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
· · ·
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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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...


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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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