Enhancing Your Computer
Martin Russ looks at how you can make the most of your computer power, through a range of software and hardware.
Unlike the musical world, where 240 bpm and 10ms events are about as fast as anyone wants to go, the computer industry is obsessed with speed. Whatever else the future will hold, you can be certain that computers will be a lot faster. But for those of us working in the present, there are ways of ensuring that the computer we are using is as quick and efficient as possible. No, I'm not suggesting that you rush out to buy the latest 50MHz 80586/68050 machines when they appear, but instead that you should get the most out of what you already have. Many people buy a computer and sequencer software as a complete package, and then use them almost as a dedicated hardware sequencer. This usually means that they learn just how to use the software, without discovering much about the computer itself, and it is here that the opportunity for improvement arises. Most computers can be augmented in various ways which can improve their speed and usefulness, and even a modest outlay can often produce a significant increase in performance.
Means of enhancing a computer come in the form of both software and hardware.
• Accelerators. These replace the main processor chip with one which has a faster clock speed. Sometimes this involves only a simple chip and crystal replacement, but more often a small 'piggy-back' PCB which fits into the processor socket is required. Older Macintoshes can often be upgraded to more up-to-date specifications by replacing the main logic board, but there are also hardware add-on accelerators which can be cheaper and offer similar gains in speed.
• Maths Accelerators. By adding a separate microprocessor which has been specially designed to deal with mathematical operations, you can free the main processor from doing the calculations on its own. By spreading the load in this way, the whole system works faster, but it is really only effective for software where lots of calculations are being made - spreadsheets, for example. The maths co-processors need to be chosen to suit the main processor, and they come in versions with different speeds.
• Graphics Accelerators. With computers like the IBM PC and compatibles, where the underlying system is text-based, graphics can be slow. Graphics accelerators contain separate processors which interpret the graphics commands from the software and carry them out much more quickly - as with the maths co-processors the divide-and-conquer strategy reduces the work which the main processor does. Because of their complexity, graphics accelerators tend to be plug-in cards, and some cards are specifically designed for use with one particular type of program, such as AutoCAD or Microsoft Windows. Even in computers designed for graphics use, like Mac IIs, it is still often possible to improve their speed with sophisticated graphics cards based around DSP chips.
• Large Screens. Most computers seem to be content with supplying the equivalent of a view of the top half of a sheet of A4 paper for their display. This is OK for some word processing, but for DTP, scoring, and many musical applications, larger screens can help give a better overall picture of the task in hand, although they do have their drawbacks. Typically a combination of hardware and software, large screens tend to slow down the computer as a whole, they can be bulky and heavy, and they often create more problems from screen glare. The other disadvantage is that once you have used a large screen you will find it very hard to go back to a smaller one!
• Caches. If your computer seems to spend a lot of time accessing the disk drive(s), then perhaps a cache program might help. These assign some RAM memory to hold a copy of the directory for the disk(s), so that the information can be retrieved without the need to actually re-read a disk, which wastes time spinning up to speed, moving the read head etc. Because Macintoshes may need to access the disk frequently, a RAM cache is built into the Control Panel. There is a wide variety of cache programs available for other machines.
• RAM Disks. Because disks can be slow, replacing one with a block of RAM memory gives the advantage of very fast reading and writing. The disadvantage is that you need to save the contents on to a real disk before you power down the computer, otherwise you lose the information. It can also be disastrous if you have a power cut and everything on which you are working is on a RAM disk. Despite this a RAM disk can be very useful, for example for copying files on a single drive computer.
• Interceptors. By rewriting some parts of the Operating System code, it is sometimes possible to improve performance by optimising slow-but-frequently-used routines. Interceptors take the form of software which redirects the processor from the existing routines to the new rewritten ones. The routines are often connected with graphics drawing (QuickerDraw on the Mac), but they can also be replacements for inadequate OS routines (the many alternative File Selector boxes on the Atari ST).
• Macro Recorders. If you have ever carried out a long series of repetitive tasks on a computer, then a macro recorder is a good way of making sure that you only ever need to do it once. Macro recorders act like tape recorders which record series of QWERTY keyboard presses, mouse movements and mouse clicks, and can then replay them so that the computer thinks the same events are happening again. You can customise your computer to your own requirements, and simplify some of the more tedious tasks down to one key press.
• Replacement Desktops. If you don't like the way that your computer presents itself when you first start it up, then it is often possible to change the user interface. Typically, replacement desktops provide easier ways to execute simple commands, often with reduced typing or mouse movements. Text-based computers which use command line interfaces can be replaced with menu systems or full windowing environments, whilst graphic interfaces can be replaced with simpler or otherwise different variations.
The IBM PC and compatibles have a huge number of ways of replacing the text based 'C:' prompt, ranging from simple but fast, partially graphic, desktop replacements like Norton Commander, to full windowing environments like Microsoft Windows. The Atari ST's GEM interface can be replaced with a PC-like textual command line interface, or even a more Mac-like graphics desktop in the form of NeoDesk. Even sophisticated graphic interface computers like the Macintosh can have the Finder replaced with simpler 'click on the program' desktops like WayStation. Computers based on the UNIX operating system seem determined to hide the text-based command line with sophisticated windowing environments.
What does the future hold for these add-on enhancers? You might think that the next generation of computers would all include exactly these features, but what seems to happen is that commercial pressures lead to compromises. To provide sufficient processor speed or RAM to suit just a few specialised users would raise the price of the basic computer, whereas performance enhancements can added to suit an individual's needs - so manufacturers tend to make basic machines which you can then customise to your own requirements.
As the hardware becomes more powerful, the need for accelerators may well recede, so the enhancer of the future may well be a software program rather than hardware. You may increasingly find that software acts as an intermediary between you and the computer - a sort of semi-intelligent 'servant' to whom you give instructions, and they then carry them out.
The enhancer market moves very fast, and there are far too many products to list here. Instead, here are some suggestions about what to do to find out more about your particular computer:
• Read a couple of magazines which are specifically devoted to it (but avoid games magazines and go for more business oriented titles, since they are much more likely to be concerned with enhancing performance).
• Contact a specialist retailer (the magazine adverts should provide a starting point), tell them your requirements and ask if they sell any suitable products.
• Ask other users - particularly experienced 'power' users, hackers, programmers and other technical experts. If there is a way to do something, they are most likely to know how to do it.
• Ask the manufacturer of the main software package you are using. Often they will be aware of a specialised add-on which can improve or enhance their own product.
• Read the manual! Even the most user-friendly piece of software may have hints and tips hidden in the manual, and these can often significantly improve the performance of the program.
Feature by Martin Russ
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