Replacing my old desktop computer with a new Intel Quad2Core machine this Christmas caused me to muse about the recent developments in PC technology. Almost everything in my new computer is now at least twice as powerful. The screen resolution increased from 1024×768 to 1680×1050, memory from 1.5 GB to 4 GB, hard disk capacity from 150 to 650 GB and processor speed from 1.8 GHz to 2.4 GHz. Moore’s law is still in full swing it seems. This new machine has a 64-bit processor instead of a 32-bit processor. It also has 2 (or 4) processors instead of just one. Unlike doubling memory or hard disk space, the latter is a significant update, because doubling the number of processors or their bit width doesn’t happen that often. It’s sort of a meta-Moore cycle.
16-bit computing was predominant at the beginning of my career. My first computer was an Atari ST 1040 with a 32-bit chip which was somewhat ahead of its time. However, it still had a 16-bit bus system. A few years later I purchased a true 32-bit system which was based on an early generation 386 chip. Processor speed was still measured in double-digit MHz rather than in GHz. It took a few years for operating systems and software to catch up and produce 32-bit versions of application and system software. The transition occurred during the early nineties which means the latest shift from 32-bit to 64-bit computing took at least 15 years, as we are now in a period where 64-bit computing emerges. Currently most PCs are still 32-bit systems, however.
What are consumers going to do with all that processing power? Well, playing games, rendering 3D images, and encoding audio and image data, I suppose. But probably most of the CPU cycles on any personal computer -not only on mine- go to waste in an idle loop. The situation is a bit like having an army that spends most of its time marching around the barracks.