The everyday ramblings of an everyday geek.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Thanks for the memory

I've just contributed to a Slashdot discussion that diverged into a discussion about what is a sensible setup for web browsing, email and a little bit of office work. As a reminder to myself, I thought I'd go over it again.

There was a lot of waxing lyrical about how we used to do all the basic tasks on a 486 and a bit of string, but my recent experience with The Beast definitely makes me see the holes in that theory. Back in the day, the best way to improve performance of a 486 system, was to get the hell off the 486 and get yourself a Pentium, that or over clock the hell out of it. Remember, these were systems that operated at 66Mhz! Sure they felt fast, but that was because you'd just upgraded from 8088 at 8Mhz. It's not just that either, the 640k barrier was a force to be reckoned with. Few programs used more than that, and even if they did they rarely expected you to have more than 4 or 8MB RAM. Yes, you could load and run Netscape, and Eudora mail, put they were tasks that involved a lot of patience (not least because you were working at 28kbs (if you were lucky)). You upgraded every year or so, not because you wanted too, but because if you didn't you would throw the system out of the window as you feared you'd waste the rest of life waiting for the hour glass to disappear or a progress bar to move. With slow processors, floppy disks and no RAM IT moved at a different pace in the 80s and 90s.

It's a different story today. Unless you are doing something processor intensive like compressing a movie, playing a game, compiling some code etc., your processor will rarely get fully utilised. The only time you are likely to notice a real slow down is when your system starts to use virtual memory. This happens when your OS realises that it's about to run out of RAM, and moves the least accessed data back onto the hard drive. Hard drives, at least compared to memory, are slow and the whole computer slows down whilst the contents are moved over to HDD (and back again to RAM). In the good 'ol days we were used to it. The reason Windows 98 used to crash when you had too many programs open was because it was lousy at virtual memory (and any process could access another's data, but that's a different issue) and you instinctively kept the open programs to a minimum. Also, the OS was designed to assume that there was very little RAM available, as such they had a very small RAM footprint. This assumption is definitely not carried through to modern OSs. I checked the RAM use on the G5 and was shocked to see that even with no user applications open, I only had 256MB free from 1GB!

So what's my point? If you have a PII or higher, max out the RAM before thinking about an upgrade. Yes, new computers are a lot more powerful, but you are not going to stretch the processor with basic office apps, but you will max out the RAM with just two or three browser sessions open. The Beast is an excellent case in point. If I open Firefox on it from my Mac it works more than adequately. In fact, you wouldn't know it wasn't native, until you open one too many tabs, or windows and you start to hear the hard drive thrashing. The other way of looking at the problem is if your not planning on using a new PC for games etc., don't waste time thinking about weather its worth getting a P4 2.6GHz, or a P4 3.2GHz, go for the 2.6 and spend the difference on RAM. Also, 256MB of isn't enough, if you plan on using any modern OS, i.e.. something that will actually use the full power of your new computer, you need 512MB minimum, and really you ought to buy 1GB.

This isn't vanity, or bad programming, this is people who are sick of waiting for their computers. You can have a hard disk that's too big (most people will struggle to fill 2/3GB of hard disk with office and web downloads). You can buy a processor that's too fast, unless you actually know that what your doing is processor intensive the chances are that it isn't. But you simply cannot have too much RAM. Most motherboards can only support 4GB of RAM anyway, and unless you have a research or development budget to burn you probably can't afford that much anyway, so get as much as you can!


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