ISSUE 586: Zisman- Jan 16 2001

The high-tech office


Megahertz drives PC sales, but it's not all-important

Sort of like horsepower selling cars, a computer's MHz number is an easy-to-measure rating. And, clearly, more is better. Or is it?

In the mid-1980s, of course it mattered. A common upgrade was to open the case of a $5,000 IBM AT and replace the $10 clock crystal, boosting the central processing unit (CPU) speed from six MHz to eight or even 10, speeding up the time to calculate those Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets by 33 per cent or more.

But today, with CPUs racing along at hundreds of MHz or even GHz (gigahertz: 1,000 MHz) speeds, whether it matters is less clear.

Like cars, computers are a collection of components, not just a CPU. A fast CPU saddled with an inadequate amount of memory will appear to be struggling. Similarly, a computer with a fast hard drive will start programs and load data faster than one with a slower drive. The amount of super-fast cache RAM will make an immediately noticeable difference.

And what you're trying to do will make a big difference. The biggest way many of us can speed up our computers is to get a faster Internet connection, not a faster CPU. After all, it hardly matters how many horsepower your car boasts if it's stuck in rush hour traffic. Will a faster CPU speed up your typing speed? Not likely!

In fact, for most everyday computer tasks, all of today's computers are overkill (which may have something to do with the current soft sales of PCs and Macs). Still, at least two important technology influence leaders seem to believe that megahertz still matter.

n Apple's Steve Jobs blamed some of that company's recent losses on the perception of a megahertz gap between Macs and PCs. Over the past two years, Apple's top-end computers have stalled between 450 and 550 MHz, while even bargain PCs are now rated at 800 MHz or more. The reality? It's difficult to objectively compare CPUs as different as the PowerPCs used by Apple and the Intel and AMD models used in PCs, and current Macs and PCs are both more than fast enough for most users. In fact, more of a problem may be buyer perception that most new and interesting software comes out for PCs first (and sometimes for PCs only). Nevertheless, as I write, expectation is high that Jobs will announce faster Macs at the mid-January MacWorld show.

n Intel, maker of CPUs for most PCs (and hence for most computers) has just released the latest in its series, the Pentium 4, at speeds up to 1.5 GHz (i.e. 1,500 MHz), gaining a seemingly big lead over rival AMD, whose Athlon currently tops out at 1.2 GHz. The Pentium 4 features the first entirely new CPU architecture from Intel since 1995's Pentium Pro, along with a set of 144 new "SSE2" instructions designed to speed up performance in multimedia, speech-processing and other applications.

The reality? The SSE2 instructions (like Apple's Velocity Engine in the G4 and Intel's earlier MMX and SSE) only make a difference in applications that have been specifically written to make use of them and these are few and far between. And while the Pentium 4 has been designed to crank out lots of megahertz, tests comparing it to AMD's seemingly slower 1.2-GHz Athlon have consistently showed the tortoise winning the race when running everyday applications such as Microsoft Office or even on many 3D and multimedia tests.

Consumers looking for the boasting rights of owning this seemingly fastest PC will pay the normal premium to get the newest and presumably greatest. Moreover, the Pentium 4 requires Rambus memory chips, which are more expensive than the SDRAM used in other systems.

Megahertz still matters. All things being equal, when you're shopping for a new computer, more is better. Just be aware all things are rarely, if ever, equal.

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