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The "good enough" PC

PC World has a treatise on “good enough” computing. This isn’t actually a new trend but it’s never stood still for as long as it has now.Jerry Pournelle used to describe cheap CPUs from Cyrix and IDT in the late 1990s as “good enough.” Running at 166 and 200 MHz, they ran Windows 95 and NT4 and Office 97 just fine. They weren’t good gaming CPUs, but for everything else, they were great, and you could build a computer with one of those and save $100 or more over using a comparable Intel CPU.

Trouble was, the mainstream moved. Intel knocked off all the upstarts by starting a megahertz war, and AMD came back from a near-death experience to compete. The requirements to run Windows increased nearly as rapidly, and it wasn’t all that long before 900 MHz was pretty much the bare minimum to run Windows comfortably.

But chips kept getting cheaper, and today you can buy a 2 GHz CPU for pretty close to what a Cyrix or WinChip CPU cost. But you get more than 10 times the power for that money. And Windows XP runs perfectly comfortably on a 2 GHz CPU, whether it’s a new Intel Atom or Celeron or a 5-year-old corporate discard. So does Office 2003, which is the very last version of Office that any sane person would want to use.*

*Besides being the evil spawn of Windows Vista and Microsoft Bob, Office 2007 also crashes more often than Windows 3.0 did. The only way I can go a week without losing work from Office 2007 crashing is to go on vacation.

The PC World author claims that Linux and Open Office running on Intel Atom CPUs will be the undoing of Microsoft. I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Netbooks running Linux got returned to the vendor a lot. I suspect the biggest reason is because they probably couldn’t figure out how to get their USB mobile broadband cards–I’m talking the stuff that cellphone vendors offer for 50 bucks a month–working in Linux. That, and they probably couldn’t get Flash working so they couldn’t see Facebook and other popular sites the way they could on their regular PCs.

Frankly, the two things that keep me from buying a $200 Dell Vostro netbook this weekend are the price of mobile broadband ($50 a month), and my concerns about the reliability of anything sold by Dell in the last 5-6 years. I work with a lot of Dell equipment, and once the warranty goes, their machines do not age gracefully at all. But I think Dell will sell a lot of these units, because the price is absurdly low, they weigh two pounds, and they run anything but 3D games and intensive graphics apps nice and fast. Sure, a dual-core system with its memory maxed out and a solid state disk will outrun it, sometimes even running circles around it, but that system will also cost 10 times as much.

I do think Office 2007 is the best thing that ever happened to Open Office. Open Office’s interface is a lot more familiar and doesn’t hide anything, and while it may not be as fast as Office 2003, it’s certainly faster at most things than Office 2007 is.

Linux has been usable for basic computing for a very long time, but getting it installed and configured remains a challenge at times. A netbook that connects painlessly to the wireless networks in restaurants and to cellphone makers’ mobile broadband cards while running Linux probably stands a chance. Giving some automated, easy means to synchronize application data and web bookmarks between the netbook and a desktop PC would probably help a lot too–something that does the same thing that Activesync does for moving data between Windows PCs and Windows Mobile PDAs. Will these things happen?

But I do think an era of “good enough” is upon us. There was a time when the top-of-the-line PC would be entry level within a year or two, and that’s not really true anymore. The entry-level PC of today is comparable to the mid-range PC of five years ago. For most of my lifetime, basic computing on a five-year-old PC was always painful, no matter how good that PC was when it was new. That’s not the case today.

Graphic designers, video producers, and scientists will always need ever-more powerful systems for their work, so they’ll continue to drive the cutting edge. But everyday computing is stabilizing. I don’t think Intel wants the future of everyday computing to be the cheap Atom CPU, but at this point it may be impossible to avoid it. If Intel decides to quit playing in this space, AMD can design something comparable to replace it in the marketplace. The Geode won’t cut it, but something based on the Athlon XP architecture and built using a modern process certainly would.

And frankly I’m glad about this development. It’s been nice not having to buy a new computer every three years or so.

Dave switches to Office 2007

I switched to Office 2007 on Friday.

The reason given was that updates to Office 2003 were failing to install, so the remedy was to install 2007. The change happened Wednesday night. I was out of the office Thursday, so I had a nice surprise waiting for me when I returned on Friday.First impression: What’s that blinky thing in the upper left hand corner and how do I make it stop? I hate blinky things. I thought Microsoft understood that blinky things are bad. First order of business: Search Google for "turn off office 2007 blinky thing." No relevant results.

In desperation I clicked on the blinky thing to find out what it is. Ah, it’s a File menu replacement. Mercifully, it quit blinking after I clicked on it. If it hadn’t, that part of the screen was going to get covered, possibly by a sticky note, but just as likely with blood or a bullet hole.

Second impression: This is Office For Morons. The old Word and Excel menus, aside from the blinky thing, are gone. They’re replaced with tabs, and clicking tabs brings up a series of oversized, Barry Bonds-esque toolbars that contain a bunch of related functions. The result is that it wastes a lot of screen space, and while maybe I’ll use 50% of the functionality in there, now it takes extra mouse clicks to get to it.

Most of the ctrl-key shortcuts still work. Unfortunately after a day of using it I don’t know which ones do and don’t, and I don’t know which ctrl-key shortcut unconditionally formats the hard drive so you can make a note not to hit that one.

Out of habit, I hit alt-i in Excel to bring up the insert menu. If you can fly blind, that works.

Mercifully, the overhaul is unfinished. Outlook and Publisher still retain an old-style menu structure for the most part. I can’t speak for Access because I don’t think I’ve launched Access since July 2001.

I really don’t like Office 2007. The desktop support person says I’m being stubborn. Part of that may be true–I’ve been using Word and Excel since at least 1993, and I learned those easily because every other graphical word processor, spreadsheet, and indeed, every other graphical application I’d used since about 1989 used a very similar structure for its menus and toolbars. In effect, I’ve been doing things one way more than half my life now, and all of a sudden I have to do them differently.

The other irritating thing is that under the old system, I could live in Word and Excel for weeks at a time without taking my hands off the keyboard. I had the ctrl-key shortcuts for most of the things I do memorized, and for the things I didn’t have memorized, I could hit alt to bring up the menus and usually I could find what I needed in less time than it would take to grab the mouse–especially in Office 2000 and 2003, where the menus initially come up in abbreviated fashion, showing only the last few functions used. Office 2007 is going to force the mouse and me to get reacquainted, and that’s going to slow me down.

Arguably the new interface is easier for a beginner to learn. There are two problems with that. One, this user interface treats you like a beginner forever. And two, that dumbing-down is for no good reason because there are very few beginners out there anymore, and the few beginners who are left are teenagers, who didn’t really have any problem learning the old interface.

The nicest thing I can say about Office 2007 is that some Microsoft executive took a dump in a box and decided to shrink-wrap it. This isn’t going to compel people to upgrade. If the idea is to sell new versions of Office, this might work though. If Office 2009 includes an option to use the old menus, it’ll sell like crazy to the fools who blindly bought this. Especially if it comes out sometime this year.