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Faster, but not necessarily better

The new 1 gigahertz PCs might be necessities to professional users and avid gamers, but for home users, your 1999 model may be all you need.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2000


Here's one way Gateway computer's Joe Scaglione looks at computer speed: It takes minutes to load a software program on a machine running at 600 megahertz, but only seconds on a computer running at 1 gigahertz.

Here's one way for consumers to look at the same computers: That "slow" 600 MHz machine is less than half the price of the new 1 GHz models, which start at about $3,000.

As chipmakers Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices race to outdo each other, consumers are left befuddled. New chips are coming out every few months, not the relaxed pace it used to take to develop faster chips.

According to PC World magazine, it took 25 years for computer chips to reach the 500 MHz level last year, then only eight months to go from 600 MHz to 1 GHz. Both AMD and Intel broke the gigahertz barrier in March, and even faster chips are in development. A gigahertz means the chip runs at 1-billion cycles a second; a megahertz is 1-million cycles a second.

It's enough to make any computer user suffer a good case of speed envy, which is what the computer industry would like: more people buying new computers. In reality, last year's machines, and even older ones, are perfectly good for what most people do: Web surfing, e-mail, word processing and spreadsheets.

The fastest, cutting-edge machines appeal to those who have to have the latest and greatest, and to people who genuinely need the speed for editing digital photos and video, running professional-quality design and graphics programs that require a lot of horsepower, or playing the most advanced video games.

And then there are technology writers and columnists who can't resist an opportunity to play with a new toy. Gateway invited Tech Times to the company's showroom on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa to take a test drive on a computer powered by AMD's Athlon chip.

In addition to the 1 GHz processor, the base configuration ($2,999) for the system includes a healthy 128 megabytes of random access memory, good for handling programs that can tax a system, and a big 30-gigabyte hard drive to store all those photos and games people would use on this system. Adding all the upgrades possible, such as a TV tuner card, can push the price to $5,199.

The results: Yes, it's fast. It moved quickly and smoothly from program to program. It handled surfing (with a high-speed T1 connection) well. While Solutions columnist John Torro and I are not gamers, a Gateway employee who is a player demonstrated fast action and sharp graphics on one program.

Speed can mean the difference between victory and defeat in online gaming, said Scaglione, the Florida district manager for Gateway computers, so hard-core players look for every hertz they can muster.

Scaglione also said the fastest machines with all the bells and whistles aren't for everyone.

Eventually, we'll all need faster chips, particularly for video and audio streaming on the Web and as TV and computers merge. But that's not the case for most of us yet, certainly not for those whose pipeline to the Web remains a conventional phone line.

But I'm not rushing out to buy a 1 GHz machine. My 450 MHz home computer runs just fine, thank you. Quicken is quick enough; 1 GHz won't make me type any faster.

And, by this time next year, who knows how far down the chip chain 1 GHz will be?

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