I’m typing this blog entry on my wife’s six-year-old Dell PC. We use it for web browsing, instant messaging and watching YouTube videos. Sure, I’ve added some memory and a $10 used DVD-ROM drive, but it’s fundamentally the same machine — and it still handles the daily tasks remarkably well.
Unfortunately, the one thing that it doesn’t do is travel. It’s a desktop, and my wife needed a computer that she could take back and forth to school. So we went laptop shopping.
And what did we find? Pink notebooks, green notebooks, thin-and-light notebooks, media center notebooks, desktop replacement notebooks…you name it. There’s something for everyone out there.
But what really struck me was the sheer power. Most consumer desktops and laptops today have dual-core processors–each core with as much power as our whole not-so-ancient computer–and truckloads of memory.
They use it too. The bare minimum for Windows Vista Home Premium is 1 gigabyte (that’s 1,024 megabytes) of memory, but it really takes 2 gigabytes (2,048 megabytes) to do it justice.
Now I’m not suggesting we all go back to DOS or even Windows 95, but Windows 2000 could run on 32 megabytes of memory and run very well on 64 megabytes. That means Windows Vista takes 32 times as much memory as Windows 2000 did.
Is it 32 times better? I think that I have used every version of Windows since 3.1, and I can safely say Vista isn’t even 2 times better than 2000.
At work, we have a few “dinosaurs” still running Windows 2000, and you know what? They still work very well. You can still surf the Internet, watch videos, listen to music, and even leave a few windows open at the same time. In fact, I used to surf the Internet on — GASP! — a 486 running Windows 95 with 16 megabytes of memory!
As long as you keep the spyware away with a good antivirus program and keep the junk off the hard drive, they can still do it all at a very good clip. And why shouldn’t they…that’s what they could do when you bought them, right?
Sure there have been some significant innovations along the way that justified an upgrade. Windows 3.1 was the first really usable version. Windows 95 was the first one that was really designed for the Internet with TCP/IP. Windows NT Workstation (circa 1996) brought a new level of stability instead of the hated blue screen of death (most consumers didn’t benefit from this huge innovation until Windows XP). Windows 98 Second Edition brought us USB support. These were all critical upgrades that we take for granted today.
But what does Vista bring us? Transparent windows that hog our video memory. Gadgets just like the ones found in Google Desktop. A confusing Start menu. Annoying security prompts for everything. Sure, there’s a cool factor, but there really isn’t anything in there that justifies the stiff hardware requirements or the extra cost.
So even though I couldn’t talk my wife into a perfectly capable used laptop from eBay, I did talk her into sticking with Windows XP instead of Vista. If a laptop with 2 gigabytes of memory and a dual-core processor will run Windows Vista Home Premium reasonably well, it will chew up XP, spit it out and ask for seconds.
Then again, maybe I won’t even notice.
P.S. I know I’m starting to sound like an old codger and there are some high-end users and gamers who really put the extra computing power to good use.
Update: I wrote this way back in late 2007 on MySpace and moved it over to this blog. It’s now May of 2013, and there have been lots of changes since then.
1) Windows 7 launched on October 22, 2009. It was what Windows Vista should have been in the first place. Windows 8 launched on October 26, 2012. It was a big, polarizing change that made it easier to run Windows on a tablet — even though you could technically do capacitive touch in Windows 7.
2) Microsoft announced that Windows XP support will end on April 28, 2014. That means no more security patches for XP, and that could lead to big security problems for XP users. Now there’s an extremely good reason to upgrade. If you still have an older machine that you don’t want to sink any money into, you might try switching to one of the many Linux distributions available for free. Ubuntu is probably the most popular and straightforward distribution out there, but there are lots of options. You may be pleasantly surprised at how fast your old hardware runs on Linux!
3) Newer computers aren’t just faster and more powerful these days; they can do entirely new things. Certain laptops running on variations of Intel’s Core series processors can beam content to your HDTV wirelessly with an adapter (called Wireless Display or WiDi). Of course there’s the touch/tablet revolution as well with lots of interesting variants. Low-voltage processors can really improve battery life, so your laptop can last longer without being plugged in. A few companies have come out with portable Android-based stick computers that can operate just by being plugged into the HDMI port on a television. For well under $100.