Sunday, August 31, 2014

Guest Post: The Truth About Benches

(Our friend Adam Albrec, creator of PPC Media Center, was nice enough to offer the following article to share with us. He has a lot of first hand experience to go with his points, so it's definitely worth the read.)

All this talk about "Benches" must mean outdoor-recreation is about to get more convenient or comfortable. Or could it be just another lame, and ultimately inaccurate measuring system (in this case for comparing digital willies)?

Like many users, I have upon occasion looked up the 'Geekbench' report for a system I have or to see relative power comparisons with other systems, and in all this time, I have learned one very simple truth: These numbers can be VERY misleading - especially when comparing one computer architecture to another.

My daily driver (or...computer) is a dual-processor G4 Desktop with twin 1.42 CPUs, and an Nvidia Geforce 4 Ti (128MB) graphics card. Geekbenches at about 1300 with my current configuration. This is well below most ARM based phones and certainly most Intel based Macs and PCs today. So why do I shut one of the CPUs off most of the time? Simple, because I don't need it all that often. Am running TenFouFox 31, TenFourBird, Webkit for PPC, Quicktime (to watch web videos with my PPC Media Center Applescript-App) and have iTunes in the background sniffing for my favorite podcasts. Does it run slow? nope.

I also have about 8 widgets going in Dashboard, Carbon Copy Cloner backing up everyday (which I honestly don't even notice happening) and the usage of my poultry 2GB of ram really never go above half most days.

To be fair, the system has a few things going for it that a G4 iMac wouldn't:

• 2 MB of cache per CPU,

• a 7200 RPM system drive and second 7200 RPM scratch/media drive that all my data is on (throughput is quite acceptable).

• IOGear universal WiFi N150 ethernet device replacing the old 'b/g' Airport cards.

Also have stayed on OSX 10.4, to avoid the lag of modern interface candy 'the Leopards' have forced on us.

What am I missing? Well x86 compatibility - but there is actually surprisingly little software (most all of which relates to gaming or the internet) that doesn't have a decent PPC version. Apps like Final Cut, Photoshop and certainly the awesome NeoOffice really do hold up well even today, and many of the internet apps and games that still do run on it are just fine.

The only time I even need the other CPU is when trans-coding video, watching HD videos in VLC or Quicktime or 20+ Photoshop action sets and then it is there when needed.

What most users don't realize is that you really mostly notice power, when there isn't enough of it. An app designed to run in OS9 on a G3, won't be much faster running on a G5 in classic if at all. Likewise, one's iTunes is only inadequate when running on hardware too old for it. A case and point would be the popular open-source shooter Open Arena.

I have it on the aforementioned G4 desktop, and the much newer Ouya android console (Geekbenches at around 1800). My G4 SPANKS the Ouya and its triple-core 1.7GHz CPU and 12-graphic core system! The Ouya won't even allow a number of the features like 'Bloom' to be turned on, and even on its best settings hangs around 30fps. My desktop will in Single CPU mode, with full features match its fps AND in Dual CPU are around 50-60! The Geforce 4 Ti graphics card is around 11 years old! Now some would say that all of this is because the Ouya's ARM chips are designed for mobile use - which is true, but going by 'Bench numbers' should be at least 40% faster, NOT 40% slower - as is the case.

During the last decade, all this new machine power has mostly served only to eliminate the need for optimization and tight-coding (has all but eliminated the need for highly-efficient assembly coding). There is a reason when the current generation of video game consoles really only look a 'Little' better than the previous, there is really not proper implementation of all this new power.

So what does all of this mean to consumers/users? If it ain't broke don't replace it. Computing is more about user preference than empirical bench marks. PPC systems are often criticized for their lack of ability to throw everything at a task, and thereby appearing to be slower, but many models (especially the ones with generous processor cache) have a different kind of power that, for me GREATLY makes up for it - the ability to do a whole lot of things simultaneously. My Mom's Macbook Pro (17" Dual 2.66GHz running OX 10.6/XP) is faster at any one task, but sure as hell doesn't shift gears as fast - like try opening a new Finder window and notice that it takes a full second to populate all her icons!! Somehow, a Geekbench of 3100+ should seem a bit peppier than that. And with my G4 able to convert a full dvd to MP4 in about 30 minutes, am quite content with what I have.

The path of keeping old gear isn't for everyone, but for those who enjoy it, there are many resources available (now cheap or free) and a lot of satisfaction from making one's own Applescripts and such to handle problems, or hunting down that rare piece of software. With apps like Dropbox, Rapido-Start (much like Launchpad), Carbon Copy and others, there are very few modern system functions that cannot be had on older hardware. My new Ouya and new Nintendo 3DS XL both backup to the G4 through neat and tidy applescript apps that make disc-images of them in a single click. Are there more modern methods to accomplish this on more powerful hardware - yes, of course, but the question is why spend money and electricity that isn't necessary??? The average modern powerhouse desktop uses CRAZY amounts of electrical-power. That is money better spent in oh, so many ways.

So the moral of the story is: "Don't be a sucker for the numbers". They only tell part of the story.

- Adam Albrec
PPC/RISC Fan & App Dev.

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