How fast is fast enough?

Friday after work I picked up a new laptop. It’s one of the just released MacBook Pros with the “real” i7 processors (i.e. 4 cores, multi-threaded). In addition to an 8Gig memory upgrade, I had them replace the DVD drive with a 128Gig SSD to hold the core OS and applications. For the few times when I might still need a DVD burner, the old drive was placed in an external USB enclosure. I must say, being able to easily get these kinds of aftermarket mods done is one of the reasons why I shop at Carbon Computing rather than the Apple Store.

After playing with the new machine for a weekend, I can categorically state that it is everything I had hoped for. It boots from power on to desktop in < 20 seconds; apps start before the dock icon can complete its first bounce; WoW was above 80fps most of the time [low: 55fps; high: >150]; It’s awesome.

I actually had a spare copy of Windows 7 lying around that I never got time to install under Parallels on the old laptop. When I installed it on this one I could give it 2 dedicated processors and 3 Gig of RAM without even noticing any performance impact. Seriously, the machine appears to run as well with Parallels running as without.

But here’s the thing… The apps themselves don’t actually seem much faster. Even on my old laptop, for anything other than a hardcore developer task (like doing a full build of a product plus running the test suites), as often as not the rendering/processing power of the machine wasn’t the limiting factor. In this connected world we live in, if I’m waiting for something it’s usually a remote server, either on the internet or some network shared device, not my local machine.

In general, I believe we’re well past the point where machines needed to run at 100% to simply render the UI fast enough, with the one exception perhaps being gaming. Even there it seems that we’re reaching a point of diminishing returns: Is that extra bit of motion blur and depth of field processing really making the game more fun?

For the average person’s use case — reading mail, browsing the internet, editing files, and playing Farmville — an iPad 2 (with a BT keyboard) will be every bit as useful as my laptop. Heck, even a $300 netbook will do the job.

So is that it? Do we need machines to be faster? Not until we discover how to put the performance to some use more interesting than making the windows jiggle when you move them [yes, Linux I’m looking at you]. I’ve tried to think of possibilities here, but to me the most interesting directions appear to be data driven, again making the speed of your internet connection more interesting than your CPU. I guess we’ll see.

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