John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · Saturday 21 February 2004
Ten Years of Hardware Evolution
Today, as part of my effort to build my next generation PC, I bought Stephen Bigelow's "PC Hardware Desk Reference".(2003) Skimming through this compendium of copper and silicon made me realize just how far PCs have come since I started programming around 1990. The current book on hardware on my shelves before this purchase was Hans-Peter Messmer's "The Indispensable PC Hardware Book" (1993). With these two books at hand it occurs to me I can make some interesting comparisons.

PCs are more powerful than they were ten years ago, but different parts of the PC have evolved at different rates. For example, we can divide the I/O flows of a PC into clock rate, bus speed, memory access speed, hard drive throughput, serial port throughput and video bandwidth for starters. An interesting question is to quantify by how much each of these performance points has changed over the last ten years. After perusing my books here is a table summarizing the results for a typical PC of each era:

                                 1983                     2003
           Component     Technology/Speed          Technology/Speed     Change
           CPU clock      i486 50 MHz               P4 2400 MHz          x 48
           memory         DRAM 50 MHz               DDR SDRAM 400 MHz    x 8
           video bus      PCI 30 MB/s               AGP 4X 1.06 GB/s     x 35
           drive bus      IDE 700 KB/s              UDMA 133 Mbytes/s    x 190
           serial port    UART 16450 19.2 Kbits/s   USB 10 Mbits/s       x 520
These are meant to be typical values, not cutting edge performance, for each time period. From the table you can see that the biggest gains have been made in the peripherals area. If you consider USB 2.0 (480 Mbits/s) to be typical the gains on the serial interface are extreme (X 25,000+). Hard drives today are about as fast as memory was ten years ago. Memory has made the least gains, but this may change in the next ten years if optical memories become practical. One thing to note about the video performance is that throughput does not tell the whole story. With video memory and on-board rendering video performance has increased significantly more than the throughput multiple.

Overall I think it is fair to say that PCs today are a hundred times more powerful at perhaps a third of the cost. The effect of this on the economy is hard to measure but it surely must be part of Greenspan's "productivity bonus". Now we just need another hundred times multiple to get out of the current downturn.

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