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    Gigahertz not the full measure of speed

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver  The High Tech Office column, April 20-26, 2004; issue 756

    It's official: gigahertz don't matter. At least, official according to industry-leader Intel, which recently announced that they would no longer use gigahertz-based speed measures as part of the names used to market the company's processors, the brains inside every personal computer. Instead, the company will use a three-digit model number to refer to its products.

     It's about time. While it would be nice to be able to compare computer systems based on a single number, reality is rarely so tidy. And that's been the case for a long time. My 1988 Turbo-XT clone ran at 10 Mhz (that's megahertz, 1/1000 as fast as today's gigahertz), twice as fast as the original IBM PC or XT. But that system was less powerful than IBM AT models running at slower six or eight Mhz speeds but using Intel's 286 model, which provided more power even at slower speeds.

     And that's been the catch all along: processor speed ratings are useful to compare different versions of the same processor model, in which case, faster is better. But when you're looking at different model processors comparison becomes more difficult.

     AMD competes with Intel in providing PC-style processors; its models do more than Intel's with each click of their internal clocks. For several years AMD has been labelling its Athlon processors with a four-digit rating that's meant to imply the speed of an Intel-equivalent model, not the speed at which the Athlon runs.

     It gets even murkier comparing Windows-style PCs with Apple's Macs, which use G4 and G5 processors made by Motorola and IBM. Depending on the tests you look at, G5 Macs with processors running at 2 Ghz may be either more or less powerful than Windows PCs with processors running at faster speeds of 3 Ghz or more.

     Even within a single manufacturer's models it can be hard to make meaningful comparisons based on gigahertz alone. Is a customer better off getting a computer powered by Intel's budget Celeron processor running at 2.6 Ghz or one using a more expensive Pentium 4 running somewhat slower at 2.4 Ghz? Last year, the company faced a dilemma when it introduced its efficient Pentium M line (also marketed in Centrino systems). Tests suggested that 1.4 or 1.6 Ghz Pentium M models outperformed Pentium 4 systems running at two Ghz or faster, while using less power - useful for conserving laptop batteries, but less useful from a marketing standpoint.

     Getting the most powerful processor available is important for some users; if you're spending time waiting while your computer renders 3D graphics or processes digital video clips a faster computer can be a worthwhile investment by making you more productive. For far more users, however, virtually any of today's processors offer more speed and power than needed. Rather than focusing on processor gigahertz speed ratings, users may be better off to:

    •  Make sure computers have enough memory. RAM is cheap and easy to upgrade, at least in modern systems. If your computer's hard drive light is often flashing when you're not opening programs or saving files, it may be worthwhile to upgrade the memory.
    •  Upgrade to a newer hard drives; today's models are faster and offer far more storage capacity, and are also fairly inexpensive and easily installed. A faster hard drive will speed up system start up and the time for applications to load.
    •  If you're still using dial-up Internet, moving to broadband - cable, DSL, wireless, or microwave internet providers - will make you more productive than getting a new, faster computer.
    •  Learn to type! No matter how powerful your hardware, it ends up waiting for your fingers.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan