Speed has played a key role with computers since the inception of the digital age in the 1940s. The very raison d’être of electronic machines is their ability to carry out computational procedures faster than humans.
But speed is not always what it’s cracked up to be. On the other hand, speed is sometimes given short shrift. Understanding the differences can help you make smart PC buying decisions and smart Web site design decisions.
The central processing units of today’s run-of-the-mill personal computers are faster than those of multimillion dollar mainframe computers that were leading us into the future in the 1960s and 1970s. PCs today are ten times more powerful than they were just five years ago.
This mind-boggling increase in processing speed was predicted and codified in 1965 by Gordon Moore, who would become the co-founder of Intel, when he said that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had been doubling and would continue to double every year.
Though this doubling would later slow from every year to every 18 months, the increase in capacity has continued, and it’s emblematic of the personal computer revolution. It’s an increase that’s unprecedented in other spheres of human endeavor.
How Much Speed Do We Really Need?
To those involved with personal computers, this is heady stuff, and it has led to an infatuation, even an obsession, with speed. It taps into the Western notion of progress, of ever-increasing efficiency, output, and standards of living.
The infatuation is misguided. “Speed is an artificial need,” says Rob Enderle, an analyst for the Giga Information Group, a market research firm in Santa Clara, Calif. “It’s analogous to cars with big engines. Bigger is not always better. Neither is faster.”
There’s a countervailing notion here, more Eastern in nature, of appropriate technology. In practical terms, very few people today need the very fastest PCs, those that run the Intel Pentium 4 2.0 GHz CPUs, which have recently reached the market, or the equivalent chips from AMD or Motorola.
For common tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets, business graphics, Web surfing, and e-mail, slower and less expensive central processing units are more than adequate. On the other hand, if you’re engaged in CPU-intensive tasks such as high-end image editing, video editing, digitizing music, or computer-aided design, the high end can be cost-effective.
Other factors besides cost-effectiveness, however, can enter a buying decision. A high even number such 2.0 GHz, or 2 billion cycles per second, is psychologically compelling in the same way as a .400 batting average or a Dow of 10,000.
Still, on the whole, the importance of CPU speed is overrated, the single most overrated aspect of personal computing today.
Beware the Slow-Load Snag
The single most underrated speed element today is the time it takes Web pages to load.
Sure, it’s widely known that a high-speed cable or DSL modem can dramatically improve the quality of your surfing experience. In fact, the biggest PC speed bottleneck for the past several years hasn’t been CPU speed but modem speed, a bottleneck that won’t disappear until high-speed Internet access become universally available.
What’s not as widely known is that even with high-speed access, slow-loading Web pages can still be a problem. The Web won’t be truly efficient until browsing from one page to the next is as speedy as browsing pages in a newspaper or magazine.
A recent study by market research firm Jupiter Media Metrix underscores the importance of fast-loading Web pages. The study found that 40 percent of people will visit a site more often if its pages load faster, while only 20 percent are interested in multimedia or rich media features, which load much slower than text and simple graphics.
Some Web page designers look at flashy technologies such as Shockwave as a way to make their sites look hip and cutting edge. Yet many Web page visitors look at these technologies as cloying eye candy that just slows them down.
People on the Web have short attention spans. This is the age of VCRs and microwave ovens. People don’t want to wait to get what they want. If you force them to cool their heels at your Web site, gratification elsewhere is just a click away.
That’s why the best Web sites are simple, and why simple Web sites are more likely be around in the future. “On the Web,” says Jakob Nielsen, author of the new book Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed, “you have design Darwinism — survival of the easiest.”
The theme here is technology for people, not for technology.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.