One of the challenges in the world of desktop computers is keeping on top of the technical jargon — new technologies are developed so fast that it’s everything you can do to understand enough about the latest buzzwords to figure out that you don’t care. (It’s a challenge for me, and I’ve worked in this field for twenty years!)
We’ll assume, just for laughs, that you know enough about the basic terms in personal computers, enough to get by, anyway. Here are a few hot topics that have come up in the past year or so to help confuse you, along with enough definition to help you figure out how much you need to pay attention.
64-bit — Real and “Extensions”
The usual computer you have on your desktop right now is a “32-bit” system — that is, the CPU (the computer “chip”) operates on data in 32-bit wide chunks. In the past couple of years there’s been a push to move on to 64-bit chips — thanks to mysteries of binary math, 64-bit-wide chunks of data processing power is not just double, but massively greater than 32-bits — don’t even bother trying to figure it out. Let’s just say that a computer with a 64-bit processor can count the US National Debt — to the penny. That’s a lot of digits. Mostly we don’t need to track data that large, but some jobs — mainly manipulating very large databases, processing extra-ambitious 3D games, and decompressing large video files — do get a benefit. So Intel launched a new type of chip, the 64-bit Itanium, to handle this — but as it’s completely incompatible with existing 32-bit software, it’s been tough getting developers to rewrite their applications to 64 bits, so Itanium sales have been slow, slow, slow.
Then along comes AMD, a chip-making rival who produces clones of Intel chips, with a clever little trick: They add 64-bit “extensions” to the existing Intel 32-bit chip architecture. Now the chip can count to very large numbers and thus handle many 64-bit functions, but still runs regular ol’ 32-bit applications like the ones you use every day. The new chip is a hit, and Intel — which had actually dreamed up this “extensions” gimmick a few years earlier but didn’t want to undermine its Itanium systems — was forced to come out with its own 64-bit extensions too.
Mainly you’ll find this kind of processor on server systems. We recommend you don’t worry about them for your corporate desktops. You are unlikely to be doing 64-bit processing in the administrative offices, even using “extensions.” And for now, they usually cost a lot extra.
DVD burners are either “R”, meaning you can copy info onto a DVD blank once only, or they are “RW”, meaning you can write and erase and rewrite data over and over, like a hard drive. The confusing part comes with the plus and minus signs that accompany them in the spec sheets: +R/RW, -R/RW, and even +-R/RW. Plus and minus are competing formats for writing the data. There is no good advice we can give you on picking one or the other. Minus is said to be compatible with more types of consumer DVD players, including older systems — almost all computer DVD players will play anything. However, you may not have a choice anyway: Dell, for instance, ships plus drives with all its systems. Our advice: Take what you get, or let an expert decide.
(CD burners aren’t a problem — they resolved this format issue a long time ago, fortunately.)
Dual processor systems — ones with two CPUs — have been around for a few years. You’ll only see them on big servers. They have two separate processors sitting on two separate miniboards plugged into the motherboard.
Dual-core is something new, and it’s more than just a gimmick. Seems that cranking up the processor speeds, as we’ve been doing for 30 years, has a drawback: The higher the CPU’s frequency, the more electricity it consumes and more waste heat it gives off. A 3.5GHz chip throws off something like four times the heat of a chip half that speed — you can literally fry an egg, I hear. That’s why some laptops get so hot you can’t actually put them on your lap. And why the computer fans have gotten so loud lately.
Solution: Instead of doubling the frequency, let’s just put two regular-speed processors on the same miniboard. If the operating system can handle it, your system will crank through its processing chores nearly twice as fast, but will generate much less than twice as much heat. (Two chips on a single board is called “multi-core” because only the core element of the CPU is doubled. The so-called support chips don’t also double.) Even better, the dual-processor system doesn’t cost twice as much.
This is such a great solution to the heat-dissipation problem that both Intel and AMD plan to make all their future systems dual-core. In fact, Intel predicts that all systems, including desktop systems, will be sold only as dual-core models within two or three years.
Our advice: Don’t worry about it. Dual-processor systems will remain too expensive to tempt you, while dual-core systems will quickly replace ordinary systems at the same price point, so you can buy them next year or the year after when they are cheap.
Hard-Drive Designations (SATA, etc.)
We advise you to buy 80 to 120 gigabyte hard drives for your business desktop computers. This is plenty big enough to hold your everyday work, and extra-large files can be kept on the corporate server. Such drives are also plenty fast enough for your work, so don’t get talked into any souped-up disk-drive technologies. Take whatever comes in the right capacity on the system in your price range; don’t upgrade for technology. And don’t buy RAID, which is multiple coordinated disk drives in a box — that’s for server systems.
Intel vs. AMD
Does it make a difference whether you buy Intel inside or AMD processors on your business desktop computers? There is a long and absolutely fascinating set of answers to this question, which we’d love to discuss at great length. But you’re busy; we’re busy; so here’s the short answer: No, it doesn’t really make a difference — not for ordinary business desktop systems, anyway. There are no compatibility issues, the performance differences aren’t enough to think about, and prices are similar. (For higher-performance systems, especially for video processing and games, AMD is actually faster and a little cheaper than Intel, but don’t tell anyone we said that.)