February 1st, 2007

#249: My laptop.

...I wish I'd bought a different one.

My laptop (LT) is a Compaq Presario 1230. It's one of the reasons why I won't buy any PC-compatible computer that doesn't use an Intel processor. It's the main reason why I will never buy another Compaq computer.

In 1998 I thought Compaq was pretty good. Coming, as I had, out of an 8-year career as a PC hardware technician I thought I had a pretty good grasp of what computers were good and which ones were not; I had never seen a Compaq that sucked. In fact, the laptops which I had consistently drooled over were Compaq laptops--their LTE-286 was the first one, and it was a honey of a machine; and later, their LTE-386 looked even better. I got my PC hardware start working for Sears Business Centers as a configuration tech, and I'd had a chance to "test drive" a lot of different computers.

In 1998, then, I got my LT. It ran Windows 98 and it could run the various word processors that I used; and since its primary role was "word processing" that was all right.

But the thing never had much battery life; and as time went on it became pretty clear that the thing was pretty much a dog if you wanted to do anything more complex than put words on paper.

I even scrubbed the hard drive down and did a totally clean install of the OS in a vain attempt to fix the performance woes--but nothing helped.

It had 32 MB of RAM--that was par-for-the-course in 1998--and a few GB of hard drive. I bumped the memory as far as it would go--96 MB, total--and eliminated as much extraneous crap from the boot process as I could. It helped, marginally.

You see, here is the problem with that particular computer: it uses a Cyrix processor.

Now, again--in 1998--I had nothing against Cyrix. I had built myself a computer that used a Cyrix processor; it had given near-486 performance for a 386 price. It was a pretty good compromise and it saved me some money, and worked flawlessly for years. So, when I was buying, I figured, "Hey, that other Cyrix processor was really good!"

Wrong!

The processor in my LT is a Cyrix Media GX processor running at 233 MHz. 233 MHz, in 1998, was reasonable without being cutting edge. The clock speed wasn't the problem.

The problem is that the Cyrix Media GX processor does not only handle the processing tasks; it also handles processing for the sound interface and the video interface. Hence the word "Media" in the name of the stupid thing.

In 1987, the Commodore Amiga was a ground-breaking computer. It introduced the average computer hobbyist to the idea of coprocessors--not just for handling floating-point calculations, but for all sorts of tasks. It took I/O tasks, for example, off the CPU's hands, and gave them to a coprocessor. It took the audio tasks and handed them to a coprocessor. Another coprocessor handled the video system. The coprocessors were optimized for their tasks; and it was all handled seamlessly so that the CPU could concentrate on what it did best, which was crunching numbers, executing programs, and telling the coprocessors what to work on.

So much work was off-loaded to the coprocessors that the Amiga--in 1987!--could multi-task like no other personal computer in the world. And this model for computing was so successful that it ended up evolving its way into other computer systems, such as Macs and PCs.

These days you can't find a PC that doesn't at least have a graphics coprocessor in it. The computer I'm using now has a relatively low-end video card with a GPU (graphics processing unit!) and its own dedicated memory, 64 MB worth. Most decent sound cards also have their own processors.

The end result is that the CPU and the OS only have to tell the coprocessors what to do; as long as they follow the right software conventions, they can leave the how up to the coprocessors. (This is what device drivers are for--so that the CPU and OS know how to tell the devices what to do.)

My LT, however--with its stupid Cyrix Media GX processor--does things the old way, by loading most of the I/O, video, and sound computations onto the main processor. So what does this mean?

It means that whenever I want to do anything more complex than put words on a page, the computer is struggling to funnel video, sound, I/O, and basic program execution through one narrow little 32-bit pipe, which isn't running all that damned fast to begin with.

The CD-ROM drive in that LT is nominally a 20x drive, but it never comes close to that speed, ever. I can play Doom and even Doom II on it, but anything more complex makes it crash or slow to a dead crawl. And last night I tried to look at some PDFs with big image files--and it was excruciatingly slow.

Any time you use the mouse, guess what? The computer slows down because the CPU has to read the mouse port. Want to scroll through a document while downloading e-mail? Your download speed will decrease because the CPU has to run the modem--yeah, that's extra-bright, isn't it? Put a firkin' software modem into a computer with an already-overloaded CPU.

The Presario 1230 was meant to be a "budget laptop"; it was not meant to be top-of-the-line. Yet it was priced only two hundred dollars less than its big brother, which had a real Intel Pentium II processor running at 266 MHz.

I'm willing to accept my own culpability in this--I should have done a little more homework--but I heard two names I trusted: "Compaq" and "Cyrix". Neither had ever steered me wrong before; I'd been very happy with both companies' products.

Well, so I learned a rather harsh lesson, and to this day I won't buy any more Compaq products; and I insist on "Intel inside". Live and learn.