A screaming-fast PC changed my life. It will change yours, too.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Sept. 9 2010 4:08 PM

My Computer's Faster Than Your Computer

A screaming-fast PC changed my life. It will change yours, too.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

A few months ago, I got fed up with my computer. This is not unusual for me. The slightest computing hiccups annoy me, and at the time my two-year-old machine seemed farther gone than a cartoon drunk. In truth, there was nothing wrong with the computer. The problem was me—I'd outgrown it. I'm neither a gamer nor a designer, and I'm a cheapskate, so I've always tried to buy moderately powered machines—just enough computer for my office-worker needs. The trouble is, I tend to use these cheap computers in ways that the manufacturers never intended.

My main vice is the Web browser. Over the course of a day I'll open up dozens and dozens of browser tabs, and I'll keep them open for days on end. There is a method to this madness; the tabs act as placeholders for research and other interesting things I've found on the Web, and eventually I get around to looking at most of them. But because each tab is using up a little bit of computing power, my machine crawls to a halt over time—videos begin to skip, my Skype calls get distorted, and simple tasks like refreshing pages take an eternity. The only way to fix the problem is to close some tabs or reboot the browser—exactly the sort of nuisance that drives me up the wall.

This is a common problem. I have experienced tab overload on every computer I've used since the advent of multi-tabbed browsers, and readers and colleagues have reported the same issue. Over the years, I've tried to fix this problem with software—I've added plug-ins that block processor-intensive Flash ads and I've switched browsers (I was an early adherent of Google's speedy Chrome browser), but these methods haven't cured the problem. Neither has buying new machines; I'd upgrade my computer every two years, getting something slightly more powerful, but the new hardware only helped temporarily. The problem, again, was me. Just as adding lanes to a highway encourages more people to drive, my new computer's speed improvement gives me room to open up even more tabs, outpacing my hardware's ability to keep up. This was Manjoo's Law: Give me a few weeks, and I can make any new computer obsolete.

When I bought my latest computer, I decided to figure out whether Manjoo's Law was ironclad. Rather than buying another mid-priced machine, I bought components individually and built an extremely fast computer from the ground up—the sort of speed demon that gamers or designers would use. In total, I spent about $1,300 on some of the fastest computer parts on the market. And you know what? This top-of-the-line machine has changed my life. On my new computer, I can have hundreds of tabs open simultaneously—I know I've had at least 200 open at one point—and still play high-definition Flash videos without any trouble at all. There must be some theoretical limit to the number of tabs I can keep open on this computer, but I've yet to hit it, and I don't think I ever will. For the first time, I've got a machine that can process more tabs than my brain can keep straight.

I know I'm setting myself up to look like an idiot—of course buying a faster computer will make your browsing experience better. Still, I think this is a tale worth telling because people often overlook raw power when buying new machines these days. The recent trend in computers favors energy efficiency and mobility rather than power—this is the age of the netbook, not the massive desktop brick. This is a trend I've celebrated, and one that seems poised to overtake the industry—given the popularity of netbooks, laptops, and tablets, computer makers are going to churn out more and more machines that are increasingly portable and last longer on a single charge. To make a computer more portable and longer-lasting, however, you need to sacrifice speed. Computer buyers also want cheap machines; according to the research firm NPD Group, the average selling price of a desktop PC in America is about $600; this is down from $700 in 2008 and $877 in 2006.

These $600 machines are good enough for most people. If you mainly do e-mail and word processing, you'll have no trouble with a cheap computer. But you don't have to be a graphic artist to fall in love with a super-speedy machine. If you find yourself running into the same roadblock I did with my last machine—constant computing sluggishness that makes you want to tear your hair out—let me suggest spending a little more on your next machine. You'll be happy you did.

What does a $1,300 machine get you that $600 doesn't? A much faster processor, for one thing. I sprung for a 2.80 GHz Intel Core i7-930 processor, which is about three times faster than the Intel Core 2 Duo chip in my last machine. But it's probably not the processor that accounts for most of the speed increase I've seen in my machine. The main help, I think, comes from the hard drive. I purchased Crucial Technology's 128GB solid-state drive as my primary drive. Solid-state drives use transistors rather than spinning magnetic disks to store data. They are, consequently, much faster than traditional drives.

Going off a tip from Jeff Atwood of the blog Coding Horror, I loaded my operating system (Windows 7) and main programs (including my browser) on the solid-state drive, while relegating most of my data to a slower, bigger drive. This gave me a screaming platform for my PC. When I tested my new drive, I found that it can perform an astonishing 16,000 write- operations per second; the traditional hard drive, by comparison, does about 400 write-operations per second. These numbers might not mean anything to you, but for me, they've proved revolutionary. Since my computer can access the data on my drive so quickly, Chrome, Word, and every other program launches without even a split-second of delay. When Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, got a similar solid-state drive a couple years ago, he wrote that he couldn't recall "the last time that a new tech toy I got made such a dramatic difference in performance and just plain usability." This is exactly how I felt when I began using my new PC—a sense of liberation.

Will I ever outgrow my speed demon of a computer? At this point it's hard for me to see how. Even at my peak usage, my processor never goes above 10 percent capacity, and most of the time I'm using just 1 or 2 percent. I'm confident this rig will last me at least five years, and probably more. If that's the case, the premium I paid will have been well worth it. This new machine will have saved me years of computing headaches—and for that, I'd have willingly paid a whole lot more.

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