The inexorable bang-per-buck conveyor belt

While I was packing away after last month’s CPU Megatest, I came across an old Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 955, left over from a previous Labs. It runs at a blazing 3.46GHz, and when we reviewed it back in Issue 146 it was one of the fastest processors around. At around £650, it was also one of the most expensive.


I was curious to see how well this veteran CPU had aged (and it’s not like I had anything else to do this week), so I dropped it into our testing rig and kicked off the benchmarking process. A few hours later, the results were in: the Pentium Extreme Edition 955 had scored 1.19. That’s far from disgraceful, but today, you can get a CPU that achieves that sort of score for as little as £90. To put that into context, I’ve tweaked our CPU graph (click for full-sized version) to show how the 955 would fit into the mainstream market if it were launched today.

If you take any sort of interest in computing – and let’s face it, you’re reading the PC Pro blog – you’ll have seen similar scenarios play out many times before. I remember my father paying £100 (around £350 in today’s money) for our first family computer, a Sinclair ZX-80. A year later, the ZX81 appeared, costing half as much and bringing numerous technological advances, including floating point arithmetic and a screen that didn’t go blank every time you pressed newline.

A more recent example: three months ago, I reviewed the Samsung 1TB Spinpoint F hard disk. I liked the drive, but felt that at £185 it was too expensive. Today that drive is selling for £96. Now it looks like a bargain – but of course in another few months we’ll be looking back at the days when we used to pay £100 for a terabyte drive and laughing at how naïve we were.*

So when I realised that some sucker had probably actually shelled out £600+ for the deeply average processor sitting before me, my first instinct was to feel bad for him.**

But although the constant downward procession of prices can seem profoundly depressing when it catches you out, in reality it’s a wonderful thing. Because it means the horizons of what you can do at a given price point are constantly expanding. Of course, it’s a gradual process: maybe next month a £699 PC will raise the performance ante by a few percent, or a Blu-ray burner will come along that’s £5 cheaper than the last one. But over time these small cumulative increments open up whole new avenues of creativity and productivity. Case in point: ten years ago, real-time non-linear video editing was a high-end specialist application. Today, my girlfriend does it on her laptop.

Of course, all this isn’t much help when you’re actually buying, say, a CPU or a graphics card. Unless you go for a real pocket-money model to start with, you just have to accept that, a few months down the line, you’ll be able to get the same part, or a comparable one, for less.

But the thing to remember is that, whatever may happen in the future, at the moment you put down your cash you’ll be getting more for that money than at any previous point in history. Where once £650 would only buy you a Pentium Extreme Edition, it’ll now get you a Core 2 Extreme. And what my father once paid for a ZX-80, adjusted for inflation, will buy you not only a fully-featured 15.4in laptop, but also a copy of Vista to run on it, giving you a range of useful features that even the ZX81 never equalled.

Put it like that and a few hundred quid here or there suddenly doesn’t seem like a screw-over. In fact, it looks like a very small price to pay.

* Seriously, PC Pro is a great place to work.
** And I know how it feels. I have, in my time, paid £550 for a 19in TFT monitor, £120 for a DVD writer and £150 for a damn FireWire card.

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