Elliott C. Back: Internet & Technology

The 2013 Mac Pro is Cheaper to Build as Windows PC

Posted in Apple, Hardware, Microsoft by Elliott Back on January 11th, 2014.

This should be a non-controversial opinion, but I’ve already received in an informal forum comments like:

  • the Mac is a workstation not a gaming rig.
  • If you try building it, you will end up paying more.
  • For the money and given workloads it’s a good machine.
  • For a workstation, a prebuilt is the way to go.

For the sake of this argument, we’ll be considering the higher specced 6-core, which retails for a dollar shy of $4,000. It has the following components of interest:

  • Intel Xeon E5-1650 v2 @ 3.50GHz
  • 16GB (4×4GB) of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC
  • 256GB PCIe-based flash storage
  • Dual AMD FirePro D500 GPUs with 3GB of GDDR5 VRAM each

The “FirePro D500″ is a cheaper version of the D700, which is functionally equivalent to an ATI 7970:

The W9000 is for all practical purposes a Radeon HD 7970 when it comes to hardware, but it runs at different clock speeds and has twice as much memory as consumer counterpart.

The FirePro W9000 will provide 3.99TFLOPS of single precision and 0.998 TFLOPS of double precision compute precision, unlike the Radeon HD 7970 (also based on Tahiti XT), which offers 3.79TFLOPS of SP and 0.947TFLOPS of DP performance, respectively.

The Mac Pro is already running on last generation graphics hardware, so we’ll substitute in the superior ATI R9 280X 3GB. Now is a good time to talk about tradeoffs:

  • 99.999999% of people do not need ECC memory in the Mac Pro (and Fire Pros), unless they are processing banking transactions, or flying a mission outside of the ionosphere. For those that do, they should consider the plenitude of little DRAM buffers in their hard disk controllers, motherboards, USB hosts, etc
  • We’re going to avoid Xeon, because we don’t need ECC. But we can still have hexacores, thanks to the i7-4930K, which actually outperforms the Xeon in the Mac Pro by about 8%.
  • Whatever case we pick won’t be as pretty as Apple’s.

Here’s what I come up with:

PCPartPicker part list / Price breakdown by merchant / Benchmarks

Type Item Price
CPU Intel Core i7-4930K 3.4GHz 6-Core Processor $568.98 @ Amazon
CPU Cooler Thermaltake Water 3.0 Extreme 99.0 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler $109.98 @ OutletPC
Motherboard Asus Sabertooth X79 ATX LGA2011 Motherboard $314.99 @ Amazon
Memory Corsair Vengeance 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR3-1600 Memory $139.99 @ Newegg
Memory Corsair Vengeance 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR3-1600 Memory $139.99 @ Newegg
Storage Asus ROG 240GB PCI-E Solid State Disk $349.99 @ Newegg
Video Card MSI Radeon R9 280X 3GB Video Card (2-Way CrossFire) $339.99 @ B&H
Video Card MSI Radeon R9 280X 3GB Video Card (2-Way CrossFire) $339.99 @ B&H
Case Fractal Design Define R4 w/Window (Black Pearl) ATX Mid Tower Case $122.98 @ Newegg
Power Supply SeaSonic Platinum 1000W 80+ Platinum Certified Fully-Modular ATX Power Supply $225.98 @ SuperBiiz
Operating System Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 (OEM) (64-bit) $82.99 @ NCIX US
Other CPU / E5-1650 $600.00
Other Kingston 16GB 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM ECC Registered DDR3 1866 (PC3 14900) Server Memory Model KVR18R13D4/16 $210.00
Other Kingston 16GB 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM ECC Registered DDR3 1866 (PC3 14900) Server Memory Model KVR18R13D4/16 $210.00
Prices include shipping, taxes, and discounts when available. $3755.85
Generated by PCPartPicker 2014-01-11 23:07 EST-0500

This is a far faster system, with twice the RAM, a faster CPU, much faster GPUs, but without ECC or server-warrantied parts. We also lack the amazingly beautiful case that the Mac Pro comes in.

Is Homebrewing Cheaper than Buying Beer?

Posted in Beer, Food by Elliott Back on January 14th, 2013.

My brother bought me a Brew in a Bag (BIAB) grains IPA kit for Christmas, and I had a lot of fun making and fermenting the beer, which I tweaked a little with a fresh mint twist. We have yet to see how well it comes out, as it’s currently sitting on its yeast for at least the rest of the week, then priming sugar + bottling, a couple weeks of rest, and finally it will be drinkable. It’s a little one-gallon kit, and my yield is probably hurt by my small stovetop pot. I might only get 10 bottles out of it.

Extracting sugars, the hops, and the final fermenting setup

I’m wondering now–how much would it cost to buy basic equipment to make a 5-gallon batch? Here’s what you need:

  • 7 gallon Brewing pot
  • Muslin bag
  • 6.5 Gallon Carboy w/Airlock
  • Starsan
  • Hydrometer
  • Bottle Capper
  • Thermometer
  • Autosiphon
  • Tubing

I can buy everything except the brewing pot for $90 at our local store, the pot runs $80 but it’s a nice 7.5 gallon size. So far, just investing in basic equipment, we are at $170 in startup costs.

Then for a recipe and point of comparison, we’ll look at a Nugget Nectar clone, pricing it retail at $13/6-pack (this is NYC sadly):

The total cost of this recipe is $58.75 or about $60, for 54 bottles of beer. So, about $1.10 per bottle. Whereas, buying 54 bottles in store in NYC costs about $117, or $2.1 a bottle. By making your own beer, you can save a dollar a bottle, and enjoy the process!

I’m actually a bit surprised that that malt is that expensive, perhaps there’s a better source?

To make back your startup costs of $170 you’ll need to brew at least 2 full five-gallon batches. After that, you’re in profitable territory! And some of the items, such as yeast, or large bulk orders of hops, can be used for multiple sessions, further driving down costs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see under a dollar a bottle if you bought in bulk.

Update: I should multiple pricing on the DME by .75 to get the equivalent grains ratio, which would give me $8.5 off the batch, for $50 even or $.93 a bottle, for a savings of $67. If I did all-grains, the price would be another 20% lower.

Hidden Radio: A Review

Posted in Hardware, Music by Elliott Back on October 5th, 2012.

If you aren’t familiar with Hidden Radio & BlueTooth Speaker by John VDN + Vitor Santa Maria, it is one of the more popular Kickstarter projects, having $938,771 on a $125,000 goal. Their plan was to create “the simplest, most powerful radio and wireless speaker for iPhone + iPad ever.” In this review, we’ll see if the bluetooth behemoth lives up to the hype!


The packing for HiddenRadio is immaculate, iPhone style, with a certain simplicity that seems to be directly ripped off from an old-school iPod box. There’s no Microsoft-esque list of system requirements or tacky stickers. You’d feel proud wrapping one of the Hidden Radios up for a gift. There is a subtle panel of use-cases on the back, while the other three sides are product shots:

I opened it up; inside you get a few accessories:

  • A USB mini cable for charging
  • An audio mini-jack FM radio antenna cable
  • An audio mini-jack cable to connect to your Sony Walkman or … whatever
  • A microfiber drawstring dust pouch

Also, there’s the unit itself. A rounded grey (hey dude, I order silver!) cylinder, it looks sleek and is shorter than a beer bottle, and slightly smaller than your palm in diameter. They’re cute looking little devices, and it’s the design concept rather than the sound engineering, I believe, which got them their first million dollars in Kickstarter sales:

Build & Sound Quality

So how does it sound? I received two units, and they are slightly different. Both units exhibit a mediocre range with very little bass when placed on a flat surface. Treble is also attenuated, so you end up having to set EQ on your iPhone to “Rock” or a similar setting to get a response that sounds similar to the song you’re trying to listen to. When held in the air, the speaker sounds quite a lot better. Also, the volume control doesn’t work terribly well. If you set your iPhone to 100% output (no eq), the Hidden Radio will actually distort. So instead of using the beautiful twist feature to control volume, you’ll most likely leave your HiddenRadio 80% open and control volume from your iPhone. More than 80% and the sound quality again degrades.

Another sound quality issue I encountered was a constant buzzing from the unit–but only one of them. The other HiddenRadio didn’t have the same poor circuitry causing the buzz. Fortunately, it seems to be worst only when turned on, or in front of a monitor, and not playing sound. Once it locks onto a bluetooth signal, the buzz amplitude is reduced or eliminated–but you might notice it on a quiet song!

As for the build quality, it’s not good enough. I’m not sure why you twist the device left to open, which is an awkward motion for right-handers. The device feels plastic, and doesn’t have enough weight in the base to stick to the surfaces you place it on, so actually turning it on usually takes two hands: one to stabilize it, the other to twist it open. This defaults the main point of Hidden Radio: the gorgeous twits-to-open feature. Both of my units suffer from superficial defects: the first has paint already chipping off the plastic around the base ring, while the second one’s grille has a permanent dimple. See if you can spot it:

Hidden Radio definitely needs to improve their quality assurance process before selling to the mainstream customer. Another example–one unit came with some charge, while the other (better) unit was entirely uncharged:

The base also needs a few more pounds of weight so that it sticks. Right now, I either need to apply more downwards force than it would take to fire an NYPD glock, or pick the thing up in two hands to turn it on.


The Hidden Radio has all of its input ports on the bottom–you charge it through a mini-USB cable that plugs in on the base. You can also either give it direct audio input or FM antenna through a minijack on the base. There’s also a bluetooth/direct input/FM radio switch and channel picker to control the modes there:

Other Reviews

You can check out their KickStarter comments page which includes mostly negative feedback. The founders appear to be removing anything but positive comments from their Facebook page. Here are a few comments from Kickstarter:

  • I bought a five pack to give as gifts, unfortunately, the one I opened to try (only after hearing all the negative reviews) it sounds TERRIBLE. At low volume it is so distorted that I cannot bear to listen.
  • I received two units, both look very nice. But the first one has a lot of white noise in the background while charging via USB, the second one’s volume control is out of order.
  • Well add one more backer with the frustrating automatic shut-off between two and three minutes. This only happens in wireless and wired mode though. In FM mode the HR stays on.
  • Everything worked flawlessly out of the box. Simple, easy to use, well made and it really does sound good.
  • Frankly I have to say that the sound quality is horrible yet especially at the max volume. Voice being distorted and sound stage is bad.
  • First of all, this thing is solid. It’s surprisingly heavy, which is nice because with the “no movement” pad on the bottom it has no problem staying in place on a variety of surfaces (I tested glass, wood, and laminate). Secondly, the range is amazing. I have a small 3/2 house and I can sit it in one corner of the house and play music in the other corner. That’s going through 3 walls, one of which is insulated. Finally, the volume is loud, surprisingly loud.

TechHive also gave it a big “meh” review.

My Take?

This is HiddenRadio v1, which for $115/unit, you get a gorgeous bluetooth speaker you can plug into your bedroom and kitchen and rock out while you read, cook, do chores, etc. The sound quality is acceptable, if you know how to goose the settings, and hopefully the Hidden Radios will survive the test of time. I’d give it a 3/5, for now, until they improve the frequency response of the units. Bluetooth is also a bit gimmicky, and quite static-prone.

I don’t care about direct minijack access or FM radio; just give me an amazing bluetooth speaker with great batter life, a bigger speaker or more speakers for better sound, and a twist-to-the-right to open, and I’d happily give you 5/5!

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