So What Processor Should I Buy, Then?

We just got through with a lengthy explanation of why processor speed isn't that important. But nobody is going to buy a 386/25 (or even 386/50) at this point; if nothing else, you want to get a newer motherboard so you can put this week's flavor of RAM module on it. And who knows? Maybe (you tell yourself) you will end up doing realtime 3D graphics or nuclear-explosion modelling or one of the handful of applications that can really strain your processor.

So for all you processor-speed junkies out there who want to be able to wave around megahertz figures like gearheads bragging abut the compression ratios in their hot-rods, here's a simple rule:

In December 1996, if you look at a typical clone-maker's advertisement, you'll see that the top three systems are a Pentium Pro, a Pentium 166, and a Pentium 133. The rule of thumb tells us to skip the Pentium Pro, consider the Pentium 166, and look seriously at the 133.

Why? Because of the way manufacturers' price-performance curves are shaped. The top-of-line system is generally boob bait for corporate executives and other people with more money than sense. Chances are the system design is new and untried -- if you're at the wrong point in the technology cycle, the chip may even be a pre-production sample, or an early production stepping with undiscovered bugs like the infamous Pentium FDIV problem. You don't need such troubles. Better to go with a chip/motherboard combination that's been out for a while and is known good. It's not like you really need the extra speed, after all.

Besides, if you buy one of these gold-plated systems, you're only going to kick yourself three months later when the price plunges by 30%. Further down the product line there's been more real competition and the manufacturer's margins are already squeezed. There's less room for prices to fall, so you won't watch your new toy lose street value so fast. Its price will still drop, but it won't plummet sickeningly.

Again, bear in mind that the cheapest processor you can buy new today is plenty fast enough for Linux. So if dropping back to a Pentium 90 or 75 will bring you in under budget, you can do it with no regrets.