Issues of perspective

In my mind, in my little world, I acknowledge that I live behind the leading edge of technology. I type this post on a machine that is 9 years old, and even when it was born, it was an underachiever. I know that and I respect it, but at the same time I am pleased that it does what it does, at the pace it does it, with a little coaching from me.

I got a look at the other side of the fence today, visiting a friend who owns a machine that so far outstrips this one that it might as well have traveled back through time. An Alienware Area-51 ALX X-58, an Intel Core i7 rated at 3.2Ghz over eight CPUs, and a whopping 12Gb of RAM. It’s a machine that looks and sounds like a V8 engine, and probably demands as much in resources. I was, to put it mildly, flabbergasted.

I didn’t even know machines were sold with those kind of specifications, although I admit to hearing about similar hardware while lurking in #crux. The last time I was in close proximity to a machine with anything near 12Gb of RAM, it was a rack-mounted server responsible for managing industrial-grade printing processes.

I don’t mean to critique the machine because that’s hardly any affair of mine. I wasn’t there to playtest it or check the hardware or even to touch it — and to be honest, I didn’t want to because I feared it might snap off a finger or two. I’m pretty sure it growled at me when I wasn’t looking.

But I take that experience along with the fact that I’ve bundled up the fastest machine I’ve had in my house for the past four or five months — a measly 1.4Ghz Celeron M packed into a failing Dell Inspiron 600m — and shipped it off to an address in America. I was weary of the sketchy motherboard and off-again, on-again keyboard performance, and given the fact that the machine never had any real sentimental value, I am almost as glad to get it off my desk as I was to originally try it out. “Lukewarm” is probably the best word for the entire experience.

But in my book, until this evening, a 1.4Ghz Celeron was fast, in much the same way a 2Ghz AMD64 was fast, or even a 1Ghz Pentium III was fast. I considered it a twin miracle of hardware superiority and my miserly tendencies to come up with a kernel configuration that the Celeron could compile, from start to finish, in under 10 minutes.

That kind of myopia probably isn’t good for me, on the whole. I already said I’d like to get my hands on a faster-than-2Ghz machine, if only to have reliable access to USB2.0 ports and a machine that can compile without undue stress. I am realizing more and more that what I consider to be usable, or what I consider to be fast, is only because my mental yardstick puts a Pentium 4 in the “high end” bracket.

And therein lies the problem: That’s not the case any longer. Three years ago when people were ho-humming 800Mhz machines, or a year and a half ago when Pentium 4s suddenly became “antiques,” I felt I had the moral high ground. But to make the same case for those machines now, after seeing my friend’s computer … well, it suddenly seems a bit weak.

After tonight I worry that maybe I sound like the hermit out in the woods, shouting about how to get the best performance out of a donkey cart, when the rest of the world is cruising around in Cadillacs. Perhaps my perspective is so distant from contemporary that there’s no point in ranting at all.

Oh well. I suppose there’s no harm in it. I’ll still keep an eye open for a proper 2Ghz-plus machine, and maybe one day find one I can plop down on my desk (in the space left over from the 600m), and be amazed and surprised at the incredible speed. And knowing me, I’ll probably blab about here. My only hope is that I can keep a balanced perspective on the issue, if I can look back and remember this note.

22 thoughts on “Issues of perspective

  1. Kaleb Elwert

    The problem isn’t what’s considered old – it’s what people think they need. No one in their right mind should need anything with 12 Gb of RAM when they can run something that’s just as responsive with under 2 Gb. I know my 1.6 Ghz Pentium-M is not considered “fast” by today’s standards, but I can be happy with knowing that my computer is running as fast as it can, running how I want it.
    I could run gnome on my “outdated” computer, but I don’t want to. It all comes down to the issue of choice that you mentioned in a previous entry, I think – I simply don’t choose to spend lots of money on a computer because mine will run fine.

    Heh. That sounded like a rant. It really wasn’t…

  2. helf

    I know some people that can actually make use of an i7 with 12gb of ram very easily. But most consumers can’t. It is just a waste of hardware.

    My fastest machines at home at still a dual 1.4ghz tualatin P3 box with 1.5gb ram and an overclocked 1.3ghz tualatin celeron running at 1.8ghz with 1.5gb ram. I’m still happy with them. I’d like to get a faster box, and I may yet build something like an i3. Haven’t decided.

    I have a NeXTstation slab that was built in 1992 that I still use every day, too 🙂 33mhz 040 glory..

  3. Serguei Filimonov

    Squeezing performance out of weak hardware is still very relevant. Not only you can use a computer for 5+ times longer and spend those hundreds of bucks on more important things, you can also use smaller hardware like netbooks. I read your blog all the time now and try to replace my heavy applications like amarok or gmail with cli alternatives like mp3blaster or mutt. So while everyone around complains about their powerful macbooks being slow, I’m cruising fine on a 10″ netbook without it breaking sweat.

    People like us are going to go through this cycle again when smartphones will be as powerful as netbooks, but squeezing performance out of even smaller hardware will come in handy again.

  4. p0ng

    For 7 years I had a Pentium 233 MMX (hahaha) with 32MB RAM running Slackware (7.1, 8.0 and 8.1) and Windows 98se. Today I have a Core 2 Quad 2.4GHz with 4GB of RAM. And still seek ways to make my system use less RAM. Not by greed. But not to accept that the same software consumes memory levels in different systems.

    In a notebook Celeron M 440 1.8GHz with 512MB RAM running XFCE consuming 60mb of RAM. On Core 2 Quad will do the same consuming 120MB of RAM. I think that the more memory the system, it is used.

    Almost every day I visit your blog. I am delighted seeing the screenshots you post, the optimization tips, the hardware you use, maximizing their use.

    Continue with this wonderful work and sorry for my English. I am Brazilian and I am writing this via Google Translate hahaha.

    Cheers 🙂

  5. Alex Combas

    “I worry that maybe I sound like the hermit out in the woods, shouting about how to get the best performance out of a donkey cart”

    Yeah but if you don’t, then who will?

    1. pkm

      I find it fascinating the waste thats going on. The marketing is certainly powerful.
      If the parts were more recyclable, or you could replace laptop LCDs like a PC lcd screen with generic connectors it would be another issues.

      Id be happy with a modern day zx88 sinclair. Ie keyboard + <200mhz SBC. the LCD is the tricky part to DIY.

  6. John Bohlke

    I remember the first time I saw my friend’s system that has a Phenom quad-core with 8 GB of RAM. I enjoyed using it to play some games and then watch some flash videos at full screen. The strange thing is that I can play some games on my Athlon system, via wine, and I can get close to full-screen playback from hulu using the zoom plugin for compiz. So really the main difference is he can run prettier games and Windows 7. When I thought of that, a lot of the envy I had for his setup disappeared.
    Just a nitpick the i7 has four cores with hyper-threading. That makes it look like it has eight cores.

  7. ajlec2000

    Everybody I know who has a 2 plus ghz machine uses it to play WOW and download badly copied bootlegs of movies under Windows. Imagine the power if those machines were running efficient OSs.

  8. Brett D

    I love P4 machines despite their ‘age’ in modern computing. In 2003 I built a powerhouse P4 machine that has more fans then most windtunnels and still to this day has no thermal paste on the cpu whilist being slightly overclocked! (when I ordered the machine I got the gpu paste accidentally, rushed in excitement to put the machine together and after a long enough time have just figured if she can last this long she simply doesn’t need it.)

    At my current job we sell lots of P4 machines that we refurbish (typically with a burner/dvd rom, 512mb of ram, and all onboard components usually – occasionally one will have dedicated graphics or a card reader) for $99 a piece. We get them cheap from offices we upgraded and honestly I think $99 for a full P4 desktop is pretty fair.

    Realistically though many of the current multimedia that PCs are typically used for by people (I’m looking at you flash) can make P4s go to a crawl. It’s sad because a video of even higher quality properly accelerated through mplayer is just that much more efficient.

    Long live the P4’s

  9. CorkyAgain

    Yeah, I bet we’ve all felt the tug of technolust when we see some of those high-powered machines.

    But most of us don’t need that kind of power. My son, who is an animator, probably does. But I don’t. I mostly use my computers to surf the web, check my email and play mp3’s. Occasionally I edit and compile some sourcecode, and while I admit that the compile would be faster on a more powerful machine, mine gets the job done and I’m happy with it.

    My machines: an 866MHz P3 running FreeBSD 8.0 and a PowerPC-based Mac Mini running OS X Leopard. I’ll eventually replace OS X on the Mini, since Apple has abandoned the PowerPC platform. But I don’t plan to replace either of these machines unless and until they break or my needs change.

  10. koleoptero

    I agree with what Serguei Filimonov said. Thanks to you I now use apps that keep my 1,8ghz laptop silent and cool, and I am going to abuse a 800mhz p3 laptop a friend has with what I’ve learned from your blog.

    And in the end, you just do what you like, right? And I think you’re more of a pioneer in your own way. 🙂

  11. steve

    I have a friend similar to yours who has a eee netbook, compaq nx9005 notebook @1.5GHz, some server with dual Xeons @~3.2GHz and a quad core compaq @2.8GHz & 4GB of RAM. When I enquired about his computing needs, I told him he could do everything with quad core and have the power to still use it as “a very expensive typewriter” as he often refers to it. His reply “yeah but I want all that other hardware” fair enough, but while he has been accumulating more or less useless hardware I have been learning to use mine and have acheived all that he desires to with a 500MHz Toshiba laptop from 1998, a 1GHz P3 desktop and a 1.6GHz laptop from 2004. I have a NAS on the P3, an 2 ftp server on all 3 machines 3 websites hosted on the toshiba. All 3 computers cost me a grand total of $600. IMO the ability to minimise ones hardware requirements while maximising performance shows more nous than those who get their overpowered boxen from the family appliance store and ditch them after a few years. I wouldn’t worry about being regarded as eccentric either. Seems anyone who thinks for themselves and outside the square risks that label 😉

  12. vespas

    i agree with what you say, but i think the argument goes both ways: people have done entire phds at the commandline and so on, but if you can have the newer machine (sometimes even for free, you’d be amazed at what people throw away: I recently got a mint-condition dell ‘for email and browsing’ *for free* that turned out to be a 3.2GHz p4 with 2gb ram…) then why not?

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  14. éric

    Please do continue shouting out about low performance systems and how to best make use of them. Although I have 3+ GHz systems on my desks, and they are used to the limit (computational design work), I spend several hours each day on a netbook (600 MHz)!

    The funny thing is that the tools that work best on the netbook work just as well on the high powered systems: my working environment (essentially ratpoison + emacs + org-mode) is the same regardless of the power of the system and I love it.

    Thanks for all your posts, by the way!

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  18. Guillermo Garron

    I have a Lenovo T60 which also old, It has 2 Gigs in RAM.

    I run Arch Linux with OpenBox on it, and as far as I can see, it just does all I need it to.

    I can not imaginge anything faster, as my tasks does not need any more speed.

    So, I think just like some of the other commenters said, you only should have what you really need. Keeping this old computers running even help the world. (Keeping it green).

    Nice article by the way.

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