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.

Red Hat and Debian fans debate desktop Linux

Mail from longtime reader Steve Mahaffey on the state of desktop Linux. My responses interspersed within:
SM: It’s been a while since I’ve emailed you, though I still read your site almost daily and comment from time to time.

DF: I appreciate that.

SM: Other than our common faith the most important subject that I could comment on might be desktop Linux.

DF: And it’s been a while since I’ve written about either of those. Too long.

SM: In the past I’ve used Mandrake and Suse briefly, and Red Hat 7.2/3 more extensively. As a server, Red Hat 7.3, booted to runlevel 3, runs until the power goes off at my West Houston home long enough to outlast my UPS. On the other hand, as a desktop OS, Red Hat 7.3 with KDE or Ximian Gnome would crash 1-3 x per week, and Ximian Gnome would get corrupted, requiring me to delete various ./.gnome* config files or files in /tmp to fix it, which most users would not be able to fathom or guess at.

DF: The more advanced desktop environments seem to be pretty sensitive to something or other. I haven’t figured out what exactly. That’s part of the reason why I run IceWM on Debian on my desktop; it’s stable. Running Gnome apps under IceWM on Debian “Unstable” (the experimental, bleeding-edge Debian distro), I’ve been chasing a slow memory leak that eventually consumes all available physical memory and eventually leads to a crash, but it takes a month or two. More on what I think is going on in a minute.

SM: Red Hat 8.0 on my primary workstation, on the other hand, is currently at 43 days uptime. NO CRASHES, once or twice I have restarted the x-server, and once I had a problem with the gnome conifg files. I know that you use Debian mostly, but Red Hat, Lindows, Mandrake, Lycoris, or the like will be the ones to have a mass impact on the desktop. Seems like Lycoris or Lindows was Debian based, though.

DF: I know Lindows is based on Debian. I don’t know Lycoris’ origin. You are correct that Debian will have minimal impact on the desktop, at least in the home. Debian doesn’t give a rip about commercial success and it shows.

I saw Red Hat 8 and Mandrake 9 recently and I was impressed at how far they’ve come. I haven’t touched Red Hat since 6.2 or Mandrake since, well, 7.2 probably. They looked stable and fast. And I saw a minimal (no options picked) Mandrake 9 install the other night. It was 144 megs. I remember not long ago trying to do minimal Red Hat and Mandrake installs and they were 300 megs, at least. That’s definitely a step in the right direction.

SM: Anyway, besides much greater stability, I have enough functionality for most of my needs in programs like Open Office, gnucash, Mozilla or Galeon, Evolution or KMail, etc. Some may have other needs, only met via Windows only programs, of course. I have noticed that RH 8.0 seems on occasion to be slow, but not most of the time. The menus are a little funny … easy to add to the KDE menus, but they don’t always seem to work. With Gnome, it’s easier to add a custom panel to add a non-default application, but it does work then.

DF: Linux currently meets most of the needs I observe on the typical user’s desktop. Not necessarily power users, but for the basic users who are interested in typing simple documents like letters and memos, simple spreadsheets (and let’s face it, an awful lot of spreadsheets use very basic math, if any at all), e-mail, Web browsing, chat, and listening to music, Linux provides solutions that are as good as, if not superior to, those that run on Windows.

I also observe how many users don’t know how to add an application to Windows’ Start menu, or desktop, or that quick-launch thing on the taskbar. It may be easier on Windows, but it’s still not easy enough for most people.

Of course, this is coming from someone who keeps at least one shell window open at all times in Linux and launches apps from there because it’s faster and easier for me to type the first few letters of an app and hit tab and then enter than it is to navigate a menu. For people like me, Linux is much, much superior to Windows and always will be.

SM: RH 8.0 did recognize my nVidia card, but did NOT enable opengl 3d acceleration. I had to install the nVidia drivers from the nVidia web site to get opengl acceleration…apparently Red Hat has decided to not support that at this time. Another oddity is that I have had to turn on the cd sound to play audio CDs by using the kde mixer…can’t seem to do it with the gnome mixer, and don’t know where to hack a config file or file permissions to do this.

DF: Given Red Hat’s history with KDE, it’s ironic that some things work better in KDE than Gnome on Red Hat. Nvidia’s decision to only provide binary drivers (not source) hasn’t proven popular with a lot of Linux distributors, which probably has a lot to do with the OpenGL issues. Red Hat isn’t going to go out of its way to make nVidia look good, and might actually go out of its way to make nVidia not look as good as ATI or Matrox or other companies who are willing to provide straight source, taking the chance that users will blame nVidia rather than Red Hat or Linux. (That’s not a particularly safe bet, but it’s not out of character, given past history.)

SM: Other things… Evolution crashes a lot. I’ve given up and started using KMail (for IMAP since I use my own mail server with IMAP). Galeon is good, but it seems that I had some printing issues and I’ve been using Mozilla more. I’ll have to see how the Phoenix browser comes along…it might be the best choice. Flash and Java required a manual install.

DF: Evolution is stable for me in Debian (more stable than Outlook 2000 under Windows 2000) but I’ve heard that complaint. I have to wonder if Evolution might be picky about the libraries it’s linked to and what it’s compiled with and how? Debian is really conservative; Red Hat is much more apt to use C compilers that haven’t proven themselves just yet. It’s great that GCC 3.2 is so much faster, but if that speed is still coming at the price of stability, let’s back off, eh?

I like Galeon but I don’t print Web pages much. Phoenix is turning into a very nice browser. Lately I’ve been using Mozilla nightly builds for the spam filtering in the mail client and no other reason.

SM: All in all, maybe Red Hat 8.0 is still more a distro that is more suited for corporate environments that have IT personnel around to hand-hold, and which need only modest desktop application abilities. But, it’s coming quite close to the fabled “Aunt Minnie” friendly OS that will really give Microsoft fits.

DF: It’ll take time to get mainstream appeal but I believe it will. Linux PCs in Wal-Mart are a very good thing, because it gives exposure and feedback. The press hasn’t been too kind to the Linux PCs sold there, but if the criticisms are addressed, things will get better, faster, for all distributions. Windows nothing but a really bad Mac wanna-be for 10 years, but it ripened because it infiltrated mass-market PCs. The press applauded Microsoft as it washed its dirty laundry in public. Linux won’t get that same treatment, but I’ll take a criticizing press over a kiss-butt press any day of the week if the goal is product maturity. Windows has been 20 years in the making, but XP still crashes too much.

And as far as Red Hat vs. Debian goes, I may have to give Red Hat another look as a desktop OS soon.

SM: Most of your comments seem to center around Linux and server applications. This is not trivial or unimportant. However, I think that the time for desktop Linux may be getting quite close, and I’d be interested in your comments if you feel so inclined.

DF: My focus has changed in the past year. Two years ago, I did desktop support, and server work in emergencies. About a year ago, I started moving into server support and only did desktop support in emergencies. It’s been a year since I’ve dealt with end users on a regular basis, so I don’t know as much what’s wanted or needed on the desktop anymore and I definitely don’t think about it nearly as much since I’m almost never confronted with it.

I think my thoughts on it are still worth something, since it’s only been a year, but that kind of experience definitely doesn’t age well.

Getting back to the desktop, the apps we need are in place. What they need most now are must-have features that Microsoft won’t supply, or won’t supply quickly. Bayesian spam filtering in Mozilla is a prime example of Open Source beating MS to the punch. A great idea showed up on Slashdot, some early implementations showed up immediately, and within a month or two, it’s in Mozilla’s alpha builds. The public at large will have a usable implementation within a couple of months. And there will be others. I suspect we’ll see lots of examples of it in digital media. I mean, whose design would you rather use, the design of someone concerned only with corporate interests, or the design of a group of users concerned with their fair-use rights and yours and mine?

SM: Anyway, maybe you’ll find my observations to be of interest.

DF: Always.

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