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What makes a computer FAST?

Let’s get practical. We’ll start with definitions:

  • PROCESSOR: This determines how quickly your system can “think”. For example add two numbers: 123+567. Most people can do this in their head, but it takes thinking; you don’t have the answer memorized (cached, so to speak). Some people can add the numbers faster than others. Crudely speaking, this is equivalent to your processor speed. Now what if I gave you 4 sets of math problems like this one. It’ll take you about 4 times as long to complete the task. But if you split the same 4 problems with 3 of your friends, then you’d each take one problem and you could do all 4 in the same time as you alone solved the one problem, right? THAT is the theory behind a QUAD-CORE processor. It’s not exactly this plain and simple though; a quad core processor is NOT always 4 times faster than a single core processor because not all problems lend themselves to being split in 4 like that (called threads in computer speak).
  • RAM: Your system’s Random Access Memory is a temporary storage area, where the computer can “work.” This is analogous to your brain being able to “remember” several things at once, but after a point you have to go “write it down” to keep working. In the case of your computer, doubling RAM means “remembering” twice as much before having to go “write” the information to the hard drive. When items are in your head (RAM) they are much more quickly accessible than if you have to write them down then find them among a stack of papers to read them. This is why programs open and operate more smoothly on systems with ample RAM.
  • HARD DISK DRIVE (HDD) or SOLID STATE DRIVE (SSD): This is where all your files are “written” including photos, documents and the operating system (Windows/OSX) itself. While chips on circuit boards have been shrinking and getting faster at a lightning pace, the good old fashioned mechanical spinning hard drive has not been able to keep up with speed increases (though capacities have been growing). Solid State Drives are a replacement to the hard drive. More on this later.

A little bit of history:

  • 15 to 20 years ago, processors were all the rage. Getting the latest processor guaranteed your computer was going to startup before your neighbor’s. People were moving from the 386 to the 486 processor and if you were really cool, you had an Intel Pentium.
  • 10 years ago, if you wanted a faster computer, you added RAM. Walk into a computer shop, wait 10 minutes and BAM! Your snail-speed computer just gained cat-like reflexes. What happened?! Black magic.
  • Over the last few years, the most likely upgrade you’ve come across is the Solid State Drive (SSD) replacement in place of (or in addition to) your hard drive. It’s the NEW magic pixie dust, and it works. You know those little USB drives you carry around? They’re pretty fast. What if we just stuck a big USB drive INSIDE the computer and replaced the clunky, failure prone hard drive with it? Is that crazy? NO, it’s an SSD in basic terms. The side effects of SSD’s are almost all good: better battery life (for laptops), faster read and write access (less waiting, almost instant data access) and less prone to failure (no moving parts). The downsides are less chance of data recovery when they do fail (but since you have a current, automated backup, you don’t care, right?!) and you get less storage space (capacity) for the same dollars.

How we buy today:

  • You don’t read the side of a software box anymore to see if your computer meets the requirements in order to run the program, do you? With the exception of gamers who can never get enough video performance, most people just assume that their programs will work on their computer. Part of the reasoning for this is that software has become web browser based (web applications that run on servers at a data center instead of on your computer), so your computer is just a “window” into the software engine that you’re using in some faraway data center. Think Gmail and Facebook… you don’t “run” these programs on your computer (PC or Mac)… you are just “viewing” your account as delivered from their servers. The other major reason that you don’t look at the sides of software boxes for requirements anymore is because your computer really IS powerful enough to do what you want it to do.
  • It’s interesting to note what’s happened with processors over the last several years. More accurately, what’s happened with processor MARKETING since the Intel i-series processors came out in 2008 and 2009. Many people are now familiar with the i3, i5 and i7. It’s always struck me as odd that people don’t question why processors stopped changing 7 or 8 years ago. In fact, they ARE still changing, just their marketing names aren’t… and we’re on the 7th generation of Intel i3/i5/i7 now, but people still consider the family of processors as “low”, “medium” and “high” end, regardless of how old they are. Have a 5 year old i7? It’s still considered fast by most people. Have a recent i3? It’s still considered “low” end by most people because it’s “just an i3” – regardless of the fact that a current i3 can run circles around the original i7 in many ways. That’s marketing genius. Why keep making new names and cause confusion among processors when they’re not the bottleneck (point that limits the system speed) anyway?
  • RAM underwent a new life of it’s own, as the party shifted away from it. Once 4GB became a standard baseline for new systems, the average user no longer had a need for upgrading. Some users choose to go with up to 8GB of RAM, which can help. More RAM than that, and only some power users can benefit. RAM is NOT like processor speed, where every bit can help even if just a little bit. With 32GB of RAM, you’ll notice NO benefit if your usage never demands more than 4GB. Your RAM gets cleared and information wiped clean each time you turn off your computer. More is not always better… it can be financially wasteful actually.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

  • Get a system that’s built well (business grade), not just shiny with the latest speaker technology.
  • Make sure you have at least 4GB of RAM (8GB is preferred, but more usually won’t help)
  • GET AN SSD. This is a great idea in most situations.

WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR:

  • Don’t wipe out your drive and start over because you want to upgrade to an SSD from a standard HDD.  Done properly, everything can be left in place and your computer can be upgraded with no data change or loss… everything down to where you left your desktop shortcuts will be the same, just faster.
  • Do not overbuy RAM; for most people it will not do any good.  12GB sounds better than 4GB, but can you utilize it?  This is especially true if your operating system is not 64 bit… you can only utilize a little under 4GB anyway!
  • Don’t unnecessarily focus on processor name or speed (i5 vs. i7 or 3.1GHz vs. 3.4GHz)… in most cases you won’t feel the difference, so save your money.

Want help?  THIS IS WHAT WE DO.  Call us.  We’ve had these conversations countless times with literally thousands of customers.

Consider off-lease units.  Companies lease new computers (analogous to cars) and turn them in after 3 years, still in perfect working condition.  TechVoo purchases these in bulk and sells them at a steep discount.  They are high quality, and we stand behind them.  We’ve deployed hundreds of off-lease computers to customers and they’re happily computing to this day.

NOTES:
For our purpose, we’ve intentionally overlooked processor L2 and L3 Cache as well as RAM types such as DDR3 vs. DDR4, dedicated video cards and latency timings, etc. While these are important factors, when you’re considering these factors you’ve already considered the primary factors discussed above. First things first, after all.

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One thought on “What makes a computer FAST?”

  1. Great article!! While I would typically expect the analogies in this type of primer to be labored and clunky, they were actually really helpful in helping me visualize the concepts. Keep writing, please.

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