excellence?

When I first got interested in computing in the fall of 1992, the advances came quick and were obvious. My 386/25 (the ’25’ referred to megahertz) was already on the slow side; there were 486 computers running at 25 megahertz, then faster and finally topping out – I’m doing this from memory – at 66 megahertz.

Then it was on to the Pentium and the Pentium II and III and graphics cards that not only got faster and more able, but got faster at a faster pace. For a long while, everything about computing was like that – the hard part was figuring out when to spend your money on new parts for the tower you were endlessly upgrading. Timing was everything.

Now, not so much.

I’ve been putting off getting a new computer for months. This goes back to last year, when I bought a well-used Lenovo ThinkPad T-420 off ebay for $250. My problem with most laptops is the keyboard; only T series ThinkPads and some Dell Latitudes are really fit for extended writing, but both are pricey when bought new, so I buy used and hope for the best.

I like my ThinkPad a lot – aside from the keyboard, it has spectacular battery life for a circa-2011 machine – but out of the box it wasn’t perfect. Mostly, getting from boot to usable was a study in patience, easily three minutes to get to the desktop in Windows 10 and then get Outlook and Firefox open, though once everything was up and running for the first time it was fine. But having shopped laptops off and on for months, I knew there wasn’t anything else out there for less than $800-$1,000 which would satisfy me – and it would probably be more, especially if I bought a Mac.

And besides, I just don’t feel like switching. Maybe I’m getting old, but starting over with a new computer has lost most of its charm, and that’s even though I store a lot of my data in the cloud and use various programs to make my passwords and bookmarks portable from machine to machine. Migrating to a new machine has never been easier in a practical sense, but emotionally it’s another story: I’m used to my ThinkPad. I know what the travel feels like on the keyboard. I’ve trained myself not to hit the weird little folder key and lose everything on the screen. Even the track pad, which is balky under Win 10, is a familiar problem, something to navigate around, not a deal breaker.

But the boot up, and the general slowness, well, that’s a problem. Understand, this computer has a second generation I5 running at 2.5 gigahertz for an engine, so it’s not underpowered. And it has four gigs of memory, more than enough to run the Windows 7 it came with, more than enough to run 10 now.

So before I gave up on the machine, I decided to try an experiment. I went to my local Best Buy over the weekend and bought some more memory and more importantly, a solid state drive. It took a couple of days – I had to order a drive enclosure from Amazon so that I could clone the hard drive to the solid state – but when it was done, I had a much, much faster, more responsive computer. Boot time to usable desktop (I can open Firefox) is under 40 seconds, and even Outlook opens in 10-15 seconds. Photoshop opens and is ready in under 10 seconds.

What strikes me is this: the laptop in question is nearly four years old. But with two exceptions – screen resolution is 1366 x 768 and there is no USB 3 – this machine is subjectively the equal of something bought new today, more or less. (And back when the T420 was new, you could buy it with a better screen, and critics complained about the lack of USB 3, which was already finding its way onto other laptops.) Certainly there are no obvious computation tasks from which it would be excluded that other, more recent vintage laptops could do.

Back when I got interested in computing, four years was an eternity. Obviously, progress is still being made; the fifth generation core chips sip power at levels the i5 in this machine can’t touch. System on a chip technology  continues to make more possible at lower cost, both in dollars and power consumption. Screens are much better and the number of ports on a machine is slowly being reduced.

Yet none of this feels like the kind of leaps we saw 20 years ago; there is little new under the sun, even as what we have is slowly, steadily improved. I guess we’re approaching with computing the condition Stephen Jay Gould wrote about in Full House, the spread of excellence. In technology, a whole lot of things got a whole lot more competent in a short amount of time, which had the effect of not so much leveling off progress as leveling it up. Things generally get better.

Even in the one area that has seen huge change in just under a decade, smartphones and tablets, it’s worth pointing out that as spectacularly new as those devices seemed at first, they a.) quickly became part, if not the dominant fact, of the computing mainstream and b.) progress in both phones and tablets, while rapid, has followed roughly the same path as older computers. There was the breakthrough device, the iPhone, followed by a period of rapid growth in both the Apple and Android platforms as Android attempted to catch up, followed by feature parity, followed by mature growth from both platforms.

All this strikes me as good, on balance. We won’t see any more spectacular advances in conventional computing, I think (although I heard we might get 10 terabyte solid state drives in a year, which would be impressive), but it will keep getting better, in some combination of smaller, faster, cheaper. More than enough to keep us busy while we wait for bio-computing or quantum computing or nano-computing (aren’t we almost there on the chips?) or whatever not thought of yet comes next.

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