Powers Unfiltered

An entrepreneur’s journey into grid computing and partnering with Microsoft, by John Powers

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That New-Computer Smell…

December 7th, 2010 · No Comments

Is there anything sweeter than getting behind the wheel of a brand new computer?

OK, I realize this is a very old-school attitude, but I’m at least partly serious — the process of upgrading from an OK old computer to a great new computer can still be pretty eye-opening.

I recently upgraded my primary home office desktop to a screaming-fast Maingear F131 workstation, and it’s a huge improvement.  I wrote a review of it on the Maingear site.

I realize that Maingear is primarily known for high-end gaming desktops, but I’m no gamer.  Instead, I am what used to be called a “power user” – a guy who uses a lot of applications that eat up a lot of computing power.  In my case, it’s usually for some type of economic and statistical analysis on large and unwieldy datasets.  My review gets into all the specifics of the new machine and my experience with Maingear (I recommend the product and the company highly), but here I want to talk about the economics of desktop computing.

For as long as I’ve been buying computers (my first was 28 years ago), I’ve believed that computers are ridiculously cheap, and that buying the best one you can afford is pretty much of a no-brainer.  I’m amazed at how few others share this view, so let’s start with a justification based on performance and productivity.

Imagine I can choose to buy one of two computers — standard and high-end.  Let’s say high-end saves me ten minutes of lost productivity per day (more on that below).  That’s 50 minutes per week, or more than 40 hours per year.  If I replace my main computer once every three years, that’s more than 120 hours saved be choosing high-end over standard.  The value of my time (whether calculated on billing rate, take home pay, or any other reasonable measure) justifies paying a lot more than any real-world premium for a high-end computer.

In reality, this estimate is very conservative.  I hear experts, pundits, and defenders of the conventional wisdom howling that this analysis makes no sense if “all you do is email and Web browsing and a few spreadsheets” or whatever.  I submit that these experts have not done a lot of side-by-side comparison testing.  Just to pick a simple real-world example, starting Excel and opening a relatively simple one-page spreadsheet can take 2-3 seconds on a standard new computer, and takes less than one second on my new high-end computer.  Same with Word, and starting up Outlook, or opening a browser, etc.  (And yes, I’ve done the same kind of tests with a standard Mac and a high-end Mac, and I’ve also tried Thunderbird and OpenOffice on Windows; the results are comparable.)

For me, the real benefit is not just saving two seconds a few hundred times a day.  I also do some compute-intensive analysis from time to time in Excel and data-intensive work in both Access and SQL Server.  A not-especially-huge-and-complex spreadsheet I’ve used in recent economic analysis projects takes more than two minutes to open and recalculate on a decent new computer.  On my new Maingear box, that process completes in 45 seconds.  That’s a huge difference!  Yes, I can get up and make coffee while I wait two minutes, but when we’re in the throes of analytic work, we use many similar tools many times a day; even I don’t drink that much coffee.  The performance difference with Access is even more pronounced.

Yes, this post has all been about personal productivity and not about using this new system as part of a Digipede Network grid; I’ll have more to say about that another day.  But suffice it to say that a network of potent desktops like the Maingear F131 would make a very powerful grid indeed.

Tags: Grid applications · Usability

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