Things that change, things that don't

Originally published 2007 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


There's a widely copied piece of writing by one Richard Murnane called "The Power User's Guide To Power Users".

It is, in brief, about wankers and their computers. It's funny. Go and read it. I'll wait.

The sentiment of The Power User's Guide has remained perfectly valid since it was written more than fifteen years ago, but most of the statistics of the computers described therein are, of course, now ridiculously low.

The example of an outrageously overpowered computer bought by the pompous idiot of the title is, for instance, a "130MHz 80586 PS/4 with 100Mb RAM and a 5 gigabyte optical drive".

The actual state-of-the-art CPU at the time, when you could still spend $10,000 on a high-spec business box, was the 50MHz 486DX. The DX2 wouldn't be along until 1992; it was the first ever CPU to use the "clock doubling" technology that led to the modern age of slow-bus, fast-core x86 machines.

In 1991, though, Windows hadn't even hit v3.1 yet, and the amazing 386-punishing graphics of Wolfenstein 3D were a year away, too.

The reference to an "optical drive" wasn't talking about CD or DVD-ROM, because CD writing in 1991 was still very exotic technology that a "Power User" could not possibly figure out. Magneto-optical drives of different kinds were the best bulk storage option for the money-no-object set at the time; they had more capacity than the SyQuest and Iomega Bernoulli cartridge drives of the time, and they were tougher than the temperamental-yet-popular SyQuest hard-platter cartridges, too.

Gigabyte-class hard drives didn't quite exist yet. 1Gb SCSI drives made it to retail shelves in late 1991, but they cost about $US1500 a pop.

These days, Dell will sell you a two thousand megahertz Sempron box with a 160 gigabyte hard drive and 512Mb of RAM (but no monitor) for a lousy $US359, and the worst thing about it is that its half-gigabyte of memory isn't really enough.

So that's, what, factor of 15, five and 32 differences between the CPU clock, RAM and disk specs of a laughably overpowered fantasy computer then, and a cheap and nasty box today.

The example of a monster monitor, though, is a "4096 x 4096, 12 billion colour hyper-VGA video display".

We've pretty much got the zillions of colours (12 billion colours would actually be something like 33.5 bits, but you couldn't tell the difference between that and the 24/32 bit colour that's normal today), but we ain't got 4096 by 4096. Display devices are one of those technologies, like batteries, that's not improving nearly as quickly as almost everything else.

LCDs are all very nice and flicker-free and skinny, but they haven't boosted resolution a whole lot.

The current consumer-market god-monitors are the 30-inch 2560 by 1600 behemoths you used to only be able to get from Apple, then from Apple and Dell, and now under a few other brands - though the actual panels in those monitors are only made by a couple of companies, at most.

Those screens have slightly less than a quarter of the pixel count of a 4096 by 4096 screen.

But the 30-inchers are already bumping up against the maximum bandwidth of dual link DVI. Dual DVI can go all the way up to 3840 by 2400 - more than half of the pixel count of a 4096 by 4096 pixel screen - but only at a 33Hz refresh rate. That's adequate for movies (as long as you sync the frames up correctly) but not for games. And that's as far as DVI goes.

HDMI may make it to higher maximum bandwidth in the future, but at the moment it's no better than dual DVI.

(And no, D-connector RGB wouldn't cut it either even at only 60Hz.)

So I wouldn't touch the Power User's $15,000-in-'91 PC with a bargepole today. Its stats aren't good enough for a Win2000 business box, let alone a general purpose desktop.

But I still want his monitor.

Other columns

Learning to love depreciation

Overclockers: Get in early!

Stuff I Hate

Why Macs annoy me

USB: It's worth what you pay

"Great product! Doesn't work!"

The virus I want to see

Lies, damned lies and marketing

Unconventional wisdom

How not to e-mail me

Dan's Quick Guide to Memory Effect, You Idiots

Your computer is not alive

What's the point of robot pets?

Learning from spam

Why it doesn't matter whether censorware works

The price of power

The CPU Cooler Snap Judgement Guide

Avoiding electrocution

Video memory mysteries

New ways to be wrong

Clearing the VR hurdles

Not So Super

Do you have a license for that Athlon?

Cool bananas

Getting rid of the disks

LCDs, CRTs, and geese

Filling up the laptop

IMAX computing

Digital couch potatoes, arise!

Invisible miracles

Those darn wires

Wossit cost, then?

PFC decoded

Cheap high-res TV: Forget it.


Dan Squints At The Future, Again

The programmable matter revolution

Sounding better

Reality Plus™!

I want my Tidy-Bot!

Less go, more show

In search of stupidity

It's SnitchCam time!

Power struggle

Speakers versus headphones

Getting paid to play

Hurdles on the upgrade path

Hatin' on lithium ion

Wanted: Cheap giant bit barrel

The screen you'll be using tomorrow

Cool gadget. Ten bucks.

Open Sesame!

Absolutely accurate predictions

The truth about everything

Burr walnut computing

Nothing new behind the lens

Do it yourself. Almost.

The quest for physicality

Tool time

Pretty PCs - the quest continues

The USB drive time bomb

Closer to quietness

Stuff You Should Want

The modular car

Dumb smart houses

Enough already with the megapixels

Inching toward the NAS of our dreams

Older than dirt

The Synthetics are coming


Game Over is nigh

The Embarrassingly Easy Case Mod

Dumb then, smart now

Fuel cells - are we there yet?

A PC full of magnets

Knowledge is weakness

One Laptop Per Me

The Land of Wind, Ghosts and Minimised Windows

Things that change, things that don't

Water power

Great interface disasters

Doughnut-shaped universes

Grease and hard drive change

Save me!

Impossible antenna, only $50!

I'm ready for my upgrade

The Great Apathetic Revolution

Protect the Wi-Fi wilderness!

Wi-Fi pirate radio

The benign botnet

Meet the new DRM, same as the old DRM

Your laptop is lying to you

Welcome to super-surveillance

Lemon-fresh power supplies


Internet washing machines, and magic rip-off boxes

GPGPU and the Law of New Features

Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?

We're all prisoners of game theory

I think I'm turning cyborg-ese, I really think so

Half an ounce of electrons

Next stop, clay tablets

A bold new computer metaphor

Won't someone PLEASE think of the hard drives?!

Alternate history

From aerial torpedoes to RoboCars

How fast is a hard drive? How long is a piece of string?

"In tonight's episode of Fallout 4..."

How hot is too hot?

Nerd Skill Number One

What'll be free next?

Out: Hot rods. In: Robots.

500 gig per second, if we don't get a flat

No spaceship? No sale.

The shifting goalposts of AI

Steal This Education

Next stop: Hardware piracy

A hundred years of EULAs

The triumph of niceness

The daily grind

Speed kings


Game crazy

Five trillion bits flying in loose formation

Cannibalise the corpses!

One-note NPCs

Big Brother is watching you play

Have you wasted enough time today?

The newt hits! You die...

Stuck in the foothills

A modest censorship proposal

In Praise of the Fisheye


The death of the manual

Of magic lanterns, and MMORPGs

When you have eliminated the impossible...

Welcome to dream-land

Welcome to my museum

Stomp, don't sprint!

Grinding myself down

Pathfinding to everywhere

A deadly mouse trap

If it looks random, it probably isn't

Identical voices and phantom swords


Socialised entertainment

Warfare. Aliens. Car crashes. ENTERTAINMENT!

On the h4xx0ring of p4sswordZ

Seeing past the normal

Science versus SoftRAM

Righteous bits

Random... ish... numbers

I get letters

Money for nothing

Of course you'd download a car. Or a gun!

A comforting lie

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)