I’m sure you’ve all looked at computers or laptops, at some point, and wondered just what made one faster than the other. What are all those numbers? Why is the salesperson spewing gobbledygook at me?
For the past number of years, CPU (the processor) has been touted as the way to measure the power of a machine. The Intel really pushed this for its Pentium IV, which rated at speed of 3 GHz and beyond.
So, what is the processor? Simply put, it does the math needed to calculate where things go, what a program is supposed to do, and what should come out of a program’s operations. It is the part of the computer that Does the Stuff.
Here’s the kicker: Most of the time, the CPU isn’t actually doing anything. Unless you’re playing a new video game, or rendering fractals, or participating in protein-folding experiments, or otherwise doing things involving large amounts of operations, your CPU isn’t all that important. It just needs some overhead for when things do need to be processed, such as when you move windows around or open a new program. I’ve found that 1.6 GHz is perfectly fine for daily use, and doesn’t usually max out.
What do the other things do, then?
RAM is the computer’s short-term memory, which can be likened to a desk it uses to spread out its papers and work on things. When you open a file, the computer will put that file in RAM so that you can change bits of that file without having to wait for the hard-drive.
Your computer doesn’t actually use much RAM. If you have a lot of programs in the background (such as email, instant messengers, and various option panels), it can load up almost 1 GB of RAM. Windows XP and Windows 7 need about 1GB to function well, and 2GB is about all you’ll really need, if you open a lot of images or programs or internet tabs.
In case you’re wondering, DDR3 is faster than DDR2, and uses less power (a plus for laptops), but isn’t strictly necessary for you.
Hard-Disk Drives (HDDs) hold your data. HDDs today hold anywhere from 160GB to 2000GB (2TB). The biggest users of disk space are movies, some of which are so big they won’t even fit on two DVDs. Music takes less, but even a small library of music can take up 5GB of room. If you have a tremendous music collection, or have a handful of TV shows or movies, you’ll need a large hard-drive. If you don’t keep many videos and only have a small collection of music, you’ll be perfectly fine with 160GB. I’d recommend an external hard-drive for those sharable movies, music, and pictures.
The main bottle-neck on your system, though, is probably your hard-drive. The newer hard-drives can handle 80 MB of data every second, which means it takes over ten seconds to fill up 1GB of RAM with data from the hard-drive. If you’ve got an older computer, it could take ten times that length of time, and you’ll be waiting a few minutes for your computer to come out of Hibernation mode.
Worse yet, because disks have to spin around to find bits of data, trying to find two things at once ruins the speed of the disk. Considering that the computer writes little bits of data every few seconds, you almost never get the full speed of the drive.
So how do I speed this up?
The answer is Solid-State Drives (SSDs). These drives hold a lot less for their price, but they’ll give you a fantastic experience. They are:
- Up to four times faster
- A lot quicker at finding data
- More power-efficient
- Lighter (for you laptop owners out there)
- A few other things you won’t find interesting
An SSD will completely take away those little starts and stops you get with HDDs, because it doesn’t have to move an arm across a spinning disk to find data. Because there are no magnets or spinning plates of metal in an SSD, it’s not as heavy and uses less power. It’s got chips, instead, which can get data from different places a lot easier, and is limited by the speed of electrons instead of the speed of a metal arm.
SSDs are only just reaching maturity. The new Intel SSDs are 80GB for $250, but that’s the top quality. Kingston has an easy kit for only a little more than a hundred dollars. It doesn’t have the sheer speed, but it still beats any hard-disk.
Expect the pricing to come down over the next year. Let the old stock quietly file out of the retailer’s shelves, and the other brands pick up the newest technologies, and we’ll see some wide-spread use in the next little while.