Before the personal computer became a commodity, it was pretty easy to tell what you had. Everybody knew that a 386 was faster than a 286. After some initial confusion about pronunciation, everyone figured out that a Pentium was faster than a 486. For the first few years after the Pentium came out, we had to occupy ourselves with comparing the clock speeds: the more megahertz you had, the faster you went. Then came the Pentium 2, 3 and 4, and it seemed like things were back on track. When Y2K came along, everybody got a new PC. Well, that’s when everything got messed up, because for about three years after Y2K, nobody needed a new PC. At some point during that time, the PC ended the technical marvel phase of its product life span and became a commodity.For local governments this is generally good news. We have enough important things to spend money on without paying a premium for a piece of equipment that is essentially the 21st century equivalent of a telephone. For the average e-mailing, word processing, spread sheeting and Web browsing municipal employee, even the cheapest of this year’s computers will do the job. In spite of this there are still many who believe we can do our best work with nothing less than the latest and greatest and thus we exist in a perpetual state of anticipation for the next big development in processor technology.
Intel’s persistence in assigning numeric names to its products has a whole audience of enthusiasts expecting an announcement of a Pentium 5 processor. Maybe it will have to be given a new name (since Pentium is supposed to mean five, too) and we will have a Hexium in our next computer. In any case, a quick glance at the Intel Web site will tell you that the Hexium isn’t coming out any time soon. Instead of giving us faster processors, the nice folks at Intel are giving us more processors in the same package. It started with hyper-threading, which was kind of a soft method of giving us a processor that could do two things at once. Intel figured if two things at once was good, then even more things at once would be better. So now the very latest processors can do eight things at once. According to our math, an eight-thread Pentium 4 should be about 160 times better than the 8088 than we had in our vintage1982 IBM PC/XT. The problem is that unless you want to run 160 copies of Wordperfect for DOS at the same time, we might not really be as far ahead as we think we are. Let’s face it, Intel has run into the wall with the current technology. If they increase the clock speed, then the darn things just get too hot. If they change the architecture to make it run faster, then our old programs won’t run anymore.
Clearly the folks at Intel don’t want to admit to a roadblock. It looks like they might be trying to throw up a smokescreen to keep us occupied and buy themselves some thinking time. How else can you explain the latest processor entitled Intel Pentium 4 Processor Extreme Edition supporting Hyper-Threading Technology? A name like Extreme Edition makes you think about some kind of computerized equivalent to bungee jumping off the space shuttle during re-entry or snowboarding down a mountain of flaming tires. When you read the specifications and check the price, however, you’ll quickly discover that the feature that makes the Extreme Edition more extreme than an Intel Xeon processor is the fact that it costs $600 more. The computer industry has managed to keep mainstream PCs at about the same price point for the last few years by giving us more for the same money. If more is going to mean more “threads” in the future, then maybe we should think about just taking the price break instead. Think about it, an entire entry-level computer can be purchased (minus monitor) for just a little more than the difference in price between an “Extreme Edition” processor chip and something a few tiers down. Even today’s cheapest Celeron PC, at under $500, will still e-mail and word process up a storm. Since we will probably be throwing it out in four years anyway, why not cut our poor taxpayers a break and pass on anything with the word “Extreme” in its name?

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