Supercomputers used to take up entire rooms and perform over 100 million operations per second. Supercomputers now still take up entire rooms but perform quadrillions of operations per second. (While 100 million has an impressive eight zeros, a quadrillion has fifteen.) And they're only getting more powerful. According to Top500, a bi-annual ranking of the world's most powerful computers published Monday, Japan's "K Computer" outperforms any supercomputer ever built. The performance of "K" is equivalent to one million desktop computers and it's due for an upgrade in the next few months.

"K" is just of several sensational advances in computer hardware. IBM and others have been working furiously lately on a game-changing advance in processing power known as quantum computing. Whereas current computers operate using transistors on silicon chips, quantum computers use the behaviors of sub-atomic particles to power calculations. Just as the silicon-based hardware breakthrough in the 1970s shrunk the size of basic computer systems from room-sized boxes to miniscule chips--ten times as small and ten times as powerful--the jump to quantum computing will catapult hardware industry light years into the future."You cross into a quantum mechanical regime of operation," IBM vice president of innovation told Computerworld magazine. "There's no precedent for that."

Lockheed Martin bought the world's first quantum computer earlier this month for a staggering $10 million. (And you complained about the price of the iPad?) But the sale confirms that quantum leaps in technology will be accompanied by quantum leaps in prices. Although governments and research labs are the main customers, here's a handy buyers guide of the world's most powerful computers--just in case you're in the market.

K Computer (Japan)

 

Processing Power: 8.2 quadrillion calculations per second (8.2 petaflops)
Price: $1.2 billion to build--so far-- and $10 million per year to operate
Manufacturer: Fujitsu, for the Riken Advanced Institute of Computational Science in Kobe, Japan
Energy Consumed: Enough to power 10,000 houses
Features: In Japan's first appearance at the top of the world's most powerful computer list in seven years, the country hopes to reestablish itself as the world leader in technology. Despite already having built more processing power than the next five supercomputers combined, the  project leaders say that 10 quadrillion calculations per second is the goal for "K"-- an abbreviation of "Kei," the Japanese word for 10 quadrillion. The supercomputer will be used to research medical breakthroughs, climate change and weather patterns.

Tianhe-1A (China)

Processing Power: 2.5 quadrillion calculations per second (2.5 petaflops)
Price: $88 million to build, $20 million annual operating costs
Manufacturer: National Supercomputing Center at the Chinese National University of Defense
Energy Consumer: Enough to power 5,000 houses
Features: The Tianhe-1A is powered by the American NVIDIA Tesla chips in 112 computer cabinet (compared to the estimated 800 the K Computer will have when completed.) The Chinese government uses the supercomputer to look for oil and aid in aircraft design. It's also an "open access" computer which means that other nations are allowed access to the processing power.

Jaguar, a.k.a. Cray XT5 (U.S.A.)

Processing Power: 2.33 quadrillion calculations per second (2.33 petaflops)
Price: $104 million to build
Manufacturer: Cray for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Energy Consumption: Enough to power 15,000 homes
Features: Using nearly a quarter of a million AMD Opteron processors, the Jaguar had been the world's most powerful computer until the development of the Tianhe-1A. The computer takes up more space than an NBA basketball court but has lead to advances in nuclear physics, seismology, climate modeling and renewable energy.

D-Wave One (U.S.A.)

Processing Power: Unknown, as the quantum computing processor performs calculations simultaneously
Price: $10 million to purchase, plus undisclosed annual operating fee
Manufacturer: D-Wave Systems for Lockheed Martin
Energy Consumption: Unknown
Features: As the world's first commercially produced quantum computer, the D-Wave One is a different kind of beast than a supercomputer. While computers we use today deal in binary code--that is, using 1s and 0s to turn switches on and off--quantum computers deal in 1s, 0s and, due to the rules of quantum mechanics, both 1 and 0 at the same time. Some physicists doubt that the D-Wave has actually produced a quantum computer because they claim it would have lead to breakthroughs by now. However, the company has defended itself in a study published in Nature that describes how the system evolves in a way that resembles quantum mechanics more than classical mechanics. That seems to mean that only with more use will the evolution produce more breakthroughs. However, the system can only evolve at temperatures close to absolute zero.