ISSUE 401: THE HIGH-TECH OFFICE--Alan
Computer hype is enough to make consumers
heed that old Pat Benatar tune and 'get evil' July
I recently gave another listen to
sometime-rocker Pat Benatar's 1991 CD Truelove, where,
in a change of pace, she covers a series of 1940s and '50s jump blues
tunes. Not a bad set, though nowhere near as good, to my ears at least,
as the similar album Vancouver's Colin James did on the same
theme a few years later.
I hear you muttering, "What does that have to do with
computers?" Well, the answer is in the chorus to the tune "I Get Evil,"
which repeatedly warns "Don't you lie to me." Consider this:
Just because they call it something doesn't make it
so. For example, so-called 56-kbps modems: The reality is that, at
best, these can attain 53-kbps speeds, but they are more likely to get
speeds in the mid-40s -- and that's with a good connection. Any noise
on the line, and performance drops to that of last generation's
33.6-kbps modems, or even lower -- nowhere near the implied double
speeds. (Very tiny print on the packaging admits as much.)
What about CD-ROM speeds? It depends where you
measure. With new 16-speed models, using the common 'Constant Angular
Velocity' technology, CD-ROM speed varies according to where on the
disc the reading is being done. It's 16-speed at the edge of the disc,
but only eight-speed near the centre, where most of the data is stored.
Some ads are now discussing a drive's 'average' speed, which is a more
honest measure. Look for drives offering 'Constant Linear Velocity,'
which provides the same speed anywhere on the disc.
There is also the battery life exaggeration. Some
notebook batteries promise four to six hours on a charge. The
performance on a charge is more typically under two hours in real-world
usage. But you need to act prudently: Do you really need to play
Solitaire nonstop on a Vancouver-Toronto flight?
There is a pervasive myth that faster CPU equals
faster computer. Not necessarily. Premium-priced Pentium 150 notebooks,
for example, were minimally faster than more affordable P-133 models --
and sometimes even slower. System-bus speed can make a big difference,
resulting in a slower CPU in a faster bus often producing a computer
that's a better overall performer.
And while we're discussing CPUs: The ad campaign
suggests only 'Intel Inside' provides hardware that's
compatible with your (Windows) operating system and applications. In
reality, systems based on CPUs from companies like AMD and Cyrix
can be just as reliable as Intel systems, and even provide better
performance at a lower price.
Then there is the category of sort-of-truth. The
perception is that Plug and Play makes a Windows 95 computer as easy to
upgrade as a Mac. In reality the newer PCI bus was designed with Plug
and Play in mind, and most of the time it works, but today's PCs are
crippled by continuing to also rely on the 1983-era ISA bus. Both Intel
and Microsoft are pushing for future PCs to dump the legacy ISA
bus, but don't hold your breath.
More sort-of-truths: Windows 95 makes your computer as
easy to use as a Mac. Again the reality here is that too much remains
non-intuitive, especially if you still need to run Win 3.1-era software
or DOS programs. In that case, you're still stuck with 8-letter
filenames, and maybe even DOS-level memory management.
Of course there is always the ongoing promise: Just
wait for the next version. There is no Windows 97. Not this year! There
will be a Windows 95 upgrade as well as the next version of NT,
probably some time in 1998. Similarly, Mac users are being asked to
wait until then for Rhapsody, for a host of features originally
promised for the cancelled Copland system upgrade. But don't worry. If
you have any problems now, they'll all be fixed in the next version.
Then there is the hype: You need a new computer to
connect to the Internet. But really you can have a limited, text-based
connection to the Net on that pre-1990 286 or Mac. You can run Netscape
Navigator or Internet Explorer and graphically browse the Web on a
1992-era 386 or 68030 Mac. Given all the possible bottlenecks on the
Internet, a more powerful computer on your end won't produce that much
of a difference.
And of course, there is even more hype: You need a new
computer to run this year's crop of business applications. Maybe. But
maybe not. While home users will need a recent model to run this year's
crop of games, most business applications have more modest hardware
needs. Then again, are you sure you really need to upgrade your key
business software every time a new version comes out? Given the cost of
upgrading, and the far higher cost of retraining staff and dealing with
the possibility of bugs and incompatibilities, do you really need the
features the new version provides?
After singing her warning, Ms. Benatar concludes:
"Cause if you lie to me, I get evil as a woman can be."
Buy what you need, but watch out for the hype.*