We’ve got this big old Mac Pro in the living room, a 2008 model; I call it “the family mainframe”. I’m thinking it might get replaced with a Windows box.

Long-time readers may remember this computer; I caused a mild Web sensation back in 2008 back when I invited opinions on whether I should hack it. With a hacksaw, I mean.

Do you even need one? · The conventional wisdom is No, because everyone has a laptop and a mobile and many living rooms will have a tablet or two lying around.

I think you do, especially if you have kids. They’ll be wanting screen time, and I like having them at a computer that’s in the room with the family, not hidden away upstairs; using a screen that’s facing the family, not the wall.

Also it has all the music on it, and I’ve stuffed it full of terabyte RAIDed SSDs for archives and media. It rips shiny disks. It connects to the high-end audio setup and also has a Plex server to feed movies to the TV via a Roku. (BTW, that combo works great). My daughter uses it for Scratch and Animal Jam, and my son for playing FPS games; chiefly TF2 and CS:GO recently. A couple years ago I put in whatever Apple’s best video card was at the time, to support him

So, yeah, family mainframe, I like the concept and I think we’ll go on having one.

But now there’s a fly in the ointment. My son used to use Windows via Bootcamp. Except for, I screwed up the Windows install shifting disks around, and due to a well-known Bootcamp/Windows bug, I can’t re-install because there are too many disks and it gets confused. So he has to play the Mac versions of games and there’s a steady background grumble about his ghetto setup. And Steam games seem to crash a lot on Mac.

Enter the NUC · My son had a Significant Birthday and, inspired by Jeff Atwood’s The Golden Age of x86 Gaming, I replicated Jeff’s “Skull Canyon” Intel NUC setup as a gift. The boy had to learn how to install disk and memory and Windows, as a side-effect.

Skull Canyon NUC
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Skull Canyon NUC, side view

Skull Canyon! · The Intel NUC6i7KYK PC is completely damn brilliant. A triumph of minimalist design, lots of CPU oomph, plenty good enough graphics for Steam games, and if you wanna go nuts on an high-end video card, there’s a Thunderbolt. I put in 16G RAM, which is amusingly physically larger than the 500G SSD. Also it’s tiny and has no moving parts; if he becomes a wandering student it’s not crazy to think about taking it with him.

So far, he hasn’t made it run hot enough for me to hear the fan from my side of the living room. I’ve been encouraging him to load up Dragon Age or something to push it a little harder, but he’s saving his pennies for Overwatch.

Also, I’m a popular Dad.

But Windows, ewwwwwww · Well, yeah. And I’d prefer a Mac. I’ve totally loved our mainframe over the years. It’s dead easy to pop the side off, swap video cards or disks or RAM or whatever you need, and everything Just Works.

But there’s no more room for add-ons, and I can’t even reconfigure the disks much because I bent a rail and at least one of the SSDs will never come out.

But hey, it’s served a family well, worked hard for eight years without really ever causing trouble. And when I replace it I want something that’ll give me another eight, if only because I hate moving furniture around and getting all the dusty wires plugged and organized.

But there’s no such Mac. The Mac Pro is an overpriced onanistic joke. The 5K Retina is a thing of beauty but you can’t keep sticking terabyte disks in. For the first time in years, I’m hearing Hackintosh rumblings, but my hacking time is reserved for cloud software these days.

Yeah, but WINDOWS?!? · Yeah. But you know, Win10 doesn’t hurt my eyes any more. Also it boots damn fast, and (unlike previous Windowses) seems to be ready to do actual work right away when it’s booted. And apparently does a good job of keeping itself updated. And more games run on it. So does Lightroom. I mean, I wouldn’t use it for work (no built-in Apache, to start with), but for a family mainframe the idea isn’t crazy.

Interesting side-note: We’re all so passionate about operating systems, but my kids are oblivious; they have hand-me-down MacBooks and they switch back and forth between those & Windows without slowing down or apparently noticing.

Now, there is still Windows suckitude. I thought it would be good for the boy to install it from scratch (comes on a USB key, these days). It was really rough. First, software installs aren’t like games where you just click the first box you see, without thinking. After he restarted and got things put in the right place, the box was a useless waste-of-space turd, which is to say no network. It couldn’t see any devices. Googling didn’t help me.

Finally, Lauren said “Drivers maybe?” So I visited Intel’s Downloads for Intel® NUC Kit NUC6i7KYK page and whaddaya know, lots and lots of drivers. Dropped ’em on another USB key, tossed it across the room to the boy, told him to run the .exe’s, then to ignore the dopey confusing error messages about “advanced networking” not being available, and the puppy was on the air.

So, it’s like this: Intel and Microsoft are only the greatest partnership in the history of technology, having extracted in aggregate trillions from the people and businesses of the world. But the latest and greatest Microsoft OS doesn’t come equipped out of the box with the necessaries to make the latest and greatest Intel-proprietary PC useful.

That kind of shit doesn’t happen to Mac users.

Ways forward · So, when the current mainframe dies…

I could migrate all the storage to a NAS box in the basement and use an iMac or a Mini or some such. Then I’d have another box to manage, oh joy.

I could get a Windows-flavored mainframe.

Maybe it’s the year of Linux on the desktop? OK, OK.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Nathan (Jul 21 2016, at 23:45)

You jest, but apparently Linux on the NUC just works (http://nucblog.net/2016/05/skull-canyon-nuc-review-conclusion/), which is more than can be said for Windows.

I have a Linux netbook (an Asus Eee PC) and a MacBook Air. The Air cost about twice as much and gets used infinitely more often, so if my math works out that's a bargain. MacOS on a laptop seems like a win to me.

I also run a Linux desktop, a Lenovo ThinkStation in the old "big chunky tower" form factor, driving two monitors. For a non-gamer, Linux on the desktop also feels like a win. Next year will mark the ten-year anniversary of me decommissioning my last Windows box.

I use Linux because it works for me, I know how to do things with it, and it gets out of my way. I don't know if it would work for you and your family's use cases. But I encourage you to not dismiss it out of hand.

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From: Janne (Jul 21 2016, at 23:59)

You _could_ install Ubuntu on it, then Win10 in a virtual machine. Disk and memory is very cheap these days; you can actually install Win10 to a known great state, then just save a copy of that image to restore to if/when any installation goes bad. Use Linux as the bare-metal OS to support the client on top, pretty much.

Quite a lot of Steam games work well on Linux these days, at least as long as you use Nvidia cards. Wouldn't need to use the VM for some of them.

And it comes with just about more cloudy/servery development things you could shake a big stick at, since all that stuff is native on Linux.

Just a thought.

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From: Rui Carmo (Jul 22 2016, at 00:36)

Your views on the current Mac lineup largely echo my own (although I would have been less creatively dismissive of the Pro and just called it a gold plated turd).

My current setup revolves around a NAS and a couple of Mac Minis, both of which are long overdue for an upgrade. I found the last hardware refresh insultingly crippled, and am hoping someone at Apple will realize that sticking a 2016-era CPU and a decent amount of RAM in a new version would go a long way towards making the mini relevant again.

But as far as media is concerned, the setup works - although it does feel a trifle ass-backward to mount the NAS on iTunes and use an Apple TV to stream off that through the mini.

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From: Chris Swan (Jul 22 2016, at 02:00)

It's interesting that you don't even mention power consumption.

I used to run a PC stuffed full of disks, and the thing that eventually made me change was taking a look at the associated electricity bill. So I bought a 4 bay NAS to be the always on machine, and so far it's had one lot of spindle upgrades. For something with a similar power footprint and more flexibility HP's MicroServers are excellent (and in the UK at least frequently discounted).

No privacy concerns with Win10? My entire family chose to opt out of the upgrade.

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From: Chris (Jul 22 2016, at 02:22)

I've just moved to a NAS setup. So I currently have a NAS server with lots of disk space. What's nice is that is is powerful enough to run plex. So that takes care of storage.

My kids aren't quite old enough to require a family computer, but I probably have the same dilemma. Think we might end up with a Mac of some sort.

Worth noting that had you installed linux on the NUC then networking would (probably) have just worked. Not quite the year of linux on the desktop but with SteamOS for games and everything else working in browser it's just possible that it might be in the future.

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From: Michael MacLeod (Jul 22 2016, at 05:11)

Mainframes don't belong in the living room. While managing another box in another room is a pain, modern linux doesn't have to be a pain. Grab a recent Ubuntu or Debian ISO with ZFS support, and set that up on a nice big tower with easy access in the basement.

Once it's got ZFS and NFS and Samba and Netatalk running you will find it as easy to hop between computers and OSes as your kids evidently do.

Oh, and maybe try and convince one of the kids to learn about how to manage the new mainframe. Great skill to have.

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From: Tor (Jul 22 2016, at 05:42)

Why retire the mac at all? There's no need to have a box that does everything, and the mac can easily power-sleep to avoid using too much electricity. You only need the pc to run as a pc; for games.

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From: Paul (Jul 22 2016, at 07:01)

Why not have the server in the cloud? e.g. why do you physically need a family server? Is it to act more like a media server for videos? In that case you would simply be better off with a NAS hard drive in the basement (e.g. no computer plugged into it). Otherwise how much of the stuff the family server does could you simply do online?

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From: J. King (Jul 22 2016, at 07:08)

I actually like Windows. I'd tried OS X (pardon me, macOS?) for several months, and there were some thing I liked, but overall I found it weird and alien and annoying in ways that GNOME and KDE and LXDE are not.

Windows is a pain to automate, no argument there, but otherwise it's a good system. No ew here...

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From: Ade (Jul 22 2016, at 09:51)

Still using a four bay Atom-based cube server running OpenIndiana as the family NAS (and wondering if I can ever find time to upgrade to the Hipster release). I believe current Illumos distros do KVM virtualisation quite well, and they're a heck sight cleaner to manage than modern systemd-blechh Linux.

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From: KevinH (Jul 22 2016, at 10:51)

"The 5K Reti­na is a thing of beau­ty but you can’t keep stick­ing ter­abyte disks in" - Sure you can. You just stick them into Thunderbolt or USB3 ports instead of sticking them inside. To increase and organize your expansion capabilities, check out the OWC Thunderbolt 2. For your existing SATA drives, there are readily available docks and enclosures that can bridge you over to USB3.

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From: hawkse (Jul 22 2016, at 12:37)

"The Mac Pro is an over­priced onanis­tic joke. The 5K Reti­na is a thing of beau­ty but you canīt keep stick­ing ter­abyte disks in."

You know what? This. Exactly. And it extends across most of the Mac family nowadays. You get less oomph, less flexibility in shiny, razor thin packages and you pay more than ever for the privilege.

Looking to replace both an 8 year old Macbook and my five year old iMac and I simply can't find a machine from Apple that resonates with me any more.

I give it a year and if nothing happens, a generic PC it is. Sadly.

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From: Doug K (Jul 22 2016, at 14:42)

Win10 big box might not be so bad. I was amazed how easy the upgrades were on our variety of machines, and how they mostly did just work. It's the best Win install or upgrade I've seen yet.

Of course I opted out of all the helpful built-in spyware, changed the default setting which uses your PC as a node for peer-to-peer distribution of Win10 updates, and don't use any Microsoft accounts. There was a bit of driver-hunting involved for the one display, but all the network stuff just worked, astonishingly. That is one notebook which had Win8 (ewww, really glad to see the back of that), two desktop gaming PCs with Win7 and Win8.1, and my study box Win 7.

My study big iron went from a stable Win7 that I've been quite happy with, to Win10. I thought I'd immediately upgrade it back to 7 (Ed Botts on zdnet had several helpful articles on this) but found Win10 pleasant enough to stay with: also all the installed programs worked without issues, another amazement.

Those installs were a lot less painful than putting Ubuntu on an older Dell laptop, which required days of hacking away at it, fetching drivers from obscure and sketchy-looking web sites, etc. To be fair it's pretty solid now it's running - use it as a music server with Spotify and other sources, and for watching Netflix quietly on the sofa when the big screen is taken up with gaming, Dowton Abbey, or Supernatural etc.

When my boys wanted gaming PCs I refused to buy them - we shopped for parts and built them together. Saved me about $1000 or more, and at least the boys have some vague idea how a computer is assembled now. I still do too much tech support though. The boxes are huge with lots of fans and spare room, for ease of maintenance, which so far has worked well.

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From: Larry Reid (Jul 22 2016, at 17:59)

My son uses a Linux Mint 13 box for all his Steam gaming and Minecraft. And it's a ten-year old box from Free Geek to boot (http://www.freegeekvancouver.org/), albeit with a three-year-old nVidia GPU and the RAM maxed out, also courtesy Free Geek. Like you say, kids these days don't really care about the OS.

I also do the NAS thing, and it has been pleasantly low effort. It helps that it's all *nix.

I wouldn't discount the fact that all the cool stuff happens on a *nix these days. It's not so much that Windows is "ew". You'll probably find more useful support on line for your Mac, or Linux, or Linux-based NAS, than you will for Windows.

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From: Marc H (Jul 22 2016, at 19:54)

I assume you've seen this already but just in case you haven't: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_Subsystem_for_Linux

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From: Fred Jean (Jul 26 2016, at 18:30)

I was debating whether to hold off for the next MBP, build my own tower or pickup a Skull Canyon. Apple's lack of HW announcements tipped me toward the Skull Canyon choice.

I am loving this little box. It is my main development system. I loaded it with 32GB RAM, 512GB NVMe and I am running Ubuntu 16.04 with an upgraded Kernel. It is fast, it has no issues driving 2 4K monitors and is mostly quiet. It is a great choice for a developer who isn't looking to run games on it.

-- fred

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author · Dad · software · colophon · rights

July 21, 2016
· Technology (84 more)

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I am an employee of Amazon.com, but the opinions expressed here are my own, and no other party necessarily agrees with them.

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