I am in fact amazed for the power of your typical computer, you can buy quad core laptops which can run Crysis. Yes, you spin some money out of your pocket but you can run Crysis. But even so, the hardware remains boring. You have the same display, the same OS, the same software mostly centered around browsing, some video playback or some Office or image processing.
Based on this, I want to recommend for your next computer not to buy your next Intel i7, or AMD Zen equivalent. And this is not because they are not fast enough, but only because they are boring. Really, your computer which you bought 5 years ago could do almost anything your can do, excluding maybe to play Crysis. I had an 4 GB PC with quad core CPU, a 10000 RPM (no SSD though) and a good dedicated video card in 2009 and it was priced around 1000 EUR (should be around 1000 USD in US). And if I would dare I could use it as a development machine even now.
Today I have a laptop with similar specifications in the same price range, a but more powerful and consuming around 1/5 of wattage, but other than this, is basically the same hardware. Sure, mobility of laptops is more desirable, but still, I think you can see the point: you can buy some hardware that have basically the same specs that excluding you don't play high end games, you really throw your money out of your window. And no, Civilisation V is not a high end game, neither Dota 2 (excluding you play it professionally).
So, can be found fun in the hardware landscape which is geeky enough but doesn't involve you to buy an overly pricey device? As for now I found two devices which I bough myself (I will point to similar products, to not be direct advertisments): 150-200 USD NUC PC and sub 200 USD (Android) tablets.
As tablets are not necessarily the topic of this post, still they are interesting, especially as tablets are easy to test your software, or also you an make programs and push on them. And even if you don't use for anything else, they will push you notifications (from friends to see an Youtube clip) and you can see it properly. Where I live now (in a Baltic country, where prices are a bit higher than the rest of EU), I could find an 10 inch Atom based tablet which can play 720p video, it has quad core and it is really more than responsive, easy to program and in short, decent.
The NUC PC I see it the most compelling of all: let's look to a device like this. You add to it 2 or 4 GB DDR3L and an hard drive and you put Linux on it. It starts decently fast, it runs browser, it is programable, you can run all software I was curious to run. I tried (just for fun) to run Windows 10 (I use though a 8 GB module) and it ran not that far from my quad core laptop. I could see the lag for example when navigating, but nothing aggravating.
What is so compelling about these devices:
- with a zero cost OS (I am recommending Linux Mint, Ubuntu, etc. ) you can have a very low cost legal machine that can do most of things you would do it anyway with the computer: like emails, youtube, etc., and videos will play (on Linux at least as Full HD)
- if you are a developer which doesn't require Windows (you can use Mono if you want C#) you can use really everything you want to test. I am not sure about OpenCL (there is a library named POCL, but I don't know how stable is it), but if you want to test how to code using 4 cores and check the scalability, you're right at home; if you want to check how to make a small web server using any technology stack, you can do it
- if you care about simulating most user's computers, again, you are safe: most users do not live with super high-end computers at home, so targeting your software to run on these Atom-class CPU machines, you will in fact make it run on a huge number of other machines. I used "Atom-class", because sometimes you can find AMD Kabini CPUs
- a less talked item, which is important, the full system, even in full load will require much less than a typical laptop. I estimate that excluding the display in full-load the machine would use something like 15W, making it more friendly to do even processing over night or to be a server in it's own right. I know we talk watts in a marking way, but let's be pragmatic about it: if you let it your expensive computer over night as a web server in your organization, you have two risks: the power spikes can add to your electricity bill, the second is that having an electricity power shock can burn your pricier PC. Losing a 220 USD (estimated) PC is less risky compared with a full more than 2x times pricier PC.
- kind of a last for me, this machine is powerful enough and compatible enough: you can run full Windows on it (not sure about XP, but definetly Vista, 7, 8 and 10) and Linux.
The single part which is a bit strange is that the raw CPU power of a 10W part is it around what in 2009 a dual-core CPU could do at 65W (if all 4 cores are used, and most software today supports all cores). This means that if you use Gimp (or Photoshop), given memory it would finish in reasonable time (if you are not professional video editor). And this with a cool (both as temperatures and as status) device!