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How Fast Is That Computer?

race-to-the-finishIt’s Sunday morning and some of the flyers in the newspaper implore you to look at the laptop computers they have to offer. You decide to take a look because the family workhorse is starting to act a little geriatric. Even the kids would rather go out and play than use it. Two things stand out immediately.

  • All the laptops look the same
  • All the prices are different

How do you decide which is best for you? You need features. You need capacity. You need speed. You don’t want to depend on the sales staff at the electronics big box store to decide for you. Nor can you understand much in the internet ads on your favorite superstore site. How do you decide?

To me, processor performance is at the top of the list and the best way to know how fast PC-1 is relative to PC-2 are Passmark Scores. Secondly, you need decide what features are most important to you and find a computer that has those features. A simple checklist will do the job. For each PC that looks interesting, how much does it cost and does it have the features you want?  If it has the right feature, check off a little box next to it on your worksheet. The lowest price model with the most check marks wins.

They’re All Pretty Fast, Right?

No, not really. Plus, what do you intend to do with it? Even simple browsing with a decent ad filter can take a lot of processing power to render a screen quickly. Some sites with video render nicely on just about anything. Some require you to transcode (change video formats on the fly from what you are receiving to what your rendering device can display). When that video stutters, it might be because the server can’t support the volume of  other users who are also watching videos or it might be that your processor is overwhelmed with what you are asking of it. In other words, you still need a good processor to do a lot of things.

What Are Passmark Scores?

A Passmark Score is a measure of relative speed. A company named Passmark Software freely makes available a list of relative CPU benchmarks along with benchmark measurements for hard drives, android devices, video devices, and more. The benchmark pages can be displayed in many ways. My personal favorite is the alphabetical CPU benchmark page. It lists thousands of CPUs and allows you to quickly see if the processor in a PC that looks interesting will be a drooling dog or the right tool for the job.

Passmark-01

It’s an easy chart to read and there’s nothing ambiguous about it. It documents thousands upon thousands of processors. While you and others might consider a CPU Passmark score of 3000 to not be materially different from one with 3300, you might step back if one PC has a score of 547 while a similar priced one is ranked at 1627. This is exactly what happened to me recently when I decided on a new laptop.

My Motorola Xoom tablet is a great machine. It has a Tegra-2 dual core processor and a lot of RAM and storage. It’s great for some things and  chokes on other things, primarily web pages with loads of advertising and cutting edge crapola. You can’t download ad blockers from Google Play anymore and, on Android, they didn’t always function well when you could still get them.

I decided to look for a fully powered 11.6″ laptop with competent specs and a minuscule price tag to replace the Xoom. Several were being advertised in the Sunday supplements. Being the best bargain hunter I know, I narrowed it down to 2 machines. Both came from HP. One had an AMD A4-1250 (Passmark 547)  and the other model had an A6-1450 (Passmark 1627). The price for both was in the $300-$350 range. The latter machine obviously won, especially since it had 8GB of RAM, which is a rarity in this market segment. (Over 4GB RAM was on my required features list.) Both had USB 3 ports, HDMI,  and 500GB disk drives. Battery life is close enough to the tablet to consider it a replacement. By rough comparison, the laptop has about the same processor capabilities as an old Core 2 Duo machine I used for many years before its demise a couple of years ago.

My new PC is also a Windows 8 refurb. So was another one I purchased last year. Both were offered at steep discount, although the newest one was doubly blessed by being a manufacturer refurb with Windows 8 (as opposed to Windows 8.1) on it. The discount was large. I updated it online to Windows 8.1, added a free copy of Classic Shell to provide the computer interface Nature intended, and it works great.

Note to bargain hunters: If you’re looking for a new pc, you should seriously consider a manufacturer refurbished Windows 8 machine. Yes, the Win 8 interface is wretched and detrimental to everyday computing, but Classic Shell fixes that for free. You need to know minimal  things about Windows 8, and only enough to get you back to Classic Shell. I suspect a lot of people freak out after experiencing the Windows 8 interface and send their new PC back for a refund. The savings is your gain.

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