Until very recently, my primary personal computer was a Dell Precision T5600 which I have been using since 2012. It is a great machine that served me well with relatively few issues. However, I recently purchased a new computer to replace the old one: a System 76 Thelio Mira. For all you computer nerds, here are the build specs:
|CPU:||Intel i7-11700K, 3.6 – 5.0 GHz, 8 cores, 16 threads|
|RAM:||Kingston HyperX Fury DDR4 @3200 MHz, 32 GB|
|GPU:||EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 3GB (donor from Dell T5600)|
|Disk 0:||Samsung 980 Pro PCIe 4.0 NVMe SSD, 1 TB|
|Disk 1:||WD Blue 2.5″ SATA SSD, 500 GB (donor from Dell T5600)|
|Power Supply:||EVGA SuperNOVA G5, 80 Plus Gold, 1000W|
|Networking:||2.5 Gbps ethernet, WiFi 6, Bluetooth 5|
|Operating System:||Pop!_OS 21.10|
At the time of its manufacture, my Dell T5600 was close to a top-of-the-line workstation: it contained a second generation (Sandy Bridge) Intel Xeon quad core 2.7 GHz CPU, dual Nvidia Quardo 600 graphics cards, an SSD, a secondary HDD for data storage, and 8 GB of DDR3 ECC RAM. The Dell T5600 was used daily by me for ten years, originally for work (GIS & .NET development), and then later for my personal projects, games, and general internet surfing. Quite a few operating systems were used throughout the service lifetime of this computer, including all Windows versions from 7 through 11, Linux Mint, Ubuntu, and many others inside virtual machines.
By 2020, nearly every component on my computer had been upgraded at least once. The CPU was swapped for an 8 core Xeon E5-2680 of the same family, and the two Quadro 600 GPUs were replaced with a single EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 (requiring physical modification to the case to fit). Both disks were upgraded multiple times as well, with a 500 GB SATA SSD and a 2 TB 7200 RPM HDD being the last configuration used. The RAM was quadrupled to 32 GB, and I added a 5 GHz WiFi PCIe card after I upgraded my home network. I also upgraded the original 635W power supply to an 820W supply, per Dell’s recommendation for the upgraded CPU. At this point, just about the only things original to the computer are the case and the motherboard. On top of all these component upgrades, I also purchased two new 27″ Dell monitors to replace the 23″ HP monitors that were as old as the computer. All in, I have spent a total of $1100 upgrading my machine over the years, excluding smaller peripherals like several mice and keyboards.
This setup had served me well for a decade, but by the end of 2021 I felt it was finally time to upgrade. I had hit the limit of the amount of money I was willing to spend on upgrades, and the limit to which upgraded hardware could keep this machine somewhat modern. There have been several advancements in the years since my Dell T5600 was manufactured that I wanted to take advantage of, most notably M.2 PCIe SSDs and more performant CPUs that have been developed since the second generation of Intel’s Core microarchitecture. I regularly use virtual machines and resource-intensive development tools (..cough..Visual Studio..), so extremely fast storage and CPU are things I needed in my next computer. I’m not a huge gamer (I’m mostly into old console emulators, and retro PC games), so I am moving the GeForce 1060 from the old computer to the new one in order to save a few bucks. This GPU is sufficient for the two 1080 monitors and one 4K TV I have hooked up, and is more than enough for my favorite game, Counter-Strike: Source (runs great on Linux!).
I have always purchased laptops or semi-custom desktops from big manufactures, never having assembled a PC myself. I considered this option, and read a good deal about PC building on sites like PC Part Picker, and r/buildapc. The obvious benefit here is that there is potential to save money by being a savvy shopper and purchasing all the components yourself. However, I decided against the DIY build-a-PC route for a couple reasons:
- I wanted something working right out of the box, no fussing with assembly, no tweaking configurations, and I didn’t want to spend hours googling problems, troubleshooting errors that may arise. I know this is half the fun in building your own computer, but the appeal was largely not there for me.
- I wanted a full warranty and I wanted technical support should anything go wrong with the computer. When building your own PC, you still generally have warranty options through the OEM and possibly the retailer for each component, but I see value in a vendor’s warranty for the entire machine.
I shopped around a handful of big name manufactures like HP and Dell, having owned and used many computers from these brands. I also sought out small vendors like Puget Systems. I found some decent deals, but nothing really grabbed my attention and made me say “this is my next computer!” That was until I found System76 – a company that has an Apple-like dedication to well made, aesthetically pleasing hardware. As cool as these machines look I figured they would also have the Apple-like price tag, but I was pleasantly surprised to see they were much more affordable than I assumed. Of their 5 desktop platforms, the mid-range Thelio Mira was the best fit for my needs. After spec’ing out a reasonably well-equipped machine, the price tag went from the base price of $1299 (on holiday sale at the time of purchase) all the way to $2300! That is not a insignificant amount of money to spend. However, this is a long term investment in my personal computing, and I’m planning on once again using the same computer for the next ~10 years. For me personally, I would rather spend this amount up front, as opposed to spending ~$900 on a lower-middle spec computer now and needing to upgrade it (with potentially limited upgrade options) or replace it on a much shorter lifecycle.
System76 provides the detailed technical specifications for each of their models, and I was able to get a complete component list of my Thelio Mira (b1.0). From there, I was able to find the best price for each of the components on PC Part Picker, and built out a nearly identically equipped machine totaling $400 less. One of the distinguishing features of System76 desktops is their powder coated aluminum case (designed and built in-house), so I needed to take some liberty when selecting an off the shelf PC case for my comparison build. I found something of roughly comparable build quality and finish to make this a more apples to apples comparison; it wouldn’t be completely fair to put identical components in a cheapo $40 case and call it the same computer.
So what do I get for the the extra $400 I’m paying for a System76 computer instead of building my own? First and foremost, I’m supporting an American company that builds their product here in the USA. This is something that is important to me as manufacturing increasingly moves out of the country. As a software engineer here in the USA I am happy to support fellow engineers at System76, and if buying American means spending few more dollars, I’m ok with that.
And yes, as many will be quick to point out, most of the parts within the computer are manufactured overseas, how “open” is a computer assembled from proprietary components? System76 does design and manufacture the aluminum case, and assembles/tests each machine in their Denver, Colorado production facility. System76 opens just about everything they can about this PC, and the Thelio IO Board is key to their open initiative. This board moves some functionality off the proprietary motherboard (a black box) to their own open source hardware and software. The computer I purchased may not be a completely open computer in the strictest definition of the term, but it’s a giant step in the right direction. System76 addresses this topic themselves in a blog post:
A completely open computer includes every part and component. The computer case, the motherboard, the drives, the memory, the cabling, the buttons, the ports, etc. The strictest definition of an open computer is that every single part of the product has openly licensed design files, schematics, and code. No one is there yet. We all understand that it’s not practical to start at the end. So we’re chipping away at the proprietary bits. There’s a lot of work to do. Those of us working to build open computers are taking different approaches and in doing so we all contribute toward this end. The important thing is that we’re all on the same trajectory.
We’ve seen it argued that this isn’t US manufacturing because every part isn’t made in the US. If we sourced every part externally, this would be called “assembled in the US.” That’s not what we’re doing here. We’re transforming raw materials into a final product.https://blog.system76.com/post/179592732883/system76-on-us-manufacturing-and-open-hardware
System76 doesn’t just build hardware, they have also developed their own operating system called Pop!_OS, which is an Ubuntu-based distro that is engineered specifically for the computers they build and sell. Being Linux, Pop!_OS is of course available for free to anyone, and will run on a wide selection of modern hardware. Operating system development and maintenance is not cheap and easy, and I am willing to support this project via a portion of the price tag System76 puts on each computer.
Beyond buying an American-made product and supporting their operating system, I like how System76 embodies much of the open source and right to repair philosophy shared by myself and many other developers. Staying true to this philosophy, System76 are big contributors to the open source community, and just about everything System76 offers is “open.”
- The CAD files for their computer cases are open source. You can build your own following these designs, and you can sell them commercially as well.
- The Thelio IO chassis controller which ships with their desktops moves proprietary functionality from the motherboard to an open source daughterboard, the firmware for which is also open source.
- Complete technical documentation is provided, including disassembly instructions for those who chose to exercise their right to repair their own equipment.
- Free lifetime support for all the products they sell (this is huge for anyone that cannot have extended periods of downtime due to technical issues).
Given all of the above, I find that the System76 Thelio Mira which I purchased was priced fairly and competitively. The final, out the door price with taxes and shipping was $2505.69. While I could have saved the additional ~$400 I paid by not going the build-a-PC route, I do feel that I get an extraordinary amount of value from System76. The library of documentation, the warranty (one year included), the lifetime technical support, and Pop!_OS together are worth this difference in price, and the opportunity to support an American computer company committed to open initiatives only further solidified my decision. In my opinion, I ultimately end up with a higher quality product from System76 than could ever be assembled by myself or a hobbyist PC builder.
Check back here soon, I will be updating my blog after several months of daily use to give a detailed review and breakdown of my experience with a System76 Thelio desktop!