Anti-Buzz Hardware

Anti-Buzz: Do computers age?


Andrew has been writing Anti Buzz for 4 years resulting in almost 200 articles. For the next several weeks we will revisit some of these just in case you missed it:

The Buzz: Our expectations change too fast, and we dismiss machines too quickly.

The Anti-Buzz: Our expectations change not because of new hardware, but because of new utility.

Jokes about your computer being outdated before you can even unpack it from the box are a little old-hat, and also don’t seem to ring quite as true as they did in the 1990s, but I still meet people who are frustrated with the fact that their four-year old laptop is just not good enough. After four years your car is still more or less as functional as it was when you bought it, and after four years your home is still a home and you can still live in it and many of the things you use everyday might be several years old and still perfectly functional, so it is understandably upsetting when you need to turnover an expensive item like a computer with such frequency.

I discussed Moore’s Law last week, and gave a name to this frequent obsolescence. What I did not address was why we can buy a new computer, marvel at its state-of-the-art behavior, and then, years later, deride the same machine as slow and unreliable. By and large older computers don’t ever lose their functionality, so why do some of us perceive them as slow? Are the recalcitrant among us right to cling to their old laptop because it still more or less does everything right? More interesting: why do computers seem to age?

Do computers actually get slower with time?

Yes. Your car gets less fuel efficient over time, and your home suffers gradual weather damage. A computer is still a physical machine and it wears down too. Specifically, heat kills your machine, and it generates a lot of its own, and some outside forces can contribute to make it worse. For desktops and laptops, dust is a big issue, and all high-powered electronics are a vortex for dust and dirt. Dust can get caked onto components and prevent heat from dissipating, making your computer age even faster. If you are intent on using your machine longer than the conventional technophile would tolerate, seek help in how to keep the inside of your machine clean. Think of it like an oil change.

Additionally, your machine can be slowed by disk fragmentation, which is a cliche observation anymore, but it’s true. I wrote about in detail some time ago. Unlike physical wear and tear, fragmentation can be reversed, but it certainly contributes to an impression of slowness.

Corollary to fragmentation is the amount of software you install. When you first get a computer, you don’t have much on it. Its sole responsibility is to turn on and do what you ask. Over the next few years you slowly add to your computer’s list of responsibilities. A lot of software people install runs in the background: anti-virus scans, task bar widgets, e-mail notifications, Facebook notifications, Adobe update reminders, Java update reminders, and if your browser is open all of the time, you probably have a similar host of gadgets attached to it. All of these things take computing resources away from whatever it is you were telling your computer to do. Compare the service you receive in an empty restaurant with the service you receive in a crowded one. Your four-year old laptop is probably a very crowded restaurant.

As a side note, this bloat caused by too much software might be indirectly responsible for the mass migration to Macintosh computers. The most popular PC manufacturers were getting particularly aggressive with the amount of things they pre-installed on your machine, some of it little better than obnoxious spyware bent on siphoning more money from your pocket. In a sense they are selling computers that are already pre-aged – good for cheese, bad for computers. With an excess of notifications and warnings and flat-out advertisements, its not particularly surprising that John Q. Websurfer switched to a platform that just sort of shuts up and lets you do your work.

Does newer software demand more of your machine?

Yes. I suppose this seems obvious, but what is less obvious is why newer software demands so much more and what a crippling effect it can have on an older computer. It is a debate that can’t fit in this space right now, but there is a serious discussion to be had about how necessary it is to make commonplace software demand so much computing power. I think the best summary to give here is that a lot of developers are like goldfish, and they will just grow to the size of their fishbowl. If the average computer selling in 2012 has so much memory and so many gigahertz, then Microsoft Office is going to be written assuming it has those resources available.

If you are intent on lengthening the useful lifespan of your machine, be careful about getting new software. If your word processor works fine and you are able to get your work done with it, then perhaps you should eschew the newest version. Keeping up with the newest software is an excellent way to make your machine look old and decrepit. This is especially true for operating systems, most famously during the switch from Windows XP to Windows Vista, when I watched many people effectively kill their computer by upgrading. If you are intent on keeping your older machine, then you should be content with older software. Obviously, sticking with older software is a greater risk in business than it is in personal use, so you may need to adjust your expectations and swallow the cutthroat reality of Moore’s Law.

Do older machines seem slower simply because of our perceptions?

Yes, of course. The ether and bone-saws of Victorian medicine look barbaric by today’s standards, but they were miles better than using leeches. A change in perception is only natural when improvements come along. The fact that we are so quick to dismiss older computers isn’t just the byproduct of smug technophilia, but an indication of exactly how important and powerful the technology is to our society. Observing Moore’s Law is sort of a placebo for the larger trend: What we use computers for is growing very rapidly. Focusing on hardware alone ignores that mere years ago we were not using social media, and years before that we were not regularly connected to Internet, and years before that we didn’t all have cellphones. It may be true that market and cultural forces push “new” machines a little too hard, but don’t cling to that as an excuse to avoid the new ways in which the technology impacts our lives. Your computer ages because our understanding of what a computer can do and be changes and, yes, it really did get that old that fast.

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