Units of marketing hype vs efficiency

The Megahertz madness surrounding P.C. advertisements reminds me of the muscle car era and the fact that the 7.5 liter V8 engine in my '72 Buick produced almost exactly the same horsepower as the 2.5 liter 4-cylinder engine in a friend's German car.1 Liters and valves are popular hype units in U.S. auto industry advertisements. And CPU clock frequency is the primary hype unit of choice in the P.C. industry.2. The "more MHz is better" meme is even applied to other devices. Cordless phone and baby monitor advertisements often imply that 3 GHz gives you twice the range of 1.5GHz. The flaw in this assumption can be illustrated by DVD remote controls, IrDA and InfraRed headphones which operate at 400THz, much furthur up the electromagnetic spectrum, but which have a range of only a few meters.

The April fools day issue of a 1970s electronics magazine once parodied a HiFi stereo advertisement. "500 Watts!" was the blurb and in small print was (drawn from house wiring.) The photo was of a WWII vintage vacuum tube radio which may have drawn 500W. A couple of decades later it isn't a joke. Vacuum cleaners are promoted based on the number of amps they consume...not how well they suck.3 Which reminds me, why are light bulbs sold based on the number of watts they consume and not the amount of light they put out? While I'm on the topic of misguiding "marketing units", what is this megapixel madness? My wife's 2.1 megapixel camera took better photos than a 4.1 megapixel replacement. Anyone who has been in the computer industry for a few years has seen some funnny math applied with hype numbers. USB devices were promoted using Megabits per second rather than Megabytes per second, (Mbps vs MBps). The factor of 8 difference made USB 1 appear faster than SCSI when it was actually considerably slower. Similar strange math was applied in the days of modems, baud vs bps. And somewhere along the way, a "K" of memory became a "k" and lost 24 bytes (2.3%). Which would you prefer, a pair of noise-cancelling headphones which can reduce ambient noise by 70% or a pair which reduces noise by 10dB?4

My hype unit pet peeve is related to my personal interest in astronomy. Department store christmas catalogues advertise 475X and 675X telescopes. What's an X? Unless the telescope happens to be the inconvenient size of the one in Birr (see image above), the X's are a figment of the advertiser's imagination. The 50 foot tube and 72" mirror of the Birr Leviathan were said to be capable of 650X magnification without being overwhelmed by diffraction, aberration, atmospheric turbulence and light loss. Sorry the 60mm department store scopes can't be pushed to that magnification, no matter what the box says!5

Does anyone remember the VHS vs Beta "head wars", when a 9 head VCR was a status symbol? The fact that Betamax VCR's required fewer heads to do the same job was lost in the marketing mumbo-jumbo. Two heads is always better than one, right? Early CD players advertised increasing number of bits in their DACs until someone figured out how to do 1-bit oversampling and then they all boasted 1-bit DACs! One of my favorite examples of marketing madness came from a popular electronics article in 1970s. Transistor radios often had 10 Transistors! proudly emblazoned on the plastic case. But when popular electronics opened up one of these radios, they found that some of the transistors weren't connected to anything. Were the dummy transistors installed to prevent the hype from being an outright lie? I guess so, but it does make me wonder if every Hz of a 2.5 GHz PC is doing its job. I hope schools are still teaching long division so future consumers can calculate (cool stuff) per (resource.) I'm looking forward to the day when efficiency is reintroduced as a marketing concept.

1Most Irish car engines are 1.6 liters or less, but the performance seems similar to that of 3 liter cars in the U.S. (sometimes they are driven as though they were 7.5 liter cars.) My $200 Buick is long gone, it was said to have been capable of passing everything on the road.. except for a gas station.

2One Sun research lab is working on faster and more efficient computers which don't use a clock at all. Imagine telling your friends that you have a 0MHz cpu!

3The physics major in me would like to see Torr, Bar or Pascal in the marketing blurb for a vacuum cleaner. (How about Torr per Watt?)

4A 10dB reduction in noise level is the same as a 70% reduction.

5The good news is that with a well-made telescope you can see the rings of saturn, the clouds and Galilean moons of jupiter and the craters and mountains of the moon at less than 50X. And you can see thousands of stars in the milky way, nebulas at the center of our galaxy and a neighbor galaxy more than 2 million light years away..at 1X, with only your eyes, a map, and a clear, dark night sky.

Brian, Finally! I am trying to interest an American 'major' in product efficiency right now. We will see if this well known 'dinosour' can be taught new tricks for 2006! Monday should be very hot for SUN and quite cold for others! :) Actor Will Smith quote sounds appropriate - "I have got to get me one of these!"

Posted by William R. Walling on September 10, 2005 at 02:28 PM GMT+00:00 #

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