Boiling frogs and PC performance

October 23, 2011

If you'd asked me a week ago, I would have confidently asserted that the performance of my old home machine was pretty much fine (with a few narrow exceptions); certainly no longer top of the line, but still mostly more than adequate in general. Sure it was five years old but I'd gotten reasonably good components five years ago, I don't do many things that are performance demanding, and anyways I've long heard (and agreed) how both performance demands and system performance have leveled off.

I was wrong. There's no other way to put it. Using my new machine has been a revelation in how much my old machine had quietly been slow. Even for programs that I knew were compute-heavy, the change has been dramatic. And other programs have kept surprising me when they're noticeably nicer and smoother on the new machine.

(My favorite example of improvement is that my photo processing program has not merely gotten faster at doing the same things I was doing before, it has turned into an interactive editor where I can drag adjustment sliders and see the results instantly.)

When I look back at this, I think that happened is that I was being the computing equivalent of a frog being boiled. Sure, my machine had performed well five years ago, with the programs of five years ago. But over the past five years, both programs and what we do have slowly become more demanding, bit by bit. As things got more demanding my machine's effective performance slowly degraded, but because this was a slow and progressive change I didn't consciously notice anything. Things were just a little bit slower than they were last month, never suddenly a lot slower, and soon enough it became the new normal that I expected and was used to.

In short, I had gotten accustomed to having a genuinely slow machine. And because it had happened gradually I didn't realize that it was possible to have a qualitatively different and better experience with a modern fast machine; I expected only moderate improvements from the upgrade, not an eye-opening sea change.

(Okay, there were a few things that I was hoping would speed up visibly, but that was because they were broken to start with and I would be throwing huge amounts of memory and CPU at them in the hopes of papering over the issue.)

(In retrospect, I perhaps should have noticed that there were an increasing number of things that I wasn't able to do. I've never been able to view Flash-based video in HD, for example, and I knew that was a CPU issue, but I sort of wrote it off as 'oh, Flash on Linux is just handicapped in general'.)

Comments on this page:

From at 2011-10-23 06:25:15:

Welcome to 2011! Now buy an SSD :-)

From at 2011-10-23 11:29:00:

I'd second the SSD recommendation if you do anything remotely disk intensive (including hefty software builds). It makes a tremendous difference!

From at 2011-10-24 10:11:53:

I guess your experience is the flip side of the idea that if your only computer use is with a particular computer, it won't really feel slow. For example, we have an old NeXTstation, and it's pretty much as fast as it was when it was new. But there are certainly lots of things it can't do (with Flash being one of them), and I imagine that if you compared image editing on it to the same or similar programs on a modern Mac, it would seem crazy slow. So the secret would seem to be never using other machines and not keeping up with what new programs are available.

My home Linux machine, with a 2.53 GHz Pentium 4 and 1 GB of RAM, is close to ten years old now, runs the latest Debian stable release, and still runs Unreal Tournament 2004 quite well, and, of course, does the terminal-based stuff that I mostky use it for as well as it ever did. It's dead slow, I'm sure, compared to my work machine (a Mac laptop with a 2.8 GHz Core i7 and 8 GB of RAM), but it still works well enough that it's hard to justify replacing it, especially when the things I do with it are different enough that the obvious comparisons don't apply.

Of course this week I'm replacing my parents' 867 GHz G4 Power Macintosh with 1.5 GB of RAM with a shiny new quad-core i5 iMac with 8 GB of RAM. The differences will be stunning in some ways, but because of the sorts of things they use the machine for, I suspect they won't notice a huge difference in performance. But they will get some new software they couldn't have run (and, of course, lose some that won't run any longer because of the processor change). And helping them with it will be lots easier, too, as we'll actually know what they're seeing.

By cks at 2011-10-24 11:39:47:

I'm not ready to go with SSD(s) for reasons that I covered here. I'm fortunate in that I don't do much IO on my home machine, so I think I can get away with this.

I agree with Claire's comment in general. If I was still using the same programs and doing the same things that I was in 2006, the machine would be plenty fast (except for photo editing). I'm not, though, partly because other people have used the existence of more computing power to improve things.

(It's popular to view this as programs just getting bloated, but I think that's overstating things. In many cases the programs give genuinely better and nicer results.)

Written on 23 October 2011.
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