Friday, 14 June 2013

What ever happened to....?

Was a song by the Stranglers.

Was adopted as a cruel taunt by a bunch of teenagers (I was one).

Is a question I just asked myself about the race for faster and faster computers, as a result of reading the latest email offerings from and

For as long as I've had computers I've always fiddled to get better performance, whether it was upgrading the Apple ][ e that was my very first machine in 1990 or '91 (freebie, ex-Wellcome - thanks Pete) building our first PC on the kitchen table with Trevor Brunwin or later trying to wring better performance for games and faster download speeds from the internet in all sorts of ways. More recently the modifications have been focussed toward aesthetics, philosophy (free - as in thought, rather than beer) but still with an eye toward performance.

So this mornings email crystallised the change I've noticed in my thinking recently - performance isn't an issue any longer.

For so many years the computer industry had been about speed, and with good reason, because many computers, even mid range versions, were embarrassingly slow to use, even for normal business use. Take the Sony Vaio with pentium 3 processor & 256Mb RAM that I mentioned in the previous post - that was a premium product, probably costing £1200-£1500 when new in 2002 or 2003, and straight from the showroom, with Norton and a bunch of non-function adware installed was already sluggish, probably taking 2min to start up and be ready for use. After a few windows updates it would probably have been taking 5min+ and then after it picked up the viruses that I found on it, even longer. After I'd cleaned it up, replaced Norton and allowed Microsoft to finish installing SP3 and malicious software removal tools etc it was taking 7-8 min to start up and settle.

But there came a point about 6-7 years ago where the hardware was fast enough to run sensible software selections more than quickly enough. The AMD based system I'd built in at the end of '06 would happily run lots of things under XP all at the same time, and startup was under a minute. I ended up installing and running Linux of various flavours on this, not because of performance issues, but because of the freedom philosophy I mentioned at the beginning, and because they looked exciting like computing did in the early days. And because I like to tinker, and this tinkering was free.

The key to performance, of course, being sensible software.

As I started writing this I remembered helping a young friend out last autumn, who had bought a brand new cheap Toshiba laptop. Either his friends had borrowed it or he'd been doing a bit of left-handed surfing/warez hunting, and it had become riddled with viruses, so a fresh re-install was in order. It was running W7 with (IIRC) 2 Gb RAM and a minimum spec AMD processor, and re-installing from a partition on the HDD. If that had been XP then I'd have expected the job done in 20-25min, plus, say, another 15min for drivers. We started at about 10pm and finished around 1.30am, at which point it had ONLY done the basic install plus the Tosh driver etc kit, but that etc also contained a lot of malware, and took more than 2 1/2 hours to install. And from a fresh boot it ran like a dog and was no more responsive than that Sony lappy with the Pentium 3.

What's all this ramble about?

People no longer expect their computers to be fast.

The advertising from the big players has backed off on the speed side of things, with a focus on just doing things smoothly and pleasingly. There are exceptions - obviously the chip makers need a reason for us to buy their stuff other than lower power use - but so many seem happy with mediocre performance these days. The chap whose son is getting the Sony laptop told me his home computer (probably 5 years younger) was slower and less responsive. And when I get involved with other people who are also having computer issues I usually find that their expectation of performance is so low that just having applications like firefox, word or excel open in under half a minute seems like a revelation.

So is that it - people expect mediocrity? You've nothing better to say?

Last night I sat down with the little laptop I bought to take to Africa, rather than risk having the Macbook stolen. The keyboard is glitchy and unreliable, but the small size, low weight and aesthetic of Pear Linux actually makes it nicer on my lap than the Macbook. Really. And although the Macbook has a faster processor, 4Gb RAM and an SSD hard drive, it only feels a little faster in use, and for stuff like surfing or DVD playback there's no difference at all.

And that is my point really.

So looking at the £400, £500, £600 bundles of components (not including graphics cards that cost more than a well-specified laptop) I find myself asking what ever happened to the performance race?

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