Fast, new computers may not be worth upgrade cost
by Alan Zisman (c) 2001
First published in Business in
Issue #633 December 11-17, 2001, The High Tech Office column
With computer sales down some 14% compared to last
year, CPU and computer
manufacturers continue to churn out ever-faster models, hoping to reach
some magic point where home and business users will rush to upgrade.
But do megahertz (or now gigahertz) matter anymore the
way they used
The 486-based PC that I bought in 1993, running at a
blazing 66 MHz
seemed light-years ahead of the 1990-model 386-25 it replaced. That had
been more pleasant to use than the 286-12 which had in turn replaced my
first PC, a clone of IBM?s old 5 Mhz XT.
Not only was each generation faster, but each let me
run software that
was otherwise not available to me.
I was able to run Windows 95 on the 486 and use it to
access the newly-popular
Internet. Later computers: a 1996 Pentium-166 and then a 1998 Pentium
were faster, but not, in themselves, a quantum leap forward. They were
needed for my son?s games and for playing digital audio and video, but
offered less improvement for my day to day word processing, e-mail, and
Web browsing. Both of the Pentium-generation computers are still in
so far I?ve resisted the siren-call of ever faster models.
(I did replace my notebook recently, passing on a
Pentium-300 to my
university-bound daughter, and treating myself to a Pentium III-powered
model, cruising at 750 Mhz. It?s faster, but not amazingly so).
CPU-giant Intel has been the most successful at
ramping up processor
speeds; their fastest Pentium 4s are now passing 2 GHz (2000 MHz).
AMD has not been able to competite with this raw speed, even though
benchmark tests suggest that their seemingly-slower models perform as
as Intel?s faster models.
The seeming paradox occurs because processor
performance is not just
affected by clock speed: MHz. Equally important is so-called IPC:
per cycle. Intel has sacrificed IPC to boost clock speed: their newest
Pentium 4 has 20% fewer IPC than the Pentium III it replaced. That?s
the case with AMD?s new Athlon XP. As a result, though running at 1.53
GHz, the Athlon XP 1800+ outperforms a 2 GHz Pentium 4 at many tasks.
AMD?s new naming conventions. They are trying to suggest that their CPU
can be compared to a more expensive 1.8 GHz Intel model. (Apple has a
dilemma, needing to convince buyers that a sub-GHz G4 processor
faster-seeming Intel and AMD-powered PCs).
Apple, Intel and AMD are all hoping that some new,
way to use computers will spark a new wave of purchases. Perhaps video
conferencing, perhaps DVD creation. Anything that will bring in buyers,
chequebooks in hand.
While ever-faster CPUs are less of an urgent need than
in years past,
there are a few things that can be done to improve how efficiently we
our existing computers. I recommend:
-- get a broadband Internet connection. Always connected, high speed
connections will save time spent getting on to the Net and moving from
page to page, without (in most cases) requiring an upgraded computer.
-- get more RAM. No matter how fast a processor your computer has,
it will run slowly while reading from the hard drive. With more RAM, it
needs to read from the drive less often, letting spend more time at
speed. And while I paid $150 per MB for RAM in 1990, today?s prices are
under $50 for 256 MB pieces. (Note thought that RAM for Pentium or
models is not that cheap). Don?t think twice, get more RAM.
-- get a bigger hard drive. Improved technologies offer about 1000
times more space per dollar they did a decade ago. Unlike the must-have
RAM upgrade, wait to buy more drive space when you really need it.