Computer 'speed wars' and other issues

How fast should a computer be and what does this mean? This is an important question when it comes to purchasing a new machine.

For years there has been a "speed war" engaged in by the manufacturers of the central processing units (the CPU chips) that are the brains of computers. Intel, AMD and Apple brag about how fast their machines are. The marketing hype is supposed to imply that the "faster" the machine, the better. Is an Intel Pentium 4, 3.0 gigahertz (three thousand, million clock cycles per second) faster than an Apple 2.6 gigahertz computer? Good question. And today the answer is getting murkier because of new technology.

Fundamentally, the internal speed of the computer signifies the number of instructions that can be executed in a given period of time. For instance, adding two plus two takes a certain number of internal instructions and seemingly the faster the machine, the faster the two numbers get added. Changing the color of a picture may take millions of instructions.

Do we care? Faster machines cost more. Should we pay more? Of course, the answer is "that depends."

If the computer is going to be used primarily for Internet access, balancing checkbooks and writing letters, speed is not important. An entry-level Dell Pentium 4, 2.6 gigahertz computer with Windows XP starts at $749. This is more than adequate for most home use.

If however there is a computer game playing teenager in the house, he or she will not be satisfied with the entry-level Dell and will demand a Pentium 4 rated at 3.0 gigahertz or faster and configured for games. These machines start at $1699 and easily can reach $3000.

Adding to the confusion, there is no real industry standard that specifies the speed of a machine. The "speed war" uses the internal clock speed that is designed into the chip. But is this real? Aren't we really interested in how fast games will play or pictures from new digital or video cameras will be processed?

Many computer magazines rate computers based on how fast they actually do things. One popular test uses a computer program called "Winstone 2003." This is comprised of a number of typical computer tasks and the higher the "Winstone number," the faster the machine accomplishes these tasks.

However, in purchasing a new machine, other things may be more important. Does the manufacturer have a good reputation? How is the customer service? The "fastest" Winstone 2003 machine may not be the best buy.

Does this all sound confusing? It is. Add to this, new technology that allows more than one instruction to be carried out in one clock cycle; the computer's bus width and speed which determines how fast parts of the computer system talk to each other; and the RAM configurations and only a real "geek" can figure out what to buy.

What to do? Unless you have a computer consultant with you (most children or grandchildren qualify), for the time being, stick with speed. If you plan on doing a lot with your new digital or video camera, buy speed. If the teenager plays games, buy speed. For Internet, checkbooks and letters, don't buy speed. Incidentally, faster machines do not make Internet things happen faster. This is a whole other issue.

If you would like to hear more about machine speed, or other computer topics, visit "Coffee and Computers" at the Tustin Area Senior Center, 200 S. 'C' Street, any Friday morning starting at 9 a.m. Bring your questions or just come in and visit.

In the mean time, keep the neurons happy, synapses snapping and enjoy computing.


Dr. Art Holub is a long time resident of Tustin and teaches computer and Internet courses at the Tustin Area Senior Center and the Tustin Adult School. Visit his web site at: This column is written to address the computer adventures and concerns of older adults. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for future columns, Email HIM at:

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