Thinking From the Box

The PC Performance Scam

Mike Wafkowski - 2001.10.08

It may be unpatriotic to suggest this in the light of the struggling economy and the beastly events of September 11, but the need for the latest and greatest and fastest PC is nothing but marketing hype and adolescent ego insecurity. Hardware performance has finally surpassed software bloat. The simple fact is: If you're a regular user, it's impossible to buy any new system that's not faster than you need.

It's cool that what you get for your computing dollar these days was impossible to even imagine a decade ago. The basic new desktop computer of 2001 would actually be sitting, performance wise, in the top 500 list of supercomputers for 1993. Yikes! The need for a 1 GHz or faster PC for everyday use is, well, silly and waste of cash.

Consider this my confession. For many years I was involved in the geek macho game of "my CPU is faster than yours, my hard drive is bigger than yours." I only stopped a few years ago. As a computer professional of 15 years who writes software, does consulting and a great deal of network setup and system administration there are currently nine PCs and one Mac on the home/office network.

I'm typing this piece on a four-year-old notebook with a Pentium 150 MHz CPU and 80 MB of RAM running Windows 95. Our two servers are a DEC 266 MHz Pentium II machine with 128 MB of RAM running Windows 2000 as our file and print server and a Pentium 166 MHz clone with 64 MB of RAM running Red Hat 7.1 Linux. The Linux machine is our mail, Web and FTP server, as well as a firewall/router.

The fastest machine in the joint is a 550 MHz AMD K-6/2 machine. The wife keeps complaining that the box is too fast when she works in Microsoft Word 97. Sometimes when she selects text, she tries to grab a block and ends up with a few pages instead. "The damn machine is too fast," she cries. She writes for a living.

Save yourself some real money. Whether you're your first PC or thinking about a second PC for yourself or your family, give some thought to purchasing a used or refurbished machine with a 450-600 MHz Intel or AMD processor (Intel Celeron or Pentium II, AMD Duron or even a K6-2), 64 MB of RAM and a 10 GB or slightly larger hard drive. The only thing you might want to go crazy on is RAM. With prices almost as cheap as dirt there's no reason not to have 128 MB or more of RAM in your machine.

One of these puppies will be found refurbished and with a 90 day warranty for somewhere between $200 and $300 (sans monitor) and will virtually always include Windows 98, sound, 4-16 MB of video memory, a CD drive, a 56K modem and most often an ethernet card. Don't think of it as being cheap, but rather as a matter of recycling (literally). Why have a single PC when you can have two ("the network is the computer" - Sun does get some things right) for the price of one.

I never thought I would say this, but unless you're a hardware tinkerer and love getting inside your PC and constantly twiddling and upgrading, it's probably a good idea to buy a "name brand" refurbished machine: IBM, Compaq, Dell, HP, etc. There is a glut of such machines around, and a whole bunch of reputable sellers have them for sale.

Having been a clone person for most of my PC life, it has come to the point where it is virtually impossible to assemble a PC from components for less than an assembled unit can be had "off the shelf." PC makers have been working on razor thin profit margins for the last few years, and any performance gain from building your own PC for equal or slightly less money will also go unnoticed with the current glut of CPU cycles, fast video chips, and ultra fast hard drives.

The only exception I can think of to the "less is enough" rule is the hard core gamer. Nothing stresses out hardware more than current games. My 20-something nephew has a recently upgraded (six months ago) 800 MHz AMD Athlon PC with a $300 whiz bang video card - and when I hear him curse his machine while he's playing the latest and greatest 300+ MB slash, burn, and bleed graphic adventure twitchfest, I come and take a look. It does look kind of slow, sort of. But I still get a headache from an occasional game of "Centipede," so I'm probably not a good judge.

You want to set up a second machine or your kid is going off to college and needs a PC? Buy one of the above mentioned, a refurbished 15" monitor, and an ink jet printer, all for less than $500. Competition in the consumer market is a wonderful thing. Make use of it and save your money for software - if Microsoft keeps going in the direction of the upcoming Windows XP, Wintel users are going to need all the money they have for software upgrades. But that's a topic for another day.LEPC

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