Speed lies in CPU!
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Misconception: Computer speed lies in the CPU!

by Terry E. Mercer (c) 1997-1999

What Many Salespeople Tell their Customers:

Buy the fastest CPU you can afford... it is the most important factor and will give you speed, even if you have to get a smaller hard drive or less RAM memory.


FACT: I have personally built systems with lesser CPU's easily meeting and beating higher numbered CPU's; such as 486 systems which blow away Pentium systems - standard Pentiums that run faster than Pentium II systems. And even Desktop systems that stomp all over Mainframes and mini computers currently in use today!

There are four primary hardware components, and one major "tweaking" session, which directly effects the speed of a system:

CPU (and motherboard, which are usually sold together... to an end-user),
RAM memory,
Hard Drive access speed (and controller),
Video card (which sends the signal to your monitor).
Configuration (which requires a knowledgeable professional)
CPU - The amount and type of CACHE on the motherboard is very important, the amount ON the CPU is also very important. 
Intel makes a solid CPU, and is highly recommended for those people planning to do CAD/CAM work, or heavy scientific number crunching. The majority of my CPUs are made by Intel; however, 
AMD also makes a very solid CPU, which is less expensive than a like version of the Intel chip and will out perform the Intel chip in the basics and advanced program states.  
Cyrix, I have one; for testing purposes only. I won't sell them on a component level... and don't like to support them. They seem to be binary... they either work with the program you are wanting to use or they don't. If they do, they are generally the fastest thing you have ever seen (comparing like numbers) or they are impossible to get to work. 
Strictly my opinion, but I plan to stay with Intel and AMD, until and unless Cyrix can prove to me they have solid compatibility with the current Operating systems and high-end components, I will NEVER buy another!
Some techs "over clock" CPU chips. It is kind of like running high octane airplane fuel in your car; everything will run hotter, faster, and better... until it burns up or blows up. Over clocking the CPU is often less expensive and safer than putting airplane fuel in your car. Changing the clock speed on a motherboard (usually a jumper or switch) pushes the CPU at a faster speed. There needs to be better heat sinks, fans, and circulation to keep the added temperature down. If the technician is good at it, and honest to you, great... you will get a hopped up machine. If they are selling lesser CPUs and over clocking them to be what they tell you they are selling you (when the CPU's aren't really as fast as they are stating), that is against the law!!!
Quick Note about "Over Clocking:" Intel and AMD make mass quantities of CPUs in a huge plant as quickly as possible. At this point NO SPEED is marked on the chip. They then test the CPUs and look for solidity and errors. The speed is stamped AFTER the tests... generally matching the highest speed setting with the least amount of errors and most solid chip tests. In layman's terms, if the chip starts to fail at the 750 MHz speed, then it is tested at the 700 MHz speed. If it passes there, then no other tests are ran... it is stamped with a 700. If it fails, it is re-tested at a lower speed (650,600, 500, 450, 400 MHz in this example), and so forth; until the CPU is either stamped with a number or thrown away. Rumor has it that both Intel and AMD is making such high quality chips that they have less than a 2% failure rate, and most of the chips are actually 1 or 2 steps faster than marked. They are doing this to fulfill the market needs. Caution, not ALL of the lower CPUs are equal to the higher ratings. For more expert technical information regarding over clocking and pushing things to the limit check out www.tomshardware.com this is an awesome technical resource for the nerds - but way too advanced for the layman.
RAM - Of these, having enough RAM to do what you need is sufficient (as long as it is fast 60ns or faster), preferably EDO SIMMs or DIMMs (which are 10 to 20% faster than standard non-EDO RAM.). The newest "standard" on the market is PCI 100 DIMMs chips for the PII & K6. It is a great deal faster than EDO. PCI 133 has been released, and offers even greater speed. Make sure your motherboard CAN handle this new RAM before you spend the money.
Figure that 32 MB is the minimum you want to go. Some people can do all they need with only 8 MB (Megabytes) of RAM, some need 16 MB to effectively operate certain programs (which is the recommended minimum). Windows 95, by itself, cannot effectively access more than 24 Megabytes, which makes 32 MB a very safe bet. On the other hand, Windows 98 doesn't run well below 32 MB, loves 64 MB - and can effectively take advantage of 128 MB of RAM. Microsoft recommends 32 MB minimum for Win98, I recommend 64MB minimum... 128MB if you are a heavy user.
If you are dealing with a lot of graphics (creation, manipulation, etc.), CAD (Computer Aided Design), or massive amounts of data, or Multi-tasking (having more than one program open and running at a time) you might need more RAM. If money is no object, and the price of RAM is at an all time low, 128 MB PCI 100 DIMM chips are a decent investment, and should have at least a two to five year life.
Hard Drive - Hard disk access is nearly impossible to gauge, until you have the program(s) on your computer. You want 32 bit disk access, and 12 ms or less. The "ms" is milliseconds, the smaller the number the faster. Odds are EIDE (Enhanced or Extended IDE) is probably what most of you have or will end up with. EIDE is the lowest cost per meg granting the highest performance for the money. Ultra DMA-33 EIDE drives are capable of sustained transfers of 33 MB per second. The Ultra DMA-66 are capable of sustained transfers of 66MB per second, BUT require a special cable (80 pin) and the Ultra DMA 66 controller (which MOST motherboards are NOT capable of with their built in controllers). SCSI-2 has a 20 MB per second sustained transfer, and the SCSI-3 Ultra Wide drives are better, faster, and a lot more expensive (than the SCSI-2) a boost speeds in excess of 80MB per second.
Why is hard drive speed important? Some software is designed to use all available RAM it can find, then "spool" off to the hard drive any temporary information, working files, custom information it is using. The term "spool" maybe referred to as "virtual memory," "swap file," or "paging" depending on the operating system you are using.  If your system has a hard drive LED, generally a little red light on the front of the case, then watch it. When you start a program it should be flashing like gang-busters... but once the program is loaded, see how your hard drive interacts. If the light flashes a lot (and you aren't saving or writing to the disk) then access time is very important to you, and a faster hard disk drive or better (faster or cached) controller would help you. If, however, the light doesn't flash when you're working in a program... then a faster hard drive would only speed up your reading and writing time (opening the program and saving data) and will have no effect on the operation of the program(s) you are using, once the program has started.
Video Card - Having a fast video card, such as an Diamond, or Matrox with EDO, SGRAM, VRAM, or WRAM (respectively, with the last type of RAM being the fastest, most expensive, and best) can, all by itself, increase your computers performance by 30 to 1000%. There are, of course, a couple important factors. 
First, your monitor needs to be able to handle the video card pushing it and getting information to it quickly. Most digital monitors won't have a problem, analog monitors probably won't give you much increase no matter what video card you put in your computer. 
Second, drivers will also greatly effect this performance. If you are installing new programs, especially games, try to get updated drivers every few months. Make sure that the video card manufacturer will continue to support the operating system of choice, and its future upgrades.
Video Interfaces - The type of interface card is also important... with the AGP (Advanced Graphics Protocol) 128bit, 100Mhz bus path Diamond v550 w/16MB of WRAM is currently the fastest card in the world for the money. PCI cards are limited to 66 MHz bus speeds, and may only be running on a 33MHz bus on cheaper motherboards.
Video RAM - There are now five basic types of this unique type of RAM memory: DRAM is the slowest, EDO RAM faster, SGRAM is faster, VRAM even faster, and WRAM is the fastest currently in existence.
Interface - ISA, EISA, MCA, VLB, and PCI are the most common varieties. EISA, MCA, and VLB have been discontinued. Today, most motherboards come standard with ISA and PCI slots. However, the exception is the new AGP (Advanced Graphics Protocol) is currently the best available (66MHz - 128 bit direct pipe to the CPU). This AGP slot is ONLY for video cards. PCI is the primary standard for all other cards - generally 64 bit pushing data through a 66MHz bus path, but sometimes the cards are only 32 bit or a cheap motherboard may be limited to a 33MHz bus path, so be careful. 
There is also AGP 2x and 3x cards on the market, which, to work at their full potential, require a corresponding slot & bus speed on the motherboard. But these cards are fast... as big of difference as there is between the 486 and Pentium chips - HUGE!
The interface is what allows your computer to "talk" to the video card. The faster the better... 90% of the systems being sold in retail outlets "bottle neck" on the video, and no matter how fast the CPU, hard drive, or RAM is, the video can (by itself) significantly speed up or slow down the entire system.
Controller Chips - otherwise known as the "brains" of the video card. The "Seng" was the first "standard" which incorporated actual graphic algorithms into the video card. The S3 chip, and its various mutations, have added to it and increased the performance even more. You can get cards with chips that are especially designed to accelerate certain types of programs. Whether it is CAD, Windows, graphics, videos, or all of these or combinations. It all boils down to money.
Trident set the industry standard; however, with its incredible compatibility and "works with anything" design, you lose a lot of performance the higher-end cards can offer.
Diamond is my personal favorite, very compatible and high performance at a reasonable price - but there are multiple models, even within the same basic "model" which is something you have to be somewhat careful of. Drivers can be a challenge, don't lose your disks (or CD)... or make sure you have Internet access, as the latest drivers are FREE on the net. The Diamond Viper v770 is incredible! Viper v550 is nice, and faster than the Viper v330 or Stealth v460.
Matrox - there are three basic models (and at least two or three sub-models of each of those)... the Mystic is the low end version, faster than all comparable cards (with the same amount and type of RAM). Millennium comes in two primary models - VRAM and WRAM. The Millennium II is available in the SGRAM or WRAM card. Each, of course, has different amounts of RAM available in their corresponding types. These cards are generally for serious gamers, video and graphics intensive end-users.
ATI has models that are awesome. Be careful, they aren't all alike either. Make sure the one you pick out works with the program(s) you will be running. Especially if you are planning to run any of the high-end games. The ATI cards are notoriously having compatibility problems! The new ATI Rage Pro has 32MB of VRAM, with TV out ports and video capture capability. This is the first (and only) ATI card that I have purchased or considered in a real long time. It is very cool, but the Diamond v770 is still a whole lot faster!
Why do you need a faster card? You might not... it depends on what you are doing, and how often you are doing it. Let's say, for example, you work on a monthly newsletter. This generally takes you about 40 hours (figuring the average of 10 hours per page) and you incorporate only 8 graphics in the whole thing. Now, say you want to add more graphics, and higher quality photos - screen movement and refresh time is a great and direct benefit. With a faster video card you might be able to cut 2 to 10 hours off the development time, just by being able to refresh faster, jump around more quickly, and to see the movement, placement, and changes as they happen in "real-time."

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This page was last updated 01 January 2000

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