Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    A newer, faster processor doesn't guarantee that your computer will perform much better

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #366 October 29, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    Newest equals more powerful, equals better, right? For computer generations now (yes, a computer generation used to be at least a couple of years, but now it's more like six months), users have been prepared to pay a hefty premium to get the fastest, hottest, most powerful processor around. They were secure in the knowledge that for a few months at least, they'd have the most powerful machine on the block, and would be the envy of everyone stuck with last year's less capable model.

    So explain this: Intel has just released a new model of its Pentium CPU, clocked at 150 MHz and designed for notebook computers. At that speed, it's rated at a respectable 12 per cent or so faster than the previous 133-MHz model. (There are faster 166-MHz and 200-MHz models, but they use up too much power for notebook use). According to Gordon NeffNEC Technologies Canada, however, the new chip only actually delivers a three-per-cent performance boost over the older model. As a result, NEC isn't planning to include the 150-MHz processor in its popular Versa notebook line. (Wholesale price from Intel for the 150-MHz chip is $477 in lots of 1,000, compared to $342 for the 133-MHz unit.) of

    How come a chip that's 12-per-cent faster only turns in three per cent in actual performance improvement? Especially when it commands almost a 40-per-cent price premium? Well, there are a couple of reasons. For years now, processors have been able to outpace the rest of the computer system. This was the basis of a major marketing campaign by Intel a couple of years ago, urging computer users to buy a so-called Overdrive, a CPU upgrade that ran at twice the speed of their previous model--for example, 66 MHz in a computer designed to run at 33 MHz.

    Since then, while computer systems have become faster, processors have sped up even more, although they need to run at a multiple of the main system speed (the so-called bus rate). The 133-MHz CPU runs at double the speed of a 66-MHz bus, and the 150-MHz CPU runs at 2.5 times the speed of a slower 60-MHz bus. So while the 150-MHz processor is faster, the rest of the computer is actually running slower than the corresponding parts of a machine built for the 133-MHz CPU.

    Besides, your computer's processor isn't the only thing that affects its performance: pop a faster CPU into your current computer, and you still have a hard drive, video card, and RAM that are running at the same old speed. Some tasks will be noticeably peppier with the upgraded processor, but others will show little improvement.

    While the 150-MHz CPU provides a real-life performance boost, running 12 per cent faster than the 133-MHz model means it requires 12 per cent more battery power and runs 12-per-cent hotter. (When I called it the "fastest, hottest," I wasn't kidding.) Both battery drain and heat are problems for notebook users.

    But while NEC isn't planning to bother with 150-MHz notebooks, some of its competitors aren't so sure. IBM is planning a 150-MHz notebook model of its ThinkPad 760 line because it wants "to give customers a choice," says IBM Canada's Debra Breuer. And market leader Toshiba already offers the chip in its top-of-the-line Tecra 730CDT model.

    Some buyers will be prepared to pay more for the newest model whether or not there's a clear need or a clear benefit. Others will prefer to buy one or two models down from the top--the place where, for many computer generations, there's been the most performance for the price.

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