Has Moore’s Law Become Moot for PCs?

What a (little) difference four and a half years makes

Desktop computers are no longer the polestar of the computing firmament, as people have embraced smartphones and tablets by the million. These portable devices have the obvious advantage of being with you wherever you go, but they are also empowered with a multitude of sensors—such as barometers, GPS, and accelerometers—that make no sense in a stationary PC.

Still, when at home or the office, I feel more comfortable interfacing with a physical keyboard, a large display, a powerful processor, and lots of memory. So, bucking the trend, I recently invested in a new PC. My existing PC was four and a half years old and was a packaged system from a large electronics retailer. I assembled the new PC myself from premium components—CPU, motherboard, memory, power supply, case, and so forth. After I got the new PC going, I studied the old and new systems and thought about what the comparison told me about the future of the PC.

My first thought is one of admiration for the design engineers who make heroic efforts to keep up with Moore’s Law. Between the construction times of the two systems, Moore’s Law predicted there would be three doublings of performance, for a potential gain of a factor of eight. But as we know, raw machine speeds have not been increasing at that rate. In this instance, the older processor clocks at 2.93 gigahertz and the new one at 3.5 GHz. That leaves a lot of ground to be made up through architectural improvements. The new processor has four cores versus two cores in the older one. The new processor uses 22-nanometer lithography, compared with 32 nm in the older. Combined with a considerably larger die size, this means it has about 1.4 billion transistors versus a mere 393 million in the older processor. In addition to processor improvements, significant improvement in peripheral and storage access speeds has been afforded by new standards in USB 3 and SATA 3.

Depending on which benchmark programs I run, the actual observed factor of improvement in performance between the old and new systems varies from about two to six. However, this brings me to my second thought: Unless I’m running benchmark programs, I don’t notice any difference in performance. Most everything I do is either so fast anyway that I don’t notice a difference or is constrained by some other bottleneck, like Internet connectivity. Of course, if I were a heavy user of games, the difference might be evident, but it would depend mostly on the graphics card used.

When I examine the two systems visually, I’m struck by another thought. Inside the case, the older, packaged system looks cheap. The power supply is minimal, the connecting cables hang loose, and the motherboard looks flimsy and is populated with no-name components. Nonetheless, this system has worked perfectly for almost five years, and I bought it at a bargain. Perhaps there are certain virtues in cheap electronics in a throwaway era. Maybe I didn’t really need all those premium components in the new system after all.

My final thought is one of nostalgia and regret. I think of my PC as a machine and those other computational devices as gadgets. Moreover, the PC is the last vestige of visible, accessible electronics in the home. Those other gadgets don’t even have any insides—at least not any I can get at, as not so much as the head of a screw mars their contoured casings. But, alas, with diminishing incentives to replace older PCs and the increasing power and ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, it’s hard to imagine a bright future for the machine that, starting with the Altair 8800 in 1975, so changed the world.

This article originally appeared in print as “The PC Plateau.”