Hardware Musings: Why a G5 Quad is not too fast for me

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh, Microsoft, Pages
January 30th, 2006 • 5:32 pm

More and more these days you read hardware product reviews that say that the latest computer model provides “more than enough” power for most common computing tasks, such as writing e-mail, browsing the web, composing word processing documents, etc.

There are numerous examples of this, and again in the recent reviews for the new Intel-based iMac, I’ve seen this argument.

Today, I’d like to give a simple example that demonstrates that, contrary to what these product reviews seem to imply, today’s computers are not necessarily too fast or too powerful for simple computing tasks.

While I do a variety of things with my computer, there is no denying that the primary activity for me is word processing. As a professional translator and writer, I spend a lot of time composing and editing documents in text editors and word processors.

I also use writing tools that help me be more efficient in my work. I am particularly attached to Spell Catcher X, which is not just a universal spell checker, but also a universal automatic correction/completion tool.

I know that software titles such as Microsoft Word 2004 and Pages 2.0 come with their own spell checking and automatic correction/completion features—but I find it utterly pointless to use application-specific features, because it means having to customize each and every application in accordance to my own spell checking and automatic correction/completion needs.

I want to be able to use the same dictionaries and the same automatic correction/completion glossaries everywhere in Mac OS X, wherever I have to type text.

For example, since my employer is the Nova Scotia Department of Education, I very frequently have to refer to Nova Scotia and to the Department of Education. I have two glossary entries for this, “nsc” for “Nova Scotia” and “ded” for “Department of Education.”

Thanks to Spell Catcher, I can use these abbreviations in nearly all the Mac OS X applications where I might have to type that text, including Word 2004, Pages 2.0, BBEdit, Mail, Safari, Excel 2004, etc. I only have to define the glossary entries once in Spell Catcher, and then they are available in all applications. The automatic completion works as soon as I type the abbreviation followed by a space or return character.

The problem with Spell Catcher’s universal automatic completion feature is that it has to work everywhere, and that the reality of today’s Mac OS X applications, including Apple’s own products and third-party applications, is that they don’t all have the same level of support for Spell Catcher’s interactive “input method.” This means that Spell Catcher’s developer, Rainmaker Inc.’s Evan Gross, has to include a number of workarounds in his product that ensure compatibility with the widest possible range of applications.

I know this, because I have been a Spell Catcher beta tester for a long time now, and I have had ample opportunity to discuss compatibility issues with Evan. For example, Spell Catcher has a feature called “direct replacements” which can be turned on in its preferences window, under “Interactive › Typing.”

What this option does is that, when I type “ded” followed by a space, for example, instead of having to backspace (i.e. delete the four characters one by one), Spell Catcher can directly replace “ded” with “Department of Education.”

Unfortunately, this option is only fully supported by a small number of Mac OS X applications. Even though it is an improvement provided by Mac OS X that avoids backspacing, a large number of Apple’s own applications do not support this feature properly, including Mail 2.0 and Pages, for example. For these two applications, you have to leave the “Make replacements directly” option off if you want Spell Catcher’s automatic correction/completion features to work properly. (In Spell Catcher, you can customize the preferences on a per-application basis, so you can turn the option on only for those applications that support it.)

The trouble with the backspacing method (in which Spell Catcher quickly deletes the glossary abbreviation character by character before replacing it with the glossary expansion) is that it is not instantaneous. It is very fast, and works well for most users on most recent machines. But I can be a very fast typist at times, and sometimes when I type a Spell Catcher abbreviation such as “ded” in an application such as Pages or Word 2004, and continue to type more text after the abbreviation and the space character without pausing even for a fraction of a second, then things can get too fast for Spell Catcher and it ends up screwing up the order of some of my keystrokes.

So for example if I quickly type, in one fell swoop, “ded and ” (i.e. the abbreviation “ded” followed by a space followed by the word “and”), sometimes I end up with:

Department of Education nad

It doesn’t happen all the time when I type very quickly. It probably depends on whether other background activities are taking place at the same time in the application in question or elsewhere on the system while I am typing and while Spell Catcher is expanding my abbreviations. But it certainly happens on a regular basis in applications such as Word 2004 and Pages, which do not support direct replacements, forcing Spell Catcher to use backspacing and insert the expansions “manually,” character by character.

Evan Gross has been aware of the problem for a while, but he says that fixing it would be a rather complicated undertaking involving lots of low-level things. I fully understand that this is not a huge priority for him, because it only occurs for very fast typists, and only occasionally, and only in certain applications.

But it is certainly something that I had been hoping to eliminate for a while.

And guess what? My new G5 Quad is the first Macintosh computer where I have been unable to reproduce the problem. No matter how fast I type in Word 2004 or Pages on the G5 Quad, the system is obviously fast enough that Spell Catcher always manages to replace my abbreviations with their expansions without scrambling any letters in the words I type after the abbreviation.

In other words, the G5 Quad is the first machine (for me) that is fast enough to eliminate the problem altogether, without Evan Gross having to actually fix his software to work around the problem.

So on the one hand you could probably argue that the G5 Quad is overkill for me. I am not a video editor. I rarely push my G5 Quad to the limit. (The only time I have seen the four CPU indicators go up and remain up over an extended period of time was when I imported my collection of 10,000 digital pictures into iPhoto 6 the other day.)

On the other hand, the G5 Quad is the first machine that I own that is fast enough to completely eliminate the problem with scrambled characters in words after automatic glossary expansions by Spell Catcher in applications such as Word 2004 and Pages. This was a very real problem for me. It was not a deal-breaker and I had learned to live with it over the years. But it meant a higher amount of correction than my actual typing should normally require.

Apple and Microsoft would probably argue that it’s a problem with Spell Catcher, since the problem does not occur when Spell Catcher is not used, and their own automatic correction/completion features are used instead. But, as I said, using application-specific features is not a realistic option for me. Using a system-wide tool such as Spell Catcher provides provides too many benefits for me to go back.

Since the problem was with Spell Catcher only, it was unrealistic to expect Apple or Microsoft to fix the problem any time soon. I have submitted “enhancement requests” to Apple asking them to support direct replacements in Pages and Mail, but so far I haven’t received any response. Apple obviously has other priorities. As for Microsoft, there is simply no hope in hell that they would ever bother to change their products to make better use of Mac OS X’s built-in technologies and improve compatibility with another third-party product such as Spell Catcher. I am willing to bet that there isn’t a single Microsoft engineer at the Mac BU that even tests Microsoft Word with Spell Catcher. Evan Gross must be commended for having managed to provide such a high level of compatibility with Microsoft products on the Mac.

In conclusion, what this particular example shows is that, even for relatively simple computing tasks such as composing documents in a word processor or text editor, in certain situations, a machine such as the G5 Quad is not overkill.

It would probably be overkill if all Mac OS X software were as well written as Spell Catcher itself. But Spell Catcher has to coexist harmoniously with programs such as Word 2004 and Pages 2.0, which are not written to take full advantage of Mac OS X’s technologies and are probably much slower and much less efficient than they should be. Apple and Microsoft might be able to hide the performance shortcomings in their software with hardware that keeps getting faster and faster. But, as my example demonstrates, it doesn’t take much to uncover the inefficiencies of these applications, which can make them sluggish and prone to performance problems even on fairly powerful hardware.

In fact, I am afraid I have to report that, even on my ultra-fast G5 Quad, Word 2004 still exhibits these very annoying stalls where there is a delay of a fraction of a second between my action and the expected result on the screen. These stalls have plagued every version of Word for Mac OS X (i.e. both Word X and Word 2004) and never existed in the classic Mac OS. Even on my G5 Quad, I still see them. It’s quite unbelievable. But it’s a perfect illustration of how badly inefficient Microsoft’s software for Mac OS X is. Microsoft’s software for Mac OS X is fundamentally flawed, and we only put up with it because we have no alternative. (I know that not everyone experiences these stalls, but as far as I can tell not everyone uses their Mac as quickly and efficiently as I do.)

So in some respects, yes, the G5 Quad provides more computing power than I will ever need. But in other respects, in some essential aspects of my daily computing activities, the G5 Quad is not overkill for me and is actually the first machine that is almost fast enough for me.


9 Responses to “Hardware Musings: Why a G5 Quad is not too fast for me”

  1. Rahul Sinha says:

    Textpander does not provide spell check, but implements a short-hand translator via Input Manager. It may be more efficient and “elegant” to use it for that purpose – at which point you may not need a unified spell check while typing (as opposed to as a final editing step).

    There is a difference between fast and powerful. A single-threaded app may work much faster on a 3 GHz Core Duo than a 8-proc Power 5 even though the latter is clearly more “powerful”.

    All the same, I agree that if one uses a computer 8 hrs a day, and gets irritated by latency, an extra $1-2k to improve one’s quality of life for 2-3 years 8 hrs, 22 days a month… is a good investment.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    I do need the universal spell checking as much as I need the expansion feature. They are two essential writing tools provided by Spell Catcher. Plus I absolutely need Spell Catcher’s multilingual capabilities. I need language-specific expansion glossaries. Textpander does not look flexible enough for me.

    In any case, the performance problems are not with Spell Catcher. They are with the word processors (Word 2004 and Pages) and other applications.

    Agreed about multiple processors. But it all boils down to software being optimized to make full use of it. If word processors were properly multithreaded, they too could take advantage of multiple processors. But anyway, a single 2.5 GHz core should provide enough performance to power a word processor :). The problem is with the word processors, which are, as far as I can tell, not well written (although Pages is better than Word, of course).

    The stalls in Word are there whether you use a single 450 MHz G4, a dual 1.25 GHz G4 or a G5 Quad. I know. I have experienced them on all three. They are a little less noticeable on the G5 Quad, but they are still there, and they still interfere with my work in a significant fashion.

  3. Evan Gross says:

    I heard that Pages 2.0 supports direct replacement now (don’t have my copy yet to try). Give it a whirl, drop me a line with what you find out.

    As for the other shorthand-type utilities on the market, the mechanism they use (all but TypeIt4Me, which is also an input method) will never be as efficient or as powerful as what an input method can do (as far as monitoring events and inserting text into a document).

    Some do the “backspace-over-the-abbreviation” thing in a manner other than simply posting x number of backspaces. Something like posting shift-option-left arrow + backspace to select the previous word and delete it, but that can be problematic as it doesn’t always select the exact number of characters you want to backspace over! So more than what you expect gets deleted at those times (data loss, generally recoverable with Undo if you notice).

    But it’s true, as far as the problem you have when typing 180 wpm (or whatever the crazy figure you told me at one point) and typing other abbreviations while one is expanding, it is something I could deal with on my end. Thing is, the solution I would have to implement would likely have a negative impact on performance (slight, but a necessary result of the changes that would have to be made). It’s a big change for what really is a very rarely-occurring thing.

    If all apps supported the more advanced text input APIs, life would be good. The next beta of Spell Catcher X 10.2.2 will have a TSM Doc Access test mode that developers can use to help test their implementation (the author of the WASTE text engine seemed very interested). Hopefully some (including Apple) will give it a try…

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    Evan: Indeed it does! Direct replacements now work in Pages 2.0… Yey! Could it be that Apple is actually paying attention? :-) Still doesn’t work in Mail, though… I suppose we’ll have to wait for a “major” upgrade, i.e. 10.5 at the earliest.

    As for typing speed, I don’t think I ever gave you a “words per minute” figure. I am fairly fast, but I have no formal training, and I doubt that I am breaking any records. It’s just that I use a lot of SCX abbreviations, so I think that statistically this increases the chances of the problem occurring for me quite a bit.

    I am always hopeful that software will improve in efficiency over time—although I tend to get the impression that there aren’t enough incentives for developers to do so. Microsoft doesn’t have enough competition, Apple seem to always have this tendency of implementing new features that will work best with next year’s hardware, etc. Lots of forces working against software efficiency, or so it seems :).

  5. Andrew Aitken says:

    I consider it an unavoidable fact of life. No matter how fast your machine, it is never quite fast enough.

    I’m running with a Dual 2.0Ghz G5, yet I find myself cursing when I try to do 4 things at once and it can’t keep up with me. I did it in the past with my old machines, and I’m sure in 5 years I’ll be doing the same with the hardware then :)

  6. Hawk Wings » Blog Archive » Betalogue on text replacement in Mail.app says:

    [...] Now Pierre Igot at Betalogue has posted a longer interesting explanation of why this problem occurs. [...]

  7. Pierre Igot says:

    Andrew: Agreed. As far as I am concerned, as long as computers use hard drives, things will not be fast enough for me. I should never have to wait for a file copy to complete. I shouldn’t have to wait for Mail to built the Move To menu of mailboxes each time I control-click on a message and select the command to move it to a mailbox. (It always takes a second or two.) etc. etc.

    Still lots of room for improvement!

  8. Tr909 says:

    (just a side note: To see your CPU indicators go to 100%, just startup firefox and click and hold your mouse-button. This bug has been in Bugzilla for three years, and for Powerbook and iBook users, this bug could make Firefox drain your battery quickly).

  9. Pierre Igot says:

    Tr909: Sorry, but on my G5 Quad it’s not enough to saturate the processors. Firefox does take up to 100% of CPU power, but distributed over four cores, it doesn’t really saturate the machine :).

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