Is Faster Really Better?

By on June 6, 2007

Here’s a side-by-side test I’ll bet you thought you’d never see; a Mac Plus running System 6.0.8 up against a mighty AMD Athlon Dual-Core running Windows XP. (link)

We focussed on running tests that reflect how the user perceives the computing experience. After all, most users don’t know or care whether their computer has a 65nm dual-core CPU or a tiny midget wizard squatting in their cases. All they care about is how it works and how quickly it does the tasks we most often ask it to do.

And guess who won? The Mac Plus, of course.

It’s pretty obvious that the test results reveal less about the hardware used than about how we use the software that runs on that hardware; the hardware isn’t the limiting factor in getting things done on a computer. And the test reinforces what I’ve known to be true for a long time; that putting a desktop with more of everything in front of someone isn’t necessarily going to make them more productive, especially if the user is burdened by poor proficiency with the applications they use and a limited view of how to use the computer you put in front of them.

There are of course some areas of work where this doesn’t necessarily hold true; in my field of work — the print industry — going to slower processors and 20 year old applications would put a huge damper on productivity, because the work we deal with day in & day out involves huge amounts of data. I remember the days when you’d hit print on an 8-page layout to send it to the RIP at 4pm today and you might have film waiting for you by the time you got to work tomorrow. And if you found a mistake, guess what? Nowadays, with G4 & G5 desktops and RIPs with dual 3GHz processors and 4GB of RAM, that same job gets done in a matter of minutes instead of hours. Faster is much, much better.

Add to that the issue of our customers who insist on having the latest version of every software package available, and every new release seems to have increasingly higher hardware requirements. Those customers generate their art files using that latest & greatest software and send it to us; in most cases those files can’t be opened by earlier versions, so we upgrade hardware and software to keep up with our customers. We have no choice in the matter.

But when it comes to the more mundane tasks that happen every day in a typical office environment, all the horsepower, disk space, and memory capacity available on modern hardware is just so much fluff. In my current job, one of my responsibilities is purchasing an maintaining all of the PC desktops. There are times when I just can’t believe what I’m buying, especially when I know that the only things that’ll ever be run on it is Word, Excel and a database client. A faster machine does nothing for users like this.

When it comes to the matter of monitor size as it concerns efficiency, there’s no turning back. I would never ask any of my users (much less Deane) to go back to using a Plus with its miniscule 9 inch grayscale monitor. I remember the days of doing page layout on something similar, and those weren’t good days. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that multiple monitors can boost productivity and make it easier to multi-task on a computer; just ask anyone who has more than one monitor on their desk.

The problem is that even though the vast majority of us and the users whose desktops we manage don’t need gee-whiz multi-GHz machines, we buy them anyway. When it comes time to replace broken hardware or add new computers in a business setting, it’s usually more cost effective to buy new from the Dells and Gateways of the computer world than to roll your own or buy used/refurbished gear. (But what about multiple users sharing a single PC? Is that even feasible in a business setting? I’m very tempted to give something like that a shot.)

So in the end, even though we don’t see any productivity increases from buying the newest, hottest machines and software available, we do it anyway because that’s what is available. And since the upgrade cycle is what makes the computer industry go around, there really isn’t any end in sight, is there.

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Comments

  1. Sure.. my P4 1.8 suffices as long as I get a new drive for the system once in a while, and boost memory capacity. :-) All I’ve gotten for my system since 2002 is new hard drives, ram chips.

    Comparing computer benchmarks, by the way, is like comparing the acceleration power of gasoline engines with the pulling capacity of diesel engines. The Gasoline engine stalls with big loads and the diesel can’t pull their loads quite as fast. Different.

    One chip can be more hardware-optimized for a particular instruction set (for benchmark purposes) than the other. It hardly reflects everyday use…

  2. I’ve always maintained that faster(unless it relates to actual time savings in the real world)/bigger isn’t always better and that if it does what you need that should suffice. there are many older computers out there in the world still operating that could be put to good and some are, I still have Win 98 running on my first laptop (and technically still have a desktop with 95 on it, although I haven’t switched that on in a while now), but it is starting to show its age and is becomin slower, funny I don’t remember it being that slow, do computers become infirm with old age ?? I think not the issue that is currently driving the need for newer computers (apart from games) is security, with ever increasing layers of protection required we do need something with grunt to power all that, hopefully some day soon we will hit a point where we can still use the computers we first bought in a productive manner.

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