Brendon Walsh
What are the Specs?

What are the Specs?


There is probably no question more familiar to a geek than that of hardware specifications. Everyone wants to know how much juice something has or how fast it can fry an egg. Growing up with old computers salvaged from high schools, I've never really been too keen on that notion. I was always more interested in how far I could push the software on some outdated hardware. In the end, what really matters is what you can make it do.

Devices like the Teensy and Arduino absolutely fascinate me. They are incredibly small packages that wouldn't wow anyone on a spec sheet. But in the hands of some motivated and highly creative hackers you get stuff like this.

As geeks, we often forget that it's almost never the most powerful machine that gets us excited about possibilities. Take a look at the Nintendo Wii. There is nothing particularly special about any of the hardware components. Basic sensors and processors. But, with the right combination of software, it becomes one of the most successful gaming platforms in history.

It's even more clear when looking at SixthSense. This is really mind-blowing technology. But again, the hardware is comprised of cheap scraps from the last several years. The software is what really makes things tick.


Software Owns This World

Bill Gates knew this decades ago when he started Microsoft, and the idea is still true today. Software is what is really important. What can you make that piece of silicon actually do? Because without the right software, I don't care how fast your computer is or how many RAM slots you have. Technology is only impressive in the creative and innovative sense.

Sure, there are exceptions. You may actually need some new hardware for that new video game. Or you really do need the fastest processors to edit some HD video footage. But don't forget that it's the software that runs on the hardware that's really what you need. Encoders and Decoders are under constant improvement. Performance for H.264 video is not what it once was. VLC handles AVCHD much better now and transcoding software are always making speed improvements as well.

As geeks, sometimes we get lost in how many cores a new system has and forget that we probably don't even have software to take advantage of the hardware yet. I still remember the early days of dual core systems and how everyone was excited to get a new system. We all forgot that the majority of our software wasn't even going to make use of that architecture. Even now, there are still major software distributions that do not take proper advantage of multi-core systems. Adobe Premiere is what comes to mind as I struggle to render HDV footage on a daily basis at work.

To best summarize my ideas, there's a quote from Pirates of Silicon Valley as Bill Gates negotiates terms of licensing BASIC to Ed Roberts fro the Altair.

Your machine is brilliant, but it needs our language. Without it, it's just a tin box that lights up.

And just for kicks, here's a toaster that actually runs Linux.