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Performance In Perspective
How important is performance to you? Important enough to spend $10,000 on a PC? Oh, not that important. :^) Well, most people would agree; I've certainly never spent even half that much on a personal system. Yet there are situations and applications for which $10,000 is justified for a single machine.
Does it really come down to spending more money to get more performance? It's not strictly the case that performance is proportional to the amount of money you spend: if this were the case you couldn't get a better or worse deal on a PC, all you'd have to pay attention to was the bottom line. But at the same time, it is true that if you want higher performance, you have to pay for it. You can't expect a $1,000 PC to have the performance of a $5,000 PC, all else being equal. If you want or need more speed, you generally have to pay for it, or trade it off against other attributes of the PC.
The fact that more money yields more performance also has a converse of course: more performance means more money. This is the driving force behind the tremendous focus on performance on the part of PC manufacturers and vendors: they make more profit on higher-end machines than cheaper ones. Performance is the most discussed, most worried-over, and unsurprisingly, most over-rated characteristic of the PC world as a result. Take a look at advertising for PC systems or components and this is immediately evident: performance attributes are what manufacturers and vendors believe sell PCs. They are usually right, and companies can't succeed trying to sell things that customers don't want.
Some vendors and manufacturers go beyond simply trying to convince you that you "need" the highest-performance PCs: they resort to fallacies and what could almost be called outright lies. A well-known chip manufacturer--that shall remain nameless--has been trying for ages to convince PC buyers that they need the fastest CPUs imaginable to "unlock the power of the Internet" or some such. In fact, most PCs sit around waiting for the Internet, not the other way around; I happily accessed the Internet from a 386 laptop for years. It's true that a faster machine enables certain Internet-based applications to run faster, but for most people Internet speed is unrelated to PC speed--the connection to the 'net is what counts. If you want Internet speed, a Pentium 166 with a cable modem will knock the socks off a 1000 MHz Pentium III running a 56k modem.
Similarly, businesses are always being told about the great productivity gains they will get from "higher performance" PCs. In almost every case, these companies would get more productivity improvement from systems that were more reliable, not more fast. Buying the latest, fastest hardware for someone who uses his or her PC primarily for spreadsheets and writing memos is like buying a Ferrari for someone whose primary vehicle use is commuting to work in rush hour traffic.
I don't want to leave you with the impression that PC system performance is not important; it most certainly is. This is particularly the case when you need to run demanding applications such as graphics software, compilers, or 3D games. You don't want to buy a PC that is "gutless", as the expression goes. All else being equal, more performance is better, provided that you will make use of it. If you need a significant level of performance from your PC, make sure that you do get it.
But how much performance do you really need? There's no simple answer to this question. As with most things, the goal to aim for is balance, matching your needs to the capabilities of the machine without over-spending. Read the other pages in this section to help you understand the various issues associated with PC performance. Consult your budget, determine your priorities, and make a decision you are comfortable with. If nothing else, keep in mind when shopping that performance is not your only priority, and you'll be better off than most PC shoppers. And also remember that most PCs can be upgraded later on if your need for performance increases.