Fast, new computers may not be worth upgrade cost

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001
First published in Business in Vancouver,  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 to?

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 II-400 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 use; 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). Competitor AMD has not been able to competite with this raw speed, even though independent benchmark tests suggest that their seemingly-slower models perform as well 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: instructions 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 not 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. Hence 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 similar dilemma, needing to convince buyers that a sub-GHz G4 processor outperforms faster-seeming Intel and AMD-powered PCs).

Apple, Intel and AMD are all hoping that some new, processor-intensive 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 use 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 peak 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 older 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.

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