Moore's Law proves true: More is always on tap in computers

July 08, 2004|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Iran into Moore's Law this week, and I'm glad it's still on the books.

A theory rather than a real statute, it was named after Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, who predicted back in 1965 that the number of transistors that engineers could cram onto a silicon chip would double every 18 months or so for the foreseeable future.

In real terms, he meant raw computing power would double -- or conversely, that the cost of raw computing would drop by 50 percent every 1 1/2 years.

So far, Moore has been right. I learned just how right he was last week when the power supply in the personal computer I use at home flaked out and fried the motherboard -- the main circuit board that does the real work.

Both components, it turned out, were proprietary -- meaning replacement parts were grossly overpriced. Having a shop fix the machine would have cost almost as much as buying a new one. Doing the work myself would have involved many hours, if not days, of hassle, reassembling everything and trying to replace all the old drivers.

So I went shopping and found a midrange computer -- not the hottest machine on the market (the kind that requires liquid nitrogen cooling) but one with enough horsepower for anything short of hard-core gaming and pro-level video generation, neither of which is on my agenda.

The bill for the unit (I didn't need a monitor) came to just over $700. Coincidentally, that was how much I paid for my first computer -- almost 21 years ago.

The original machine, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer, was a one-piece box with 16K (that's kilobytes) of memory, a chiclet keyboard and a processor that hummed along at just under 1 MHz. It was designed to hook up to a TV set, with a 32-character video display generator that was limited to capital letters. My budget wasn't big enough to cover a floppy disk drive ($400 extra at the time), so I settled for a tape recorder to store data.

It sounds pretty crude, and it was. But I thought it was magic because it did what I hired it to do -- enable me to write stories at home and send them into The Sun's computer system.

Now let's look at the new $700 PC. It has a processor that runs at 3 GHz, roughly 3,000 times as fast as the old one. It has 512 megabytes of memory, or 32,000 times as much as the old machine. Its hard drive can store 160 gigabytes of data, or roughly a million times as much as a single floppy disk of that era (if I'd been able to afford the drive).

The new machine doesn't have a floppy drive, either -- although I can buy one for about $15. That's because today's floppies, which store about nine times as much as those old ones, aren't big enough to be useful anymore.

Instead, the new computer has a DVD writer and a CD/ROM drive, along with slots for memory cards that store data for digital cameras, music players and other gadgets that didn't exist back then.

While the old machine could play one note at a time through its beeper, the new machine has a sound card that can play high-fidelity CDs and digital audio files, or reproduce an entire orchestra from scratch. Though it's low-end by today's standards, the new PC's video adapter can display 16 million colors, compared with the eight that gave the Color Computer its name.

It took about five minutes to transmit a story over the 300-baud modem that came with that PC. Today, with a high-speed Internet connection, it takes about three seconds -- mostly Internet overhead.

So you get the idea. But here's the real kicker -- inflation has lowered the cost of computing power even further. In fact, in 1983 dollars, my new computer cost only $368. All things considered, not a bad deal.

In a recent column on PCs for college students, I suggested buying a "student" copy of Microsoft Office for $150. That brought e-mail from a mother with two kids at Midwestern universities.

It turned out that their schools had made a deal with Microsoft that allowed students to "check out" pre-activated copies of Microsoft Office for a copying charge of $5 per CD, or $20 for the whole shebang.

Looking around, I found other schools with similar arrangements, although the terms of the licenses varied. Some were more generous than others about allowing copies on a home PC as well as a school computer. Most required a student ID -- or billed the charge directly to student accounts.

Not all campuses offer these bulk licensing arrangements, but if you're sending a student off to school with a new PC, check with the college computing center before you buy software from retail stores. You could save a bundle.

If you're in the habit of ignoring Microsoft's automated announcements of security flaw patches -- or your computer isn't set up to check for Windows updates automatically -- this is a good time to pay attention.

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