When I was growing up, the auto industry had this obsession with "muscle cars." Each year they got faster and more powerful. My dad didn't have the biggest or fastest car on the block, but by today's standards, his Chevy Impala was very hot. Yet, on his daily commute from the San Fernando Valley to Hollywood, his eight-cylinder Chevy inched along at about the same speed as a Volkswagen Beetle.
I don't commute by freeway, but I do travel on the information highway and, like my dad's fast car, my relatively fast PC doesn't move me along any faster than today's PC equivalent of a Beetle.
Today's bottleneck isn't the computer or its engine--the central processing unit--rather, it's the speed of your Internet connection, your printer, the amount of your PC's memory and even the type of video card you have.
Because of this, I didn't jump for joy last month when Advanced Micro Devices introduced the 1-GHz AMD Athlon, the industry's first 1-gigahertz microprocessor for personal computers. And I wasn't all that moved two days later when industry leader Intel stole AMD's thunder by introducing its own 1-gigahertz Pentium III. Before these announcements, the fastest chip on the block ran at 866 MHz. A gigahertz is 1,000 megahertz, or a billion cycles per second.
PC makers jumped on the high-speed bandwagon almost immediately with high-end machines built around these new chips. Dell was quick to introduce its $3,999 XPS B Special Edition featuring the new Intel chip. Gateway was right there too with its $3,128 Select 1000 Deluxe featuring the 1-gigahertz AMD Athlon CPU. Compaq is offering its 1-GHz Athlon-equipped machine starting at $2,491. IBM sells an Intel-equipped 1-GHz Aptiva starting at $2,999, plus the cost of a monitor.
These machines are about three times the price of entry-level personal computers, and, frankly, they're not three times as good. In fact, most people won't even notice that they run faster. Yes, they do typically come with larger hard drives, more memory, faster video cards and better monitors and sound systems than low-end machines, but a major reason for the price is the high cost of the CPU itself. PC makers who order 1,000 chips pay Intel $990 and AMD a whopping $1,299 per 1-gigahertz chip. That's nearly 10 times what these companies charge for the CPUs used in mainstream computers.
It may be worth it to PC companies to have bragging rights to the fastest PCs, but to users like you and me, these machines are overkill.
Just about any PC on the market today is more than fast enough for the types of applications that most people do. In fact, the whole emphasis on speed is really a holdover to the days when PCs were inexorably slow. Back in the early '80s, for example, I remember waiting minutes for a database program to sort a mailing list. And graphic programs, back then, were exceedingly slow.
Today, it's hard to tell the difference between super-fast and mainstream PCs. I have two computers that I use on a regular basis. One--which was state-of-the-art only a few months ago--has a Pentium III CPU that operates at 700 MHz. Admittedly, it's 30% slower than the newest CPU, but it's still very fast. Sitting next to it is a 15-month-old machine with a much slower Pentium II CPU. Yet, with the programs I run, I can barely tell the difference between the two machines.
The same is true when I compared the fast machine on my desk with a new machine built around one of Intel's low-cost Celeron CPUs. The CPU simply doesn't make a noticeable difference.
There are some exceptions. People who play games with 3-D graphics can take advantage of all the horsepower they can get as can those who do video editing and certain types of modeling and design applications. Also, if you do photo editing on a regular basis, you might get your work done faster with a high-speed Pentium or an Apple Macintosh with a G4 CPU.
Some people like to get the fastest machine possible on the theory that it will remain viable longer. But if history is any indication, it will be cheaper to buy a middle-of-the-road system today and replace it in a couple of years with whatever is mainstream at that point.
I wouldn't worry about whether your computer had "Intel Inside." All other things being equal, machines with AMD processors are just as good as those with Intel CPUs.
Instead, worry about the amount of memory, the size of the hard drive, the quality of the monitor, the keyboard, mouse, sound system, bundled software and the overall look, feel and size of the PC.
Most PCs come with 64 megabytes of memory, which is adequate for most programs, but spending another $100 for 128 megabytes gives you more breathing room, which can come in handy if you want to run several programs at a time.
Spending a little extra for a large hard drive is always a good investment. Some of the less-expensive machines come with only about 4 gigabytes of hard-disk space. That might be OK for starters, but a larger drive gives you more room for data and more application programs. When considering a low-cost machine, look at all the specifications, not just the CPU. EMachines' least-expensive system comes with only 32 megabytes of memory and a 4.3-gigabyte hard drive. But you're much better off spending an extra $100 for the model with twice the memory and a 10-gigabyte hard drive.
Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is http://www.larrysworld.com.