Ubuntu LinuxKnowing that my own perspective on computers and usability is slightly skewed from the norm, I occasionally hesitate to offer an opinion on certain topics. It’s not because I think I’m wrong, but because my own opinion is so far away from the median that I’m afraid I’ll be mistaken for a troll, or perhaps even a lunatic. (I don’t know which would be worse. … 🙄 )

This time it was a thread called “overpowered,” asking why so many Ubuntu users seem to use machines far beyond what is technically required. I felt like answering, but knowing that I occasionally resemble the weirdo hermit living alone out on the mountain, I decided not to.

The answer, of course, is obvious. People buy newer, faster, higher-end machines — particularly multicore systems and cutting edge video cards — because they feel there is some sort of application that demands that power. And that can mean a dual-boot system for gaming, compiling power, virtual machines, rendering power, and so forth.

I can appreciate that — after all, one of the main reasons (aside from sentimental value) that I keep my Inspiron is that I need the “muscle” to do some of the compiling for other, older computers. Of course, nowadays, the idea of using a 1Ghz machine for compiling “muscle” is almost laughable.

At the same time, I can sympathise with the original poster’s question. I don’t think it inflammatory at all. For all the people who respond that they need that “power” for gaming or rendering or compiling, I’m wondering how many of them actually require it on a regular basis … and how many rarely, if ever, need anything beyond the comfortable 1Ghz I consider to be speed demon.

It’s not for me to say. I don’t know how much compiling or rendering or virtual machine use is allotted to the casual Ubuntu user. When I used Ubuntu on a daily basis, it was extremely rare that I needed to compile something, considering that the bulk of Ubuntu is prepackaged and ready for anything.

I do have another hypothesis — that the push for newer, faster hardware is a bit of an aftertaste from using Windows, or owning Mac machines. Call me crazy (plenty of people do 🙄 ), but the blanket solution for most Windows users for any performance decay is invariably new hardware. Faster machines, more memory, a larger hard drive, a newer video card.

I used to follow that same trap (I use the word “trap” deliberately here) too, so please don’t be offended if I have somehow labeled you; I’m labeling me too. After all, you’re talking to the person who sank $3000 in a then-state-of-the-art Dell M170 way back in late 2005, only to sell it off again a few months later, once dual core machines hit the market.

But knowing that the best solution (short of switching operating systems) for poor performance was to sink more money in a computer … well, I may be crazy, but I think some people might be ingrained with the idea that better-faster-stronger is only possible with new components.

So reflexively, regardless of how long we’ve used Linux or how we came to meet it, everyone (me too, and I sometimes have to pinch myself as a reminder) naturally assumes more power is necessary, newer hardware is necessary, the latest and greatest is necessary.

Of course that’s only true if my original response — there exists some application which requires that power — is true. For me, and probably for the majority of “casual” computer users, I don’t think multicore, cutting-edge components are actually “necessary.” Checking e-mail? No, not really. Watching YouTube videos? Well, some power is required, but I can get it done at 450Mhz if I want. Gaming? Depends on the game, really.

Again, I don’t have an answer except for the obvious: People buy it because they do something that needs it. But on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder what use there really is, if we strip out all the compilers, the renderers, the virtual machine users, and we’re left with the day-to-day users, chatting, surfing, and playing Tetris.

Which by the way, is 25 years old, as of last week. How’s that for a roundabout closure to a blog post? :mrgreen:


43 thoughts on “Overpowered?

  1. armornick

    Argh, you got me there. I bought a laptop with the best processor and the most memory I could afford, and what do I do with it? I retro-game and I browse the web 😉

    Maybe I’ll need it when I go to college, but I doubt it, since you compile programs at 1 GHz. Why the heck would I possibly need 2.4 GHz?

    1. armornick

      Oops, sorry for the ‘double post’ but I just remembered something I need all that memory and that processing power for; I am used to giving 1 GB of RAM to my virtual machines 😉

  2. Luca

    Totally agree! A couple of the arguments in that thread are that people need them for virtual machines, which is just plain ridiculous. More memory yes, but you don’t need the latest and greatest processor. I know a guy running server hardware (a couple of Xeons and 8GB ram) from a few years ago that runs about 6 Windows virtual machines (Vista and XP) fine.

    Newer hardware does have the ability to underclock itself when not being used to its full capacity, however this has been around for a few years now.

    The only reason why I can see needing to get the latest and greatest hardware is to play the latest games, but in that case I doubt you would be using Ubuntu. If you are then you are a fool!

  3. Higor

    Seriously, i think people must review their needs before buying a new computer. I know many of them do not understand anything about computers, so why not to ask someone who understand? In my opinion it would help the consumers (the cost would be lower), the IT people (some few dollars more on the wallet) and also the world (less e-waste).

    Software designers and developers should spend more time making more usable, better designed and better performance software, so people wouldn’t need to be upgrading so often because of software issues. I don’t understand why the hell many software companies want “pretty and heavy interfaces” instead of usable well designed interfaces. Yeah, it does attract consumers but it also might scare them because of the usability problems.

    Hope you understood my English.

  4. Timmy

    Agreed with wholeheartedly.
    What gets me is how my 1 GHz, 512MB RAM computer is faster than most of the 2.x GHz, 4GB RAM boxes I come into contact with. There isn’t enough to be said about just taking care of things. Which usually means installing Linux, but even my dualbooted XP is quicker than XP on faster hardware because I don’t abuse it.

  5. JakeT

    My friends who are always getting the newest/best/whatever don’t do it b/c they need it.

    They get that stuff because they WANT it. To them, there’s something appealing (I can’t articulate what b/c I don’t really feel the same way) about knowing their machine can rip and transcode an entire DVD in less than 15 minutes, even thought they may only do that once a week at best.

    It’s a very Tim Taylor thing–“more power, ugh, ugh!”

  6. damaged justice

    I could replace every computer in my house with a Marvell plug, and for most of them it would be an upgrade. Everything my network does could be done with all plugs, with the exception of some audio and video transcoding (no floating point, so even a cluster would tend to drag). So much smaller, so much less electricity use, so much less noise? Sign me up!

  7. secdroid

    I guess it all depends on the apps you run.

    My good old Duron 950 died and I looked for an inexpensive replacement. Dell had a deal on Inspiron 530 refurbs for US$177.59 with free S/H. Only a Celeron 450 (single-core) @ 2.2 GHz, with 2 GB RAM, Intel GMA, 250 GB, kbd, mouse, no display. Nice quiet machine with 1 year warranty at a nice price.

    By K. Mandla standards, it probably is a bit overpowered. (My 200 MHz laptop would be “better” 😉

    The Inspiron is a great little Linux box. I wanted to save the Vista Home Basic partition so I could access Netflix “Watch Instantly” movies with their M$ DRM. It was hell to shrink the Vista partion, but once done the box works well with Netflix movies, Vista, and M$ Silverlight DRM.

    On the Linux side, stock Ubuntu Jaunty is zippy enough for me. I plan to switch to Arch and LXDE because I prefer a no-Mono, minimal desktop. Performance should be much better.

    However, Adobe flash and fullscreen (even non-HD) videos are too much for this little processor under Linux.

    Again, as with most things, it all depends.

  8. Ksennin

    I missed one of the fields and I lost a huge reply. Darn.

    Well, on the high-use app front, at my engineering job, draftsmen are reporting that AutoCAD 2010 is slowing down noticeably their QUAD CORE 3.5GB RAM machines. That is insane.
    We used to run AutoCAD 2007 on Pentium4s with 1gb perfectly, and the changes are only a better interface and better file compression, as we rarely use the higher 3d rendering functions. Yet clients are already sending us files in 2010 format.

    Sloppy or indifferent coding?

  9. Sam Weston

    I agree with the sentiment of this post but I must admit to both of my systems being dual core at this time. I think a lot of it is the Tim Taylor thing as mentioned above, I love having lots of power, but because I can :P. That said I can justify all the components in my systems.

    My laptop was the latest (but not greatest) from about a year ago. I very nearly got a second hand thinkpad or something off of ebay with a PIII but I got this one (Dell XPS M1330 with Ubuntu) because it has features like frequency scaling and I could have a 9-cell battery for nearly 6 hours of battery life which I very much need and couldn’t find on older systems.

    My desktop is a different story however. I built it almost exactly 3 years ago because my last system was a noisy and not particularly fast system cobbled together from spares and parts off ebay. I would now have kept all the major parts and just got a better, quieter case for it, and probably a quieter PSU and CPU cooler but that’s all. But when I built my new system I was only just considering switching over to Linux and so was thinking about how it would run Vista (beta at that point).

  10. Keithpeter

    I use an old p3 laptop with 256Mb of ram and it will run a full Ubuntu (well, more sort of jog). I’m now using a cli install with gdm/xorg/lxde and it does reasonably well. The weak point is the memory, there is a fair amount of swap going on.

    It lives at College in a carrier bag and I use it for last minute handouts, projecting Impression presentation slides, and a bit of web surfing. I did not install the network manager, I found I could use wvdial with my mobile internet modem.

    I take the point about battery life made by secdroid. The old Dell gets about ninety minutes from battery. I have two power supplies so I can use it on the train to work for handouts / marking.

  11. colonelcrayon

    I don’t think it’s fair to stick all the blame with Windows/Mac mentality. Consider the rather obscene requirements for running a full-blown KDE 4 or GNOME environment on most distros…

    But I agree with your message 🙂

  12. JiGGaK

    I think it’s not always a question of need (or perceived need) that drives someone to the latest and greatest hardware. The fact is today computer components are getting really cheap. It no longer costs thousands of dollars to get a semi top of the line system anymore and modern hardware can make a difference in the overall performance of a rig… even for simple stuff like browsing and email.

    For about 5 years my desktop system was an AMD 1.4 GHz system with 1GB of ram. At the time I probably spent about $600 CDN putting it together. A few years back I bread new life into the thing after switching from Ubuntu to Crux then finally settling on Arch. Using Arch I setup a simple Openbox based graphical env with many of the comforts you find in gnome and everything ran really well. I even ran an XP virtual machine for running some of the BlackBerry development tools.

    Recently I started doing more and more contract work from home which involved running multiple Java app servers for debugging and the Eclipse IDE. While the system could handle it, there where a few annoyances here and there which prompted investigating new hardware costs.

    In the end I was able to get a 2.6 GHz dual core athlon 64 with 4 GB of ram for about $500 CDN. The difference in performance is mind blowing and to be perfectly honest I am more productive now. Could I have endured the old system? Undoubtedly yes. But for very little money (relatively speaking) I got a system which performs amazingly for any task I throw at it and it will probably last me at least another 5 years if not many more.

  13. road

    i totally agree, in principle. i’m writing this on my 5 year old XP laptop with 768MB ram that runs faster than everyone else in the office’s new PCs. the poster that mentioned ‘care’ was spot on.

    my one disagreement, though, is about youtube and linux. i recently got a netbook (for fun) with modest but respectable specs (1.6Ghz, 1GB ram). I actually have it triple-booting Ubuntu, XP, and Windows 7 which allows me to make some nice comparisons. I bought it because I wanted to learn to love linux, but I actually found Ubuntu to be quite a bit slower than XP. even start-up! I tried several different lightweight distros (SLAX, etc) and while some of them were quite speedy, they all had problems with youtube… and I generally find firefox much more sluggish than Chrome in XP. but like I said, the only real application that i noticed a *big* speed difference was youtube. is this the fault of Adobe? or is it the fault of the Linux community? this was actually a deal-breaker for me and I now spend most of my time in Windows 7 on that netbook (which is suprisingly snappy, although I have barely any software on it and it’s still new).

  14. Piotr Kaźmierczak

    I agree as well, and I have to tell you, that we’ve been having same thoughts about computers together with my fiancee.

    we’re both running linux on our ~7 year old laptops (mine is a thinkpad, hers is an HP), and we both consider them speed daemons. thing is, that if they weren’t broken (both turned out to have serious motherboard-related problems), we wouldn’t change them for anything else, because for running emacs, opera and an email client, you don’t actually need a faster computer. we really think, that a great majority of computer users doesn’t even need a multicore cpu or a fast gpu. some people play games, that’s correct, but game consoles become more and more popular, and really, does it make sense playing video games on a, say, 15” laptop screen when you can plug your console into an HDTV display in your living room? funny, because we both remember that computer hardware used to become outdated much faster. I remember using a 166mmx desktop computer for a long time, and it became too slow a year after being bought. nowadays, though, I don’t think people replace their computers unless they break down.

  15. clam

    I had an old Acer Aspire laptop (amd64 single-core, around 1.8ghz, 1024 MB DDRAM) of which the fan broke. Because there wasn’t a fan in the house with the right voltage, I opened the whole thing and rebuilt the board in a strong cardboard box, fan wired up to a separate power converter. XD It’s now running Ubuntu Jaunty.

    Thing is, it does run a little slow on some desktop apps. Though there are no fancy graphics options set, when it runs aMSN and Firefox at the same time, windows switching tends to be quite sloooow. You’d think the machine would be powerful enough!

    I’m wondering what would be a better distro to use for some decent looks (but no fancy animations needed), Firefox, aMSN, VLC, Samba sharing, stuff like that. I don’t mind having to hand-optimize things. Just want it to be faaaaast. Any thoughts anyone ??

    Rob from the Netherlands.

    1. thealphanerd

      Install Ubuntu minimal, then install the set of apps with:

      sudo apt-get install xorg gdm icewm menu firefox amsn vlc

      I’m not sure about samba though.

        1. thealphanerd

          You’re welcome. You’ll have to install stuff at the terminal using a similar procedure, but should be about the same results afterward.

  16. Adam G.

    “Roundabout Closure”…like a Simpsons episode. I like it.

    I never thought about this in terms of Ubuntu users in particular, but I have wondered why people in general feel compelled to get newer, faster, bigger computers when all they do is surf the web and send e-mail. The answer to that, I suppose, is the netbook. While I’ve heard about people being upset to find they can’t do everything on a netbook that they can on a full notebook or desktop, the reality is that most modern netbooks are better than standard computers of just a few years ago.

    Still mulling this all over.

  17. Adrian

    A BIG, BIG reason to buy newer hardware is gaming. Because with gaming, a newer computer means a better experience. (To a certain degree of course)

    Personally, i want a new computer because my current one (a pentium 4 3.0ghz, 1024mb RAM, 6600GT) simply isn’t enough to play games dating back two years on even the lowest quality.

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  19. mulenmar

    I actually use a 750mHz AMD Athlon for my day-to-day usage. Youtube flash vids are skippy on the video, but otherwise it runs a decent Debian Squeeze system. I only break out the dual-core for trying compile-intensive distros. 🙂

  20. devnet

    I think if you compare this to say…people who work on old American cars…it comes to full perspective.

    Those guys supe up their cars with all sorts of nonsense to make them more powerful and faster. They always go with the bigger better deal.

    Then there’s me in my 4 cylinder getting 44 miles per gallon able to go from 0-60 in +12 seconds. For me, the minimalistic approach is acceptible and preferred. For the other guys, they need more power to satisfy their own desires.

    I think desktops are pretty much the same here…and there is a constant barrage from media outlets to have “the next big thing”. Roll that into one package and it isn’t a mystery why people want overpowered machines.

  21. Joe Terranova

    Try playing h264 video on a 1ghz machine.

    I have an hdtv. When I hooked up my Dell Workstation from college (a monster at the time – 3 GHZ P4, 2GB of ram, gForce Quadro video card), I found it couldn’t handle the one thing I wanted: playing HD h264 video.

    I bought a very cheap desktop machine with around the same specs (minus the quadro), but with an AMD Phemon chip, just so I could play HD video

    1. colinnwn

      Why didn’t you just buy a new (and cheap) graphics card that supports h264 playback in hardware and use a video player that supports same? I have one I bought for $25. Maybe they are all PCI-E and you only had AGP?

  22. hosadas

    “Watching YouTube videos? Well, some power is required, but I can get it done at 450Mhz if I want.”

    Have you tried watching a high-bitrate video in HD lately?

    Watch this video on your 450 Mhz machine and let me know how it went.

  23. Donald Lee

    I’ve got to agree. It used to be that when giving advice to new computer buyers, I would spend some time explaining the intricacies of the benefits of each system. 5400 rpm drives versus 7200rpm. Faster processors, videos cards etc.

    Now, for a majority of anyone asking about computers, I tell them, “Get whatever you want. Just make sure you get 2 to 4GB ram and it’ll be plenty fast for just about whatever you want to do.”

    Most of these people will use their computer for webbrowsing, music and office which really doesn’t require much.

  24. Leon

    I don’t know about other people but I like to run high end hardware because I really hate taxing my system. When I start hitting 75-80% usage of either my processor or ram I start to get uncomfortable and I start imagining my computer slowing down under the work load. I like operating with plenty of power to spare.

    That said I personally am very demanding of my computers and I’m probably not a very typical user. I edit pics that print out to poster size, listen to and occasionally remix music, watch and edit HDvideo (I plan on buying an HDTV tuner card for my computer soon so I can record HD Video from my cable), I run virtual machines to play with different OSes and do things to them that I wouldn’t usually do to my computer for fear of rendering it unusable, I’ll have 50 tabs open in firefox as I seed and download a dozen or so torrents. And I’ll do several of these things all at once. And yes I do dual boot windows for gaming too.

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  27. Nobody Important

    I’m using a Sony Vaio laptop that’s actually a reliable beast (kind of an oxymoron, “Sony” and “reliable” I know) but there are times when I can tell Ubuntu can’t quite squeeze into a few things I need it to do. I use Ubuntu 9.04 (stripped down quite a bit), and the machine has 1.25 GB of RAM with a 1.6 Ghz Pentium M machine. Playing music and web browsing at the same time is a slog, and YouTube videos stutter.

    Then again, I notice the smallest dip in performance. I only game a little bit (my minimum requirement is Unreal Tournament 99), but I’m looking at a few upgrades for an empty computer case I have lying around. Subtract the hard drive and DVD drive from the equation (these I have), and you can upgrade a motherboard, processor and RAM for less than $100. Dual core, 64-bit, 1 GB of RAM – good enough for me.

    I’d like to use Arch, but it’s simply too hard for me to understand at this time. I spent weeks trying to start up X. That’s why I don’t complain about performance; I know Ubuntu can be a dog at times on older computers. I keep to Ubuntu for simplicity’s sake.

    1. Timmy

      I think you’re doing something wrong. I had a Sony VAIO PCG-TR3A (1000 Mhz, 512 MB RAM), whose screen broke recently, but before that it was running Hardy and Intrepid quite comfortably.

  28. Jeff Flowers

    K Mandla,

    It just occurred to me what your blog is: the Linux version of Lowendmac.com. That is a site dedicated to low end computing, except from a Macintosh point of view.

    Unsurprisingly, I’ve never seen a similar site for Windows.

  29. helf

    I’m glad someone else thinks like this. I know so many people with core2 quad machines and 8gigs of ram that only surf the web and don’t even game. It is a huge waste of money and resources.

    My current computer is a Dell GX1 that I’ve upgraded to a 1.4ghz tualatin celeron, 768mb ecc pc133 (max ram), 16gb ssd boot disk, pci sata controller, fx5500 pci video, 500gb sata, and 300gb sata drives and a dvd burner. It does *everything* I want extremely fast and draws a max of 75watts (thats the highest reading I managed from my kill-a-watt :)). People I know have seen me using it and were amazed at how “snappy” it is. My other machine is a 33mhz 040 NeXT workstation ;P

  30. rebaj

    Technically there isn’t alot of people who use *moderately* powered computer like you, or at least we use those stuff for ol’ reliable home servers,

    An Atom based netbook which is probably more than enough for you, is underpowered for most out there. It cant even handle Flash games well (well, youtube’s sd quality is fine..).

    And about Crysis, we have no choice but.

  31. Zeist

    I’m a professional developer, so big amounts of compiling is standard in my everyday life. For me taking advantage of four fast cores to compile saves hours of compile time per day.

    Also, part of what I develop are things like GPU image processing, which requires me to find ways to take advantage of the latest in graphics card technology. So I need to keep up to date with the latest graphics cards as well.

    Then again, I do not and will never run Ubuntu, and as such this doesn’t really apply to me. I spend quite a bit of time tuning my Gentoo system to be as optimized as possible even though it’s a 3GHz C2Q

  32. The Doctor

    I just want to throw out the thought that newer (ie: AMD Athlon Brisbane dual-cores) kit runs with less power consumption. A X2 5050e/2.6GHz) uses 45W @ full load, while my Sempron 2800+/1.6GHz (active as 24×7 headless server/rtorrent slave… Thks for that post!) uses 62W. SSD’s use less than mechanical, IIRC.

    Heh. I’m hardly a home user though… I’m also looking @ getting a couple of Intel Pro MT for NIC-bonding… gotta be able to move GBs ASAP in my lil’lab.

  33. Dave Knowles

    I`m building my own gaming pc on a budget of under £400, i think i have the best system for the budget i have, you can follow my progress at the squidoo lens.


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