If you’ve read a few issues of PC Pro, you’re probably wondering what a so-called ‘dadmag’ editor is doing here. After all, PC Pro is the leading monthly paper computer magazine, beloved of IT managers in their forties, while bit-tech is the UK's leading online hardware enthusiast publication. The phrase ‘disco vicar’ springs to mind.
But it’s not as great a leap as you might think at first. Computing has been changing quite a bit in the last few years. It’s always been driven by enthusiasts, right since the California computer clubs of the 1980s spawned such greats as Apple and (gasp) even Microsoft. Once PCs were big business, however, they got a bit boring. Mainstream systems started looking the same, and what was inside them didn’t differ that much either. Mass production has led to tedious conformity. Even the relentless march of performance progress has lost its edge, with the increasing bland commercialisation of the enthusiast market.
"Most columnists writing about how boring computers have become are doing so because they don’t have the imagination to do anything interesting with them"
What a lot of the big IT companies have forgotten is that computing is one of the most interesting technologies mankind has ever created. How on earth did it get so dull? The numerous online columns I’ve read pointing out how tedious computing has become, mostly on the Inquirer, haven’t really hit the nail on the head. Okay, a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 is no better at word processing or web browsing than a 800MHz Pentium III. So what? Perhaps that’s because those two activities are trivial anyway. Most columnists writing about how boring computers have become are doing so because they don’t have the imagination to do anything interesting with them. It’s not about how good the new kit is at doing what we already do, but about what it can allow us to do that we’ve never done before.
The problem is that computing has really gotten itself bogged down in marketing bollocks, and it permeates the entire gamut of the industry. A couple of years ago, it was 'XP' everyone was adding to the end of their product names to ‘make them hip’. Now it’s 'XT'. Clearly, that T makes all the difference – P was so lame after all. Microsoft drove the changeover from product version numbers to years (a bit like fine wines) with Windows 95. In my opinion, 2000 was a particularly good vintage – very smooth and with a delicious woody aftertaste. Microsoft obviously agreed 2000 was a turning point, as afterwards it moved away from the yearly classification. Rumours that this was because each new release had started feeling like an annual update rather than a new product are probably unfounded, however. The marketing hype even reaches to so-called serious business computing. Is it any wonder SAN (storage area networks), NAS (network attached storage), and DAS (direct attached storage) have a nice, three-letter ring to them? How long before we see NAS-XT?
The saddest thing is how marketing considerations appear to have taken over even at companies renowned for their focus on research and development. Intel’s Pentium 4 was clearly designed so that the technology could assist with its selling. In a market where the average punter equated greater CPU clock speeds with a faster PC, it seemed sensible to produce a processor that could max out the megahertz. But the market, now better informed thanks to the propaganda efforts of AMD, and the increasing interest in enthusiast technology, is changing its tastes - and it looks like the strategy could have backfired on three levels.
We’ve already seen Intel perform one incredible U-turn –the inclusion of AMD64-compatible instructions on its forthcoming 64-bit version of Prescott. The change from megahertz to model numbers will be another. But there might be a third one on the way, too. Pentium M has been so much more successful than Pentium 4. As the Inquirer’s Paul Dutton pointed out to me, a Pentium III chip overclocked to 1.8GHz can outperform a 2.6GHz Pentium 4 Prescott, because of the chip architecture - pretty embarrassing for Intel. Also note that, despite being marketed as a 'notebook chip designed from the ground up', the Pentium M found in Centrino notebooks is essentially a Pentium III with more advanced branch prediction and a larger L2 cache. With the announcement that Pentium M will be marketed as a desktop chip, perhaps those mysterious model numbers could end up selling you a desktop Pentium M as an advancement over a Pentium 4 - essentially a retrograde step away from the P4 architecture back to P3.
"The great thing about being a hardware enthusiast is that you have the ability and technical knowledge to look beyond the hype to how the technology works and actually performs"
But does any of this really matter? The great thing about being a hardware enthusiast is that you have the ability and technical knowledge to look beyond the hype to how the technology works and actually performs. Computers are just like any other interest – you get out of them what you put into them. Whether Intel and AMD choose to name their processors with PR ratings, model numbers, or brute megahertz, once you get to know what each one is and what it’s good at, the choice between them depends what you want to do. With the technical skill to look beyond the hype (something we try to do in our reviews on bit-tech), you can make the best decisions about what hardware is right for you.
I’m personally very interested in digital video and 3D animation, so I love multiprocessor systems – I’ve got four, from a dual 333MHz Pentium II Overdrive to a dual Xeon overclocked to 3.5GHz. I’m really excited about the 64-bit version of Windows XP, too. My own tests have shown that the 64-bit version of DivX running on 64-bit Windows XP gets a whopping performance boost over the 32-bit DivX running on 32-bit Windows XP. The 64-bit environment has a lot of potential for what I’m interested in. You can read all about this in the June issue of Custom PC, where I’ve also performed a suite of games tests and other benchmarks on the two OSes. Chances are, 64-bit won't benefit any of the run-of-the-mill Word processing and internet tasks your average wants to do a whole lot. But, for the more interesting tasks (read: Unreal Tournament) it can make a big difference.
The mainstream PC market may be made up of parents buying systems for their kids to browse the Internet on, or companies purchasing word processing and email systems, but it doesn’t really matter if that’s boring. But, as the hardware enthusiast scene, you guys, show - if you’re interested in computers you’ll make them more interesting than the mainstream. And that interest is why I’m here writing for bit-tech. See you next month ;)