Daniel A. Dougan

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How much computing power do you really need?

Posted by danieladougan on July 2, 2013 at 9:45 AM

Disclaimer: This one gets pretty geeky, but it might be worth a read before you buy your next computer or tablet.

 

Back in late 2007, I wrote a column (on MySpace!) about how upgrading from Windows XP to Windows Vista was a bad idea.

 

A lot has changed since I wrote that blog. The iPhone was in its infancy at that time...it didn't even work on 3G until 2008. The original iPad was released on April 3, 2010. The first Android phone was released on September 23, 2008.

 

Back in May I added an update to the blog that Microsoft is terminating extended support for Windows XP on April 28, 2014, so if you're still using Windows XP, you really should start to think about upgrading your Windows version now or switching to Linux for security reasons. Windows XP, after all, was first released on October 25, 2001, and even Windows Vista is more than six years old now. Windows 7 was released on October 22, 2009, and Windows 8 was released on October 26, 2012.

 

But the fundamental question I posed back then still remains: how much computing power do most people really need? For me, the answer is that they need more than they used to, but not nearly as much as a lot of new PCs offer. Only a select few power users will take full advantage of the high-end machines available today.

 

At the D8 Conference in 2010, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said, “When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed on the farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, cars got more popular. Innovations like automatic transmission and power steering and things that you didn’t care about in a truck as much started to become paramount in cars. … PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by one out of X people.”

 

Another important thing happened not long after I wrote that blog entry: the emergence of the netbook. Intel released its first Atom system-on-a-chip processor in April of 2008 -- the idea was to leverage the Atom processor architecture to build small, very inexpensive laptops with long battery life.

 

Of course, this meant accepting some compromises in terms of performance. The Atom chips were single-core processors running at low clock speeds to conserve battery power and, of course, to save money.

 

A few netbooks were released with Windows Vista, which as my blog would have predicted, they could not handle. Vista was too much of a resource hog for lower-powered hardware, so the manufacturers stuck with Windows XP until Microsoft released Windows 7 Starter late in 2009. It's not necessarily that the Atom processors were too slow -- it's that they were too slow for Windows Vista.

 

Most people who bought netbooks probably didn't expect to play hard-core games on them, but they were so underpowered that office tasks and playing high-definition video were out of the question. So when the iPad stormed onto the market in 2010 and Android tablets followed, rather than relying on Intel's x86 architecture, they used chips based on a different architecture designed by ARM Holdings (including the ARM Cortex, NVIDIA Tegra and the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor lines) that had proven to be so well suited for smart phones in terms of excellent battery life. Apple's iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad devices use ARM Cortex processors.

 

Even though these ARM processors were even less powerful than the Atom chips; iOS and Android were leaner operating systems that got the most out of these low-powered processors. While netbooks were seen as bargain-basement laptops, tablets were accepted by consumers are more innovative and simpler to use for reading, web surfing and watching videos. They also weighed less than netbooks and had longer battery life. Netbook sales plummeted.

 

Microsoft saw the advantages of ARM processors (which could not run any version of Windows) as well and released Windows RT alongside Windows 8 in late 2012...most prominently in the Surface tablet. Unfortunately, the downside of Windows RT is that it can only run apps from the Windows Store and not software programs that worked on Windows 7 or before. Windows RT products have not sold well, and

 

The good news is that Intel has been plugging away for years making that Atom processors better and better. The current "Clover Trail" Atom processors (you would see them on a computer label as Atom Z2760) are dual-core processors with vastly improved graphics capabilities for 1080p video and excellent battery life. They are significantly more powerful than almost all ARM processors on the market, and they can run the full version of Windows 8. They're not quite as fast as Intel's other processors (Celeron, Pentium, Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7), but they're significantly better than the Atom processors released in 2008 and might just be fast enough for your needs.

 

For Holiday 2013, Intel will release its new "Bay Trail" line of processors, which will apply to Atom, Celeron and Pentium. Bay Trail processors will be very capable quad-core beasts that will be able to handle all but the most demanding computing tasks quickly (read: high-end gaming and huge spreadsheets or databases) in Windows while providing all-day battery life. Intel also confirmed that the Bay Trail chips will have Wireless Display capabilities that were only available in the Core series chips. Unless you are really pushing these things, they will be almost indistinguishable from a laptop running a much more expensive Core i7 processor, and the battery will last a lot longer. If you're worried that the screen on a laptop or tablet is too small for getting work done or that you can't type efficiently on a touch screen, remember that you can always attach a laptop or a tablet to an external monitor with a simple cable or soon without a cable via Intel Wireless Display, and you can pair it to a Bluetooth keyboard and -- in Android or Windows -- a mouse.

 

The apps that have become so prominent on iOS and Android are based on cloud computing: the idea that the device offloads the real processing chores to an external server via an Internet connection. The device -- whether it's a smart phone, tablet or laptop -- serves as a sort of thin client; little more than a screen with an Internet connection. Thin clients are an old idea that dates back to the days of the old mainframe systems. So, as more and more computing activities move to the "cloud," the less important your individual machine's processing power will become.

 

Intel has announced that manufacturers will release Bay Trail Atom-based tablets for well under $199...although these will probably run Android instead of Windows. The Windows versions may add a little cost (like $50), but you will be able to get a full-fledged computer with more than enough speed to handle all but the most demanding tasks later this year for a song.

 

If your budget is REALLY constrained and you don't need to use your computer on the road, you might want to consider getting an Android Mini PC -- for as little as $50. All you need is an HDTV or monitor with an HDMI input. As long as your needs are not terribly sophisticated, you can accomplish the most common Office tasks for free from any web browser on any operating system (including Windows) using Google Drive.

 

If you do have other options, I wouldn't recommend using an Android device as a primary computer, but Android TV sticks and tablets as well as Chromebooks can make perfectly capable secondary machines for very low prices. With small credit card readers and simple financial applications available, you could even run a business on a cheap Android smart phone or tablet.

 

The low cost, low power consumption and small size (for easy shipping) of these Android tablets and TV sticks could bring computing power including the Internet to more people throughout the developing world, advancing their economies, improving literacy, and combating poverty.

 

You might not even need a new machine at all. Consider as well that a computer system is not just about the processor; it's a chain that is only as strong as its weakest link. So if you're a little low on RAM (2 GB or less for Windows) or your hard drive spins too slowly (4200 rpm or 5400 rpm is way too slow) or if you have a slow Internet connection, your system could feel a little sluggish because those components can be significant bottlenecks. You can also optimize your Windows settings for efficiency over appearance. Adding the maximum amount of RAM possible as well as swapping out your hard drive for a solid-state drive or even a hybrid hard drive with a faster-spinning platter could breathe some new life into your older computer. Doubling the factory-installed RAM from 2 GB to 4 GB, adding a hybrid drive and upgrading my Internet connection has definitely gave my old 2009 laptop, which was pretty low end even then, a shot in the arm. Now it's every bit as responsive playing HD video, performing office tasks, or surfing the web on Windows 7 Ultimate as my work computer running on a quad-core Intel Core i7 with 8 GB of RAM. Of course, newer computers are MUCH more energy efficient than their predecessors, so keeping that older machine might end up costing you more in electricity bills.

 

In short, we got to the moon on a Commodore 64. Do you really need an Intel Core i7 processor -- which is more than 200,000 times more powerful -- just to read your Facebook feed?

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