How much computing power do you really need?

Disclaimer: This one gets pretty geeky, but it might be worth a read before you buy your next computer or tablet.

Back in late 2007, I wrote a column (on MySpace!) about how upgrading from Windows XP to Windows Vista was a bad idea.

A lot has changed since I wrote that blog. The iPhone was in its infancy at that time…it didn’t even work on 3G until 2008. The original iPad was released on April 3, 2010. The first Android phone was released on September 23, 2008.

Back in May I added an update to the blog that Microsoft is terminating extended support for Windows XP on April 28, 2014, so if you’re still using Windows XP, you really should start to think about upgrading your Windows version now or switching to Linux for security reasons. Windows XP, after all, was first released on October 25, 2001, and even Windows Vista is more than six years old now. Windows 7 was released on October 22, 2009, and Windows 8 was released on October 26, 2012.

But the fundamental question I posed back then still remains: how much computing power do most people really need? For me, the answer is that they need more than they used to, but not nearly as much as a lot of new PCs offer. Only a select few power users will take full advantage of the high-end machines available today.

At the D8 Conference in 2010, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said, “When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed on the farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, cars got more popular. Innovations like automatic transmission and power steering and things that you didn’t care about in a truck as much started to become paramount in cars. … PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by one out of X people.”

Another important thing happened not long after I wrote that blog entry: the emergence of the netbook. Intel released its first Atom system-on-a-chip processor in April of 2008 — the idea was to leverage the Atom processor architecture to build small, very inexpensive laptops with long battery life.

Of course, this meant accepting some compromises in terms of performance. The Atom chips were single-core processors running at low clock speeds to conserve battery power and, of course, to save money.

A few netbooks were released with Windows Vista, which as my blog would have predicted, they could not handle. Vista was too much of a resource hog for lower-powered hardware, so the manufacturers stuck with Windows XP until Microsoft released Windows 7 Starter late in 2009. It’s not necessarily that the Atom processors were too slow — it’s that they were too slow for Windows Vista.

Most people who bought netbooks probably didn’t expect to play hard-core games on them, but they were so underpowered that office tasks and playing high-definition video were out of the question. So when the iPad stormed onto the market in 2010 and Android tablets followed, rather than relying on Intel’s x86 architecture, they used chips based on a different architecture designed by ARM Holdings (including the ARM Cortex, NVIDIA Tegra and the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor lines) that had proven to be so well suited for smart phones in terms of excellent battery life. Apple’s iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad devices use ARM Cortex processors.

Even though these ARM processors were even less powerful than the Atom chips; iOS and Android were leaner operating systems that got the most out of these low-powered processors. While netbooks were seen as bargain-basement laptops, tablets were accepted by consumers are more innovative and simpler to use for reading, web surfing and watching videos. They also weighed less than netbooks and had longer battery life. Netbook sales plummeted.

Microsoft saw the advantages of ARM processors (which could not run any version of Windows) as well and released Windows RT alongside Windows 8 in late 2012…most prominently in the Surface tablet. Unfortunately, the downside of Windows RT is that it can only run apps from the Windows Store and not software programs that worked on Windows 7 or before. Windows RT products have not sold well, and

The good news is that Intel has been plugging away for years making that Atom processors better and better. The current “Clover Trail” Atom processors (you would see them on a computer label as Atom Z2760) are dual-core processors with vastly improved graphics capabilities for 1080p video and excellent battery life. They are significantly more powerful than almost all ARM processors on the market, and they can run the full version of Windows 8. They’re not quite as fast as Intel’s other processors (Celeron, Pentium, Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7), but they’re significantly better than the Atom processors released in 2008 and might just be fast enough for your needs.

For Holiday 2013, Intel will release its new “Bay Trail” line of processors, which will apply to Atom, Celeron and Pentium. Bay Trail processors will be very capable quad-core beasts that will be able to handle all but the most demanding computing tasks quickly (read: high-end gaming and huge spreadsheets or databases) in Windows while providing all-day battery life. Intel also confirmed that the Bay Trail chips will have Wireless Display capabilities that were only available in the Core series chips. Unless you are really pushing these things, they will be almost indistinguishable from a laptop running a much more expensive Core i7 processor, and the battery will last a lot longer. If you’re worried that the screen on a laptop or tablet is too small for getting work done or that you can’t type efficiently on a touch screen, remember that you can always attach a laptop or a tablet to an external monitor with a simple cable or soon without a cable via Intel Wireless Display, and you can pair it to a Bluetooth keyboard and — in Android or Windows — a mouse.

The apps that have become so prominent on iOS and Android are based on cloud computing: the idea that the device offloads the real processing chores to an external server via an Internet connection. The device — whether it’s a smart phone, tablet or laptop — serves as a sort of thin client; little more than a screen with an Internet connection. Thin clients are an old idea that dates back to the days of the old mainframe systems. So, as more and more computing activities move to the “cloud,” the less important your individual machine’s processing power will become.

Intel has announced that manufacturers will release Bay Trail Atom-based tablets for well under $199…although these will probably run Android instead of Windows. The Windows versions may add a little cost (like $50), but you will be able to get a full-fledged computer with more than enough speed to handle all but the most demanding tasks later this year for a song.

If your budget is REALLY constrained and you don’t need to use your computer on the road, you might want to consider getting an Android Mini PC — for as little as $50. All you need is an HDTV or monitor with an HDMI input. As long as your needs are not terribly sophisticated, you can accomplish the most common Office tasks for free from any web browser on any operating system (including Windows) using Google Drive.

If you do have other options, I wouldn’t recommend using an Android device as a primary computer, but Android TV sticks and tablets as well as Chromebooks can make perfectly capable secondary machines for very low prices. With small credit card readers and simple financial applications available, you could even run a business on a cheap Android smart phone or tablet.

The low cost, low power consumption and small size (for easy shipping) of these Android tablets and TV sticks could bring computing power including the Internet to more people throughout the developing world, advancing their economies, improving literacy, and combating poverty.

You might not even need a new machine at all. Consider as well that a computer system is not just about the processor; it’s a chain that is only as strong as its weakest link. So if you’re a little low on RAM (2 GB or less for Windows) or your hard drive spins too slowly (4200 rpm or 5400 rpm is way too slow) or if you have a slow Internet connection, your system could feel a little sluggish because those components can be significant bottlenecks. You can also optimize your Windows settings for efficiency over appearance. Adding the maximum amount of RAM possible as well as swapping out your hard drive for a solid-state drive or even a hybrid hard drive with a faster-spinning platter could breathe some new life into your older computer. Doubling the factory-installed RAM from 2 GB to 4 GB, adding a hybrid drive and upgrading my Internet connection has definitely gave my old 2009 laptop, which was pretty low end even then, a shot in the arm. Now it’s every bit as responsive playing HD video, performing office tasks, or surfing the web on Windows 7 Ultimate as my work computer running on a quad-core Intel Core i7 with 8 GB of RAM. Of course, newer computers are MUCH more energy efficient than their predecessors, so keeping that older machine might end up costing you more in electricity bills.

In short, we got to the moon on a Commodore 64. Do you really need an Intel Core i7 processor — which is more than 200,000 times more powerful — just to read your Facebook feed?

Why Mitch Daniels was right to eliminate Howard Zinn

You wanna read a real history book? Read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll knock you on your ass.

Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting

So there has been a big dustup recently about Purdue University president Mitch Daniels and some e-mails he sent back when he was the governor of Indiana in regard to eliminating a controversial history book by Howard Zinn. Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, has a strong liberal bent that understandably frustrated a conservative like Daniels.

A lot of liberals and the faculty at Purdue University in general are concerned about whether Daniels will impede academic freedom on campus. Here’s why they have nothing legitimate to worry about.

First of all, being a state governor is a very different job from being a university president. The e-mails in question refer to the use of Zinn’s text in K-12 classrooms, not universities. And it’s perfectly reasonable for a governor to be concerned with a state’s academic standards. Notice that Daniels didn’t say he didn’t want Zinn’s book published or even borrowed from the school library. He merely wanted to ensure that the book was not used as a textbook for academic credit at the K-12 level, and he did not want K-12 teachers to be able to use this textbook for professional development.

I understand the appearance of political censorship here, but perhaps a better question is why some would want a history book with an overt political agenda taught in public school classrooms in the first place.

Despite its popularity, Zinn’s book has come under plenty of fire over the past 33 years, and not just from offended conservatives. Plenty of historians of all ideological stripes have panned Zinn’s book too, not because of its ideology, but because of its questionable academic quality and all of its leading questions for students. This is not to say that there is no value in what Zinn wrote or that it should be kept away from students under lock and key, but using it as an official textbook ascribes an air of authority to it that it doesn’t really merit.

To get a flavor for Zinn’s work, let’s examine a few of Zinn’s questions at the end of Chapter 16:

  • Did the behavior of the United States show that her war aims were humanitarian or centered on power and profit?
  • Was she fighting the war to end the control by some nations over others or to make sure the controlling nations were friends of the United States?
  • With the defeat of the Axis, were fascism’s essential elements — militarism, racism, imperialism — now gone? Or were they absorbed into the already poisoned bones of the victors?

These leading questions are not the stuff of normal history textbooks to be sure.

Here’s another excerpt from Zinn to make it crystal clear that he writes the book with an agenda.

The mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction-so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements-that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.

For my fellow liberals, remember that we sort of do the same thing with science textbooks, like the infamous Of Pandas and People that so many religious conservatives have fought to include as a science classroom textbook promoting intelligent design. (The conservatives lost that fight in the landmark Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case.) Why did the conservatives want to include that textbook in the classroom? To lend artificial credibility to intelligent design and to discredit the established science of evolution.

Now some might argue that science and history are two different beasts and that history is far more subjective than science so opposing views and controversies are much more legitimate there. But the more important lesson to me is that children, including teenagers, are impressionable, and it’s important that we don’t pass off propaganda as fact to them, regardless of which side the propaganda serves. Most students even at the high school level have not developed the critical thinking skills necessary to digest a book as simplistic and overtly partisan and leading as Zinn’s in proper perspective; especially when it is presented as a bona fide history textbook.

Here’s what liberal historian Michael Kazin — editor of Dissent Magazine — had to say about Zinn’s book.

But to make sense of a nation’s entire history, an author has to explain the weight and meaning of worldviews that are not his own and that, as an engaged citizen, he does not favor. Zinn has no taste for such disagreeable tasks…No work of history can substitute for a social movement. Yet intelligent, sober studies can make sense of how changing structures of power and ideas provide openings for challenges from below, while also shifting the basis on which a reigning order claims legitimacy for itself. These qualities mark the work of such influential (and widely read) historians on the left as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Gerda Lerner, C.L.R. James, and the erstwhile populist C. Vann Woodward. Reading their work makes one wiser about the obstacles to change as well as encouraged about the capacity of ordinary men and women to achieve a degree of independence and happiness, even within unjust societies. In contrast, Howard Zinn is an evangelist of little imagination for whom history is one long chain of stark moral dualities. His fatalistic vision can only keep the left just where it is: on the margins of American political life.

Do we liberals who have often fought so hard against the child brainwashing techniques common to organized religion really want to foist a book like A People’s History on impressionable schoolchildren as a textbook?