fine with its current drives.

  • At least four SATA ports and ideally more. My office desktop has two SSDs and a SATA DVD-RW drive (because we still sometimes use those), and I want to be able to run three SSDs at once while replacing one of the two SSDs. Six SATA ports would be better, so perhaps I should say I can live with four SATA ports but I'd like six.

    (My home desktop will also need three SATA ports on a routine basis with a fourth available for drive replacement, but that's for another entry.)

  • At least three 1G Ethernet ports for my work desktop. Since I don't think there are any reasonable desktop motherboards with this many Ethernet ports, this needs at least a dual-port PCIe card and perhaps a quad-port card, which I already have at work. It also needs a suitable PCIe slot to be free and usable given any other cards in the machine. My home desktop can get by with one port but I'd probably like to have two or three there too.

    (I wouldn't need that many but Linux's native virtualization works best if you give it its own network port.)

    Although various desktop motherboards have started offering speeds above 1G (although often not full 10G-T), our work wiring situation is such that there's no real prospect of taking advantage of that any time soon. But if a motherboard comes with '2.5G' or '5G' networking with a chipset that's decent and well supported by Linux, I wouldn't say no.

  • At least two DisplayPort and/or HDMI outputs that support at least 4K at 60 Hz, and I'd like more for future-proofing. I would prefer two DisplayPort outputs to a DisplayPort + HDMI pairing; this is readily available in GPU cards but not really in motherboards and integrated graphics. At work I currently have two 27" HiDPI displays and at home I currently have one; in both locations the biggest constraint on larger displays or more of them is physical space.

    (I'd love it if we were moving into a bright future of high resolution, high DPI, high refresh rate displays, but I don't think we are, so I don't really expect to want more than dual 4K at 60Hz for the next half decade or more. It's possible this is too pessimistic and there are viable 5K+ monitors that I might want at home in place of my current 27" 4K HiDPI display.)

  • Open source friendly graphics, which in practice excludes Nvidia GPUs (especially if I care about good Wayland support), and possibly the discrete Intel GPU cards (I'm not sure of their state). I think anything reasonably modern will support whatever OpenGL features Wayland needs or is likely to need. The easy way to get this might well be integrated graphics on a current generation CPU, assuming I can get the output ports that I want.

    On the other hand, the Intel ARC A380 seems to be okay on Linux (from some Internet searches), and while it has a fan it's alleged to be able to operate very quietly. It would give me the multiple DisplayPort outputs and high resolution, high refresh rate support.

  • A decent number of both USB-A and USB-C ports. I'd like a reasonable number of USB-A ports because I still have a lot of USB-A things and I'd like not to have a whole collection of USB-A hubs sitting around on my either my office or my home desk. But probably more hubs (or larger ones) is in my future.

I'd like it if the machine still supported old fashioned BIOS MBR booting and didn't require (U)EFI booting (I have my reasons), although UEFI booting is probably better on desktop motherboards than it used to be. The UEFI story for people who want booting from mirrored pairs of drives may be better on Fedora than it used to be, since Ubuntu 22.04 has some support for duplicate UEFI boot partitions.

(I'm absolutely not interested in trying to mirror the EFI System Partition behind the back of the UEFI BIOS.)

It would be nice to get a good CPU performance increase from my current desktops, but on the one hand I sort of assume that any decent desktop CPU today is going to be visibly better than something from more than five years ago, and on the other hand I'm not sure how noticeable the performance improvement is these days, and on the third hand I've been wrong before. If my current (five year old) desktops have reached the point where CPU performance mostly doesn't matter to me, then I'd probably prefer to get a midrange CPU with decent thermal performance and perhaps no funny slow 'efficiency' cores that can give you and Linux's kernel CPU scheduling various sorts of heartburn. On the other hand, my Firefox build times keep getting slower and slower, so I suspect that the world of software just assumes current CPUs and current good performance.

PS: I have no plans to do GPU computation on my desktops, for a variety of reasons including that I don't want to deal with Nvidia GPUs in my machines. If I need to do GPU stuff for work, our SLURM cluster has GPUs, and I don't have to care how much power they use, how noisy they are, and how much heat they put out because they're in the machine room (and I'm not).

Written on 07 February 2024.
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