A New Direction?

A Fresh Look

Having just returned from a month-long (and well-deserved) vacation, I was not surprised to find that things appeared to still be just the same in the industry as when I left. Manufacturers are still not making their deadlines, new product is still constrained as production ramps up, and customers are still not sure whether to buy now or wait a month for new products or lower prices. On usenet, some people are still arguing about who has the ‘best’ reviews, many are asking the same questions that have been asked for the past six months, and quite a few are calling everyone else morons. God, I love this industry!!

One thing that a vacation can do is to take you away long enough to actually see things with a fresh mind. While refamiliarizing myself with the ‘current issues’ that most are concerned with, I realized that many people have gotten sucked up into the ‘rat race’ of feeling that they must have the fastest or most overclockable product. I had been feeling some of this myself before leaving for my trip, but at this time I have realized that my Pentium 166 Classic allows me to type just as fast as a Pentium II 400 will, and my Tyan VX board provides all the features I currently require. Of course, if I were a die-hard gamer I might need a bit more.

As I began to read some of the more popular hardware sites to find out what they had been doing for the past few weeks, I suddenly realized that a change in direction had occurred. Perhaps not everyone has recognized this, but just as you notice a child’s growth when you haven’t seen him/her for a few weeks, I noticed this change.

Inertia Can Be Our Enemy

One of the most difficult tasks an individual can take on is to alter the way people think or view things. It is human nature to maintain the ‘status quo’, to continue to do things as we have always done them. Any suggestions that practices and policies change are almost always met with resistance – from mild to violent.

Last year at this time, Intel has us all in their pocket. They were driving the market with their new chipsets and processors. The HX and VX chipsets were the undisputed kings of the Socket 7 platform. The TX chipset was going to be the ‘ultimate’ Socket 7 chipset. In the meantime, the Pentium MMX processors were the ‘must have’ processors. CPU performance and benchmark results were the only focus. People would buy a Pentium 200MHz w/MMX for almost $800, then purchase a cheap motherboard and generic memory. Everyone believed that the CPU was the only important component of a computer system in regards to performance.

Since that time, the focus has slowly shifted towards chipsets, motherboards and memory, though the CPU is still the component that drives most hardware sales. During that time, however, what made most people buy was the promise of greater performance at the lowest price, without much regard to other issues. Anytime I tried to discuss reliability, support, warranty or other issues, most people would denounce these as being of little importance, or figured that all manufacturer’s products were the ‘same’ in these areas.

The hardware review sites were also geared towards this attitude – largely because that is what brought visitors. When you tell people what they want to hear, they will flock to your sermons. All of my suggestions to include the issues mentioned fell upon deaf ears.

I am certainly not egotistical enough to believe that I have single-handedly changed this attitude, and in fact it still does exist for the most part. I have seen other vendors, as well as end-users posting on usenet, suggest that price and performance are not the best selection criteria. Unfortunately, these voices have largely been drowned out by the endless postings about who has the lowest prices or whose products are the most overclockable or whose product is ‘fastest’.

The New Reviews

We began to put up our own reviews of motherboards several months ago mostly to provide some counterpoint to the ‘performance’ related reviews that have proliferated on the ‘net – even on many vendor sites. We intentionally left out performance numbers and focused upon such issues as features, layout and compatibility. While obviously these are not the most popular reviews, it has provided people with information they might otherwise not be able to easily get.

Tom Pabst emailed me about two months back saying that he had completely revised his testing procedures, but did not elaborate much. This was in response to a request I made that it might be better to de-emphasize performance and focus more on compatibility and stability. Upon my return this week, I was very pleased to see that he had outlined his new approach to the world, and had already posted results based upon this process. If you consider his results carefully, you can see just how dramatically this new approach has affected the ratings.

Obviously, this is a very good direction, in my opinion, and although Tom’s Hardware Guide has a lot of influence on many people, there are other hardware review sites and I figured that this would have very little affect on them. However, as I read Anand’s site, I noticed something that I believe (perhaps wrongly) is a subtle change in direction. In the past, most reviews have been done in one day or so – perhaps only a few hours of testing (maybe 5 runs with Winstone with the same components). What I noticed is that he was working on a Super 7 board review – and that he was planning on working on it for at least 5 days. What I hope is that he is able to come up with a review that is solid and includes more than just performance numbers, such as testing with various components, and more attention to features, compatibility and stability.

Coming Around…Again

I have been in the computer industry for over 20 years. During that time I have seen the same cycle occur several times. New technology creates a market where people jump at the newest products, however there are many problems with compatibility, stability, etc. Eventually, users get tired of the constant problems and fixes and demand better quality. They become wary of the newer technology and are less likely to jump on the latest and greatest products. This puts pressure on the manufacturers to use proven technology, so that the compatibility and stability issues begin to disappear. After a few years, when users have forgotten their pain, the cycle starts again

I believe that we are nearing the end of the first phase, and are beginning to enter the phase where users begin to demand more reliability. The review sites will either lead the way, or will eventually need to follow if they want to retain their popularity. The same will be true for vendors.

As stated previously, I would not dare to think that I have caused this change in attitude, because I have seen it happen several times before while I merely watched. My attitudes about these things are based upon the experiences of 20 years and believing that as a supplier it is my responsibility to make sure that those who may not understand this cycle at least have the information, whether they decide to use it or not. While I may be way off base in my predictions, I certainly hope they are true. When people consider more than price and performance in their decisions, all of our lives become easier and less stressful.

If I am right, maybe then manufacturers won’t feel so pressed to announce unreachable availability dates, and the usenet regulars won’t feel the need to call everyone else morons – even if they really are…

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