HOW FAST A COMPUTER DO YOU NEED?

Pulp & Paper Canada
December 31, 1998
By Pulp & Paper Canada
We all want the fastest machine available, particularly if someone else is paying for it. Many users are prepared to pay for speed themselves, for personal convenience. Some observers claim that the average US computer user has a better machine at home than at the office.

However, for those who focus on value for money, it is no longer reasonable to assume that faster computers will boost productivity. For occasional use, typing the odd letter, preparing one-page spreadsheets and using E-mail, almost any computer that runs Windows is adequate, and probably not worth upgrading. For those who produce major documents, multi-page spreadsheets, slide presentations or manage large databases, then it is worth the expense of a fairly powerful, fast computer.

The first thing most people notice in computer specifications is the clock speed. This is normally expressed in megahertz, with the current crop of top-end desktop computers running at 450 MHz, with faster ones just around the corner. Relative to the first IBM-PC which ran at 4.77 MHz, the improvement appears huge, but it is not so important as the 100:1 speed ratio suggests.

In general, you can expect an increase in real operating speed of a new computer to be about half the increase in clock speed relative to your old one. (Changing from a 150 MHz Pentium to a 300 MHz unit doubles the clock speed, but will give only about 50% increase in real speed for most practical work.)

More advanced processors are always helpful. A Pentium-based computer will operate about twice as fast as an 80486-based machine at the same clock speed. Recent enhancements such as the Pentium II and MMX technology boost speed a little, but not enough for a user to take notice.

The other factors that affect measurable computer speed depend on the work you are doing. For most users, the amount of available RAM is important. If you have under 32 Mb, an increase to 40 or 60 Mb will probably speed up the computer. In a new computer, I would not buy less than 64 Mb RAM

Hard disc speeds have generally kept up well enough, but for best results, be sure that at least 100 Mb free space is available, and run the defragmentation software every few months.

The more modern video cards are helpful and up to about 4 Mb Video RAM on board will improve speed. For games, up to about 16 Mb Video RAM will make a noticeable difference.

If you are using a modem to connect to the Internet or other computer, then the modem speed is probably the most important single factor. The fastest modems generally available are rated for 56 Kbps, and will make a noticeable contribution to speed, providing that the computer you are dialing has an equally fast modem. Since the V90 standard has been recently finalized, it is best to avoid buying any modem that does not comply.

The quality of overall design and systems integration is a key factor in the effective speed of a computer. The well-established giants generally do this well, while some of the small shops will install a high speed processor (to sell), with inadequate support from the hard disc, video etc.

Provided that you have at least a 150 MHz Pentium, 32 Mb of RAM and adequate hard disc space, the best upgrade is probably a large, high-quality monitor. I have been using a 20-in. monitor for a few years, and find that it saves far more time than a doubling of measured computer speed would. This is because I can work comfortably all day, and very rarely take time to print any documents or spreadsheets to work with. The monitor/video supports 1280 x 1024 resolution, which allows me to work with a full page of word processing text, and gives a good view on even a large spreadsheet.

Most laptop computers support a higher resolution display on an external monitor than on the laptop screen. Large monitors cost about $1500, and for many users of older Pentium computers with 15-in. screens, the jump to 21 in. will be of far greater benefit, and will be less expensive than changing to the hottest computer available. For best results, screen resolution should be 1280 x 1024 or more.

If the software supports it well, the use of dual screens under Windows 98 may be even better, but I have not tried that yet.

The new flat, thin monitors with LCD displays are beautiful, but at $5000 plus for a large one, they are certainly not good value for most users.

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