The noughties were a tumultuous time for PC hardware, despite planes not falling from the sky and entire IT infrastructures not collapsing after the Y2K bug. 3dfx and their famous Voodoo 3D graphics chipsets went the way of the dodo and ATI’s Radeon cards rose to greatness, whilst Pentiums and Athlons went toe-to-toe for CPU market share, and components in general continued their inexorable march towards being smaller, faster, cheaper and better, all in accordance with Moore’s Law.
So how far exactly have things come in the PC world over the last ten years? Just for giggles I had a hunt around some web archives looking for what kind of gaming system you could purchase for around $2,500 NZD at the turn of the millennium, and then compared it to what you could get today for the same amount of money. Here’s what I came up with:
If those model names and numbers don’t mean much to you, here’s a blow-by-blow account of how much dirt the modern rig kicks out of the golden oldie…
Moore’s Law states that transistor count on a cost-effective chip will double approximately every two years, and this rings true enough here as the Core i7 CPU packs a whopping 731 million transistors, over 26 times more than the Pentium’s measly 28 million. This is mainly thanks to each transistor in the modern chip being one quarter of the size and being built more efficiently.
Transistor count isn’t the only measure of performance though as cache size/latency and instruction optimizations also count, amongst many other things. Comparing these two chips is also difficult because modern benchmarks don’t usually work on older hardware, and benchmarks that work on the old stuff provide pretty meaningless results on modern stuff, however I did find some data showing that the Core i7 CPU can compute the same Pi calculation as the PIII just over 9 times faster.
Given that the Pi calculation is a single-threaded piece of work, and Core i7 processors have 4 cores so could technically perform 4 of these calculations simultaneously, I’m going to take an enormous amount of liberty and claim that the modern CPU is 36 times more powerful than the old hamster-on-a-wheel Pentium III.
Graphics Processing Units (aka video cards) have also come a fantastically long way in the last decade. Compared to the GeForce 2 GTS of yore, the behemoth GTX 285 has 16 times the amount of onboard memory, 60 times the amount of processing cores (each running at three times the speed), and 56 times more transistors (well over a billion in total).
All this extra hardware results in 32 times the fillrate (the amount of pixels the card can render per second) and 30 times the memory bandwidth (those pixels need to go somewhere, and fast).
Thanks to the mighty power of these modern cards they can now effortlessly render realistic scenes of, say for example, an entire airport of civilians ready to introduced to your externally-powered 7.62mm multi-barrel machine gun (don’t play Modern Warfare 2 if that last sentence sounds a little appalling to you).
So on the Awesome Scale, I’d say today’s video card outdoes ye olde pixel-pusher by a factor of 30.
Whilst spindle speed hasn’t increased a great deal since Y2K – heck, some drives still spin at 5400RPM – this has been compensated for by the increased storage density of the internal platters of modern hard drives.
You’d be doing well if you could squeeze 15 megabytes per second in to or out of a 10GB drive, whereas today’s 2TB drives barely sneeze at 100MB/s transfer rates and top out somewhere around 138MB/s. And then there are Solid State Drives yet, which can easily clock up to over 200MB/s, and have no moving parts among many other benefits.
On average, you have about 200 times more ones and zeroes, and are pushing them around approximately 9 times faster than what you were ten years ago. Well done you.
It’s hard to get excited about memory. Basically, you either have enough or you don’t. The situation is kind of like the amount of petrol in your car – run low then you’re anxious and panicked and head straight to the gas station to add some more, but when your car is full you’re hardly squealing and laughing about how your lack of petrol is no longer causing you dramas.
Anyway, if RAM was still sold in 128MB sticks like the one in our Pentium system here, you’d need 48 slots full of them to equal the 6GB present in the triple channel Core i7 system. Even then they’d still only transfer data at slightly over 1/50th of the pace. Ho hum, next please…
Lastly, the screen. 17” CRTs were a luxury ten years ago (as opposed to the more common 15”). Graphics designers and wealthy gamers would roll with 19” to 21” screens (with a Sony Trinitron tube if you were a discerning buyer) and only the four richest kings in Europe had anything larger.
And they were bulky. The desk gathering dust in my garage is still bowed in the middle from its years of servitude holding up 20kg of vacuous glass.
1024x768 was the resolution of choice too. Some screens could do higher, but usually only at an eye-bleeding 60Hz refresh rate (most CRT TVs have an even lower refresh rate, but do you sit ~30cm away from your TV?).
Compare that to the modern LCD screen – the widescreen 24” viewable area provides twice the screen real estate, 1920x1200 is 3x the resolution, and 9.6kg (which is pretty heavy by LCD standards) is about half the weight. It’s also only a few centimetres thick and uses less than a third of the power. Yay for progress!
So that’s how far PC hardware has come in one short decade. It’s a pity that “software bloat” seems to have compensated for much of this performance increase. Just imagine if Windows 7 was 30 times faster than Windows 2000!
Now looking forward, where will things be in 2020; 10GHz CPUs with 64 cores? Petabyte hard drives? Let us know what you think.