In Praise of “Obsolete” Computers

I came across an article comparing a MacPlus (circa 1986) and a brand new AMD DualCore. The benchmarks are timings focused on user experience — boot times, performing data manipulation in Excel, and performance running Word.

The two decade-old MacPlus — with its 8mhz chip and 4MB RAM (maxed out for this comparison) — performed admirably against the 2×2.4ghz (and 1GB RAM) computer:

For the functions that people use most often, the 1986 vintage Mac Plus beats the 2007 AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+: 9 tests to 8! Out of the 17 tests, the antique Mac won 53% of the time!

I’m not surprised since the “most common uses” are generally things that don’t require much in the way of resource. Cutting and pasting hasn’t changed significantly in 20 years, and you don’t need amounts of RAM we associated with supercomputing back then to enter text into a word processing or spreadsheet application and then manipulate it. I still use text-based applications (spreadsheet, text editing/word processing, etc.) on computers without GUIs or in situations where I need to conserve the battery on my laptop. I’m not missing anything when I do that, aside from “eye candy” that requires system resources many of my computers lack.

As far as living on the bleeding edge goes, I’ve taken a strong stand that there’s no such thing as an obsolete computer. A computer may be at a dead end with respect to upgrading, but it’s still useful as long as it can boot and the requisite I/O devices (monitors, keyboards, drives) work.

One of the reasons I’ve become such a fan of Damn Small Linux is because of its focus on legacy support and its small size. It’s a modern OS, it’s just spared of the bloat that comes with other distros. I can do everything with the computer I normally use (with a 400mhz Celeron with 128MB RAM) that I can do on this newer machine (Athlon 1.4Ghz with 1GB RAM). The older, under-equipped (by today’s standards anyway) computer boots faster, is more responsive when not overloaded (running Open Office on it is a pain in the neck — and forget about using audacity on it ever again), and gets everything done the same way this one does. The difference is in the bloat. The newer computer runs XP (it’s dual boot, but I seldom use anything else on here) which requires a significantly greater percentage of the available resources than Linux (X11, oroborus, rox, etc.) does on the older computer. That accounts for what Hal Licino found in his tests.

Sure, there are things that require a GB of RAM and the efficiency of a faster CPU. I have applications like audacity, GIMP, and imagemagick installed the two computers mentioned above. There’s no way in the world I’ll ever use audacity on the older computer again, unless I find more RAM for it (and the same goes for sox, a command line equivalent to edit audio files). There are also some image-related tasks I do in XP instead of the old box for the same reason. But for running standard applications, browsing, etc., the old box continues to prove itself very worthy and it admirably performs those kinds of things on par with this faster box.

The problem more often than not isn’t the hardware, it’s the software. Another reason I like DSL is that I don’t have to rush out to buy hardware (upgrades or new systems) just to bring my computer up to date. I can wait for DSL upgrades or do my own (and the latter is usually the case for me — my system is no longer DSL, DSL was just my starting point). My kernel can be upgraded by itself. X11 can be upgraded by itself. My window manager (oroborus is my window manager of choice) can be upgraded by itself. The kernel can support new hardware if I choose to buy some, it doesn’t force me to go out and buy new hardware to make an upgrade. And best of all, the only “bloat” is the crap I chose to install. It wasn’t set there by default.

That’s in stark contrast to what Apple and Microsoft have done. I can’t run OSX on my old Mac (but I can upgrade its case with a Mini-ITX and then run Linux on it — stay tuned for an upgrade page if I do that). I can’t run Vista on my NT box or my “usual” computer (really can’t even run XP on the former, though the latter could limp along with XP). I think this computer would marginally run Vista. And at the end of the day, all the extra resources required to run the upgraded OS don’t increase my typing speed or enhance the ability to cut and paste, copy, etc., the data I work with.

And to be fair, I can’t let a lot of Linux distros off the hook with respect to the above paragraph. They’ve jumped on the bandwagon that expects users to upgrade hardware when they upgrade software. They ignore those who use functional legacy hardware. They make releases with the assumption that everyone uses 512MB of RAM, which is barely adequate for running their default environments much less flashy, spinning windows of doom like Beryl. Their focus is no longer on function, it’s on aesthetics. And it’s at the expense of system resources.

That’s appealing to consumerism, without necessarily increasing function at the same time. It takes the same amount of time to type a document and edit it now as it did in 1986. Consumerism doesn’t change that — that’s a constant. Consumerism may make older hardware difficult to use, maintain, or even keep, but it doesn’t make it obsolete. It’s still usable and useful.

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