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The Pursuit of Power

Computer geeks used to drool over how fast new models were. Do they still?

One of my all-time favorite TV commercials, which was for AOL in Germany, goes like this: An obviously frustrated middle-aged man is sitting at his computer and scowling. He asks, “How old is too old?” He looks at his computer again, and then looks up toward the camera, “In the words of a smart little sprat, ‘Papa, you’re just too slow for this world.'”

In the commercial, it’s the Internet connection that’s too slow, but it could just as well have been the speed of the CPU. For years, it was the macho thing (pardon, ladies) to have the fastest CPU clock on the block or in the cubicles. Some of you may recall a time in the past-that-is-becoming-murky when people waited eagerly for the next step up in CPU speed. Tongues hung out about the coming transition from the Intel 80386 to the Intel 80486. The reason for the drooling was clear: We needed the extra speed and performance, or thought we did. The speedup was the difference from 16 to 75 MHz (about .05GHz by today’s standard). There was cool stuff like multitasking that would be so much better with the new CPU. This sort of thinking was almost an annual event. Not any more. When was the last time you thought about upgrading your computer based solely on the knowledge of upcoming CPUs?

Are we becoming too old and jaded to appreciate faster CPUs, or is CPU speed becoming old? Yes to both. For one thing, the speed of the CPU (usually the clock speed) was marketed to death. For years, Intel, AMD, and others promoted clock speed as the ultimate test. Knowledgeable users knew that there is much more to the overall performance of the CPU than clock speed (such as cache memory and I/O speed)–much less the overall performance of the computer. Eventually clock speed declined in credibility, which furthered a diminishing interest in the CPU.

Then there’s today’s “plateau of satisfaction” regarding the performance of a computer. That’s the point when the majority of users, for the majority of their uses, find the currently available computers fast enough. This is related to the tired old argument, “Who needs all that CPU?” The retort was (and still is), “You can’t get too much of a good thing, if it doesn’t cost too much.” In other words, you may not need a 4GHz CPU to do word processing, but it won’t hurt as long as you’re not paying much for it. Of course, if you’re a gamer, produce home videos, design with autoCAD, or run enormous spreadsheets, you already know that faster equals better–period. This doesn’t mean that even these types of users hang around their favorite computer shop waiting for the new CPUs to come in. For a variety of reasons, most of us have become blasŽ about the CPU. Too bad.

I say too bad because right now there is a lot going on with CPUs, some of which will be knocking on the door of your opportunity very soon.

The most obvious and far-reaching change in the world of microprocessors is the ongoing transition from 32-bit to 64 bit registers. Hopefully over the past several years you’ve seen many explanations of the differences, I won’t go into them here. I will mention that 64-bithood was once the difference between mainframe and personal computers. Relatively soon, even mainstream portables and handhelds will have the processor equivalent of a big, honking mainframe. Yes, that is a lot of computing power, at least by the standards of the last 10 years.

Sixty-four-bit microprocessors are not new, RISC-based CPUs have been around for over a decade, and Intel, AMD, IBM, and others have had them for several years. Almost all of these were aimed at the server market and, no surprise, mainframe replacements. What’s relatively new is 1) the appearance of 64-bit processors that can legitimately join mainstream personal computing; and 2) the arrival of appropriate software, especially operating systems.

When microprocessors shifted from 16 to 32 bits, the first wave contained many hybrids–backward-compatible CPUs that could run both 16- and 32-bit software. The same pattern holds for 32 going to 64 bits. So far, AMD has jumped farthest in this direction with its AMD64 Athlon and now Opteron CPUs, which feature backward compatibility. Intel waited on this, probably fearing that less expensive 64-bit desktop processors might cannibalize its higher-end 64-bit Itanium line. The waiting cost Intel some of its technical advantage, and as you may have noticed, AMD is making mindshare inroads.

The big engine of 64-bit change is the horse race between Intel and AMD, which has competition right in the saddle where we want it. Both companies are racing to spread 64-bitness throughout their product lines. For example, Intel is including its 64-bit extensions, which goes by the lackluster moniker EM64T, in its low-cost Celeron D series. Likewise, AMD is putting 64-bit capability into its Sempron series.

Although they don’t necessarily have faster clock speeds than 32-bit processors, the 64-bit CPUs can handle more memory, chew a bigger byte (so to speak), and improve performance–but not, at least not by much, without appropriate software. The first step is 64-bit operating systems. There are a number of them, but the most likely candidates are 64-bit versions of Red Hat Linux, SUSE Linux, Windows 2003 Server, and Solaris. Note that these are essentially server OSes. Desktop versions from Microsoft (Longhorn) and Apple are in the works for this and early next year. (Mac OS X for the G5 already exists and for Intel processors, one of the big reasons Apple got in bed with the enemy.) About the same time, applications written and rewritten for 64 bits will appear more rapidly. It isn’t necessary to wait for 64-bit tuned applications; in general, the 64-bit CPUs will provide performance boosts even for 32-bit OSes and applications. However, it’s a good bet there will be a 64-bit killer app on the way to spur the transition.

This is not a “rush out and buy 64-bit CPUs today” situation (except possibly for servers). It’s more like the old-fashioned anticipation for the next step up in CPUs. And while you’re waiting, find out what’s coming. Learn the basic specs, and watch the details on the hybrids. See what 64-bit OSes and applications are available. Compare the prices. Look at it this way: As businesses (and individuals) are considering replacement of computers bought during the dot-com boom, the time is right for the 64-bit CPU.

Nelson King writes Pursuits bimonthly for ComputerUser.

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