Saturday, July 14, 2007

Are Computers Fast Enough?

Occasionally this has been a topic of conversation. My answer is I don't think so.

Whilst most people I've talked to say most people just word process or surf the internet as the only things the do on a 'computer' and hence computers are fast enough.

I can think of several things that take too long today:
  • Putting home movies onto DVDs - can take a while,
  • Games - require both more CPU speed and more graphics speed, always. There are always limits on what you can do in terms of how it looks and how it plays.
  • Real world simulations - bit more specialised but a huge field where more processing is good.
  • Compiling computer programs - can take between a few seconds and a few hours (for larger programs) for a complete rebuild. Two seconds is too long! Because of increased program and language complexity we have 'lost' some of our speed gains. Additionally some program optimisations are probably not practical because of speed.
There are also more non-obvious things:
  • Robots (see below).
  • Other applications and programs we don't know about. Things like the web on the internet might not have been possible in the successful form we see today because, amongst other things, the computer speed of most peoples computer would not handle the processing required. The same is true of applications that are not viable today.
Robots. Computers are in things like Robots. The mechanics are not really a problem. Yes, there are scope for advances - but things like cars, digger trucks, robot arms, toys, even washing machines and dish washers, show us that we can move things around.So what's missing? Well, for a start the software. But that's sort of hiding one of the problems. Things like vision processing, without taking short cuts for simple problems, require vast amounts of calculation. Without lots of processing power in small packages this won't happen.

Both PC's and even more so embedded microcontrollers have a very limited amount of processing power - even though they tend to be, in the case of PC's at least, perhaps 1000 times more powerful than 20 years ago...

Simplifing slightly, PC computer speed is made up of:
  • Processing power ... raw CPU clock speed, CPU architecture and how many processors you have plus graphics card processing power - this is obviously a specialised processor for a specific job and there are other types of specialised processor.
  • Speed of memory ... this comes in two parts: main memory (RAM) - primary storage, and hard drive speed (secondary storage). I see quite a few applications that are limited by the second not the first!

Comments? What other current applications or tasks on computer aren't fast enough?


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