I don't understand computers...

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been using computers since the 386s, and I once owned a PC servicing business. But here’s where I’m mind-boggled…

Years ago, I remember when the Pentium III came out, and the Pentium 2 was marketed as “Good for basic computing, such as internet browsing, word processing, checking emails, etc.”.

Fast forward to present day with all these dual and even quad core processors… Celeron 2.6ghz or AMD Sempron chips are marketed as “Good for basic computing…”

In between those 2 examples, are a hundred others. As faster processors flood the market, the lower end gets the same title. How do they get away with this?? And how is a computer that is a top notch fire-breathing machine 4 years ago, become as they say “nearly obsolete” now? As the internet and basic word processing changed all that much?? Knowing computers, I know that a Pentium 3 or even a Celeron 466Mhz is still capable of basic computing… but still…

Well, yes. If you look at the operating systems, web browsers, and word processing software now compared to back then, they’re advanced over the programs of the past, but that requires stronger and faster computer components.

Yeah back then was just bassicly text, now you have things like java, and flash which requires more CPU power as well as the browswer and OS itself.

The basic idea is pretty simple but the full story will take a long time.

Pentium II’s are still fine for most basic computer tasks such as surfing the web and basic office tasks. Microsoft Office is a great example of a mature product. No one will laugh if you compare Office 97 to the offerings today. They just aren’t that different.

The demand for ever better computers is driven by the following:

  1. Games - these always push hardware limits as hard as they can.

  2. New software in general - they say that is way easier to upgrade hardware than re-write software and that is largely true. Big databases and other resource intensive applications benefit directly and heavily from newer hardware at not much cost.

  3. Storage - older computers with a 2 gb hard drive can’t run Windows XP well at all let alone store things like video files and a huge collection of MP3’s which have become increasingly popular.

  4. Compatibility - some things just won’t run on older computers.

  5. Garbage - computers tend to slow down over time as things like the Windows registry become full of more and more stuff. This creates the illusion that the hardware is much slower than it could be and demands replacement.

A Pentium II circa 1998 will still work fine for most basic tasks but hardware just isn’t that expensive anymore and a new $600 box seems like a great deal for most people and probably is once you add up all the hassles of getting the old one to keep doing what you want reliably in both hardware and software terms. Many people use their computer so much that it is an essential machine and not something to be nickled and dimed with.

For example, here were the minimum requirements for Word Perfect 6:

Here they are for Word Perfect Office X3:

Software gets slower faster than hardware gets faster.

I’m sure someone will poke in to one-up me, but as long as your OS limits stay modest, you can run old or obsolete hardware easily. I just installed Ubuntu Linux (with an office suite, web browser, and more) on an AMD Athlon 950. I would have installed it on the Duron 850 I had, but since I was using a Socket A motherboard (almost 7 years old) I figured I’d use the fastest CPU I had sitting around.

Like I said, more compelling examples are certain to exist: my mother-in-law is using a Pentium-I with a 75 Watt power supply, 64 MB of RAM, and a 1.5GB hard drive. She uses it as an e-mail terminal and that’s about it. It does what she needs.

A machine from 10 years ago is about as good at word processing as one today, but the internet is relying less and less on text. Much of the information is conveyed by images, and many sites are focusing more and more on streaming video. Some stories on major news sites are (annoyingly) video only. Fat lot of good if you have Netscape 2.0, no flash capability, no current video codecs, no support for CSS2, etc etc ad infinitum.

Many folks, and even federal legislation, have shot up in support of accessible websites, those based firmly in HTML that will still provide information to disabled users with screen readers, and those without graphic/video support.

Word processors at their core haven’t changed much in the basic sense that you type something, it shows up on the screen, and you can print it out and read it later. There have been improvements in the user interface to make editing, poor spelling, etc. easier, but most upgrades include support for embedded media and low-tech graphic design.

To give proper credit, this is Wirth’s law, popularized by Niklaus Wirth circa ~1995.

There’s another point I’m not hearing yet. Computers that are way smaller and slower than the popular ones today can still do a great deal of work. For example, I wrote a program that analyzes variable star brightnesses and creates a graph showing the repeating surges in brightness in a window that slides along through the years, based on an 80 year old glass plate astrophotograph collection in Massachusetts. It worked and was useful. This was on a TRS80 computer running the CPM OS on a Z80 processor with 64 kB of RAM. For another example, at work we still use a data acquisition system that records hundreds of temperatures multiple times a second, converting digital versions of the thermocouple voltages using 9 term polynomials. It’s all written in FORTH and Assembly. This is a 386 processor with a 387 coprocessor.

I’m not trying to argue that the latest software is worthless, but I think the OP suspects the popular suggestions about what computers need reflect a certain forgetfulness, and I’d agree.

There is a phenomenon called software bloat which is essentially caused by newer versions building on older versions, plus time limitations on development life cycles. As software gets more and more complicated, it’s more difficult to tune for performance.

Plus, how else are Intel and AMD going to stay in business?

Well, I do have to say that software hasn’t been keeping up with hardware the past few years, aside from games. My old Athlon64, which was 2.5 years old still felt quite snappy before I somehow fried the motherboard. Also, powerful machines aren’t expensive (especially if you can build). I just built my Core 2 Duo machine with a darn speedy video card, 2GB of RAM and took my hard drives from my A64 machine, and I did it for $600.

One big change from old dos word processors is the environment in which they are supposed to work.

Now a days we expect a visual, interesting, useful, dynamic, GUI. More importantly, we expect our apps to function in a multi-taskign environment. This requires more resources to pull off properly, and it’s something old dos apps simply did not do.

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Compare what a computer did back 10 years ago and what users back then expected to what is expected of a machine today and you’ll see a huge difference that might help to explain the needed advancements in hardware.

Today I’m typing this on my web browser, I’m encoding some HD video, listening to some Mp3’s, and have excell open doing some work. All of that is going on while my P2P program downloads the episode of the show I missed the last night, my virus and adware scanners are working quietly and digilently in the background as is my OS handling all of this multi-tasking flawlessly.

Multitasking is a property of the OS and hardware, not the apps, but it is a good example of your point: The TRS-80 didn’t have any hardware support for multitasking, which means that real multitasking was impossible in OSes written for it. All modern desktop computers support multitasking. This is a genuine improvement that has nothing to do with speed but everything to do with how much work the computer is expected to do at once.

<— Thank You!!!

Of course I understand that software changes… and game demands more power, ram, etc. But come on… I’m seeing an “entry” level PC at Walmart right now and here are it’s specs -

Pentium 4 641 Processor
1024MB DDR2 Ram
160GB Harddrive
Blah blah blah…

If you really understood computers, you’d look over the specs of “some” of these budget PCs, and you’ll see that these are surely capable machines. Ok, without a dedicated graphics card, I’m sure it won’t run many recently released 3D games without hiccups, but come on… there are TONS of amazing software out that the minimum requirements get squashed by todays “entry levels”…
hell, I can use an Athlon 800mhz to do WAY MORE than just basic word processing, emails, etc…

Ah yes, him. Pronounced, as he explained, by Europeans as “Nik-louse Veert” and by Americans as “Nickel’s Worth”. IOW Euros call him by name and Americans call him by value. :smiley:

And you called him by reference :smiley:

But the difference in cost is tiny; why bother making multiple versions of entry level computers? There’s no margin at that end of the scale, the computer makers are trying to make things as efficiently as possible.

I would like to submit that maybe it’s marketing you don’t understand, not computers. :wink: