back to article Industry in 'denial' as demand for pricey PCs plunges

The question most taxing the minds behind the personal computer industry right now is how to persuade punters to spend their money not merely on new notebooks and desktops, but specifically on more powerful - and thus more expensive - machines. All the evidence suggests they are currently not doing so. More problematically, they …

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Any old iron?

I use three desktop computers. All of them are old IBM ones, bought from eBay for somewhere around £70 each. I've stuck thirty quids' worth of Crucial memory in them and the most important got a new HDD for £50. They are between 7 and 10 years old, I think, and they work just fine. Why would I want to upgrade?

I think PCs reached a performance plateau of "perfectly good for most people" some years back; there really is no incentive for most users to update. Different for hardcore gamers, maybe, but what proportion of the PC market are hardcore gamers? Anyone, the ones I know own FrankenPCs which have been steadily upgraded, but they haven't bought a whole new one in years.

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Re: Any old iron?

As far as I can tell, the sort of "hardcore gamer" that buys a whole PC in one go is treating it more like a games console with a short upgrade cycle and none of the hardware lock-down that prevents them playing old games.

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Re: Any old iron?

>Why would I want to upgrade?

Other than power efficiency, I can't think of any reason.

Throughout the nineties, the median cost of PCs always seemed to be around the £1000 mark...

To paraphrase Bill Gates "4GB of RAM really ought to be enough for most people".

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Re: Any old iron?

Nor me, which might explain the 10+ year old desktop machine in my study that does just fine under WinXP with a couple of GB of memory and an old Opteron in it. It's a frankenPC with the guts of a few old ones added to its original Tiny set-up (there, that shows how old it is).

Supplimented by a little Acer Aspire One for couch-surfing - it happily does what I and the family need it to (how much processing power does my kids playing Club Penguin need?!) and will probably continue to do so until the motherboard or PSU go pop.

It ain't broke, so I don't fix it.

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Re: Any old iron?

Yup. Still keeping my refurbished Dell circa 2005 up and running. Not completely original, but obviously it still works. Known in these parts as Frankenstein. My people have a saying: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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Re: Any old iron?

Well... yes -- and no.

Currently, in my studio, I have a couple of late-model G4 Macs -- a 1.25GHz minitower and a 1.25GHz iBook, both with as much memory and storage in them as I could afford when I bought them. Both of them can still handle pretty much everything I can throw at them -- illustration, photo work, page layout, video editing -- but the big problem is that since Apple went with Intel for the Macs about six years or so ago, it's become harder and harder to find free/shareware utilities and applications for the PowerPC Gx series and, of course, impossible to find any important commercial applications like the ones I use in my daily work -- Creative Suite, FinalCut Pro, and such -- for the G4. There's also the issue of Web browser/plug-in evolution to deal with; many Web sites based on Flash (spit) that I visit these days demand the absolute latest version of Flash or they just won't work. Even a lot of sites not based on Flash won't load properly -- or at all -- because the version of Firefox I'm stuck on due to my still having a G4 can't handle them. I'm getting more and more "come back when you have a new browser" messages these days.

So, even inasmuch as the G4s here have been entirely dependable and capable machines, I'm rapidly approaching a point where I'm going to have to break down and get a new/last year's model Intel Mac, just so I can stay current on the software I use in my daily professional work (Ironically, the current series of iMacs deliver more power and capabilities than my G4 tower for the same price I paid for my iBook five years ago).

This isn't to say that I won't still be able to find a use for the old G4 minitower and iBook when I move up, because they both still run like champs, and it'd be a waste to just toss them -- but then, I was also one of those guys who'd drive a car for five years after it was paid for, too.

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Re: Hardcore gamers

You're onto something with the gamers...they are the target of these big machines.

Snag is, the gamers also know that upgrades are incremental, especially with Video cards which is where most of the immediate benefits and requirements lie. Buying a brand new machine from scratch is rare

What these guys should be doing it getting into the components business. Box shifting is dead.

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Re: Any old iron?

..but nothing beats pr0n rendered on a desktop PC.

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Re: Any old iron?

Re: Gamers - most of them wouldn't have bought a whole PC in the first place, but instead bought specifically selected components. So arguably, those power users would never have been part of the stats in the first place.

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Re: Hardcore gamers

You have a point, most gamers I know upgrade incrementally. The few I know that have done a complete rebuild recently (I say complete, I mean CPU, RAM, motherboard, graphics card and harddrive) have all gone for sub £600 machines, some as low as £350-£400. The days of spending the better part of a grand on a processor are over. Sure it'll give benchmark results that will make your friends green with envy but in the real world you're not going to notice much difference between Intel's latest £700 monster and a £60, four core, Phenom II Black Edition (especially since the limitations of the PS3 and Xbox360 have caused a fair bit of stagnation in the hardware requirements of PC games).

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Re: Any old iron?

my sister in law is a designer and has had her G5 iMac since they came out, only this month she decided she needed to upgrade...for the very same reasons as you, software demands. Still I persuaded her she didn't need the latest and greatest iMac, last years model would do fine. She's very happy with it, saved her some bucks that will go towards the huge ripoff that is the Adobe upgrades.

For myself, I have had several Mac's over the years, but this year it really looks like my next will be the last. Sorry Apple.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Any old iron?

Here, this might help a bit - http://www.floodgap.com/software/tenfourfox/

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Re: Any old iron?

I thought I was alone, im currently in the same camp as yourself, however I have now gotten myself a Macbook Pro intel, to catch up with software, as for my old G4, yep it works a treat so im currently filling it with hard drives, both internal and external and redeploying it as a Media Server. Im currently converting my DVD & CD library to itunes, and I have gotten hold of some Airport Express and active speakers and Im now the proud owner of music & video in every room in my house controlled by portable iproducts.

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Linux

Re: Any old iron?

You could always stick Linux on them - try MintPPC: http://mintppc.org

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Re: Hardcore gamers

As a gamer myself I can say, I have only ever bought one box shift PC (a Compaq Presario). When I went to upgrade I found out the motherboard and case could not be upgraded. I have built them myself with hand picked components ever since, and every gamer friend I have does exactly the same. Some build a full new system each time, for myself, I have had the same PSU and case now for a number of years. I very rarely do a full upgrade now but an "alternate" upgrade so to speak. Motherboard, CPU, Memory, then next upgrade cycle will be Graphics Card. As I currently have an i7 2600K and my last upgrade was a GTX 560Ti, I will be skipping the CPU/Motherboard/Memory and doing another Graphics card upgrade as there is no real upgrade worth ditching the 2600K for at this point. This is the beauty of controlling your own box build, you can nearly always stay with a mid to high range PC without having to also buy the extra tat you don't need and concentrate the expense on what you really need and it's a lot easier to follow the hardware performance trends.

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Re: Hardcore gamers

I'm the same - Was using an old P4 HT homebuilt up til a few months ago, when my brother-in-law, who's one of those 'gotta have the latest toys' types upgraded his 4 core AMD Phenom to a 6 core. I got the hand-me-down. Otherwise, I'd still be running the P4

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Re: Any old iron?

I put debian/ppc on my g5 and retired it to server duty.

Not very power efficient, but every now and then my athlon64 single core was struggling.

Apart from that, I have a 775 core2 driving a nice dell 27" display & 4Gigs of ram.

Works fine.

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Unhappy

it aint broke

But the poor punter might well be broke

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The writing has been on the wall for years now, how are the Intels and Acers of this world caught on the hop?

My 3 year old Dell Core 2 Duo does just fine for home office duties, I can't see me replacing it unless it blows up. When it does I'll build my own with decent brand but low-end bits.

I've realised I'll probably never buy my kids their own PC as they'll just use tablets or phones for most of their computing needs (they're getting Nexus 7 & LeapPad 2 from Santa this year), so as Jeff Attwood says, that might be the last PC I ever own.

And as for Ultrabooks, pah! Surely no-one was going to fall for that?

Sure, mad gamers will demand silly CPUs and GPUs like I did in the 1990s/early 2000s, but for the 99% it simply doesn't make any sense to spend more than about £350 on a PC/notebook.

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And if you have a REALLY large amount of data to crunch on an irregular basis - rendering CAD images, for example, it is maybe more cost effective to rent the time from Amazon or whoever, rather than invest in some under-utilised hardware.

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There is also the SSD effect...

"Q4 will set the template. Barclays Capital‘s hardware analyst, Ben Reitzes, meanwhile, believes the PC market could decline for “many years to come”. He reckons consumers are making PCs last longer, adding an extra year or two onto the machines’ working lives"

By adding a SSD to an old system you can extend its useful lifespan many years. Even ATA machines can benefit from the 4k read speeds of SSDs compared with their original 5400rpm HDDs. Machines within the last 5 years will easily have the computational power for most uses.

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Only reason why I need anything more powerful than my netbook is to rip and encode my dvd collection to watch on my tablet.

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You don't need power if you have time... you can get home servers that get on with transcoding media when they are not doing anything else. Even on a fairly modest CPU, I can't see you watching the movies faster than it can convert them, assuming you sleep, eat and work! : D

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Anonymous Coward

I recently bought myself a new PC to rip DVDs and spent under £400 for 6 cores at 3.8GHz. My other PC has been around for about 5 years and it was slow and power hungry in comparison. I'll still canibalise it for parts like the drives though rather than buy new ones. I used to have a gaming PC which I used for this but the constant upgrades of components and lack of free time resulted in me purchasing a console.

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Anonymous Coward

@Dave 126

I'm still running a machine that's about 7 years old as my main desktop PC (2.2 GHz AMD 64) . Bit of a Frankenstein's monster, as some earlier posters put it, with new RAM, graphics card (third replacement, though I'm still stuck with using ever-rarer AGP cards), and a new SATA card (with power adapters to convert from my 4-pin Molex cables) and extra disk storage. The original chassis and power supply have been more than adequate to support all these upgrades. It's the fact that I can't use newer graphics cards that will probably (eventually) force me to upgrade. Well, that and the fact that the machine freezes when I try to build a cross-compiler on it, but it's completely stable otherwise.

So, yeah, it's not like my rig can do real-time transcoding of video (which is the main reason for having a hefty CPU, IMO), but as you say, once you factor in time spent not watching video, I can more or less produce the transcoded video faster than I can watch it.

Just one thing I really wanted to add here, and that is that even though my desktop is the most powerful machine I own, it's not the only one. I've also got a couple of Acer Aspire 1s, an older 1.6GHz AMD 64 laptop, a PS3 running Linux and a Raspberry Pi (soon to be joined by 4 other upgraded 512Mb versions*). My point is that when I want to run a transcode job, I can run DVD::Rip and set up a cluster of all the x86-based machines (and could add the PS3 or Pi if I wanted to). Since I've also built cross-compilers for x86/x86_64, I can also use distcc to spread a big compile job in the same way. So basically, by using a moderate number of less powerful machines, I can almost approach the power of a newer machine for certain tasks that are important to me. That being so, what's really the point of buying a new machine?

* I'm looking forward to playing around with the new Pi's. They're probably not going to be that useful as processing nodes in a transcode/compile cluster, but at least it'll be easy to try them out thanks to them running linux, ffmpeg, gcc, distcc, etc...

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Re: @Dave 126

Running old machines, it might be worth it to check the cost in £s of leccy... Has anyone bothered to calculate?

Last Xmas I got stuck in the same PPC->Intel bottleneck, being given a new Wacom pad which only partially works (no pressure levels, thus it becomes an overcomplicated mouse) under PPC. Plus one after the other programs weren't upgradable just like described above (starting with FFox giving you dire security warnings, and Sketchup, and BBEdit, and... )

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Build Quality

Another problem is the modern phenomenon of utter crap build quality. Most consumer items are not made to last more than a couple of years, so it certainly isn't worth buying a pre-built performance machine at a premium price if your the sort of person who replaces the whole thing when something goes wrong.

My machines morph over the years gradually evolving by having various bits upgraded when necessary. Only once in the last 12 years have I constructed an almost totally new machine & obviously I bought all the bits separately. Even then I I never by the latest model of CPU or GPU as they are usually several hundred quid more than the model they replace adn I know I will eventually upgrade to something faster for less than the just released premium price.

Although I do a fair bit of graphics processing, 3d modelling and software development as well as some gaming I'm not a slave to having the very latest, fastest components.

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Facepalm

What's missing?

Consoles.

The huge elephant in the room as to why even gamers aren't updating their PCs regularly.

Along with Windows demanding ever more from a PC, there were the games, demanding ever more performance - whether that be screen resolutions, physics or the plethora of other details.

Unfortunately, 5 years ago, the consoles' latest incarnation came to town. At the time at least on a par with high-end PCs, however that has ceased to be true for several years now. Unfortunately, they are a huge cash generator for games makers.

Add in to that that monitors have stalled at a resolution of 1080p for the same 5 years or so and you get to the bottom of why nothing has moved on.

Games are designed and built for 5 year old hardware, to be displayed at 1080p resolutions.

Nobody is pushing for a performance increase - even the CPUs Intel is producing aren't pushing the envelope. 5 years ago the Q6600 was released, quad core @ 2.4GHz; today's equivalent the 3570K is a quad core running @ 3.4GHz. I know there are other differences, but the big one is that clock cycles in 5 years haven't advanced particularly far and raw computing power today isn't a large enough leap to warrant the expense, so why bother?

Add in to that mix that a lot of gamers have looked over the fence and gone "hang on, why am I paying out £x when I can just get a console for £x/2?" and a lot have jumped ship. Look at the games - 5 years ago games were released to support 64 players online (with Battlefield 2 unofficially supporting 128 with some, at the time, ridiculous hardware requirements), today we're lucky if they support 32 (there are exceptions).

If the big requirements for faster processors have diappeared (e.g. Windows, Games), then why is anyone surprised that there is no market for new, faster processors?

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CJM
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Re: What's missing?

I'm a keen gamer, and though I'm glad for a reprieve in a time when I have other things to spend money on, I do resent how PC gaming has been help back by the consoles.

I don't want to go back to insane upgrade cycles of 5-10 years ago, but I'd like to see things edging forward a little faster. With that in mind, I'm surprise the h/w manufacturers are investing more in games development, so better, more demanding games = sales.

Current game devs are happy with the h/w stagnation; working on exactly the same platform each time means they can keep rattling of 'new' games at a rate of knots. I'd do the same if I was them... which means it's up to someone else to provide the incentive to continue improving...

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Megaphone

Re: What's missing?

It's more a case of there being no more innovation to be had.

If you look at the very best looking games on the 360 or the PS3, there aren't a whole lot of places for a rasterizer to improve on that on the PC...at least, not in any way that gamers outside of the real enthusiasts would notice.

I mean, yeah, you can pump more pixels to multiple monitors, maybe double the fill-rate requirements for 3D, and yes, I suppose, nurture the hardware to have hundreds of players simultaneously in the same world, but all the really big, important innovation happened years ago. There just isn't the slack there used to be for a PC to take up when it overtook the current console generation.

A magnitude change is needed in our approach to computer graphics before PC's will once again drive that segment forward.

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Boffin

Re: What's missing?

Games are designed and built for 5 year old hardware, to be displayed at 1080p resolutions.

Not so. Many modern games are still designed to take advantage of faster PC hardware.

Take Skyrim for example. It can render more triangles, higher resolution textures, and crash in much less time, on PCs than on consoles.

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Happy

"Crash in much less time"

Perhaps you meant "Crash much less often"?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: What's missing?

"Nobody is pushing for a performance increase - even the CPUs Intel is producing aren't pushing the envelope. 5 years ago the Q6600 was released, quad core @ 2.4GHz; today's equivalent the 3570K is a quad core running @ 3.4GHz. I know there are other differences, but the big one is that clock cycles in 5 years haven't advanced particularly far and raw computing power today isn't a large enough leap to warrant the expense, so why bother?"

I replaced a Q6600 with an Ivy Bridge i5. As you point out, the clock speeds aren't significantly different and the number of cores is the same. However for heavy workloads (non-trivial FPGA synthesis, i.e. runs that takes hours to complete), my new rig is roughly 4 times faster that the old one. That's a pretty significant step up in 5 years. The new box is also lower power overall.

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CJM

Re: What's missing?

Graphics is one area where most gaming PCs leave consoles in the cold; they are behind in every other hardware aspect too.

Not enough memory, so game maps tend to be small, lots of loading screens etc. CPU is far weaker than modern PCs, not that games are especially well coded to take advantage of the numerous cores we can all now call on.

"but all the really big, important innovation happened years ago"

This is kind of my point.

There is a story that a century ago, a Patent Office official resigned and recommended that the Patent Office be closed because he thought that everything that could possibly be invented had already been invented.

Likewise, the fact that we haven't had much innovation recently is not a testament that we have reached the technological pinnacle, but that companies have eased off and are happy to just milk the punters of their cash.

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Coat

Re: "Crash in much less time"

Perhaps you meant "Crash much less often"?

I says what I means, and I means what I says.

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Holmes

Re: What's missing?

Most console games are not rendered at 1080p,

maybe 720, or using other graphics tricks, but the Video cards in 5 year old consoles were not equipped to play games at that resolution...

Only now over the last year have video cards come down to the prices of $100-150 that can support game play with effects on at those resolutions and maintain playable frame rates. And that is just the Video card price.

If the are running at that resolution, then they are only pulling it off by having terribly low bit-depth on textures, and the like, no anti-aliasing, etc etc to manage it.

Modern games PC's not only run at 1080, but do so with 8-16 Anti aliasing, 8x Anisotropic filtering, shadows and reflections of the entire world being rendered, view distances increased etc,etc

There is a world of difference and it shows that you have not had a chance to see what modern games look like on a new system by your comments and opinion.... I really urge you to go to a buddies house, or view a high end system on display a game expo, high end PC retailer etc (or just buy a new machine for like $1500-1800 and you will see the REMARKABLE difference.

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Re: What's missing?

Good game designers are not resting on their laurels... Maybe WOW hasn't evolved much, but games like Crysis II (a bit on the old side), Half-Life 3 (coming soon), Skyrim, Dishonored, etc are pushing the boundaries.

You really CAN'T play these games on a console... yes I know Skryim was dumbed down a little bit for consoles, but this is easily fixed with the High-Res texture package (all 2GB+ worth) and dozens and dozens of mods/improvements to the game that just AREN'T there for the console. And the very bottom of the barrel graphics version of the game pales in comparison to even the medium/high version of the PC game with a few good effects added on... Add all the effects, use high res and bump up to the ultra quality settings and its like a different game altogether.

DirectX11, PhysX, there are all kinds of new affects and graphical detail that just were not around 4-5 years ago.

I am really expecting EVEN MORE from titles to come out at the end of the year and into the next... Half Life III will hopefully be a game changer, I would not be shocked to see a lot of the old-timer gamers here saying "mmm time to upgrade and give this one try" real soon.

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Re: What's missing?

The industry's production pipelines, expertise, experience, and tools are all geared towards producing games and graphics a certain way. Of course they'll want to "milk" it -- the sunk investment is enormous. Real change will require many of those processes to be tossed out. You want to shoulder the risk for that?

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Happy

Re: What's missing?

I'm well aware of console rendering. The 360 renders at 720p and upscales to 1080, the PS3 is a mixture of the same and natively rendered 1080p.

On the contrary, i've seen the absolute best systems around playing the latest games - water cooled monsters running hex core Intel chips at 4.5GHz and triple SLi pushing out insane frame rates and textures. Yes, they are very pretty, but they aren't doing enough differently than 5 years ago.

The only element of my machine that's been upgraded regularly is the graphics card, which makes teh difference - the article is about heavy iron, the CPU side of things, which *hasn't* advanced enough to warrant a mass upgrade.

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HD video? Good enough for me

For me, if a notebook or PC can play HD video without stuttering, then that's enough for me. I can safely assume that it also cope with all the other routine tasks such as creating/editing spreadsheets and other documents, browsing the web, handling email, etc. A few years back, the HD video issue might have been a constraint in the choice of notebook or PC but one would be hard pressed to find a notebook or PC on the market now that can't manage this. Why pay for a higher spec that I don't need?

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Re: HD video? Good enough for me

"For me, if a notebook or PC can play HD video without stuttering, then that's enough for me."

You can do even better than that. A £25 Raspberry Pi will play HD video without stuttering, and is good enough for bits of web browsing, word processing etc. Total cost about £50 inc wireless keyboard and mouse, plug it up to a TV via HDMI (or to a DVI monitor), no waiting to boot (because it draws so little power you may as well leave it on all the time)... What's the point of spending more?

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Linux

Re: HD video? Good enough for me

A Raspberry PI may or may not be able to handle whatever HD video I have on hand.

What it can handle, it will only be able to handle because it's got special purpose silicon for the task.

If I need to do anything else computational, I will be just plain out of luck.

It's just like cheap ION gear.

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Re: HD video? Good enough for me

Except it makes cheap ION gear look seriously overpriced for the performance you get.

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Linux

Re: HD video? Good enough for me

> Except it makes cheap ION gear look seriously overpriced for the performance you get.

Both the CPU and GPU in an ION run circles around a PI.

It has better video decoding support and enough CPU power to do a lot of decoding in software. If your GPU doesn't support something, you're not completely out of luck.

Atoms only look pathetic next to real x86 CPUs.

Wishful thinking any stinginess only gets you so far.

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Boffin

Shifting Markets...

It would be interesting to do a full-market comparison rather than just looking at the traditional PC market, to get a true picture you'd have to account for Smart Devices (tablets, phones etc.) and Apple kit.

The market has shifted and the market watchers haven't.

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Pint

MMX

In 1997 someone insisted I was such a "loser" because the computer I was using for basic web browsing, email, and typing up my college papers lacked MMX. I have made it a bit of a habit to get one of the lower end machines. I feel happier because of it, knowing that I was ahead of the curve.

TY El Reg, for showing me that I lead, not follow.

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Microsoft

"Chip makers can no longer look to Microsoft to solve the problem by regularly updating its operating system with technology that demands the performance only the latest processors can deliver."

Not only that, but Microsoft have also done chip makers the disservice of making their operating systems good enough that people don't *need* to upgrade to the latest versions, and for a lot of people upgrading the operating system is synonymous with upgrading the hardware.

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Meh

In other news

Pope announces he is catholic and relieved looking bears seen leaving woods...

Having spent a couple of years now differentiating machines by being able to hypothetically do things that most people have no need or interest in doing, the fact that people aren't doing them and so don't need capable machines is surprising?

Web browsing, email and social media stuff hardly take much processor muscle, but are what most people want. Even streamling and media stuff like youTube are more limited by your connection than your processor in most cases...

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