CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Originally published Monday, November 2, 1998 

What a difference two years make

It's been exactly two years today, since I last published an article in this column concerning new computer specifications.  What a difference those two years have made. Systems are miraculously faster, more efficient and, accordingly, more affordable. It's great news for those buying a new personal computer system and a bit disappointing for those who spent a bundle just two years ago.

I feel like I'm reminiscing about the good old days as if it were 50 years ago, instead of just two. Back then, the 486 chip was still the standard workhorse, but the Pentium chip was quickly moving up from a premium upgrade processor to the industry benchmark. The clock speed of these chips was measured in megahertz, from 75Mhz to 200Mhz. A Pentium-133 was considered standard. Headlines in a 1996 issue of PC World touted 109 systems reviewed from dirt-cheap Pentium-75s to rip-roaring Pentium-166s.

Today we're well into the next generation processor, the Pentium II and clock speeds are now exceeding 400MHz. Two years ago you could expect to spend at least $2,500 to $3,000 for that rip-roaring Pentium-166, whereas today you can purchase twice the processing power for less than $2,000. A Dell Dimension Pentium II-200, for example, was retailing for $5,499 in 1996 and today the comparable Dell PC with a faster 350MHz chip sells for $1,849.

Gateway was selling its Pentium II-200 system for $6,999 in 1996 and today the comparable system is selling for $1,698.

Hard drives also have increased in their capacity to store your files and programs. One to two gigabyte sized drives were considered standard and anything over 4GB was considered large enough to be a network server. It's rare today to find a new system with anything less than a 3GB hard drive and most systems offer at least 6GB as standard. The aforementioned 1996 Dell system included a 2.1GB hard drive, whereas today's model is equipped with a 10GB hard drive. Similar statistics are true for the Gateway system as well.

Your actual electronic working space, or memory, has grown right along with the PC's processing power and storage capabilities. In the article published two years ago, I recommended that 16MB should be the minimum memory, or RAM, configuration and to expect memory standards to double each year.

This has proven true with 32MB as last year's standard and 64MB being the current norm. The more memory your system has, the more tasks it can manage simultaneously without a loss of speed. The $5,499 Dell system included only 32MB RAM, whereas today's $1,849 system comes with 64MB RAM.

Modems, back in the old days, transmitted data at a whopping 28.8Bps and were usually an add-on or extra when buying a new computer system. Today, the v.90 (56.6) modem is standard and bundled with all new computer systems.

There are a multitude of reasons for the dramatic increase in size and speeds of computer systems, but most simply factor down to the types of applications running on these systems. Since the advent of the personal computer, we have migrated from a text-based environment to a graphic user interface and now multimedia and Internet components are heavily integrated into all our graphics-based computing.

Graphics, sound and video all require gargantuan resources as compared to the needs of plain old text. Programs and files are still measured in bytes and text files are infinitely smaller than graphic and multimedia files.

Every text character represents 1 byte. The word "mouse," for example, occupies only 5-byte parcel on your system. A singing and dancing mouse, however, that greets you each time you perform a certain task might require 500,000 bytes or more of system resources. As interactive and entertaining as our computer programs have become, it's no surprise that the system itself has expanded to accommodate these demands.

It's the consumers' good fortune that these new computer systems continue to drop in prices as advances and improvements move forward. The following core components are recommended if you're in the market for a new desktop computer today: Pentium II-350 processor, 64MB memory, 8GB Hard Drive and a v.90 modem. A multitude of bells, whistles and extras will also be included, but these are the basics. Hopefully, you won't be disappointed with your purchase two years from now.

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.

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