Has someone ever offered you a computer for sale with 192 MB RAM? And with 196? Yes, I’m talking about the same computer. Back in late 1998, one day I got a laugh fit when I saw a guy writing in a tech support newsgroup and stating his computer’s specs, among them the main memory size: 196 MB SDRAM. Considering that the smallest SDRAM module ever produced is 8 MB, this sounds like a real wonder – but in reality, it’s just lack of knowledge. He forgot (or didn’t know) the difference between 1000 and 1024, the first used in our everyday society, the second being the standard in the hardware world.
Why that strange 1024?
Computers (like all electronics) are based upon a binary system. A binary system has only 0 and 1 which correspond to eletrical current flowing or not flowing. That’s all the information that the smallest unit, called “bit”, can hold. There have been several different bit combinations throughout the early years, but the one surviving into today is the one called “byte” or “long word”, consisting of 8 bits. While a bit can hold only 2 different kinds of information, a byte offers 256 distinct possibilities.
(As a side note, the 7bit combination called “half word”, with a max number of 128 different kinds of informaton, survived in one IT-related branche, MIDI programming.)
OK so what does it have to do with your kilo- and megabytes? The computer is “thinking” in the binary system. On the other hand, this system is rather difficult to use for human beings. A “near-overlapping” of the two systems occur at around 1000: in the human-used decimal system, 10 raised to the power of 3 is 1000, a number we’re all familiar with. In the binary system, 2 raised to the power of 10 is 1024, which is fairly close to the easily understandable 1000. To make it clear why they chose this specific exponent of 2, the scientists even called it “kilo” (after the Latin word for thousand).
To come back to my first example, that guy had 192 MB RAM which is 192×1024 = 196’608 KB. That’s the number he could see when switching on his computer. Without the knowledge tought in high school (in some countries, elementary school) and explained in detail in the previous paragraph, he could only figure out that he had 196-and-something-thousand KB, which should be 196-and-something MB. The something didn’t make sense to him, so he decided he simply had 196 MB. Crazy, isn’t it? Happens every day. And not only to computer illiterates…
My first personal encounter with this trend was using 100 MB ZIP disks (but I assume it started far earlier). I was in for a big surprise about three years ago when I wanted to push 98 MB to a 100 MB ZIP disk and after a quarter hour of bitshoveling Windows told me there isn’t enough space on the target drive. Guess why? Iomega was one of the first companies to “introduce the new counting method” of 1000 KB being a MB.
Hard drive manufacturers quickly followed suit, introducing the new conversion rate of 1000 MB being a GB. You could “enjoy” the “advantages” when buying a shiny new 10.1 GB hard drive and getting up to half a giga less for real.
Don’t expect too much brains from the “suits”
In some branches of the computer industry, the binary system still holds its own: we’re speaking about 64 and 128 bit memory buses instead of 50, 100 and 150 bit; you can also buy only 32, 64, 128 or 256 MB memory modules but not 50, 150 and 250 MB ones. Furthermore, 128 MB means 131’072 KB and not 128’000 KB.
But as computer business got more and more of a money affair instead of a scientific one, IT has been overflown with managers who know how to dress after the latest fashion and how to talk smoothly but couldn’t add 2 and 2 without a calculator – and it seems there are some things they can’t figure out, not even with the help of the latest microelectronics…
A quick example: Maybe you’ve also seen somewhere an offer with a 56’000 bps modem. Most probably, you automatically recognized it’s a 56K modem. But now with the fresh (or freshened up) knowledge of not 1000 but 1024 bit being a kilobit, you should wonder how it adds up. The truth is, those modems have a max data rate of 57’600 bps, which is exactly 56.25K.
It’s all in the changing of times
While a decade ago, computer business was more about geniuses developing new technologies no one would’ve thought of before, nowadays it’s rather who’s selling more of a new product and it doesn’t really matter any more whether a product is good (or working at all, how many Windows crashes did you have this week?), but who has the better marketing campaign. What do you think why are there so many “Ultra” products again and again?
These folks pushing the products in your face nowadays have most of the time less idea about computing than the average customer. They didn’t get the job to understand what they’re selling in the highest possible numbers, but to know how to promote something and are feeling themselves at home in the sharky waters of hardcore business (where most of the time there is no place for scientists any more).
No wonder you see daily product offerings like a 128bit sound card (too bad the SoundBlaster PCI 128 got its name from the max number of MIDI tones it can produce simultaneously, it’s still a standard 32bit PCI card), a 350 MHz graphics card (don’t try to tell them the important things about a 3D card are chip and memory clock, RAMDAC doesn’t matter much), or a 700 MHz Pentium processor (I’ve encountered several high-standing product managers in the computer business for whom there were two CPUs: the Pentium and the Celeron. That architecturally seen, the PII stood nearer to the Celeron than to the PIII, is wasted info on them).
Marketing guys aren’t the only ones unable to count
But there are some similarly horrible calculations I’ve seen from all kinds of tech geeks as well… like the Pentium II 330 MHz. Intel announced a 333 MHz part but while this time their marketing dept did the homework, the resellers “new it better” and decided that a CPU with a 66 MHz FSB and a 5x multiplier is 66×5=330 MHz.
What’s wrong with that? There are no 33 and 66 MHz buses. They are 33 1/3 (33.33) and 66 2/3 (66.66) MHz. And if you take 33 1/3 x 5, you get 333 1/3 (333.33) MHz, which rounded after mathematical rules is exactly the 333 MHz Intel announced. Actually, using the same rules they should’ve been calling their 166, 266 etc. CPUs 167, 267 etc. but that was somehow already too complicated for them, I guess. Or maybe the word “rounding” meant to them cutting away everything after the decimal point. Or maybe they thought people can recognize and remember 266 better than 267.
They got it right first with the 667 MHz PIII, although I’m pretty convinced they didn’t do it on behalf of mathematics but rather because it was considered to be too risky to release a 666 MHz CPU in a post-Christian Western society…
Will it never end?
I wonder when they will start selling the 128 MB RAM stick as a 131 MB memory module. Or maybe we are not yet stupid enough for that? You can do your part for a less idiotic IT world yourself by developing some criticism towards those mindless ads and their even more mindless creators.