A question about progress

Technology progresses quickly but is it always in the right direction, and does it always mean benefits for consumers?

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By  Jason Saundalkar Published  May 6, 2008

By definition, the word ‘progress' alludes to developing in a positive way whether it's getting better at your job or getting yourself in shape. In both these examples, progress is a good thing in every way; you get more experience and higher pay, or you look and feel better about yourself. But in the world of IT, which ‘progresses' at a staggering pace, things aren't always so clear cut.

Over the last weekend I decided it was finally time to upgrade my aging fileserver, which comprised two Pentium II 450MHz processors, an Asus P2B-DS dual Slot 1 motherboard, about a gigabyte of SDRAM memory and an Adaptec Serial ATA RAID controller. Over the course of disassembling the machine on my work bench, I dropped one of the Slot 1 Pentium II processors and it hit my carpet-less floor.

After getting a few expletives out of my system, I banged the processor back into the machine (to see if it was still working) and hey presto, it booted fine and ran all my software without a hitch. This got me thinking about how impressed I've always been with Slot CPUs. You see I've built hundreds of machines that have used these older processors and let me tell you, not one of these CPUs has met an early death due to being dropped, overheating - because of an improperly attached heatsink - or because the connecting pins got bent while it was being installed. So sure, this is an old, somewhat expensive and wasteful CPU design but boy is it tough.

In stark contrast, the casualty list for processors based on the Socket design - regardless of whether they are AMD or Intel CPUs - is long and, sadly, distinguished. I can recall dozens of instances where Ive had to manually realign a Socket CPU's pins because it was being put in wrongly or dropped. In some cases the pins snapped clean off the processor, which effectively meant it was unusable, unless you had the right micro tools (and I didn't). With Slot processors, you just don't have these issues because they have far sturdier connecting points and the design itself, a simple plastic notch, made it impossible to fit the CPU in the wrong way round.

Coming back to Socket CPUs, the mounting process for heatsinks was, and still is, a nightmare in most cases. This in itself has caused the deaths of many processors, particularly AMD's early Socket-based Athlon and Duron processors, which were killed because the heatsink wasn't sitting flush on the chip. Slot processors just didn't have this problem because the cooling system was bolted to the processor directly and only then would you need to install the full assembly into a machine. With Socket processors, fitting a heatsink when the motherboard is already in a case is an annoying process (to put it lightly). Here too there is a risk that you can damage the capacitors that sit around the Socket, which will of course affect stability or worse still, kill the motherboard entirely.

Speaking of motherboards, there have been a few instances where LGA775 boards have met their end because the contact points on the Socket itself were bent out of position. Moreover, today's boards just don't seem as long lasting as their older counterparts.

My Asus P2B-DS board has powered my fileserver for a staggering ten years (running SCSI drives originally and more recently SATA drives). The PC has only ever been switched off for a few hours in between for drive upgrades. In comparison, my gaming rig has had to deal with four motherboards in three years. Before you shout ‘it must be your power supply' let me assure you, that component was changed after the second board swap. The sad thing is that a lot of my friends also have the same issues; their brand spanking new boards last about a year before they start acting up or fail completely.

Another component type that seems to have moved forward one step but taken two in the wrong direction is graphics cards. Sure, today's cards can render exceptional visuals at fluid framerates, but what about how power hungry, large and expensive they've become? When I bought Diamond's 12Mbyte Monster 3D II graphics accelerator - powered by the legendary 3DFX Voodoo 2 chipset - it cost me $499 back in 1997 and this was the best of the best, in terms of 3D cards at the time (and for the next two years).

Today, $499 won't buy you the fastest card on the market; you'll likely get an overclocked mid-range model that'll last you about a year before something bigger and better is released. Both AMD and nVidia's top drawer cards are huge in terms of size, so you'll need a decent size chassis to fit it and let's not forget about the gargantuan appetite for power.

The largest power supply you could buy for a home PC used to be 400-watts in the Voodoo 2 days and that was enough for the fastest rig you could buy. Today, you'll need at least a 1,000-watt model for a high-end rig and let's not forget that power supply manufacturers are already shipping 1,500- and 2,000-watt models. Do they know something we don't about next- generation hardware? Sure looks that way...

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