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Are Computers Getting Too Fast?

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?