Saturday, August 19, 2006

A missing PC?

Continuing the thread of hardware and how the market doesn't always provide the machines we want...let's look at Windows.

We've hit a point that people have been saying would come for years: computers aren't getting faster - they're getting cheaper. Technically computers are getting faster, but there are now ultra-low-end Windows machines that aren't much better than what you could get a few years ago. But they are so cheap!

Consider a quick visit to Dell's website. Their cheapest low-end machine is less than $300 with monitor! Insane! It's not much of a machine to a flight-simmer, but it is a 2.5 ghz machine with 256 MB of RAM and an 80 GB hard drive. Put a cheap RAM chip in and that's basically what I got as my flight sim machine a few years ago.

The problem is - to get the price down, the machine's had the parts totally stripped out of it. The graphics are going to be an embedded chipset, probably Intel's, and they're not going to be usable for games. Want a PCIe 16x slot? (Accept no less for a flight simulation machine these days?) I couldn't find a Dell with one of these for less than $650!

Perhaps this makes sense - consider what my MacBook Pro is doing right now and how much of its CPU capacity is used:

- Email: 15%
- Word processing with real-time spell-check: 6%
- Surfing the web: 10-40%

Of course if I go launch X-Plane...

So if I was really talented and could do all three of these things at once, my computer would still be overqualified! For the average person, the sub-$300 computer is just great. It does what they need and is becoming very affordable.

Where things get tricky is when one of those users wants to try X-Plane for the first time. In order to get the price down to $300 Dell has had to cut to the bone on all components. So what we're seeing from users who have new machines is the have's and the have-not's.

The haves have new motherboards with fast memory controllers, large caches, dual core chips, and 16x graphics slots - the card in that slot is usually a monster. (Even last generation's mid-range cards like the 6600GT were very powerful by X-Plane's requirements.) The have-not's have a machine with integrated graphics and no slot to replace them with, very little cache and slower memory controllers.

There isn't really a point to this blog entry...the market is just meeting people's needs. A summary of my observation is: where a rising tide of technology lifted all computers a few years ago, that push is now lowering price instead. As a result, many users have machines that are not way overpowered for their day-to-day work and are thus underpowered when they discover flight simulation.

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