The Fastest Engine on the Block, 1-Gigahertz Chip, Is Just Overkill
By LAWRENCE J. MAGID
When I was growing up, the auto industry had this obsession with
"muscle cars." Each year they got faster and more powerful. My dad didn't
have the biggest or fastest car on the block, but by today's standards,
his Chevy Impala was very hot. Yet, on his daily commute from the San
Fernando Valley to Hollywood, his eight-cylinder Chevy inched along at
about the same speed as a Volkswagen Beetle.
I don't commute by freeway, but I do travel on the information highway
and, like my dad's fast car, my relatively fast PC doesn't move me along
any faster than today's PC equivalent of a Beetle.
Today's bottleneck isn't the computer or its engine--the central
processing unit--rather, it's the speed of your Internet connection, your
printer, the amount of your PC's memory and even the type of video card
Because of this, I didn't jump for joy last month when Advanced Micro
Devices introduced the 1-GHz AMD Athlon, the industry's first 1-gigahertz
microprocessor for personal computers. And I wasn't all that moved two
days later when industry leader Intel stole AMD's thunder by introducing
its own 1-gigahertz Pentium III. Before these announcements, the fastest
chip on the block ran at 866 MHz. A gigahertz is 1,000 megahertz, or a
billion cycles per second.
PC makers jumped on the high-speed bandwagon almost immediately with
high-end machines built around these new chips. Dell was quick to
introduce its $3,999 XPS B Special Edition featuring the new Intel chip.
Gateway was right there too with its $3,128 Select 1000 Deluxe featuring
the 1-gigahertz AMD Athlon CPU. Compaq is offering its 1-GHz
Athlon-equipped machine starting at $2,491. IBM sells an Intel-equipped
1-GHz Aptiva starting at $2,999, plus the cost of a monitor.
These machines are about three times the price of entry-level personal
computers, and, frankly, they're not three times as good. In fact, most
people won't even notice that they run faster. Yes, they do typically
come with larger hard drives, more memory, faster video cards and better
monitors and sound systems than low-end machines, but a major reason for
the price is the high cost of the CPU itself. PC makers who order 1,000
chips pay Intel $990 and AMD a whopping $1,299 per 1-gigahertz chip.
That's nearly 10 times what these companies charge for the CPUs used in
It may be worth it to PC companies to have bragging rights to the
fastest PCs, but to users like you and me, these machines are overkill.
Just about any PC on the market today is more than fast enough for the
types of applications that most people do. In fact, the whole emphasis on
speed is really a holdover to the days when PCs were inexorably slow.
Back in the early '80s, for example, I remember waiting minutes for a
database program to sort a mailing list. And graphic programs, back then,
were exceedingly slow.
Today, it's hard to tell the difference between super-fast and
mainstream PCs. I have two computers that I use on a regular basis.
One--which was state-of-the-art only a few months ago--has a Pentium III
CPU that operates at 700 MHz. Admittedly, it's 30% slower than the newest
CPU, but it's still very fast. Sitting next to it is a 15-month-old
machine with a much slower Pentium II CPU. Yet, with the programs I run,
I can barely tell the difference between the two machines.
The same is true when I compared the fast machine on my desk with a
new machine built around one of Intel's low-cost Celeron CPUs. The CPU
simply doesn't make a noticeable difference.
There are some exceptions. People who play games with 3-D graphics can
take advantage of all the horsepower they can get as can those who do
video editing and certain types of modeling and design applications.
Also, if you do photo editing on a regular basis, you might get your work
done faster with a high-speed Pentium or an Apple Macintosh with a G4
Some people like to get the fastest machine possible on the theory
that it will remain viable longer. But if history is any indication, it
will be cheaper to buy a middle-of-the-road system today and replace it
in a couple of years with whatever is mainstream at that point.
I wouldn't worry about whether your computer had "Intel Inside." All
other things being equal, machines with AMD processors are just as good
as those with Intel CPUs.
Instead, worry about the amount of memory, the size of the hard drive,
the quality of the monitor, the keyboard, mouse, sound system, bundled
software and the overall look, feel and size of the PC.
Most PCs come with 64 megabytes of memory, which is adequate for most
programs, but spending another $100 for 128 megabytes gives you more
breathing room, which can come in handy if you want to run several
programs at a time.
Spending a little extra for a large hard drive is always a good
investment. Some of the less-expensive machines come with only about 4
gigabytes of hard-disk space. That might be OK for starters, but a larger
drive gives you more room for data and more application programs. When
considering a low-cost machine, look at all the specifications, not just
the CPU. EMachines' least-expensive system comes with only 32 megabytes
of memory and a 4.3-gigabyte hard drive. But you're much better off
spending an extra $100 for the model with twice the memory and a
10-gigabyte hard drive.
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Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3
p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached by
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is