Learning to love depreciation

Originally published 2001 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


One of the best, and one of the worst, things about computer hardware is that it depreciates about as fast as prawns. Don't like that price tag? Come back next month, it'll be lower. Never mind exchange rates and earthquakes in Taipei; overall, prices fall, and you never have to wait long for it to happen.

The down side, of course, is that the reason things get cheaper so fast is that newer and better things keep coming out. It's an arms race. And so PC hardware buyers have to trade off techno-lust against financial probity.

If you bought a GeForce2 GTS graphics card when they were brand new, you paid $AU700. A year later, you paid $AU450. Nowadays, the low price on Pricewatch for 32Mb GeForce2 cards of various flavours is down around $US60.

There's another reason to buy things later, rather than sooner, though.

Hopping on the new-technology bandwagon at the first opportunity often leaves you with v1.0 of whatever the widget is. People who elect to save money by waiting a year before they buy the same widget actually, often, don't buy the same widget. They get the superior v2.0. Or a different-but-similar widget that works better.

A lot of people who managed to resist the urge to spend big bucks on a GeForce2 GTS, for instance, ended up buying a GeForce2 MX instead. Very similar core, slower memory, much cheaper. And very nearly as good as the GTS if you don't have a huge monitor; ultra-fast RAM only really matters in very high resolutions, and no GeForce2 can do Full Screen Anti-Aliasing fast enough for the effective resolution multiplication that FSAA causes to be an issue.

Consider, also, the frantic charge by the wallet-brandishing forces of the Queen's Own Early Adopters to get themselves a Pentium 4. Not much of a charge, I grant you, because much cheaper P-III and Athlon systems give the P4 a serious run for its money for desktop computer tasks. But those that bought an early P4 got a motherboard and processor using the Socket 423 interface, known to its friends as PGA423.

When Intel rolled out the "Northwood" P4, they switched to Socket 478, also known as mPGA478. Northwood P4s run faster and cooler than the original "Willamette" P4, but you can't run them on Socket 423.

Whether Intel can hit their P4 roadmap targets is a matter for rather boring debate, but even if they do, 2GHz is probably the fastest P4 you're ever going to plug into a Socket 423 motherboard. Then, it's Northwood all the way.

AMD CPU users aren't exempt from this sort of thing. I originally wrote this column, for Atomic magazine, on a 700MHz Athlon-powered machine. But that was a Slot A CPU, and I couldn't upgrade it. The original 1GHz Athlon was Slot A, and were 1.3GHz Athlons on the market when I wrote this piece. But the 1.3GHz chips were Socket A, and there was and is no "slotket" adapter to use the newer CPUs on the older motherboards. Now I'm touching this piece up on a Socket A box.

Examples of this sort of thing are rife throughout PC history. There are still plenty of P-II computers around, for instance, that were bought when the P-II was the hot new thing (and, like the P4, not actually very good value for money). They have early AGP-and-USB motherboards which can't use any half-decent 3D card, because the AGP voltage regulator's not beefy enough.

Buy later, buy cheaper, buy better.

Now you'll have to excuse me. A nice man from the ad sales department's turned up with a cricket bat, for some reason.

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