Mac vs. PC

Sep 1, 2012 9:00 AM, Mix, By Michael Cooper

Looking Under the Hood of Next-Generation Hosts

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Macbook Pro retina display

NEED FOR SPEED

Until recently, the inherent speed of CPUs—microprocessors that, along with other components, determine how fast a computer executes tasks—had historically increased over time. But CPUs operating faster than 3 GHz generate so much heat that we’ve hit a speed ceiling. To continue improving performance, manufacturers have taken another tack: putting more than one microprocessor core on each chip.

Using multicore processors physically places the cores closer together than they would be on separate processors, thereby increasing the speed at which electrical impulses—and data—travel between them. More important, all multicore processors employ multi-threading, a process in which individual tasks are sent simultaneously to multiple cores. The upshot is that a quad-core computer can perform four tasks at once instead of just one.

In addition to multi-threading, high-end processors—regardless of their core count—might employ hyper-threading, a process advanced by Intel, that dynamically creates an additional “virtual” core for each physical core by utilizing any unused power in each processor. For example, Rain’s Element V2 uses two high-end 8-core processors and hyper-threading to run 32 cores (16 physical and 16 virtual) at once. It’s important to note that each DAW uses your computer’s CPU and implements multicore support differently, and not all can use multi-threading or hyper-threading.

The size of a CPU’s Level 3 cache (its built-in memory) also affects how efficiently it processes data. Due to the cache’s close physical proximity to the processor core, data stored in it can be accessed by the processor faster than data stored in the computer’s main memory modules.

Of course, it hardly matters how fast your computer is if your hard drives can’t keep up with it. Apple still uses SATA revision 2 (second-generation Serial ATA) hard drives, which stream at a theoretical 3 Gbit/s rate. Rain computers use SATA revision 3 drives (either mechanical or solid-state), resulting in double the theoretical data-transfer rate (6 Gbit/s). As a further boost to performance, Rain also uses up to 1600MHz memory, faster than the 1066MHz and 1333MHz RAM Apple uses.

Despite the speed boost SATA 3 affords, mechanical (platter-type) hard drives face eventual obsolescence. Blazing-fast solid-state drives (SSDs), which do not require caches, are becoming more popular as their prices drop. Much faster than mechanical hard drives, SSDs also run cooler, produce no noise and are thought to be more reliable for touring because they have no moving parts that can fail due to physical shock.

Because they currently offer much less storage capacity and cost far more per GB than mechanical drives, most people are currently using SSDs for their operating systems (which don’t require a ton of storage capacity)—an SSD will boot up a computer in just a few seconds. But if you need broad and lightning-fast access to large sample libraries and are willing to pay a premium price for that convenience and performance, SSDs are the best storage option.






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