So ya'll have been following me on my hardware journey for awhile now and you have probably noticed that I keep focusing on different facets of the hardware experience. Well today I have some good news: I have finally found the exact combination of factors that are required to bring me joy on this front and I'm about to reveal the details of that secret sauce.
Once upon a time, I used to be your typical PC Gamer type: I valued performance at the cost of everything else. When I met my wife in 2003, I had just built a dual Xeon workstation with an ATI Radeon 9700 that was huge and exceptionally loud. I loved that machine. It was fast and it did everything I wanted. Sometime after getting married, I discovered that my wife didn't much care for me spending hours on end in a separate room playing video games, so I transitioned to gaming laptops.
For years I chased performance upgrades, until something inspired me to try an ultrabook on for size in 2015. I immediately fell in love with the battery life and by then I had mostly sworn off dedicated GPUs anyway so raw performance was becoming less of an issue for me. A few years after that I got on the FOSS hardware kick and ended up buying a Purism Librem 15 rev3. For a year and a half I really enjoyed that laptop, all of its quirks aside. Sadly the dream of FOSS hardware is more an ideal than reality at this point in time.
After that I moved onto my low powered computing phase and I'm happy to say that I found a lot more long term happiness there. However I found that in some use cases, extreme low powered computing just didn't bring enough performance to the table. Specifically when it comes to light gaming and running virtual machines.
So that led me into my current hybrid phase in which I'm relying entirely on low powered computer devices for the server-like infrastructure of my house (two Raspberry Pi 400s do most of the heavy lifting for file, backup and media services at home). I'm running a OPNSense router built around one of the ODroid H2 boards that I was using as my primary workstation(s) through most of last year. While I was running a generic Chinese Mini PC as my single Ryzen powered workstation for awhile, I ended up switching to something earlier this week that was a bit more suited to my tastes, the MinisForum HM90 (Review Video Here).
So what makes the HM90 better than what I had before? Well the actual hardware and performance specs are pretty close, with the HM90 having a slight edge because it has a Ryzen 4900H processor instead of the Ryzen 4800H in the generic unit and power usage between the two is roughly equivalent, which is to say far less than even the most basic desktop as these are both mobile processors. But that's not what made me fall in love with it. Rather its the fact that no matter what workload I throw at the HM90, it runs dead silent.
That's right, it makes no noise and I love it. For years I have been trying to curtail the ambient noise generated by equipment in my home office and by my personal laptop. I have switched out all kinds of noisy hardware for quieter hardware. This even applies to my laptops. Thankfully my current laptop, the TuxedoBook Pulse 15 Gen 1, is exceptionally quiet, only producing a dull whooshing sound when under load. The HM90 manages to beat even this standard as it seems to produce no noise at all, not even when all eight cores are running at full tilt. This has now made my home office so quiet, that the only discernable ambient noise produced by equipment within it, comes from my three external mechanical hard drives. Perhaps one day con/pro-sumer SSD capacities and prices will reach a level that I'll be able to eventually rid myself of that final barely audible annoyance.
So how did MinisForum achieve this miracle? With liquid metal of course. For those not in the know, liquid metal is a replacement for traditional thermal paste which transfers heat far far better. However the downside of liquid metal is that since it contains metal, it can short out electrical equipment so one must be very precise and careful when applying it, so I would never go down this road myself as I am only precise in matters of software as it turns out. Thankfully the HM90 has its liquid metal applied at the factory, so I don't have to worry about any of this. In fact MinisForum goes as far to say that removing the cooling apparatus on the processor in the HM90 will actually void the warranty as any such operation runs the risk of disturbing the delicate balance that keeps the system operational.
To put this clearly, the HM90 is the only computer that I have liked so much, I immediately purchased a second unit because I wanted to have a second PC that I could use to goof around with various operating system options (Qubes, Fedora Silverblue, etc) which run the risk of disturbing my work and personal machine setups. I also saw absolutely no reason why my second PC shouldn't be as awesome as my first PC or my laptop for that matter.
Okay so with that being said, what is my secret sauce? Well that's actually really simple:
Relatively Low Powered
Climate Change is real and we all gotta do our part. I believe it is contingent on all of us to reduce our ecological footprint as much as possible. So that is why none of my PCs have a dedicated GPU or a non-mobile class processor powering them.
In time I hope to do even better on this front as performance-per-watt continues its ascension to being the primary metric by which modern processors are judged. For now I'm satisfied with my current level of power usage.
Compatible with Free and Open Source Software
If it doesn't run Linux or at least some other FOSS operating system well, I'm just not interested. I am personally past the point in my life and professional journey that I'm willing to heavily invest my time, my effort and my money into proprietary platforms and that absolutely includes Windows.
This also includes at least trying to acquire hardware that doesn't contain excessive layers of proprietary firmware garbage. The best example of this is the Intel ME software layer found in virtually every single Intel processor known to man. This is of course one reason why you aren't seeing me talk very much about Intel anymore on this blog. If I can reasonably avoid firmware blobs in general, I'll do it, but I refuse to make firmware blobs a deal breaker as they are pretty much required to run any remotely modern hardware and serve as a reasonable compromise between FOSS purists and the traditionally secretive hardware makers.
If Linus Torvalds can live with it, I probably can too.
Quiet (aka Get Off My Lawn Ya Damn Kids)
The days of me tolerating noisy PCs are long gone. I can't stand them anymore. Currently I am living the dream on this front as my life is full of quiet PCs that just do the freaking job without kicking up a fuss. This even includes my Playstaton 5 Digital Edition which as far as I can tell, has yet to make a single noise either.... except when I die in Elden Ring. Which is quite often.
The reality here is that we are living in a golden age of computing in which consumers can put together a list of esoteric requirements and likely find at least a few options that they can purchase which meet most if not all of those requirements. For the time being the above list constitutes the primary requirements I'm using to evaluate possible hardware purchases for the conceivable future and I'm pretty damn happy with the choices that I have been able to make.
Of course I highly encourage of all my readers to take advantage of this, even if your motivations and the choices you make ultimately differ from my own. Freedom is a beautiful thing.