A new year, a new desktop...

This time last year I switched back to the Mac after using Linux as my primary desktop operating system for several years. I am still very much a Mac fan, however I do find that software development, particularly software that will ultimately run on a Linux server, is easier to do on Linux, and software development is my plan for 2023. I do have a 4 year old laptop I could press into service, but from time to time I might like to boot into Windows and play a bit of Cities Skylines again and the laptop isn't up to gaming, so instead I decided to go with a new x86 box.

Typically I build my own computers so I started to price up a machine with a modern CPU, graphics card and so on but as ever I was getting carried away and the price soon crept well over $2,000. I also wasn't keen on having an overpowered tower on my desk again, so I looked into building a smaller form factor unit, the smallest Mini-ITX I could find and scaling back the parts appropriately to avoid over heating it. Once you take a step back from the absolute cutting edge parts and look at saving spave, general purpose parts don't necessarily work so well, and custom pieces tend to get the job done much more efficiently so at that point I decided to take a look into buying an even smaller pre-built unit from a major manufacturer, something along the lines of a NUC but one with a dedicated GPU.

 The obvious choice was one of Intels top of the line enthusiast NUC's, I bought one of those back in 2015, the Skull Canyon, and still use it as a secondary machine to this day. The latest models are much larger however as they can be specced with standard desktop sized dedicated graphics cards but they come in at $1,700 without the video card, memory or storage. Seriously Intel?!

I then stumbled upon a small HP workstation called the Z2 Mini G9, similar pricing but ready to run with a dedicated GPU of some sort. A quick check on YouTube showed Linus Tech Tips has reviewed it about 10 months ago, but their configuration was the top of the line spec:

  • 16 core i9-12900K 16 core CPU (125W)
  • 1TB SSD
  • Nvidia RTX A2000 12GB GPU
  • TOTAL PRICE: $4,930
They compared it to a Mac Studio and complained that the power hungry parts thermal throttled too much and better performance would be had with a lower spec processor. Hardware prices drop over time so I decided to look into it...

HP was having a half price sale and I could pick up the same exact spec that Linus reviewed for $2,465. This was still more than I wanted to spend and I was aware of his comments on the performance being affected by thermal throttling so dropped the spec down:

  • Intel Core i7-12700 12 core CPU (65W)
  • 32GB DDR5 RAM
  • 2x 512GB SSD
  • Nvidia RTX A2000 12GB GPU
  • Total Price: $1,929

Now we were below my $2k psychological barrier but I noticed that like most OEM's HP was charging far above market rates for items like RAM and so on so I re-did the build one more time using the cheapest options for everything, like the RAM, GPU etc, except the CPU which stayed at the 12700 model I wanted.

  • Intel Core i7-12700 12 core CPU (65W)
  • 8GB DDR5 RAM
  • 256GB SSD
  • Nvidia T400 4GB GPU
  • Total Price: $1,163 

I then priced up the following parts from third parties to reach the actual spec I wanted:

  • 32GB RAM - $120
  • 2x 500GB Samsung PCI-E Gen 4 SSD's - $140
  • Nvidia RTX A2000 6GB GPU - $369

This takes the total build cost to $1,793

The eagle eyed will note that the GPU now has half the memory of the HP supplied unit, but given that this GPU performs like an RTX3050 at best, 12GB is not going to be required for any games it would be capable of playing, 6GB is plenty.

Upgrading the purchased machine like this would leave me with some surplus parts parts to sell:

  • 8GB DDR5 RAM - $20 sold on eBay
  • 256GB M2 PCI-E SSD - $20 sold on eBay
  • Nvidia T400 4GB GPU - $155 sold on eBay
  • Total Sales: $195

So when all said and done the machine would owe me $1,598

My gut feeling is that this is a good deal, but I decided to sanity check it by pricing up a comparable Mini-ITX build of this spec:

So the cost to build this using off the shelf parts would be $1,573, a saving of just $25 unless I use cheaper brand PSU's and cases. Given the CPU, RAM, storage and even graphics card can be upgraded in the HP there aren't many advantages to going down the Mini-ITX route beyond having the ability to upgrade the motherboard and use a full height graphics card. Now while the latter is an important benefit the machine would still be at least twice the size and consume more power. This means that for my use case, there are only downsides to going full "build your own", and so I pulled the trigger on the HP. I'm curious as to what its real world performance will be vs the top of the line spec Linus reviewed which today is essentially $900 or over 50% more than the machine I have elected to build. But that's a post for the future...


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