With the Lenovo D20 looking like it could be too loud, I reduced the list of possibilities to the hp Z800 and the Dell T7500.
The hp workstation wins the design competition: nearly everything snaps together and requires no tools to access – it’s actually a step ahead of the Mac Pro, and the Mac is great in that regard. The T7500 uses more ordinary components, with a lot of wires visible when you pull the cover, but the interior is nicely laid out, and, because the case is so big, it’s not at all cramped inside.
The Z800 is quieter than the T7500 by about six db, a not-inconsiderable amount. A word on how to interpret decibel comparisons. To my ears, half a db is just detectable when one click of a volume control gives you that much change. One click of the volume control in a car usually produces a one or two db change. Doubling the power produces a three db increase, but it doesn’t sound twice as loud. People say that it takes a ten db change to make something sound twice as loud, but to my ears, a six db increment sounds about twice as loud.
I couldn’t configure a Z800 the way I wanted to on the web, so I called the 800 number and talked to a salesman. He was pretty flexible on price, so I began to reconsider my plan to order a minimally configured machine and upgrade it myself (except for the spinning disks; neither Dell, nor hp, nor Lenovo, nor Apple have 3 TB disks available now, and they all take a staggering markup on the 2 TB ones). The largest hp solid-state disk was 160 GB, which to my way of thinking is too small for the OS and all the high=performance apps. I asked them to configure the machine with two 160 GB SSDs in striped (RAID 0) configuration. That sounded pretty good to me; I was looking for speed, and striping would give me even more.
Since the Z800, like the 7500, is available with either SATA or serial-attached SCSI (SAS) disks, I needed a way to get the other two drive bays wired for SATA (the downside of no visible wires is that all the wires are hidden, and therefore not so easy to change). You can’t just tell hp to wire it that way. So I asked them to install two of the cheapest SATA drives they had in the formerly empty bays, figuring that I could pull them and replace them with 3 TB Hitachi drives when I got the computer. There was a problem with the RAID. Since I had asked for a striped configuration for the first two drives, they were going to have to include the second two drives in the RAID 0 array, and the drives weren’t identical. I said, “Fine, configure all for as individual drives (JBOD, for Just a Bunch Of Disks is the acronym), and I’ll set up the striping myself.” Doable, but a hassle, especially since I’d have to reinstall the OS after setting up the RAID 0 arrray.
The last hangup was the RAM. The Z800 had six DIMM slots in a single-processor configuration. Hewlett-Packard sells 8 GB 1333 MHz ECC RDIMMs. But they won’t stick those very same DIMMs in the sockets on the motherboard when they build the system. I felt like imitating Jack Nicholson in the last scene of Five Easy Pieces, but I controlled myself, meekly suggesting that they build and test the machine with 3 each 1 GB DIMMs, and ship me the other 48 GB of RAM in a bag.
Hewlett-Packard went off to do a quote. It was well under list, but still quite a bit more expensive than doing the RAM upgrade myself.
Not being able to make their web configurator give me what I wanted either, I called Dell. They have a 256 GB SSD, so I only needed one. I’ve run into problems in the past with Dell blocking access to unused drive bays with bundles of heavily tie-wrapped wires, so I ordered three cheap SATA drives as placeholders. The 48 GB in 6 DIMMs was no problem. Dell’s pricing was a lot better than hp’s, but I still was considering a minimal machine and upgrading myself. Then I got a call from the Dell Premier people saying that they had even better pricing for me. That brought the system down to only a bit over what I could build it for. When I considered what my time is worth, plus the avoidance of the hassle of returning the machine to a factory configuration if I had to be serviced, the choice was pretty clear: let Dell build the whole thing, except for the 3 TB disks.
So it boiled down to a better (easier to work on, quieter) machine from hp that would take a lot of my time to make right, or a more ordinary one from Dell that (except for the disks) would work the way I wanted out of the box. I went with Dell.