The state of PCs

My 4-year-old Windows laptop died on me about a week ago. I think it was the hard drive controller. I set up my Windows desktop machine which I haven’t used in a year or two. That took some work, getting it set up the way I wanted, getting all the security updates, and updating drivers. Anyway, I’m shopping for a new laptop now.

In the news, I heard last week that Circuit City would be closing stores or laying off employees. Something like that. Yesterday I heard they’re filing for bankruptcy. It’s reminiscent of what happened to CompUSA almost a year ago, except that the company isn’t being liquidated. They’re trying to restructure. Nevertheless it shows another decline in the PC/electronics space.

Best Buy seems to be doing okay. They’re opening a store in my town soon…in the same building where our CompUSA used to be. Poetic, no?

And then there’s Staples, another place where you can get a Windows computer.

I feel like Microsoft still doesn’t have its act together. It seems like they started going off the rails in terms of their technology offerings in 2006. I’ve been talking to friends and reading articles from technical folks, and it sounds to me like Microsoft ended support for Windows XP too soon. I know they’re always anxious to retire a version after so many years, but from what I’m hearing getting a $600 (or less) Windows laptop is almost pointless now. Vista is a CPU and memory hog, and it runs applications slower than XP does unless you have a top of the line, high-end machine costing $1,000+.

I’ve been eyeing a Macbook, giving it a chance. I’ve been hearing good things about Macs. I’m just cautious at the moment. I’ve been doing some calculations and it looks like I could actually get a decent, current Macbook, get Windows XP Pro to go with it, and spend slightly LESS than I paid for my last Windows laptop! So that may be an option.

I watched the online presentation of Leopard on the Apple website and I was impressed. A feature that brought back memories for me was its ability to set up “spaces”. You can set up multiple desktops and switch between them, allowing you to group your work into different projects you’re working on. The guy demonstrating it showed how it worked. He set up four desktops, and had something running in each. Then he switched between them. You could watch as one set of apps. (one desktop) “slid” off the screen, and the next set (the other desktop) “slid” on. It reminded me of a system utility I used to run on a “Fat Mac” at my local library in the mid-1980s called “Switcher”. The classic Macs could not multitask. You could only load and run one application at a time. Andy Hertzfeld came up with a way to load multiple apps. in memory at once on a 512K Mac, and you could task-switch between them. You could even go back to the desktop if you wanted to, without quitting your currently running application. Bringing another app. into memory was easy. You just found its icon on the desktop and ran it like you would any other. When you task-switched, you could literally watch as one application “slid” off the screen, and the next one “slid” on. The one displayed on the screen would run. The others would go into suspended animation. The reason I liked it at the time was that most Macs only had floppy drives, and loading apps. was slow. If you wanted to copy and paste something from one app. to the next, you literally had to select what you wanted and “copy” in one app., quit out of it, which would take you back to the desktop, then run the next app. and paste the item in. People kind of tolerated this back then because hardly any microcomputers multitasked. “Switcher” made things easier. You could copy from the source, select an app. that was already pre-loaded, and then paste the item into it. Since OS X multitasks you can have off-screen stuff running at the same time.

I remember in some talk I watched Alan Kay give (I believe it was his ETech 2003 presentation) he said that with the Smalltalk system at Xerox PARC they had the ability to create multiple desktops, because they figured people would want to group activities into separate spaces. It was part of the design. You can do the same thing in Squeak today using the Morphic interface, though now the multiple desktops are called “Projects”. Interesting how things are catching up to Smalltalk. 🙂

5 thoughts on “The state of PCs

  1. Hi wx. Thanks for the link! I’ve corrected my post. I was looking for an article on Switcher on Google about a year ago and couldn’t find anything. I was disappointed, because I remember it being such a cool thing at the time. I figured nothing was written on it because I guessed most Mac users had never heard of it.

    Interesting history. Imagine that. Hertzfeld got the idea from watching someone use an app.-switching utility on DOS! I never would have guessed. I wonder if the DOS user was using Sidekick. It was a TSR with several built-in mini-apps. that the user could instantly switch to while using a main application.

    Even though IBM PCs and clones were wildly popular in the 1980s I didn’t get the chance to use one until 1988.

  2. Mark –

    The complaints about Vista are largely outdated. The machine I assembled in late 2006 on the eve of the Vista launch was just about the best PC you could assemble at the time; I ended up with a high-mid-end CPU (not the top model), and the 2 RAID 1’s were something that you’d never see in a typical desktop (1 for the OS/apps, 1 for data, makes it quite fast on reading, plus allows simultaneous streams with no slowdown, plus the obvious benefits of redundancy). The video card was mid-range. The RAM was high quality, high speed, and in 1/2 GB chunks to maximize the speed (2 GB at the time). Since I got Vista on it, I cannot recall the last crash I had. I cannot ever being annoyed with the speed, either. That machine is now (other than the RAIDs, and the RAM which I since upgraded to 4 GB) “mid-range” at best, and I am running Vista Ultimate with all of the bells and whistles. On top of that, I am doing development work. To make it worse, the work I do on this PC is my personal stuff… like trying to write my own thread models in .Net! I’ve done things like throw 100 threads all trying to grab 100% CPU, created objects in memory that demanded 1 GB of RAM, and so on (sometimes at the same time) *without a single system crash*. That’s a heck of a good record.

    I’m not saying “don’t get a Mac”. In fact, I have wanted a Mac for personal use since around the time OS X was first launched. I would love to get my fiance a MacBook for XMas. I haven’t used a Mac since OS 9, so I know that those experiences are not relevant. But I am saying, “Vista is not what people say it is”. 🙂

    The *real* problems with Vista:

    * UAC is really annoying in the first 1 – 2 weeks that you own the PC and have to do a lot of minor configuration changes; the UAC headache diminishes exponentially after 2 weeks
    * It automatically allocates 80% of physcial RAM, regardless of how much you have, and pre-populates it with its best guess as to what will need to be in RAM based on your usage history. Great feature, but it makes it LOOK like a memory hog
    * Instead of using RAM bits sequentially, it randomizes which RAM bits it uses; that means that if you have a DIMM with a bad bit or two and it is past about the 1 GB mark, you are likely to hit it and see system instability, while a copy of XP which 1) uses RAM sequentially and 2) rarely makes use of RAM past about 1 GB will never hit that bad bit, and therefore make Vista look “buggy”. I discovered this when I first put this PC together, and couldn’t figure out why Vista would crash but XP wouldn’t…
    * A lot of hardware still lacks good Vista drivers, particularly 64 bit drivers. This situation has improved dramatically. I installed Vista in ’06 (I got the RTM from MSDN) so I went 32 bit. Now I wish I hadn’t, especially since I now have 4 GB RAM and 32 bit doesn’t use past 3.5 GB or so, at least that’s what I’ve read.
    * Vista, like Office 2007, moves the cheese for a LOT of things that have been the same since Windows 95, and sometimes even Windows 3.1. If you are a newcomer to computers, it is easier to use. If you are experienced in Windows, it is maddening. From what I hear, switching from Windows to a a Mac is like this too, but I have also heard the opposite.
    * Stability can lead to a bad experience. I know this sounds crazy. A good example is Adobe Flash. Some Flash apps, for whatever reason, are ill behaved. In the past, they would just blow up, crash the IE process, maybe even bring down the whole PC. On Vista, they simply suck up 100% CPU on the core they are bound to, making the system crawl. Thus, the appearance of IE being a CPU hog, or Vista being slow. 🙂

    Hope this helps, and hope your computer situation sorts out!


  3. @Justin:

    I was speaking strictly of laptops, not desktops. The thing that concerned me was that it sounded like unless I got a good fast CPU, 2.6-2.8 Ghz, and at least 3 Gig. of RAM the machine was going to bog. I talked with a friend who just recently got a Vista laptop, a cheap one. Probably in the mid-100s, with 2 Gig. of RAM. He said working with the desktop and built-in features is fine, but it runs apps. really slow. He said XP with the same configuration runs the same apps. much faster. He recommended I either get XP on a cheap laptop or Vista on a $1,000+ laptop. Like you said, he said that the 64-bit driver problem has largely been resolved, but that 32-bit apps. don’t run that fast on 64-bit Vista. It almost sounded like they’d run faster on 32-bit XP than on 64-bit Vista. I think he said some 32-bit apps. didn’t run well on 64-bit. Maybe they weren’t “well behaved”. The situation sounded worse than when PCs went through the 8/16-bit-to-32-bit transition in the late 80s and early 90s. Back then the problem was you’d only get a small boost in performance using a 32-bit CPU, because the apps. were written for the 8086 or 286, and couldn’t take advantage of the enhanced architecture.

    My friend also told me that while there were software compatibility problems with Vista early on, software manufacturers have remedied those problems with patches. So that’s no big deal.

    I’m saying I think it would’ve been smarter for Microsoft to continue support for XP on the low-end laptops, pre-installing it on them (or Vista if the customer really wanted it), and only pre-install Vista on the machines where it would perform well.

    Re: Flash apps. sometimes use up 100% of CPU

    I get that problem sometimes with IE on XP. It used to happen more often. I even noted it in a post I wrote here ages ago about how to make XP more secure. It seemed to have something to do with running IE under limited privileges. The “eating 100% CPU” doesn’t happen to me as much anymore. Now it crashes the IE session, like were saying, if it goes bad. 😦 Unfortunately any other tabs you have open have to be closed, too. What ticks me off sometimes is XP will shut down ALL of my IE sessions when the bad one gets shut down, even if I have them in separate browser instances. I guess what happens is the crash occurred in a shared component? The same thing (crashing) used to happen with Adobe Acrobat as well until I got so disgusted with it I switched to FoxIt.

  4. Yes, I think that we are *definitely* in a transition period much like the 16/32 bit transition. I would have hoped that we learned our lesson. Well, in same ways we have; the OS isn’t doing things like “thunking” to handle the issues, and the fact that so much more code is written as managed environments makes the transition much easier. On the server side, I have been both amazed and dissappointed at the number of apps coming out of Redmond that still will not run on 64 bit platforms: ISA Server 2006, Office Communications Server 2007, and (most ironically) Team Foundation Server 2008 are good examples.

    Regarding the laptop, I really think that the resource hoggage is overstated. Vista runs dandy on my year-old mid-range Dell (the only upgrade to it was extra RAM). People who look longingly at XP at its respource usage forget that when it was released, it was SLOW even on high-end hardware. XP only looks so fast today, because it’s been 6 or so years since its release; every OS looks fast on hardware 6 years later. In fact, one thing that kept me from getting a Mac a few years back, was that the Mac Mini I wanted had a CPU in it that the Mac enthusiasts that I know said was underpowered for the “resource hogging” OS X of the time. I think that the current mini’s are finally considered “adequete” for OS X, but I am not 100% sure (it is hard for me to commit to the Mac platform at the price point of the rest of their gear).


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