Are Computers Getting Too Fast?

May 28th, 2009

When Bill Gates, bless his crooked soul, said years ago that we’d never need more than 640K of RAM, he kind of had the right idea in mind, but he was perhaps a few decades early in expressing this thought.

When Steve Jobs said, with the introduction of the original Power Macintosh G4, that we now had a supercomputer on our desktops, he was closer to the mark, but not quite there.

Today, the speediest personal computers have quad-core processors. The heftier Mac Pros sport two of them, and by next year at this time, six- and eight-core CPUs will be the norm. It wasn’t so long ago that you’d fill a room with hot-running hardware to come even close.

In passing, I should mention that one of the reasons the likes of AMD and Intel went to multicore was because they had begun to hit the wall when it comes to CPU clock speeds. At one time, we thought that 3 GHz ratings and higher were going to be the norm, but few Macs achieve that goal, and then just barely. Indeed, we are now told that playing design tricks with the chips, such as adding more cache RAM, integrated memory controllers, Hyper-Threading and, of course, additional processing cores would cure what ails us. Well at least when it comes to getting more power from our Macs and PCs.

What most of you have discovered is that multicore processors and all that extra stuff don’t count for a hill of beans with the vast majority of the apps you’re running. Only a very few are actually developed to handle the extra cores, so, for the most part they sit there doing nothing beyond consuming precious electric power.

With Snow Leopard, Apple is hoping to change that equation, by providing more thorough tools to make the operating system aware of such configurations, and to make it easier for developers to harness those tools. That, and being able to offload some of the data processing chores to the graphics chip, promise to deliver Macs with previously undreamed of performance potential.

All well and good. The real question, however, is how all this multicore magic translates to the real world, to regular people who don’t spend their workdays playing resource-hogging computer games or performing deep math and 3D rendering chores.

You will certainly find that your email doesn’t arrive any faster, nor will all that extra CPU horsepower help you put more words on the screen in your favorite word processor. No doubt Apple and its third-party software engineers are busy designing lots and lots of graphics eye candy to make things seem more powerful. I’m sure that apps will also launch faster, but part of that is based on the limitations of your hard drive. Stick, for example, a solid state drive inside your MacBook Air, and suddenly it seems to have consumed a large dose of uppers.

Such a dilemma.

Indeed, one of the reasons that netbooks may have taken off is the fact that most computers these days really offer more performance than we really need, so why spend more when something super cheap is good enough? Well, the netbooks have other limitations too, such as smaller hard drives with which to store your stuff, tiny keyboards and small screens that, combined, have caused a number of buyers to return them.

But even without netbooks in the picture, there may still be reason for many Mac users to think of downsizing. One of my friends, tech commentator Kirk McElhearn, has decided that his Mac Pro is just too much computer for his needs. So he’s ordered a full-outfitted Mac mini instead to replace it. He figures that loading a mini with 4GB of RAM ought to be sufficient and he’s also adding external FireWire 800 drives, in case the speed of the internal drive, based on a standard note-book design, proves to slow things down a little too much.

Aside from unneeded performance, Kirk is also concerned about the heat his Mac Pro generates in his home office, which is located in the French Alps and doesn’t have air conditioning. Most of his workload barely taxes the powerful processors of his Mac Pro, so he felt he might as well save some money and get something that was more suited to his particular needs.

Now I can’t tell you that Kirk’s little experiment will actually bear fruit, and that he won’t trade in his Mac mini for a new Mac Pro at the earliest opportunity. Sure, the iMac might have been a more suitable compromise, but he is one of those folks who cannot tolerate glossy screens.

How this might impact Apple’s marketing direction is another issue entirely. Certainly if a heavier dose of low-end iMacs are moving along with the Mac mini, you can bet they might consider adding more value to their cheaper gear. Indeed, they’ve already done that with the $999 MacBook. No, not by making it cheaper but by, you guessed it, giving it a faster processor, speedier RAM and a bigger hard drive.

Well, old habits die hard. Will our obsession with ever faster Macs and PCs soon end as well?

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10 Responses to “Are Computers Getting Too Fast?”

  1. hmurchison says:

    The vast amount of consumers that just want web access and light duty application will be fine
    with most of today’s computers from the Mac mini on up. If you’re more of the creative type then
    you’re going to need more performance of course.

    I think we have hit a point where many people are satisfied with the entry and lower end computing systems
    and thusly Apple is delivering these options (Mac mini and more pedestrian spec’d iMacs) as well as realizing the next battleground is mobile computing.

    What I really want to see is stability. We’ve moved on from the OS 9, Windows 95/98 days were a single malfunctioning app took the whole system down. Today we’re fighting the battle with app stability. We need systems that can be say set to run automated scripts and tasks knowing that they aren’t suddently going to through a fit because of whatever and abort the mission.

    When that happens the multitasking prowess of multi-core becomes much more useful.

  2. John Fallon says:

    The mini tower Mac might have been a perfect fit for McElhearn, and a lot of others. My single processor Mac Pro generates way too much heat in the summer; but the 5400 RPM hard drive in the Mini (coupled with the slower slot-loading DVD) was just too slow for me.

  3. Louis Wheeler says:

    Too fast is like being too rich, in that riches have their benefits and responsibilities. Economics says that we humans have unlimited desires and limited means. Isn’t wonderful when we become less limited? Needs which seemed impracticable or trivial, before, become doable, now.

    The question should be,”Too fast for what?” If file sizes will expand to take up 80% of your available disk space, then applications will eventually use up that speed.

    The problem, here, is that we have an obstacle to leap. The old Mac OSX leopard operating system doesn’t use multiple cores well, nor does it use the extra registers in the Intel 64 bit Core 2 Duo processors. As soon as that obstacle is surmounted in Snow Leopard, then applications can increase in complexity and features like always.

    Right now, we consumers have no need for 64 bit address space or Sun’s Zettabyte File System, let alone 8, 16 or 32 cores. But, who needed Terabyte disk drives a decade ago?

    The point is that as computers get too fast, then every component in your computer system becomes a specialized computer.

    At one time, we had dumb terminals connected to mainframes. Then, we had smart computers connected to the internet. Next, every peripheral will be a specialized computer which works flawless and wirelessly with your local network to give you a better experience.

    When you take your wireless keyboard to the next room, it will instantly connect to the monitor there– which had been looking like picture, before. You may have a half dozen monitors in your home or office. Elsewhere, will be your main processor, your printer, your internet router, etc. Your iPhone will turn on or program your TV, your microwave or washing machine. Or check to see if you are almost out of milk or that the milk has gotten too far beyond its freshness date.

    I want computers to be too fast because that means that we have very inexpensive smart components which wind up every where, even in your underwear.

  4. Karl says:

    I tell you what…. I am often waiting for the computer to catch up with me. So I don’t think they are fast enough.

    Restarting my Mac, launching Photoshop, Illustrator or even Word and I wait. Switching between programs, opening/copying/deleting a large amount of files… I wait. Don’t get me started on network speeds, email downloading and other computer related functions that I wait on.

    With that said, I can function quite well with what I have. But I will never give up the “obsession” of working faster, smarter, more efficiently. So I daydream about it… while I wait.

  5. Rich S says:

    I agree with you that most of the applications most people use – ie e-mail, web browsing, word processing, etc. do not need much power. However, there is a class of applications which regular consumers are using more and more, which will benefit from any speed increase.

    I, for one, use e-mail and browse the web for 80% of my computer use. The other 20% of the time, I use it to manage and adjust the photos in iPhoto, and create DVDs of my vacations and of my child using iMovie and iDVD. Over the years, I have accumulated over 5,000 photos in iPhoto and it is dragging it down in performance – I have yet to use the Faces and Places features widely. The newer features of iMovie also require more horsepower, and iDVD always can use a boost.

    My point is, the graphics and video applications which are commonly used still consume a good deal of processing power. These applications are not just for professionals and hobbyists – most families with a digital camera and a camcorder most likely use a computer to manage their media, and they could use all the speed improvements they can get.

  6. John says:

    You make a good point. For simple email and web browsing some computers are overpowered. On the other hand, for working with lots of RAW files in Aperture or for editing HD movies in iMovie 09 or Final Cut, for developing presentations in Keynote, for running Photoshop more speed is always welcome.

  7. Constable Odo says:

    Those people that seem to be hung up on netbooks must think that standard-size computers are becoming too fast. This about face came in a little less than a year. People were looking for dual-core and quad-core computers and now all of a sudden they seem so happy to be using some cruddy little 1.6 GHz Atom processor that was probably designed for some third-world country’s mid-range computer user. That people in the U.S. can’t afford more than a $300 computer is really a scary thought. A couple could spend that much for a top-running Broadway play and dinner/drinks.

    So are netbook users just giving up the higher-end tasks or just slogging through them with some Atom-powered tiddler. It is certainly killing the average computer company selling those low-margin devices. I’m currently using a MacBook Pro C2D 2.33 notebook and I really, really don’t want to drop down in power. It would be nice if the processor could drop back into some single-core running mode to conserve battery power, but preferably I want that dual-core humming. I guess these netbook users aren’t using Microsoft Office or doing any encoding tasks. Good for them, but I use those higher-end apps. When I get some spare cash, I’m looking forward to buying a MacPro 8-core machine and I’ll bet it won’t be TOO fast for me unless it can encode a 90 minute avi movie to mp4 in under a minute.

    It seems like running youtube HD videos or google Earth uses up a fair amount of processing power. Heaven help those that have to create a Toast Titanium DVD on a netbook. Even my MacBook Pro has to work hard on that task. It must make those little tiddlers cry uncle.

  8. adam says:

    @ Karl:
    Without knowing anything about your system this is being pulled slightly out of my backside, but …

    This sounds remarkably like the bottleneck is your storage media. Hard drive speeds are the biggest bottleneck for any local function these days, and they will continue to be for quite some time. Inexpensive SSDs will eventually help, but reports are that today’s SSDs read lightening fast, but write at about, or slightly better than, the same speed as most platter-drives.

  9. Karl says:

    @ Adam,
    True that bottlenecks happen. RAM, Bus speed, hard drive speed, network speed. All play a role in how fast a computer really is. My set up is pretty fast and am very comfortable with dealing with any issues of speed.

    Everyone is saying that if you email and surf the internet only, then you don’t need speed. I say you still do. Restart the fast computer and you’re still waiting for it. Launch any application and you’re still waiting on it. Download your email and you’re waiting.

    Run a java applet or flash… sometimes even the fasted computer bogs down.

    My point is… that vendors need to keep pushing speed. Why settle for “fast enough”. Be it processor speed or network speed or any other area. For example… Leopard is pretty fast but the next OS is promising to be faster. I love that Apple isn’t just settling for “fast enough”.

    Don’t get me wrong… I don’t think every one needs to go out and buy the top of line Mac. Just saying that no matter how fast a computer is… it’s more than likely that you’re going to be waiting on it a some point to catch up with you. 🙂

  10. dfs says:

    If I can weigh in at this late date, I don’t think I’m about to swap my first gen. Mac Pro for a Mini. On the other hand, I don’t imagine I’m going to make the investment in a faster computer for a long time IF (capitalized because this is a big qualification) I don’t discover new uses for a computer which require more speed than my present one can deliver. Yes, I find slowness annoying. Slowness in booting (Snow Leopard is supposed to be better here, and I admit I have several apps. set to launch automatically on a reboot, which adds to the time). Slowness in some programs loading (MS Office heads the list, thats its most dreadful feature, although the html code Word writes is a close second). Above all, slowness in broadband speed. Even when my ISP is going full steam ahead, which is not always, I’m aware how vastly better broadband is in countries like Japan and South Korea and angry at both Time Warner and the US government for giving me such third-rate service. But none of these frustrations would be solved by investing in a faster Mac.On earlier Macs I used to have speed problems with some apps. I use professionally, such as Dreamweaver, but the brute force of my Mac Pro is quite adequate for overcoming these problems.

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