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COMMENTARY

The New Gigahertz Machines Are Out…
But Do You Need One Just Yet?


By Shakil Ahmed

It may sound a little crazy for a guy like me (who manufactures computers for a living) to dissuade people from necessarily buying coolest, fastest box on the block. However, if you're like me, a businessman, it's good to think about your computing needs carefully before you walk into the shop to purchase one.

If you read any computer magazine these days (or even look at the pages of the local newspapers) you'll see big bold ads advertising the new computers now run a blazing one gigahertz or 1 billion clock cycles per second. That's pretty darn fast. We can put things in perspective by understanding that a gigahertz is about 200 times the speed of the first 1981 IBM PC. Amazingly enough it's twice the speed of the fastest PCs that were just introduced about a year ago. Now that the gigahertz machines are out I've had a chance to test them and thought I'd share my thoughts with you.


What difference does a gigahertz make?

I'm the first to admit that I'm a speed freak from a long time ago. Computers are a big part of my life. However, to be honest with you, when I finally got a chance to test the new machines running at a gigahertz it wasn't a life altering experience.

As a matter of fact, If you put a fast 500 Mhz machine alongside a similarly configured PC with a gig chip in it, I'll bet you won't be able to tell the difference with most applications such as web browsing, email and word processing. (You will note a difference though if you play with Adobe Photoshop or do heavy database work).

Here are some of things that haven't changed now that we are in the gigahertz era:

  • Unfortunately gigahertz PCs are just as crash-prone as their predecessors. So long as Windows is your OS you have to expect it.
  • It's still going to take an eternity to boot-figure between a minute and a minute and a half.
  • Unless you're a pro, it's still a pain to replace hardware. Windows plug-and-play still deserves its "plug-and-pray" moniker.
  • Getting on the Internet isn't going to be much quicker. However, a gigahertz processor, combined with a super fast video card such as Nvidia GeForce 256, does speed up complex Web pages. However, speed on the Net is still dictated by bandwidth. Buying a faster machine doesn't change that.

The bottom line is that for most of us, processor speed is not the only consideration. More than likely, the speed of a system will hinge upon the amount of RAM you have, the type of motherboard, the hard drive, etc. If you surf the web, the overwhelming issue is your bandwidth-the pipe that links you to the Internet.


Speed Can be Good for You

Now that I've said that speed isn't everything, there are significant numbers of users here in Hawaii where faster is indeed better. These people include engineers, programmers, graphic artists, scientists, and those who edit videos. For these individuals, more speed does indeed mean time saved at work. And, yes, if you or your child is a hardcore gaming enthusiast (I mean computer games not visits to Las Vegas!) a faster microprocessor combined with a super fast video card means a better and faster graphic presentation.

If you compare the performance statistics of a 400 Mhz Pentium II to the Gigahertz machines the results are pretty phenomenal. For example on Ziff-Davis' WinStone tests, which measure overall performance in most real-life applications, the new boxes were up to 75% faster than on the old PII.

As if these figures aren't fast enough, performance will ramp up a few notches shortly. By late summer, AMD will launch a new version of the Athlon, code-named "Thunderbird" which will run even faster and will have extra performance-enhancing ``Level 2 cache'' memory built in the chip (which is what Intel is already doing). Intel also plans to add new generation of chips, the "Willamette" series, this fall. They will run at significantly higher clock speeds (up to 1.5-gigahertz) and incorporate other improvements.


Back to Earth

If you are like the rest of us, there is some intrinsic value to getting a fast, well-built PC. However, it has less to do with a gigahertz microprocessor than it does with a well-engineered system that uses components that work well together. Earl Ford, over at Pacific Interactive, agreed with me on this one.

"It's one thing to buy a machine running a gigahertz," said Ford, but if you don't have a ton of memory, a super fast hard drive with lots of storage space, and a hot 3D video card, your new computer isn't of much value. You don't necessarily have to buy a name brand to be a good deal-just make sure that you're getting high quality components."

The bottom line: Whatever unit you choose, be certain your system is optimally configured for the work you do. If not, you'll be wasting a lot of raw horsepower. Note that the Athlon units can be ordered within a week or two but the Intel systems are tough to get. Expect to spend upwards of $2700. Happy hunting.

Shakil Ahmed is the founder of PDC Systems, a Honolulu computer and networking company established in 1991. Questions or comments should be addressed to askshak@pdcsystems.com

Pacific Business News - May 12, 2000

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