Sunday, May 13, 2012

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What the hell is wrong with computers, or wait, what the hell is wrong with software these days? You would expect that future computers can handle our typical tasks without a sweat, but that's not exactly the case. Are the rising hardware-specs fooling us, or does the software get slower each iteration? Here an emotional plea from someone who still gots bothered by sluggish, hanging, syrup computers.

Holy shit, Intel-Inside!
In 1998 -I'll pick a year that Windows started working a bit-, we were able to browse the internet –still an ‘innocent’ toy back then-, write an e-mail(what?!), print a Word(Perfect) document, manage the disk via Explorer, and even better, play Halflife. Of course, we also had charming blue-screens and it wasn't all that fast. Booting the computer took centuries, you couldn't open too many programs at the same time, and internet was as slow as the brown paste Robocop eats. But that was mainly due the cables and hyperslow modems, being interrupted by a malformed robot-voice of your mother if she tried to call at the same time.

I don't know the exact numbers, but in our house, I believe we had a Pentium 233 or 300 at that time. Single core of course. The average user probably thought “multi-threading” was another word for warpspeed in Startrek back then. Memory... 128 MB or something? There was a Soundblaster, a 4 or 8 Gb harddrive called "Bigfoot" to make it sound even more awesome, and a 15 inch monitor that could be used to fire holes in boats with a pirate cannon. A 16x speed (16!) CD-Rom drive. And a disk-drive, just in case you needed to fix Windows. And yes, I've seen my father doing that a few thousand times. Not sure whether that was really necessary, or he just liked screwing around with Windows and the BIOS. We never really had stabile computers, that’s for sure.

Videocards. These days, for me, the videocard is the most important instrument in a computer. But back then it was a piece of luxery, not really needed. I believe we had a Voodoo 'something' card. And I never understood how it would make games run faster or more beautiful. Don't blame me, 1998 was also the year I started programming (after some Q-Basic in 1997). Anyhow, “Software rendering”, which means the CPU did all the 3D work instead of a specialized piece of hardware, was common.
Tower22 has become kitchen-interior rendering software.

Holy shit, 4 Intels inside!
Anyway, compare those numbers with what we have now. At least two or four 2.000 to 3.000 mHz cores. In dumb-theory, that should be about 20 to 40 times faster than the Pentium 300. In reality, it might be even faster for very specific tasks that fully utilize parallel processing, since Intel and AMD spend a lot of magic in Multithreading, Hyperthreading, and whatsoever. RAM memory exploded from 128/256 MB to 4 gigs, or 8+ in case you have a 64-bit system. At least 16 times more memory to work with (+ faster chips/buslines). Harddrives? I remember removing "big files" of 1 megabyte or more once in a while to make space for a new 300 MB game. Now I still have to remove "big programs" once in a while to make space on the 300 Gb drives. And 300 Gb isn't that much really, people manage to stuff terabytes with games/videos/porn. For the info, 1 terabyte is enough to back-up 125x 8Gb disks, or capture 212 single-layer DVD's. Hence, old disks couldn't even store 1 DVD. Then again DVD didn't exist yet, instead we had ~700 MB CD-Roms. I won't compare CD-Rom reading speeds. Last time I used that thing was.... no idaa. USB and online file transfer took over. As we laughed at our fathers with their 8” floppies and LP’s, our kids will laugh at us Compact-Disc generation.

Last but not least, we have videocards these days. Big expensive ones. Videocards on themselves may have 1+ gig of memory (can be used to hold your game geometry and textures for example), and a hotdamn fast set of GPU's. Now I can clearly see the videocards doing their work when it comes to running games. Every 2 or 3 years, I'll buy a new card (or sooner in case it burned again due stuck fans). And a game like Tower22 often doubles or triples the framerate. Good job. As for you, just compare your PC game collections. 1998: Halflife, Sin, Carmageddon II versus 2010+: Crysis2, Battlefield, GTA V (almost!), ... Now as an old whiner I'm not saying all games are better these days, but if you can't see the (graphical) progress, you're as blind as a beaten-up mole.

Holy shit, nothing happens inside!
…Then WHY am I not seeing this progress in other software? When writing an e-mail, Windows Live mail often hangs for 10 or 20 seconds because it's doing... something. An e-mail! Just text! Nice to have 4Gb RAM on my 32-bit system, but ~50% is used by Windows and background trash (yes, I check the starting-up programs with msconfig). Why is a chatting program like Skype using 100 MB? Internet is shit too. On my comp, there are always 4 to 8 pages open in the background. Consuming hundreds of megabytes. And I'm not talking about Radioplayers, video-streamers or Flashgames. Just forums and stuff. Pfff, Flash Games. how is it possible a simple zombie-killer flashgame takes up almost 100% CPU? It's a fucking Flash game, not Battlefield 6000. The NES did a better job. Using Chrome here by the way, Internet Explorer is even worse. If I click the "e" icon, I want to Google something within the next 3 seconds. Not first wait half a minute. Each iteration of IExplorer seems to get worse, even though they threw away a lot of useless features only housewives who had followed an internet-course would use. Jesus Christ, we have Fiberglass here, and it still feels like pushing turds through a 8mm plastic pipe.

More to complain? Sure, how about booting up. No matter how many times I tell Adobe to get the fuck out, it still keeps coming with updates. Every time. Is Adobe Reader so crappy it really needs an update every day? Probably it just doesn't install its updates very well, and keeps asking. Talking about updates. What on Earth is Windows Vista doing? Even if my computer is shut off from the internet, it still manages to find "updates" sometimes. And of course that always happens if I need to turn off quickly, or unannounced in the middle of the night. The Toshiba Laptop battery-alarm suddenly starts screaming like a Russian nuclear bomb silo. What happened? Vista decided to restart the (closed) laptop suddenly, and of course dozens of opened text/image files weren't saved. Yes I'm probably doing something wrong, but explain that to your grandma. Auto-update ok, but you'll have to be retarded to make a feature work like that.
Toying around with blurry reflections and glossy specular highlights for materials like this linoleum floor last week.

Sometimes it feels as if computers are slowing down deliberately after 1 or 2 years. Back in the old days you would buy a TV or VCR, expecting it to work for at least 60 years so your grandchildren could inherit it in case cold-bad times would come. Nowadays, everything falls apart after a few years. Hey people have money enough, make sure they buy our shit on a regular base. Same with mobile devices. Apart from disintegrating after a year, they keep relative slow as well. I’m pretty damn sure an average phone or industrial handheld still can’t do the good old Pentium tricks like running Halflife (software render) on a 800x600 resolution while downloading "Intergalactic"(RIP MCA) with Napster at the same time. I know that has to do with fitting mini-sized chips in a small casket, but look at the numbers… An industrial handheld barcode scanner with Windows CE/Mobile for example often runs on an ARM 533 mHz processor, with 128 MB RAM. That should be faster than the good old Pentium in theory. In practice, it doesn’t even run a single (.NET) program at decent speed. And if it crashes, it just hangs instead of getting a cool blue-screen. What a rip-off!

Software: Culture of Greed
All in all, the same old tasks are just as slow as 14 years ago. Except that the devices aren’t that big anymore, and websites, explorers, Word editors or email programs have more features and a "slick" look now. And sure, computers are doing a lot more simultaneously these days, it’s not the hardware's fault. And in my case, the computer partially got slow due the huge amount of programs. Virus scanners, Dropbox, creative tools + their drivers, and about 20 different programming tools. Now Delphi is pretty nice and quiet, but others interfere with the system like a meddlesome aunt.

Yet, that shouldn't be a problem if all programs back of as long as I don't call them. But each of them dumps crap in the register, has invisible stuff going on, bothers with all kinds of extra functions, and acts like a spoiled princes claiming all computer resources. That might be the main problem; the programming philosophy. I can’t speak for all, but it seems designers lend on the “infinite” resources of nowadays computers. 4 Gigs of RAM, so reserving 100 Megabytes more just in case can't hurt right? The user probably likes our cool product to start-up automatically, and check for updates in the background. Processor speed? Who cares, dual cores mate. Again, all of this wouldn't be a problem, if there weren't many more programs trying to do the same simultaneously. You can't have 10 kings on one throne. Yep, having more resources makes lazy, and I speak from experience since I’m also familiar with the other side; a few megahertz microcontrollers with 1kb memory. Such systems force you to make smarter solutions, caring about each bit. While on a modern PC, you can turn a simple application into behemoth for the sake of “easy maintainable programming”.

Microsoft should know better with their Live and Internet Explorer products. I can’t really speak for Windows 7 yet, but Vista gave a wrong example as its programs were using too much memory and CPU cycles as well. Why does Live Mail work on web-based technologies anyway? It's asking for performance problems. Sure, it may give some more options in these modern cloud / social-media / device-synchronizing times. But in the end, I just want check or write a mail and don't give a crap about all those features unless I explicitly ask for it. Usually I'm using Notepad over Word, or the old PaintShop V over PaintShop XI. You know why? Because it starts in a second, rather than half a minute, including loads or prompts and questions. Software-designers should try to make things more simplistic again, don't you agree?

Ah, that's better.


  1. Windows 7 is mildly better, but barely.

    Honestly I think Feature Bloat is the major problem with so many programs these days. Like, okay, I get it. Some people really want to write a fancy word document, with inserting forms and frames and pages, and tables. Howeverm I just want to have a nice layout for my page and write out an .RTF, but my professor/boss/whatever is forcing me to save it as a .DOC. Now, can you please just let me do that without loading for a full minute? You've been loading for a minute since 1995, Word.

  2. Recently went back from Seven to XP, such a relief! And I know what yup're saying, Rick, performance was something I cared about most since my Pentium 2, which I was using up to 2006, while other people had badass Athlon XP and Pentium 4's.