Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 3: February 2004


Trends & Quick Takes

Who Makes the Fastest PC?

Walt Crawford

Macworld devoted six pages to a December 2003 cover story on this issue: “The race is on,” by Jonathan Seff. It starts with an interesting statement, given the claims of Mac owners and Apple itself: “Until a few months ago, a race between a Mac and a PC wasn’t much of a race at all. Macs were fast—but PCs were usually faster.” Now, there are finally PowerPC CPUs running at 2GHz—and the 64-bit G5, used in a dual-processor model, might give the best desktop Windows systems a run for their money. Steve Jobs introduced the machines by stating flat-out that the Power Mac G5 was the world’s fastest personal computer, period.

Is the claim justified? That’s the focus of this test report, which involved both PC World and Macworld. Apple’s three top Power Macs were tested against a range of similarly configured Windows systems—but two of the three Windows competitors weren’t Intel-based. One was, an Alienware 3.2GHz Pentium 4, but the others were an Alienware 2.2GHz Athlon 64 FX-51 (running AMD’s 64-bit Athlon) and a Polywell workstations using two 2GHz AMD Opteron CPUs. Knowledgeable Windows users will note immediately that the comparison uses unusually expensive Windows PCs, while Mac folks will look at the price table and complain that the Windows machines were more expensive than the Macs.

What about the tests? They ran six in all, four using popular applications available for both platforms, two using “comparable” tasks but running different software. For the four same-application tests, the results are fairly straightforward. On Adobe Photoshop, the Polywell was faster than any of the Macs while the two Alienwares came in behind the speediest Mac (oddly, the cheapest of the three Macs did the best on all four same-application tests). With Microsoft Word, there was no contest: all three Windows systems ran substantially faster than any of the Macs, typically taking about half as long to perform tasks. Quake III, measured for frame rates, was odd: The two Alienware systems ran faster than any of the Macs, while the Polywell came in just behind the fastest Mac. Finally, Adobe Premiere looked a lot like Microsoft Word: All three Windows machines ran faster than any of the Macs.

Time to bring in tasks that don’t have identical software. They tried encoding CD tracks (already copied to hard disk in uncompressed WAV or AIFF form) to 128K MP3, using MusicMatch Plus on the PCs, iTunes on the Macs. They dropped the single Intel system from this and the final test. The results, noting that MusicMatch doesn’t use the second Polywell CPU: 38 seconds (to encode 45 minutes of music!) on the Alienware as compared to 74 seconds on the fastest Mac.

Then they tried MPEG-2 encoding—comparing Apple’s Compressor with Adobe Premiere Pro and Pinnacle Studio 8. Lo and behold, the Mac finally won a test: Encoding a 6 minute video took 6:04 on the fastest Mac, 11:14 on the fastest PC.

I have no problem with Jonathan Seff’s conclusions—and it’s worth noting the first half of his second conclusion, given Steve Job’s claim. His first conclusion is that the speed debate frequently comes down to your planned use and that creative professionals do well with Macs. I’ve always assumed that most full-time graphics/video professionals who use desktop computers at all, as opposed to the fading world of graphics workstations, are more likely to use Macs. Second: “even if the Power Mac isn’t the fastest personal computer in the world, as Apple boasted this summer, it can certainly hold its own against similar PCs.” [Emphasis added.] And Apple “has made great strides in closing the performance gap”—but both camps will be increasing processor speed.

Oddly enough, PC Magazine’s more limited comparison shows the Power Mac G5 in a better light, faster than a two-CPU Windows system on three of five tests (and barely slower on a fourth). That may be because the PC comparison used two Intel Xeon 3.06GHz CPUs or because PC’s choice of tests was friendlier to the Mac.

Speaking of PCs (and Peripherals)…

PC World published another reliability and service report card in its December 2003 issue, based on two surveys of 32,000 subscribers: One covering desktop and notebook computers, one covering “other popular devices.”

PC reliability and service seems to be improving—and, not surprisingly, most peripherals have fewer problems than PCs themselves. The bad news is that no PC manufacturer earned an Outstanding overall score for either notebooks or desktops. Dell, EMachines, Gateway, IBM, independent shops, and Sony all earned Good desktop scores; Compaq and HP scored Fair; no other brands garnered enough responses. The Good store for EMachines is a triumph of sorts, given early experience with these low-end systems.

For notebooks, Dell, Gateway, IBM, and Toshiba all earned Good; Sony, Compaq, and HP scored Fair.

Printers show a truly surprising change. Namely, the sole Outstanding rating among printers (for reliability only: there weren’t enough service responses to judge peripherals) is Samsung, while Brother, Canon, Epson, and HP all show up as Good. Dell, Lexmark, Minolta earn Fair; Xerox/Tektronix earns an unfortunate Poor score.

Digital cameras also surprised me slightly: Sony is the sole Outstanding score. Most of the usual suspects show up as Good: Canon, Fujifilm, HP, Kodak, Minolta, Nikon, and Olympus. Casio, Panasonic, and Toshiba limp in at Fair, with Logitech and Polaroid earning Poor ratings. (I must admit that I wouldn’t think of Logitech or Polaroid as serious digital camera players, although Logitech certainly makes inexpensive webcams.)

Belkin won’t be happy with the wireless gateway ratings: It’s the only Poor. Netgear is the only Good, with D-Link, Linksys, Microsoft, and SMC all Fair.

Finally, there are no outstanding reliability scores for PDAs—which, if you think of them as subnotebooks, is consistent. Handspring, Palm, and Sony all earn Good; Casio, Compaq, Dell, HP, and Toshiba earn Fair scores.

Quicker Takes

Ø    Here’s a curious one: Bill Machrone’s October 28, 2003 “Extreme Tech” column in PC Magazine. He reports on an acquaintance having problems with her 19" CRT display—it started jittering after she had it for a while. A replacement did the same thing. She knew people at the manufacturer (NEC-Mitsubishi), and when she sent it in to be checked over it was pronounced in perfect working order. So what was going on? Turns out she uses a Northern Light SADelite, a high-intensity fluorescent desk lamp for people with “sunlight-affective disorder.” When she sent the lamp to her contact at NEC-Mitsubishi, they discovered that the ballast wasn’t approved for indoor use, there was no FCC approval label, the ground terminal on the ballast wasn’t connected to anything, and the AC cord wasn’t shielded. The NEC tech sent the lamp to Machrone. Before running field emissions tests, he did a simple “test”—turning on the light near radios and TV. “I could hear it all over the AM spectrum; it wiped out channels 2 through 6 on the TV and was audible on half the FM spectrum.” Emissions analysis confirmed what informal testing proved—this was one noisy lamp, quite probably capable of causing a nearby CRT to jitter. Any unusual lamps around your PCs?

Ø    Sometimes an article makes me feel old and glad of it. Take “EZ Interaction” by Jay Munro in the December 30, 2003) PC Magazine. Please. Here’s the subhead: “If UR [you are] SITD [still in the dark] about the odd words and character combinations in today’s electronic communications, you need to GWTP [get with the program]. HTH [hope this helps].” With a head that assumes that “today’s electronic communications” universally rely on such shorthand, I smelled a We All claim coming up, and wasn’t disappointed: “Mixing slang and acronyms, with some text graphics (called emoticons) thrown in for good measure, a new kind of communication is now used by everyone from kids to grandmas.” That new kind is IM and chat rooms—and, by the way, acronyms and emoticons lend your writing “a modicum of cool.” Smiley faces are cool: Maybe the sky really is falling. Some acronyms “have crossed over to verbal speech” such as LMAO (la mayo, not el mayo), “though for most of the IM crowd that practice is not considered cool.” About the only saving grace of this little gem is the revelation that “Yo” originated around 1420, according to the OED. I wasn’t cool in high school, so nothing’s changed—and while I may yet start a weblog, you won’t see me using emoticons any time soon.

Ø    When you read glowing statements about how many people shop online, it’s useful to understand the definitions. PC Magazine is forthcoming on this sort of thing, as witness a little box on page 27 of the December 9, 2003 issue, “No stopping the shopping.” The graph shows a continuing increase in the number of U.S. “online shoppers” age 14 or older—from 66.9 million in 2000 to 80.4 million in 2001, 93.3 million in 2002, 101.7 million (estimated) in 2003, and 108.4 million (projected) for 2004. I bet those numbers are right, given the final sentence in the writeup: “The survey data includes those who have researched products and services online, even if they made their final purchases off-line.” So if you’ve ever checked epinions, looked for product information, or done anything else online that’s related to a purchase, you’re an online shopper.

Ø    I’m impressed. A Computer Shopper (January 2004) “trend” piece has the jazzy title, “Roll-up video screens are no longer science fiction.” It’s about Philips’ new “electrowetting” process to produce a form of electronic paper that can change fast enough for video. That’s not what impressed me—various forms of e-paper have been just around the corner for more than a decade now. But the corner seems to be receding a little. The expert commenting on the technology said this about its imminent appearance in the marketplace: “I feel safe saying that electronic paper will not be widespread before 2010. Flexible displays are too cool for companies not to pursue them…but it’s still a significant trek to the store shelves.” Will “electronic paper” really become anything like a workable book replacement, or will it be a more profitable video screen replacement? In either case, 6-year time-to-market seems a lot more plausible than most projections.

Ø    Karen Schneider offers “Getting started with RSS: The no-brainer method” at Free Range Librarian (frl.bluehighways.com, look for November 19, 2003 archives). She lays it out in four easy steps, using Bloglines as an aggregator. I haven’t tried it (yet), but I know Karen’s work. If you want to try out RSS and you’re not sure how to start, I’ve never seen a better (read easier, clearer) writeup. (I’m not recycling it just yet: Maybe RSS is worth an experiment…)

Ø    A Princeton employee published an article in Syllabus that was interpreted as meaning that Princeton University opposes and does not support open source software. That caused the Princeton University Office of Information Technology to issue a “Position statement on buy, build, or open source software decisions” that’s worth reading. Princeton has been active in the open source movement—and also uses lots of commercial software as well as locally developed programs. The two-paragraph conclusion is particularly worth reading.

Ø    I’ve worried, here and elsewhere, about Big Media efforts that seem to lead to attempts to outlaw general-purpose personal computing (indirectly). Steven Levy has apparently suggested that the internet itself could be locked down, “where anonymity is outlawed and every penny spent is accounted for,” and that such a lockdown might be nearly inevitable. In a December 16, 2003 posting at Freedom to tinker, Ed Felten comments on why “it’s not gonna happen.” I believe his reasoning is sound. I fear a locked-down internet less than I fear locked-down PCs (and, in the latter case, I hope the courts and Congress would balk at such an absurd extension of copy protection).

Ø    Another interesting library model to watch: the Lafayette Library and Learning Center, scheduled to open in 2006. Lafayette, California is in the Bay Area suburbs, with ready BART access to Berkeley and San Francisco. The current library is 40 years old and small (6,700 square feet). The new facility will be almost four times the size (25,000 square feet) and will “shelve more than 90,000 volumes and offer 36 public computer workstations,” as the January 7, 2004 Contra Costa Times puts it (getting the order right). It will also have 146 “reader stations” and have an attached 1,700-square-foot community room, where the Glenn Seaborg Learning Consortium will hold programs and classes. What makes this particularly interesting is that a dozen education and cultural institutions (from Lawrence Hall of Science through the California Shakespeare Theatre) are partnering with the city to bring outreach programs directly to the city, via the Seaborg Learning Consortium.

Ø    You may want to track NISO’s INFO URI scheme. This scheme is “a consistent and reliable way to represent and reference such standard identifiers as Dewey Decimal Classifications on the Web so that these identifiers can be ‘read’ and understood by Web applications,” according to the NISO press release. INFO URI will play a significant role in OpenURL 1.0, as it provides a readily extensible method for adding new identifier forms. A lightweight registration process allows an organization to define a namespace, syntax, and normalization rules for its own identifiers. As Pat Harris notes, “you aren’t likely to see the scheme in action on your screen, for example, <info:lccn/ 2002022641>, because it’s an under-the-hood way of communicating the identity of an information asset to a Web application.” Go to info-uri.info/registry/docs/misc/faq. html for more information.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 3, Whole Issue 46, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to wcc@notes.rlg.org. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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