This was originally published on 31 March 2016.
In late March 2016, I ordered what may turn out to be the last desktop computer I'll ever buy. I think this may be true because (a) I've ordered a box that kicks proportionately more ass than any computer I've bought before; (b) each of my last three computers was in use for more than two years (though the one I bought in 2009 would probably have lived longer had I not dumped a bowl of chicken soup on it); and (c) each of the previous 2-year-old computers was replaced by an incrementally-better one, not a hugely-better one.
The new computer will have a 6-core Xeon E5-2620 2.4 GHz processor, 40 GB (!!!) of 2133 MHz ECC RAM, a 512-GB SSD boot drive and a 2-TB data drive, and an nVidia Quadro K620 video card. It replaces a laptop running a Core i7 2.4 GHz processor with 12 GB of RAM and a single 512-GB SSD augmented by a portable 2-TB data drive that runs through a USB 3.0 port. And whatever onboard video Dell stuck in there.
I'm going to disclose the total cost of this machine because I've just calculated the costs of several other boxes I've bought over the years against the consumer price index. It's a crude measurement, and probably overstates inflation when applied to technology, but it does give you an idea of how things changed over time. Here, then, are a few of my older computers—just the ones I used as my principal, daily machines, not servers:
||Config, Processor, Ram, HDD
||Desktop, Xeon 6C 2.4 GHz, 40 GB, 512 GB SSD + 2TB Data
||Laptop, Core i7 2.4, 12 GB, 512 GB SSD
||Laptop, Core i5 2.2 GHz, 8 GB, 256 GB SSD
||Laptop, Core 2 Duo 2.66 GHz, 4 GB, 250 GB
||Desktop, Xeon 4C 2.0 GHz, 8 GB, 146 GB
||Laptop, Centrino 2.0 GHz, 2 GB, 160 GB
||Laptop, Pentium M 2.8 GHz, 2 GB, 60 GB
||Laptop, Pentium M 1.4 GHz, 1 GB, 60 GB
||Laptop, Pentium 4 1.7 GHz, 512 MB, 40 GB
||Desktop, Pentium 3 500 MHz, 256 MB, 20 GB
||Desktop, Nx 586 90 MHz, 32 MB, 850 MB
||Desktop, 80386 33 MHz, 4 MB, 240 MB
Obviously cost alone doesn't line up with value. Even in the last 5 years the computers have gotten better, despite the flattening-out of Moore's Law. I mean, the software development environment I work in would barely function in 4 gigabytes of RAM, and yet that's what I was using as recently as October 2011. Going farther down the list to the first computer I ever bought, in October 1991, yes it really did have 4 megabytes of RAM (1,024 times less), but that was just fine for Windows 3.1 back then.
Is the new computer going to change my life? Not a lot, though it will significantly cut compile-and-run times while I'm coding (and slightly increase my electric bill). And yet in 10 years I probably won't even have a desktop computer anymore, because I'll be doing my job on some other kind of device. I mean, when I got the Pentium 4 laptop in 2002 for $2,700 in today's dollars, I could hardly have predicted that 10 years later l would get about the same power and storage space in a mobile phone for 20% of the cost.
There are two other computers on the list whose prices I don't really know, because they were gifts, but they're worth mentioning. In 1986 I got a hand-me-down IBM PC with a 1 MHz 8088 processor, 640 kB of RAM, and two 5.25-inch floppy drives. I believe that computer originally cost about $9,000, which would be about $22,000 today. Then, in 1988, I got a hand-me-down Toshiba T3100 "laptop" that weighed about 7 kg and came with a 12 MHz 80286 processor, still 640 kB of RAM, and had a huge 20 MB hard drive. That one cost (I believe) about $2,500 new, or $5,100 today. And that 20 MB drive? That's 1/2,048th the storage space of the working RAM that my new box will have.
Still, every time I've bought a computer, I've outgrown it in less than three years. This time I hope I'm getting enough computer to make it four.