The Everything Computer
The title of this article was supposed to be “The Everything Computer Problem”, but I ran out of room for it, as you can see above.[note: the style and layout of the old website placed strict limits on title size.] Just as I ran out of title room, a lot of people are running out of computer room. Huh? Ok, I’ll explain. Sometime in the dark past there was only one computer in my house, but I’m not quite sure how long ago that was. I believe there are now 7 computers in regular use here, and I have about given up keeping track of how many more we have in various stages of function or destruction. Some of the computers here are pretty much rock solid, others are flaky enough to be, well... biscuits or something. I suppose that means there are too many computers in my house, but that’s not the kind of “room” that I am talking about here. It seems that sometimes individual computers are just getting too small.
So what makes a computer too small? Is it the actual box? The amount of RAM? Hard drive capacity? Processor power? Well... not exactly. The “room” problem with today’s personal computer is that we are trying to fit too many jobs into it.
The first “personal computers” were strictly for geeks. If you had one, it was because you were interested in the machine for its own sake, not because you expected it to actually do anything useful. Typewriter-style keyboards and video displays were expensive luxury add-ons, and if you had a printer it was probably a re-cycled Teletype machine. When it became possible to use personal computers for word processing and spreadsheets, why, that was a revolution. After the first IBM PC came out, the pace of change really ramped up. An ever-spiraling increase in processor speed and power, memory size and disk space made it possible to do ever more and fancier things.
A main selling point of today’s personal computer is that you can do just about anything with it. This is pretty much true. Unfortunately, since the computer can do anything, we now sometimes expect it to do everything... and that can be a bit too much. Sometimes we end up with a machine that does just about everything badly.
To help us understand why, let’s look at cars for a minute. At the moment, the most popular police car on the road is the Ford Crown Victoria. Now, anybody can buy a Crown Vic, but only the cops can buy the police version of the car. For a given model, a cop car is almost always faster than a regular car. In this day of computer-controlled engines, part of this difference is in the programming of the engine controls. Like just about anything else in engineering, the design of car engines involves certain compromises. You can make it powerful, you can make it efficient, you can make it run “cleaner”, but you can’t make it do the best possible job of all of these things at once. The electronic engine controls for a cop car are programmed for maximum power and speed capability, at the sacrifice of a certain amount of efficiency. The engine controls for a “regular” car are set for better efficiency, giving up a bit in the “speed and power” department to get it.
A computer can be programmed and set up to do all sorts of things, but one computer cannot be set up to do every possible thing equally well. Every application that you install on a computer, and every piece of hardware that you install in or attach to it, makes certain demands on the machine. The more obvious consequence of this is that you can only expect the machine to do so many things at once. If you try to run too many programs at the same time, everything slows down, and sometimes the system will just crash (oddly enough, some users never quite get this idea). The less obvious, and often not understood, consequence is that setting up a computer perfectly for one application may actually make it work less well for another.
Now, if all you are doing is typing letters, balancing your checkbook, cruising the Web, and maybe listening to some music, you should not have any real trouble... provided that you carefully select a certain set of applications to do these jobs, and don’t install every “new and neat” thing that comes along without occasionally “cleaning house” to properly clear out all the stuff that turned out not to be so neat after all. You have to take the right precautions, like regularly scanning for viruses, using a good firewall to protect your computer from invasion, backing up your important files, and being careful about what new stuff you allow on your machine. If things get really out of control, you may sometimes have to resort to doing a “scorched earth” re-installation of your operating system, hardware drivers, and applications (at least two of my sons have had to do this several times with their machines).
Let’s assume, though, that you have become expert in the basics of “safe computing”, and have mastered the art of keeping viruses and other malware at bay. Even doing all this, you can still have trouble. There are certain jobs that can really tax a computer’s power.
Oddly enough, some of the hardest computer work can be playing games. A truly hard-core gamer always seems to want the next more powerful computer. In particular games can demand a lot of video performance. In fact, anything demanding full-motion video can take up a lot of resources on a computer.
Another thing that can tax a computer is serious audio production work. Recording, playing, and mixing multiple channels of audio at once can tax just about every part of the system except, maybe, for the video. In fact, most DAW software will run just fine with very basic video capabilities. It’s all basically “flat image” stuff that doesn’t need any advanced 3D rendering, and in many cases only a small percentage of the screen is being re-drawn on a continuing basis.
A fairly common problem for people setting up audio production systems is driver and hardware conflicts between video and audio. There always seem to be some combinations of video cards and sound hardware that just won’t play well together, and some computer motherboards do not allow the audio hardware its own independent (meaning not shared) resources. Sometimes conflicts between sound and video can be solved by turning off the more advanced features of the video hardware, and/or making the video use less of the data transfer capacity of the motherboard.
Even the way the operating system is configured affects what sort of work the machine will do best. Some of the companies that sell audio software or hardware actually post lists of recommended OS “tweaks” to make their software run better (I bet this is true for special video stuff as well, but I haven’t explored that particular can of worms yet). In Windows, for example, there are a number of “services” that run on your machine. Microsoft assumes that you want or need most of these services, but in some cases your machine will work better for a certain job if the services not needed for that job are stopped or disabled. There are also other configuration options that you may want to adjust, such as swap file settings and performance priorities. If any of these are important to specific hardware of software that you use, there is a good chance the the manufacturer offers suggestions about these settings somewhere on their website, or that someone participating in a user support group can offer you good advice.
If you are getting into serious audio or video production work, you probably should dedicate a machine to that work only. Have a different machine for all the “generic” stuff, including going on line. As careful as I try to be, I still sometimes get a virus on my office/web machine. My DAW, though, almost never gets infected, because just about the only time I use that machine to go on line is when I do a virus scan. When I want to download any new software or updates for my DAW, I use my other machine to download the software, then install the new stuff to the DAW over the network.
It is possible to have good software and good hardware to work with, and still have it not run well or even at all. If you are doing something that really uses computer power, details of how the computer and operating system are set up can make a big difference in performance. A system that has been fully optimized for one special application may not work as well for other things. You may have to pick one use or application to optimize for, and just put up with what you get for everything else. Sometimes it is best to dedicate a machine to only a certain use or uses, moving other applications to a different computer. Once you get a stable setup for your “critical” work, you may want to avoid too many updates, because sometimes the next “improvement” messes things up instead of making them better. Try not to clutter up any machine with too many applications. Sometimes more isn’t better, it’s just... more. Sometimes, in fact, “more” is only “more trouble”.
Remember, “one size fits all” does not work with computers anymore.