/ 5 July 2008

Just how fast do you want your computer to be?

Just over three months ago I bought a new laptop. Unlike my previous three-year-old one, which had been cutting-edge “professional” level, top-of-the-range — biggest hard drive, fastest processor, as much RAM as I could cram into it — the one I got is a middle of the middle “consumer” range. (To be precise, the previous one was a 1,67GHz Apple PowerBook; the new one is a 2,4GHz Core 2 Duo Apple MacBook.)

We know that in three years, processing power should — if Moore’s Law still holds — have quadrupled.

That’s pretty much true. What I hadn’t expected was that processing demands would have stayed pretty much stable. So that whereas I would regularly find the PowerBook thrashing its little heart out as it updated my RSS feeds while checking my email while displaying about 100 tabbed browser pages while I composed a blog post with pictures while playing a song in the background on iTunes while checking a different email in a different email program while running a database query — did I mention that I like to multitask? — these days it’s rare even for the fans to turn on.

Intrigued, I asked the Twitter world how often people see their CPUs max out (tinyurl.com/484pd6). It can be difficult to know if your machine’s pausing because the CPU’s crammed, or whether it’s something else, such as waiting for the disk to swap a page of data to RAM, or for the network to deliver some data; generally I think that you know that the CPU is stressed because it’s continuous. More simply, you can monitor your CPU usage using some of the graphical tools on your machine. Though it’s an unscientific survey, it’s indicative: only video processing and non-destructive editing of big photos can touch the sides of most modern processors.

Which means that for most people, we’ve already reached the point where you don’t need any extra processing power. There are one billion PCs in the world, according to www.gartner.com; and our own calculation is that most of them are Pentium P4s, since 600-million were sold in the past three years. So until we get to the stage where there’s high-definition internet TV coming down the telephone line, it’s hard to imagine something everyday that will push the household computers of the future. And even then, add-on dedicated hardware — a USB dongle, say — could handle the extra video processing.

I know; the end of the ever-faster computer has been announced many times in the past decade. Certainly people making films (such as those working on their own Doctor Who animations) will always need more poke from their machines. But the situation more generally reflects that of cars. We’ve all long passed the days when the most important statistic about your next car is how quickly it goes from 0-100kph. (Every car can do this in 2,7 seconds: drop it from a 40-metre roof. Gravity does the rest.)

Nowadays we’re more concerned with fuel economy. Even if advertisers still try to sell us the joy of the open road, we’re more interested in the joy of the affordable road.

In the same way, the adverts for computers still talk of processor speed, disk size, RAM; but in what may be a rare case of the producer being ahead of the consumer, Intel is pushing the “performance per watt”. I think it’s on to something. With energy prices forecast to rise by another 40% by year-end, our electricity bills may soon start prodding us in the way that our cars’ fuel bills do.

When that happens, you’ll pay heed not just to how fast your computer can crunch numbers, but how efficiently it does so too. Do you know how much it costs to power your computer? In years to come, you’ll worry about that, not how fast it is.–