The Hidden Bottleneck of Computers

This actually isn’t hidden at all, but I spent a while earlier on Amazon looking at various non-fiction books, and they all have dramatic titles like that.

You’re going to buy a computer, and you want something good. These are the factors I think most people look at:

  • Processor: number of cores, speed (in GHz) of processor
  • RAM: amount thereof (in GB these days)
  • Hard drive: capacity (in GB) of the disk
  • Screen size (primarily for laptops)

For what I do, processor speed is rarely a bottleneck. Obviously this isn’t true for anyone, but if you’re a normal computer user who does word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, and web browsing, any new PC is going to have a good enough processor for you.

As far as RAM, although there are lots of technical specs like bus speed and CAS latencies, consider RAM a commodity. (Except that RAM from one computer might not work in another.) Short of literally-broken RAM, there’s no such thing as “good RAM” and “bad RAM.” You just want a lot of it. I wouldn’t buy a computer with less than 2 GB. You can get by with 1GB. I find 2GB to be plenty. I see 3GB a lot. 4GB is the maximum most ‘normal’ (32-bit, Windows) machines can take, and there are apparently some issues that keep Windows from seeing more than 3.5 or so. So aim for 2-4 GB.

Screens: my advice would be to just try it. Screen size only tells you the physical size; what really matters is the resolution. But you also have to wonder about brightness, contrast ratios, refresh rates… The easiest thing to do is play with the computer in the store and see what you think.

Hard drives, though, are what led me to create this post. Most people seem to just look at the capacity: a 100 GB hard drive is better than a 40GB hard drive. Indeed, it holds more, and you need to make sure you get a capacity that’ll work for you. But what I’m increasingly noticing is that no one pays attention to what I think is a more important metric: how fast the hard drive is. In my experience, my hard drive is almost always the bottleneck. Computer takes a while to boot? That’s because it’s reading everything off of the hard drive. Programs slow to load? Waiting on the hard disk! There are a lot of scary metrics you can look at with hard drives, but I’m going to suggest that there’s really only one that matters for most consumer machines: RPM. Depending on who you ask, it’s either Revolutions or Rotations Per Minute, and it’s basically “how fast the disk spins.” Much like a CD (or a vinyl record, which people might be more familiar with actually seeing move), your hard drive consists of several “platters” with information stored in circles around them. (Very oversimplified.) To read or write data, the disk is spun around, and the “head” will read the data. Thus it stands to reason that you want that disk spinning as fast as it can.

For a laptop, the range is generally 4200 to 7200 RPM, though I’ve heard of 3600 RPM drives in the past. Pay a little more if you have to, but get a 7200 RPM disk. You’ll be alright with a 5400 RPM disk, too. But don’t take a 4200 RPM disk, even if it’s a great deal. You’re going to feel the effects every single time you use your computer. A higher RPM means data will be accessed more quickly, which means your files will save faster, programs will launch more quickly, and your computer will take less time to boot. Higher-capacity hard drives often run at the lower end of the spectrum, though it needn’t be that way. But is a 200GB laptop hard drive really any good if the computer’s always going to be miserably slow?

So 7200 RPM is what you want for a laptop, but 5400 RPM might be acceptable. If you’re buying a desktop, though, you can do better. 10K RPM drives exist, though they’re currently very expensive and rare. (10K RPM, and even 15K RPM drives are commonplace with high-end servers, but tend to be extremely expensive and use SCSI/SAS connectors that your home machine almost certainly doesn’t have.) But 7200 RPM drives are very common on desktops, moreso than on laptops. So if you’re buying a desktop, a 5400 RPM should be considered bottom-barrel.

I’m not saying that the speed of the hard drive should be the only thing you look at. Of course you want a laptop with a nice screen, and you want good software pre-installed, and all that. And I really can’t stress how awesome having a lot of RAM is. But if you’re in the market for a new machine, you owe it to yourself to investigate disk speed, because it will make a noticeable difference in your everyday computer usage.

Musings on Computers and Control

I could have sworn that the slogan over at Lifehacker used to be “Computers make us more productive. Yeah right” or something to that effect. I can’t seem to find it there anymore, but if that’s not their slogan anymore, it’s their loss.

Today I went to the doctor’s office. I hadn’t been in a while, so they had some housekeeping to do with me. I gave my name and mentioned my appointment time. I didn’t expect, “What state were you born in?” to be the next question. “Uhh, Massachusetts?” I responded, pretty confusedly. She then explained that the computer made them ask some new questions, so she had to fill them in.

“Is English your primary language?”

It’s worth mentioning that this was in Bedford, which is even more “WASPy” than surrounding areas, or so it seems. (Wikipedia claims 97.4% white, which seems low to me.) While it was tempting to put on a thick accent and explain that Swedish was my native language, I decided to tell the truth and say yes.

“What is your ethnicity?”

She kind of laughed while asking that one, fully aware that the questions were pretty absurd and pointless. “Do you even have an ethnicity?”

“Uhh, is American an ethinicity? White?”

“No, that’s race. That’s the next question. I’ll just put–hmm… Decline to answer?”

After having me sign multiple forms, she told me I was done, before saying, “Oh, wait… It’s not letting me save this… Can I see your [health insurance] card?”

I could have sworn she told me that she needed to input information on my PCP (Primary Care Physician), which is weird since… I was at their office. It wouldn’t let her save without it.

So I ask–who’s in charge these days: computers or people?

Places to Photograph

Periodically, I come across something and think, “That would be a great place to go photograph!” Here’s a compilation of recent (and not-so-recent) places I’ve thought that about:


Bin Laden’s driver is on trial. It sounds as if he may have been more than a bodyguard.

What concerns me, though, is the jury members:

“You must make your determination whether or not he is guilty based solely on the evidence presented here in court and the instructions I will give you.

“You must impartially hear the evidence.”

The trial jury is being selected from a pool of 13 US military officers and must comprise at least five members.

The verdict will require a two-thirds majority.

I can’t imagine any US military officer finding bin Laden’s driver not guilty? I think it would be akin to having the police department be the jury for criminal proceedings. They’d be insane to find you innocent, no matter what the charges are.


I use my little VX-2R for a lot of local scanning. It just stopped on “CH-7,” 460.300. That’s Boston PD’s Channel 7, used for unit-to-unit chat.

I tried to see who had the license in NH, only to find no one. (Actually, that’s not true: the State of Vermont has a license on that frequency in NH, but it’s up north.)

So I switched over to my ASTRO Saber, which has a better antenna, and has the DPL code used by Boston PD programmed, so as to not receive extraneous data. A few minutes went by and, sure enough, Channel 7 came up with some traffic.

What range: 50-60 miles to be received decently well by a rubber-ducky antenna indoors. But I guess when you’re licensed for 335 Watts ERP from the top of the Prudential, that type of thing is to be expected. But strangely, I’m not hearing activity on any of their other channels.

Incidentally, we have a GP-15 on our roof at home, which I used trying to listen to a distant fireground channel last night, and found to have excellent gain: 6.2 dBi on VHF, and 8.6 dBi on UHF. I might have to go down there and see how Boston comes in some time when there’s not a lighting storm overhead.


I’m trying to install XP Home Edition on an old machine; it came with XP Home Edition, I put Linux on it, and now I’m toying with selling it, or making it a generic backup machine.

I have the CD in there, and the system has a COE and license key on the bottom of the laptop. But the installer is rejecting it. It might be OEM-specific?

So here I am, trying to find a license key to use to install it, so I can go in and crack it. The problem is that I have a genuine license, it just doesn’t work. I’m “pirating” something I own.


My periodic checking of FatWallet (and now, led me down an interesting tangent…

1080p is 1920×1080. Higher-end HDTV sets will do this resolution. So I was browsing deals on 1080p TVs (not necessarily interested in buying, but I saw the link and had to follow it through…), and thinking about how we used VGA and HDMI off of an Xbox and PS3 (respectively) into Kyle’s TV, for amazing results.

Which then led to the next thought… You can get a 32″ HDTV at 1080p for about $500. That’s ‘kind of’ small for a home TV (though I certainly wouldn’t complain!). But for a monitor? A 32″ computer monitor at 1920×1280 isn’t bad. Yes, it’s the same resolution you might find in a 22″ LCD, meaning a lower pixel density, but it’s not as if you’re trying to use an old 50″ CRT at 640×480. It’d be halfway-decent. I’d want to try it before ordering a 32″ HDTV to use as a computer monitor, mind you, but in theory, it ought to be alright.

By the way… The 16:9 aspect ratio of HDTV sets (1920:1080, width:height) is exactly the same dimension as the sensors used on digital SLRs and the like.