Magazine article Online

The Dogs That Did Not Bark

Magazine article Online

The Dogs That Did Not Bark

Article excerpt

It's been a surprisingly calm year for personal computing because many of the developments haven't mattered all that much.

Since this is the last PC MONITOR for 2000, I planned to discuss the year's hot topics in personal computing--or, given the realities of publishing, the hot topics for the year ending in June 2000. As I was going over the possibilities, however, I found an interesting commonality--expressed in this column's title (with apologies to Sherlock Holmes). It's been a surprisingly calm year for personal computing--not because technology hasn't kept developing, but because many of the developments haven't mattered all that much. I see two general ways in which the year turned out to be less dramatic than might have been expected--setting aside Y2K, antitrust, and other issues:

* Components continued to improve at a fast rate, perhaps even faster than expected--but the improvements don't matter to most users

* Dramatic shifts in the landscape didn't move as rapidly as had been anticipated

Some of you will argue that each item discussed here really is a big deal, and for some of you that will be true. Others may be depressed by the state of affairs, thinking it bodes ill for the future of personal computing. I disagree; PC sales continue to grow, and the relatively calm year offers people and companies a chance to think things through.

GIGAHERTZ CPUS--FOR WHAT USE?

Moore's Law refers to circuit density rather than speed, but there's a close relationship between the two. Indeed, CPU speeds have doubled roughly every 18 months. In the spring of 1999, the fastest CPU was Intel's Pentium III-500; PC Magazine tested its first 550mHz PCs in June 1999. The first gigahertz CPU was expected at the end of 2000--18 months after the first 500mHz CPU.

AMD, probably Intel's first serious competitor with compatible CPUs, changed all that. The first 1000mHz AMD Athlon CPU shipped in early spring 2000, and several companies were shipping production PCs using that CPU by May 2000. Intel responded by "introducing" a 1000mHz Pentium III--but as of this writing, the chip is only available in sample quantities and shipping to three of Intel's most favored PC makers. On the other hand, Pentium III-933 PCs became readily available by June 2000, months earlier than might have been expected.

The question is, as stated in the title of PC Magazine's June 2000 roundup of hot PCs: "Who needs them?" Their answer is that you can justify such systems if you plan to do graphics-intensive Web development or image-editing applications, develop software, or use financial-analysis or data-mining packages. Perhaps (although high-end graphics and image-editing tends to run on Macs or workstations), but that's a tiny percentage of PC use.

The article says that people running standard office and financial packages will find that a 600 to 800mHz PC is all they need." You could extend that a bit: most people will find that a 400mHz PC provides more speed than they need for most applications. (I use a 400mHz Celeron at home and a 266mHz Pentium at work, incidentally.)

There are exceptions. Continuous speech recognition can benefit from speeds greater than 600mHz, particularly if you're multitasking along with dictation. A 400mHz Celeron has plenty of power to do software DVD decoding--but, again, if you somehow plan to work on a spreadsheet while watching a movie, you can justify higher speed. The same probably goes for MP3 decoding while doing other work: the combined CPU load deserves a hot system. Video editing (with real-time compression) and truly high-end graphics manipulation can use as much CPU power as you can provide.

In the past, software makers kept us wanting faster hardware. That doesn't seem to be true anymore. Office 2000 runs nicely on a Pentium-166; on my Celeron-400, I have yet to see MS Access, Word, or Excel behave in a way that suggests they could use more speed. …

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