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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC Focus

Faster Computer Won't Wow You

January 19, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

I've been cruising in the PC fast lane for the last few weeks, and though I like the way it feels, I can't say that it's changed my life.

Gateway, Compaq and Micron each sent me their latest and fastest PCs with an Intel Pentium II microprocessor running at 300 megahertz. Although the machines vary in features, each comes with the industry's fastest microprocessor, plenty of hard disk space and more than enough bells and whistles to keep even this jaded reviewer happy. I'll get to the details in a moment, but first I'd like to debunk some myths about PC performance.

One of the things you get with a high-end PC is speed. And although all of these machines are indeed fast, none had any appreciable impact on how long it takes me to do my work.

That might not be the case for people who do computer-aided design, work with complex graphics or crunch very large databases. But, like most people, I use my computer mostly for writing in Microsoft Word, surfing the Internet in Netscape or Internet Explorer, or sending and receiving e-mail. I spend some time balancing my checkbook with Quicken, and once in a while touch up photographs using programs like Adobe PhotoDeluxe or Microsoft Photo Editor.

I ran these programs on all three Pentium II machines, as well as on my old 200-MHz "classic" Pentium system that doesn't have Intel's souped-up MMX chip. With all of these tasks except photo editing, I needed a stopwatch to prove to myself that the 300-MHz Pentium II machines are faster than the 200-MHz standard Pentium.

There were differences, but they really aren't worth writing home about. And if I were to write home about them, the process wouldn't be any faster. A faster PC doesn't let you type faster, doesn't improve the time it takes to print a letter and, if you plan to send it via e-mail, does nothing to speed up your modem. The real bottlenecks in personal computing have little to do with the speed of the computer itself--it's the operator and all the peripheral devices that affect speed.

Adding random access memory can often have a bigger impact than a faster central processing unit. If you're running Windows 95 or any Macintosh operating system with 16 megabytes of memory or less, you will get a noticeable improvement if you upgrade to 32 MB.

Even with photo-editing software, the difference in performance between the top-of-the-line Pentium II and the lower-end test machine, though significant, wasn't exactly dramatic. A photo manipulation task that took 11.3 seconds to complete on the 200-MHz system took 5.5 seconds on the faster machine. That's about twice as fast, but it's still less than 6 seconds.

The casual user of a scanner or digital camera who edited a few photos a week would have to be pretty finicky to justify the extra cost of a Pentium II system. However, a professional photographer or serious amateur could easily justify the extra investment because that person would probably use more sophisticated and demanding software, such as Adobe Photoshop, and spend more time manipulating images.

Admittedly, my comparison machine is hardly slow. It wasn't that long ago that PC power users salivated over 200-MHz Pentium systems. But today they're near the bottom of the heap for new PCs. The 200-MHz machine I compared the Pentium II systems against has less horsepower than Hewlett-Packard's new $799 Pavilion 3260 system, which has a 200-MHz MMX Pentium, 32 MB of memory, a 2.1-gigabyte hard disk drive, a 16x CD-ROM drive and a 56-kpbs modem.

I'm not saying there's no justification for buying a high-end Pentium II system. The more powerful machine you buy today, the longer it will be before you'll need to replace it. Eventually, the software industry will develop programs that are optimized for more powerful CPUs.

There's a saying in the PC industry that goes, "What Andy giveth, Bill taketh away." Andrew Grove and Intel are always coming up with faster CPUs, but Bill Gates' Microsoft and its competitors are just as busy coming up with software that demands increasingly more powerful hardware platforms. That will continue to be true.

However, because of the enormous popularity of the sub-$1,000 PC and the huge installed base of older PCs, just about any machine you buy today will remain useful for at least two or three years. By that time, the state of the art will be something we can only dream about today, so either way, you'll want a new machine sometime early in the next millennium.

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