Real Work One Year Later (Step Two: a Solid Developer Machine)

For years my primary development machine for my personal endeavors has been some form of PowerBook or MacBook. I liked being able to take the entirety of my digital environment with me wherever I went. During the last year or so, I decided to see how much of that environment I actually needed to be mobile. I even outlined a basic plan for this in early 2010. Here I am in early 2011 ready to take the next step – trading the laptop in for a powerful desktop computer and leaving mobile power behind.

How Did I Survive?

In Real Work, I said the first step would be to shed the tens of gigabytes I carried with me all the time. With my iPhone and iPad, I’ve been able to do just that. Though I’ve had the occasional missteps and frustrations, the truth is when I’m working hard on something I’m usually home or have good Internet access anyway, which lets me access my home file server. The biggest data burden I have is still my music collection, so it’s with me wherever I go, but most of my data has been successfully offloaded to my server and it hasn’t really hurt.

In practice, I find I typically am only surfing or reading e-mail (or entertaining myself) while on the couch. The iPad has very much filled that need. Even for light production work or administrative management tasks, the iPad is sufficient (better than the iPhone). When I need to do any coding or heavier work tasks, I use my laptop. Lately, my laptop has stayed on my desk downstairs – the designated work area I alluded to in Real Work.

Ready to Take The Plunge

The “next step” is to take the plunge and rid myself of a laptop, trading all the mobility for a significant power boost. Of course I went straight to the MacPro section of the Apple Store. A nicely-appointed MacPro plus a nice 27″ display was disappointingly expensive. Then it dawned on me – if my laptop with an SSD can out-perform my 8-core (16 virtual cores with hyperthreading) doing the stuff I do most, why not go for an iMac with an SSD and max out its RAM?

I wanted as many cores as possible and a nice big display, so I figured I’d start with the 27″ iMac with an i7 processor. I figured a non-Apple-supplied SSD and RAM would save me significant cash (and I’m right). Unfortunately, upgrading anything but the RAM with the latest iMacs require removing the glass panel on the display, which easily attracts dust and is hard to keep clean. A single dust speck caught between the display and glass is maddeningly visible and difficult to remove. Upgrading anything inside the iMac comes with a hell of a lot of caveats and other issues.

So I decided Apple’s SSD premium was worth my time, frustration, and possible mistake-making. I made up for the savings, however, in RAM. 4 4GB RAM modules will cost just under $200 from Crucial. Compare that with $1000 for the same upgrade factory-direct from Apple. Yeah … no.

So the specs I’ve decided on are a 27″ iMac i7 with a 256GB SSD and 16 GB of RAM. Total cost? ~$3100. I might even spring for the AppleCare plan.

So if more cores and a faster drive (and as ever, more RAM) are what developers need for smooth, fast coding and building, I think this machine has the best balance for its cost. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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