Since dual core and 64-bit processors started going mainstream, computer users have had more power than they know what to do with. In fact, they’ve had more power than their software knows what to do with. To truly take advantage of major advances in modern processors, modern software is required, all of which makes the upgrade cycle much more interesting.
Previously, software and hardware advances were less interrelated, and an advance in one did not advance or require as much the other. Sure, you might need a faster processor to run a faster version of Windows, or a new game to push that new graphics card to the limit, but these were questions of pure speed, not capabilities. It’s analogous to the difference between a faster car and a self-driving car. A faster car runs faster everywhere, but a self driving car is just a regular car until you have roads that allow and support the use of cars that can drive themselves.
The speed race in processors and other pieces of hardware ended years ago. If it hadn’t, Intel® would be releasing a 15 gigahertz Pentium 4 by now. Instead, you can buy an off-the-shelf PC today that runs at the same basic speed a PC released in 2002 could have. The newer PC smokes the old one because while both processors might be running at 2.2 GHz, the modern one isn’t one processor, it’s many. A 64-bit processor can run instructions 4 billion times as large as a 32-bit one. A dual core processor is almost like having 2 processors, and a quad core is twice that. Add in multi-threading, and you have a maching that for all practical purposes might as well have 4 or 8 2.2 GHz processors.
None of this means anything without the right software. Install an old version of Windows on the newest, fastest Dell with a 64-bit quad- or six-core chip, and you might get nothing more than the power of a single logical processor, not the 8-12 logical processors you paid for and would have gotten with a more up-to-date release. As a result, upgrading your software will often upgrade the hardware because the powerful hardware you bought years ago pre-dated the advancements in software required to take advantage of it.
Since we are in the midst of a series examining different modern IT issues, it’s useful to point out that it used to be that aging software in a corporate environment was the norm, but that trend has strong reasons to change. Older hardware is better capable of running modern software than at any time in the past. Windows 8′s system requirements are “If you could run Windows 7, you can run Windows 8 faster”. “If you could run Windows Vista, you can run Windows 7 faster”. Efficient operating system design by Microsoft means that a PC from 2006 could run Windows 8 in 2013, some without any upgrades. Business computers are in fact the most likely to have been more powerful than average when purchased seven years ago, and more likely to have survived until now, to be able to make the move to the new OS.
The fact is that while everyone knows that newer hardware is faster than older hardware, many software developers have been doing such a great job writing apps that, with each upgrade, run faster than the previous version. Sometimes it’s a new feature that makes use of the software more productive, but more often these days it’s better written code and better use of modern hardware and software capabilities that makes that newer software so much more awesome.
We’ve had amazingly fast computer hardware for a decade at this point. 2013 hardware is faster than 2003 hardware, but 2013 software can run faster on 2003 hardware than 2003 software ever could and draw less electricity while doing it. We’ve had dual core processors for years, but modern software knows what to do with it. We’ve had 64-bit processors since the 90s on desktop PCs (and the 70s in other cases), but if you aren’t running a very up-to-date version of your favorite software, it isn’t taking advantage of it. In fact, until a couple of years ago, it was common for systems with 64-bit processors to ship with the 32-bit version of the OS installed for compatibility reasons. Thankfully, that trend is almost dead.
Businesses have more reasons to perform upgrades, since they can then do more with the hardware they already have. Windows 8, or the latest Office or Photoshop can put both cores on your CPU to work (or all four cores or more, as it were). They can serve up 64-bit instructions to that CPU many times faster than a 32-bit one would have been. A new OS, in turn, adds APIs and features to your computer, while new software takes advantage of those additions so that they, too, can run faster. All of which is why it once you put a price on productivity, it can often be more expensive to keep the older, slower version of critical business software than absorbing the cost of the next version.
It’s extremely likely that whatever machine you are using right now, the software you are running isn’t taking full advantage of its capabilities, and in some instances, the software needed to take advantage does exist yet. For this reason, it’s important to look at PC hardware as an investment that can grow over time. By picking a processor with features that haven’t been fully utilized yet, you are picking a computer that will only get better with age, like a fine wine.
This is a paid post in conjunction with IDG, Dell and Intel®.