Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
6/2/2007
10:32 AM
David  DeJean
David DeJean
Commentary
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Everything Slow Is Fast Again

The arguments are as long-lived as they are useless. Could the 1958 Yankees beat the 1918 White Sox? Would Spiderman beat Batman? Who's the better heavyweight, Muhammad Ali or Jack Johnson? Which computer is faster, a 1986 Macintosh Plus running System 6.0.8 on an 8MHz Motorola 68000 CPU, or a 2007 PC running Windows XP Pro SP2 on an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ with two cores, each running at 2.4GHz? Oh, wait, here's a guy who has the answer to that one -- and it may surprise you.

The arguments are as long-lived as they are useless. Could the 1958 Yankees beat the 1918 White Sox? Would Spiderman beat Batman? Who's the better heavyweight, Muhammad Ali or Jack Johnson? Which computer is faster, a 1986 Macintosh Plus running System 6.0.8 on an 8MHz Motorola 68000 CPU, or a 2007 PC running Windows XP Pro SP2 on an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ with two cores, each running at 2.4GHz? Oh, wait, here's a guy who has the answer to that one -- and it may surprise you.Hal Licino posted an article on HubPages.com this week that compared the classic Mac with a current state-of-the-art PC. (Warning: spoiler information follows.)

The Mac won.

Out of the 17 tests, the 21-year-old Mac won 53 percent of the time. Of course, it was rigged. Licino didn't run automated benchmarks or compute-intensive hypotheticals. He tested things like launching Microsoft Word, scrolling a document, and saving a file -- things people actually do with computers.

Does he claim the Mac is the better computer? Of course not. He admits that today's PCs do a lot of things that weren't even possible in 1986. He doesn't even test any network-related functions like browsing the Web or playing streaming video, or even playing an audio file.

But his conclusion makes an interesting point nonetheless: the user experience of computers has not changed much in two decades. "When we compare strictly common, everyday, basic user tasks between the Mac Plus and the AMD we find remarkable similarities in overall speed. . . . [F]or the majority of simple office uses, the massive advances in technology in the past two decades have brought zero advance in productivity."

Licino says that most of the performance increases have been negated by bloated OS code that has added hundreds of functions that average users don't even know exist, let alone ever use. I'd add another thought: computers haven't gotten any easier to use in the last two decades, either. I think there are several things in the Vista interface, for example, that chew up CPU and GPU without actually making the computer more usable.

I've spent a couple of weekends recently doing tech support and training for relatives with both Macs and PCs who are struggling to do things like use flash drives to move files, include photos in their email, or find and extract attachments -- common, everyday, basic user tasks. One of my PC users' biggest problems is all the "help" they're getting from Microsoft -- Windows Automatic Updates, Windows Genuine Advantage, options that aren't optional, apparently endless numbers of updates that don't seem to make any difference.

I think Licino is onto something. The power of the personal computer has increased greatly in 20 years, but unfortunately a lot of it is being blown out the tailpipe as eye-candy and internals, not put where the rubber meets the road to make PCs faster and better for everyday users.

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