Friday, May 19, 2006

The drive for space

As those who have seen the realisation of Moore's Law know, the capabilities of computers have grown at a massive rate; but are we using these advantages to their full potential?

I remember the days...

I bought my very first Apple Mac setup in the summer of 1997: the machine was the third most powerful that Apple made at the time, and cost a horrendous amount. It was certainly true, in those far-off days, that Apple Macs were far more expensive than their WinTel counterparts, but this was partly because Macs used high-quality components.

Of the various things, the most notable were the SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) hard drives; these were notable because they were one of the main features that gave Macs their edge in the graphics industry. They had far shorter seek times, spun faster and the SCSI bus had a far higher throughput rate than the rival ATA drives; this was particularly useful since Photoshop uses hard-drive space as a type of “virtual RAM” (operating memory) and so the faster the drives, the more smoothly Photoshop runs.

However, SCSI drives have one massive disadvantage: the cost. I recently bought a 160 GB Ultra-ATA internal hard drive for £40 (ex VAT): a SCSI drive of 147 GB costs £240 (ex VAT). Once Apple made the leap to ATA drives, the machines became considerably cheaper, and hard drive capacities increased (the Photoshop performance decrease was offet by faster chips and cheaper RAM).

My original Mac had a 2.1 GB hard drive: now my main hard drive is 80 GB.

Spacial conundrums

And it is not enough. My second drive (120 GB) is nearly full, and soon my files will spill over onto the two extra 160 GB drives that I have installed. Sure, I work in print: my files are huge, but that is not the issue: the problem is with the size of the applications.

At the present time, I have fewer applications than on my first system, and yet my Applications folder and the attendent Application Support folder total 14 GB, seven times the size of the hard drive on my original Mac! My old System Folder is about 350 MB: the new one is 1.2 GB, three and a half times bigger.

Hard drive space has increased, and the cost per megabyte has dropped enormously, especially for Mac users: but are we really making the best use of this space? Or is it, in fact, the case that those writing the code are becoming sloppier; are applications becoming “bloatware”?

The same sort of thing is happening in terms of RAM (Random Access Memory). This too has become much cheaper, and yet useage has increased exponentially. My original Mac had 64 MB of RAM, my main one is now runnning 1.5 GB and I know that I really need to up that amount. When Apple released Mac OS 8 in 1998, there was a massive row about the about of RAM that it required: up to 20 MB. In the intervening years between System 8 and System 9, RAM prices have dropped: System 9 is currently using 140 MB of RAM.

Lessons to be learned

If resources are made available, then they will be used, and not necessarily in the most efficient way. Because RAM and hard drives have become so cheap, we have become more careless about how we use them. Yes, applications have become more advanced, but have they improved so much in ten years that they justify the amount of hard drive space and memory that they use? I would say not. But hard drives and RAM are cheap (and far easier to install than they once were) so does it matter? In theory, I suppose that it doesn't, but it does teach us some interesting lessons about the market, I think.

These resources have become available to the end user because the price is very low: because the price is low, programmers know that their customers can afford to buy the upgrades, and so they add more "pretty" features and are less concerned about efficiency of use. Now, imagine how that works when the service that the customers are "buying" is "free"...

Cross-posted at Devil's Kitchen Design blog.

1 comment:

Oscar Wildebeest said...

Fair points all, DK. I'm about to invest in one of those sexy G5 Quads, and the pre-loaded 512MB of RAM is a joke for those of us in the video industry. A quick (online) trip to Crucial will be required before I so much as put a home movie on it.

Not to mention that I'll be requesting the upgrade to a 500GB hard drive. Five hundred gigs! The mind boggles. I won't even be putting any video footage on it - that'll all go on the 1.5TB (collective total) external drives cluttering the floor of my office.

What's scary is that the 500GB is enough storage for my applications (Final Cut and Avid), MS Word (spit), Photoshop and After Effects, my iTubes Library, and maybe a few more bits and bobs, and then I'll start getting worried that I'll have run out of space in two years' time.

More really is worse, isn't it?

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