ISSUE 547: The high tech office- April
Superfast processors not necessary for
month, personal computer processors sped past one GigaHertz/second.
That's a billion cycles per second -- or a thousand million.
It's taken a while. In the late 1970s,
the Apple II had a processor running at a less-than-blistering
one megahertz. The first IBM PC, a few years later, pushed the
speed of its processor to a little under five MHz.
As recently as 1995 or so, many of us
were using something like a 486 computer, running at 66 MHz, and doing
quite well, thank you. But the rate of change has picked up, pushed not
so much by consumer demand as by competition. Intel, producer
of the majority of personal computer pro-
cessors (and the hardware half of the Wintel duopoly), has increasingly
been challenged by AMD-American MicroDevices. It is no longer
content with the role of bottom-feeder, producing copies of older Intel
designs for cheap home computers.
In fact, when AMD first released its
Athlon processor last August to compete with Intel's high-end Pentium
III, it ran at speeds somewhat faster than Intel's best at the time.
That led to AMD contracts to provide processors for four out of the
five largest PC makers, and has helped to triple the company's stock
price over the past year. Since then, the speed crown has passed back
and forth between the two companies.
This time around, just three weeks
after shipping an 850-MHz model, AMD was first off the mark with a
1-GHz Athlon. Intel released a 1-GHz Pentium III two days later. While
the two chips claim the same speed, there are some differences.
Independent testing by computer
magazine publisher Ziff Davis suggested that the Athlon had
superior math coprocessor performance (an area where AMD chips had
traditionally been weaker). Intel's Pentium III had faster memory
caching, which is a technique to keep the slower system memory from
falling too far behind the speeding processor. The two processors use
different sets of multimedia instructions, al-
though these test results were pretty similar.
Overall, Ziff Davis's testing concluded
that Intel's high-end processors narrowly outperformed AMD's (mostly
due to the more powerful memory cache), but also cost more.
And, of course, a fast processor isn't
the only thing that determines computer performance. Hard-drive speed
and the amount and speed of system memory are also critical. In some
cases, a computer with a slower processor can actually outperform
a seemingly faster one in the real world.
As always, these top-end computers are
expensive, with price tags of $4,000 and up. But most of us won't be
looking at buying them anytime soon. Instead, there are other positive
effects from the release of the 1-GHz models.
* The release of
these latest speed demons pushes down the price of the previous
generation of processors: 700 - 850 MHz processors move from the
high-end to more af-
fordable mid-range models.
* AMD will be
taken more seriously as a valid alternative to Intel. Despite its gains
in the marketplace, its processors are still primarily found in
computers aimed at home users rather than the corporate market. AMD
seems to have overcome supply problems and its new high-end models
deserve to be considered for enterprise systems.
Of course, the computer processor speed
race won't be stopping with these 1-GHz models. AMD has already
demonstrated a 1.1-GHz model and said that its future designs will
offer full-speed memory caching, catching up with Intel's advantage in
this area. And Intel is nearing completion of a new product line set to
run at 1.5 GHz and above.
Computer speeds above one GHz breaks
what is more of a psychological barrier than a technical one. I'm still
using PCs running at 300 and 400 MHz and a Mac running at 266 MHz. I'd
bet that most of you have computers running at those speeds or slower
-- in many cases, far slower. And most of us aren't running software
that needs anything close to these speeds.
In fact, in the short term at least, we
may see more benefit from big, cheap hard drives. IBM's recent
announcement of a 75-gigabyte hard drive suggests that drive space will
continue to grow. The result of that, I suppose, is that operating
systems and applications will continue to bloat, eventually requiring
not only big hard drives, but increasingly fast processors, at least
for those of us driven to use the latest and (presumably) greatest.
Congratulations to Vancouver's Network
Technology Professionals, chosen by Novell from more than 600 top-level
Novell support partners as one of only three companies in Canada (and
18 in North America) to receive the company's Support Connection
Service Excellence Awards. *