Gigahertz: Who Really Cares?

An ad last week for dell's new Inspirons read "1 GHz now in notebook form."

An ad last week for dells new Inspirons read "1 GHz now in notebook form."

"So what," I thought. Another bump up in mobile processor speed isnt news or interesting. Intels been racheting up processors since 1989, when it introduced the 20MHz 386SL, its first mobile processor.

And hasnt Dell heard? Since PC processor speeds tipped 100MHz, other components are usually catching up to it. Alas, my reaction to more-of-same from Intel confused the consumer PC market, where megahertz doesnt matter much, with altogether different concerns in the enterprise market. Find me a home user who needs a 1GHz processor. Theyre mighty scarce.

IT views 1GHz notebooks more enthusiastically, recognizing the different needs within their user populations. Whats more, microprocessors are getting renewed respect, and not just from traditional speed junkies such as engineers and scientists. Boses manager of PC strategy and services, Frank Calabrese, explained: "A virus can crop up in Europe in the morning, and were liable to see it by afternoon. You have to scan in background three to four times a day. Doing this, youll see noticeable degradation with machines running at 300 to 400MHz."

Does this mean everyone running e-mail and a few lightweight corporate applications needs the Hans and Franz of notebooks? Of course not, but background apps that run continually, such as virus checkers, are only going to get more numerous.

At most big enterprises, the percentage of users requiring high-end notebooks ranges from 15 percent to 30 percent. At Nordstrom, where Toshiba is the notebook supplier, its the store planning group and programmers, said the PC coordinator, Larry Shaw. Dell customer Detroit Edison equips design and thermography engineers with high-end notebooks, according to Bob Pence, a principal analyst with Detroit Edison. Bose, a Hewlett-Packard notebook customer, simply has lots of engineers, and you know what they want, according to Calabrese.

But there are exceptions to the gradual, now decade-long trend of powerful notebooks bumping off desktops. Cornell Universitys S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management is one of them. "Users who really need that kind of clock cycle typically run multiprocessor desktops. The 1GHz mobile microprocessor is a ho-hummer and of no great significance to us," said Kevin Baradet, network systems director.

What about the vast majority of corporate America running a handful of standard corporate applications, most requiring a fraction of available processor speed? "With what we were throwing at it, it was like the processor saying, Is that your best shot?" Pence said.

For most of us, a more compelling argument than processor speed would be lowering the cost of ownership. Perhaps the notion is too complex for ad copy, but it ranks higher than processor speed on many IT priority lists. For instance, buying notebooks with identical components so he can configure them cookie-cutter style, as well as 8-hour on-site repair, is critically important to Boses Calabrese.

Corporate culture plays a role, albeit a smaller one than economics. Companies with predominantly engineers suffer from a disease known as processor envy. In the strictest sense, the mobile Pentium III at 1GHz is nothing more than 150MHz more than what came before it. Engineers, however, tend to celebrate it.

"As soon as this chip comes out, I guarantee you an engineer will walk into my office and ask when are we getting the 1.2GHz version," Calabrese said.