The Anti-Buzz: Smarter not Faster

by Andrew Emmott on June 29, 2010

in Anti-Buzz,General,Hardware

Hello and welcome to the Anti-Buzz!

The buzz: Computers are useless.

The anti-buzz: Computers are fantastic.

Why: Because I said so.

OK That’s a bit of a joke but it demonstrates the idea.  Every topic I discuss will be introduced as buzz vs. anti -buzz and the “why” gets expanded out into the meat of the column. Some weeks I might cover several topics, others I might stick to just one.

I am Andrew Emmott, Dr. Larry Emmott’s son. My father has been promoting the use of computing technology in the dental office since the early 90s when many people his age dismissed the information age as fantasy. I am surely no dentist, what I am is a Computer Science student and Research Assistant.

The purpose of the Anti-Buzz is to demystify the hype surrounding computing or digital technologies dentists use, and offer a more practical assessment of what is and is not necessary. The hope is that my high-level knowledge of computing coupled with my neutrality as a non-dentist will provide value and help dentists make good technology choices.

This week’s topic is a little generic, but having already spent some time introducing myself, I thought a good place to start would be to advocate a position that will underwrite most other advice I give here. So, here it goes.

The buzz: You need the newest and best system available.

The anti-buzz: You can do just fine with something that is cheaper or, (blasphemy), old.

Why: The needs of the typical user and business are eclipsed by what is available.

Consider netbooks; they are a microcosm of the greater truth. Your typical cafe-visiting e-socialite needs to be able to do two things. 1) Create documents. 2) Access the Internet through a web browser. Rather than focus on raw power, a netbook makes sure it can fill those two demands very effectively, and then it focuses on being small, power-efficient, convenient and inexpensive. Their success is indicative that the best computers are the ones that fulfill their roles, not the ones with the most power.

The story of how the industry changed to recognize this is an interesting one. Some of it is just good old fashioned market forces, but the netbook revolution came long after it could have. Years ago a used computer store told me they immediately sold every laptop priced under $500. There were so many people who just wanted a simple portable word-processing and web-browsing machine, but they weren’t being built. As late as 2005, we still lived under the faster-and-more paradigm; advances in computing technology strictly came in the form of faster processors and more memory.

A research talk I attended last year showed old slides that Intel used at trade shows in the year 2000. Intel had, proudly, just finished designing the Pentium 4 architecture. Unlike Pentiums 1 through 3, they believed that the Pentium 4 architecture would take much longer to become outdated, and that they would eventually be able to use this same architecture to produce Pentium 4s that ran at 10 Gigahertz (Ghz). Of course, viewing these slides in 2009 was a bit comical and confusing, because there are no 10 Ghz processors available to the normal consumer and the Pentium 4 has been long abandoned. Intel had everything right except for little one scientific oversight: Somewhere around 3.8 Ghz or so, microprocessors start to melt. This can be overcome with more advanced cooling systems, but such systems would price the machine right out of the consumer market.

The solution is multiprocessors, which bring with them advantages and disadvantages. The point is the physical limits of silicon chips have, in some ways, been reached. Suddenly engineers have breathing room to look at other aspects of computing hardware. One of the biggest new areas of development is in figuring out how to make the system more power-efficient. Just a few years ago, every CPU on the market ran at full-speed all the time. Now nearly all of them run only as fast as they need to while still keeping everything running smooth – saves power.

As an engineer friend of mine put it, “Computers aren’t being made faster, they’re being made smarter.” But the faster-and-more paradigm still resonates with us culturally. We still joke that anything from two years ago is hideously outdated even though that is simply not true anymore.

Try to remember that the faster-and-more paradigm catered to the tech-savvy users. The newest, sleekest hardware was a dare; What can you do with this computer? Things are much more democratic now; What can this computer do for you? We easily could have had netbooks in 2002, not 2007, but the geeks had to melt some silicon first before they’d listen.

As I already stated, recognizing that you rarely need the best technology available lies at the heart of everything I will say in this column. The service I want to provide is to save you from the hype and the over eager salesmen who would undermine your confidence in a system that is good enough. You have limited resources, I hope to help you spend them wisely.

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