Technology-Actuated Stress Syndrome (TASS)

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There’s a well-known aspect of using computers that is almost universally frustrating – programs that are non-responsive, or very, very slow to respond. It’s not really a Mac OS, Linux or Windows-specific problem, as both operating systems have their own set of issues. And due to the complexity of modern computer operating systems, it’s inevitable that something will take longer than it should.

However, there’s a blind spot in our collective understanding of why computers are slow so often. It has less to do with the common culprits that most people place blame upon than you might think: the processor is too slow, not enough RAM, not enough hard drive space. But the latter of those three examples is related – the hard drive itself is the problem, not running out of storage (although in fairness, hard drive does performance drop precipitously when close to being full or heavily fragmented).

To put it simply, the biggest constraint on performance for modern computers is the hard drive itself. Even the lowly budget-class Intel Celeron processors out there are “good-enough” for most computational tasks, and memory prices are at near historic lows – 4GB is almost standard these days. Standard integrated graphics have greatly improved due to the push for better performance in laptops and ultrabooks, making discrete graphics cards necessary only for gaming. And while hard drive performance hasn’t declined over time (and has generally improved), everything else has improved at much faster rates!

It’s important to understand a computer as a team of different components working together to achieve a common goal. The slowest member of that team can hold back everyone else from accomplishing a task faster or with higher performance. Since hard drives have become by-and-large the relatively slowest member of the team for most modern computers, the performance difference between a brand new computer and one that is 3-4 years old might not seem very big – because they’re both held back by using similarly-performing hard drives.

What’s particularly interesting (and I bet you saw this one coming) is how much of an overall performance increase can be gained by swapping out a traditional hard drive with an SSD. None of the other components change, but by removing the slow hard drive bottleneck to performance, the computer can make better use of all of those other components. Even 3-4 year old computers can be brought back to life with a simple SSD upgrade. Anecdotal evidence abounds for the impact this has on overall system performance, but even statistically-significant benchmark data really puts it into perspective. (A good example was at a talk given at Microsoft’s TechEd last year where the demonstration of running 20 virtual machines simultaneously on a 3-year-old HP consumer-grade laptop that had nary a hiccup in responsiveness – all because of the SSD it was upgraded to).

So, what general wisdom and recommendation can we gain from this discussion so far? Upgrade to an SSD, of course! All joking aside, though, the true impact of an SSD doesn’t just stop at the system performance level. I would venture to guess, and I’d really be interested to know if there is any relevant research out there on this topic, that the accumulated incremental delays in the user experience with hard drive-toting computers can cause psychological and physiological stress.

Let me emphasize that again: using a computer whose performance is limited by slow load times and delays due to hard drive performance limitations can have mental and physical impacts on the user. Again, without a research lab or existing published data this is all theoretical, of course, but the concept seems non-controversial. After all, aren’t people generally more stressed in stop-and-go slow traffic than they are in smoothly-flowing fast traffic? In both computers and commutes, people are trying to accomplish a task (load a program or get to a location). And when the achievement of that task is delayed or hampered in any way, stress can often be the result.

What SSDs bring to the table is a vast reduction (if not practical elimination) of a lot of the waiting and delays that plague general computer usage for even brand new computers. Boot times are much faster, and most interactions with the computer (launching applications, especially) are limited only by the speed of the person operating it, not the delay in the hard drive catching up. Computers are fantastically powerful machines (from a historical perspective), and maximizing their potential as a useful (not annoyingly slow) tool is very important. And when physiological and psychological stress from delays in user interactions with computers are minimized or eliminated altogether, the effect is even more potent. Again, just a hypothesis here, but certainly worth considering.

So, follow your doctor’s orders to lower the amount of stress in your life . . . by upgrading to an SSD.

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