Weird Al’s It’s All About the Pentiums was such a fun song when it came out, and now it’s a beautiful timecapsule into the late 1990s. This part has stuck with me:
My new computer’s got the clocks, it rocks
But it was obsolete before I opened the box
You say you’ve had your desktop for over a week?
Throw that junk away, man, it’s an antique!
Your laptop is a month old, well that’s great
If you could use a nice, heavy paperweight
Remember when this was a thing? The euphoria at discovering how much faster your new computer felt compard to your old one? Then the craving for your next fix when a new machine came out to trounce it less than a year later? It was exciting. People called it planned obselecence; it was really just the tremendous pace of technological progress.
(Perhaps it didn’t feel so agregous back then because you could upgrade things. Even my iBook could have RAM and AirPort/Wi-Fi card update. Smartphones today are sealed units designed to be thrown away).
I remember going from the first machine I built as a kid with a Pentium MMX, to an HP Brio BAx with a Pentium 3, then a blueberry iMac DV with a PowerPC G3, then a DIY tower with an AMD Athlon XP, then an iBook. Each one looked faster on paper, ran games better, and booted Connectix Virtual PC machines more smoothly. But, more importantly, they felt faster. You could feel the money you spent.
Modern machines do better in specific benchmarks, like generating my seven thousand blog posts with Hugo in fewer seconds. But in day to day use, this current MacBook Pro feels no faster than the 2015 or 2012 models I used. This isn’t rose-tinted glasses, I booted and used them before writing this. I could not have said that about the difference between our family PC in 1992, and my iMac in 2000.
We’ve seemingly inked out all the performance improvements we can from silicon, and horribe Electron applications are more than happy to erase a decade of RAM upgrades, performance improvements, and energy efficiency. But it also just comes down to the maturity of the industry. We’ve largely decided what a desktop computer should look like. Even innovative companies like Apple have only been able to think of the widely-panned TouchBar, and a new keyboard mechanism that was a step backwards in accessibility.
(All the innovation in the 2020s is happening on phones, with tablets like the iPad benefitting by proxy. We all know why, but it doesn’t change things for fans of desktop computing).
But there’s a silver lining to all of this. I haven’t bought a new computer since 2006, everything since my first-generation MacBook Pro has been refurbished or second-hand. It doesn’t fulfill my inner child like unboxing a new piece of kit, but I’ve saved thousands of dollars over the years, and perceptively they perform as well as anything I could buy new.
I’ve always supplemented my Macs with second-hand ultraportables, whether they be ThinkPad X series machines, or more recently the Panasonic Let’s Note. They’re cheaper than some dinners I’ve had, and desktop FreeBSD and Linux positively scream on them. In these cases I upgrade not for better performance, but if a newer model is significantly lighter, cuter (cough), or has measurably-better battery life. And for the few times where I need more grunt, I can ship it back to my Microservers at home, or spin up a cloud VM for an hour.
My rational side loves this about contemporary computing. But my inner child longs for the days when personal computers were exciting.