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ISSUE 490: The high-tech office- March 16 1999


Brand-new Pentium III computers are fine,
but don't be taken in by the media hype

As I write this, Intel has just released its latest -- and presumably greatest -- central processing chip, the Pentium III. Expect a barrage of print and TV ads extolling its virtues.

The chip offers speeds as fast or faster than the previous speed champ, the company's P-II, which topped out at 450 MHz. P-IIIs are available at either 450 or 500 MHz.

And while the concept of speed is immediately recognizable, a more esoteric feature is the P-III's 70 new processor instructions. Originally code-named the Katmai New Instructions, but now renamed Streaming SIMD Extensions, standing for Single Instructions Multiple Data (don't you just love computer industry acronyms?), these hold the potential of improved performance for multimedia and graphics processing, streaming video, voice recognition and more.

Should you care? More to the point, should this motivate you to replace your existing computer?

Probably not.

The ads are going to try to make you feel like you'll be left standing on the dock while the technology boat sails away if you don't have a computer built around the new P-III chip. But at least for now, it just isn't the case.

First generation P-III computers are really barely updated older models with the new CPU added in. They'll show, at best, modest im-
provements from the new processor. The high-end 500-MHz chip will be faster (about 10 per cent) than the high-end P-II 450-MHz models, but there won't be much difference apparent between versions of the two processors running at the same speed.

And the 70 new instructions with the unmemorable name will only offer performance benefits when supported by software. And right now, at least, that's simply not the case. Two years ago, Intel replaced its standard Pentium with MMX models, also offering new instructions aimed at multimedia. Even now, only a few games and virtually no business applications have been rewritten to benefit from those instructions.

But the Streaming SIMD instructions may prove more useful to business users. It seems likely that we'll soon be seeing voice recognition software promising to "run best on a Pentium-III," for example. But for now, the improvements remain a future possibility.

Like other first-generation products, expect bigger improvements later on. Processor speeds will be boosted. Intel recently showed off a demonstration model running at a blistering one gigahertz (1,000 MHz), though expect to see a slow evolution of speeds to that point. And, later in the year, new motherboards are expected, running at a system speed of 133 MHz, compared to today's 100-MHz models. This will boost performance of all parts of the computer, not just the CPU.

AMD, Intel's largest competitor for the PC market, isn't standing still. It's K6-2 chip was the best-selling processor last year in the U.S. retail market and it's just started shipping a K6-3 model. This chip improves performance by adding so-called L2-cache RAM right onto the CPU. (Intel used this strategy to perk up its underperforming Celeron models, but didn't implement it in the P-III.) Later this year, AMD is expected to release an entirely new K-7 model, which may push the system bus up to 200 MHz and outperform comparable Intel units.

Intel has also been criticized for its decision to give each P-III a unique serial number -- not just branded on the case, but written internally into the chip's software. Intel suggests that the use of this number will offer real benefits, particularly when used across corporate networks to identify each machine. But privacy groups worry that it will make it possible to track users across the Internet.

Groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center have been talking of organizing a boycott of P-III machines. As a result, Intel has announced that while it will not remove the chip ID, the feature will be turned off by default.

Buyers of new computer systems should see one immediate benefit from the release of the Pentium-III. Still-plenty-powerful computers built around Pentium-II CPUs can be expected to drop in price. And even lower-priced computers, using AMD's K6-2 or - 3 models or Intel's much-maligned (but now vastly improved) Celeron models offer more than enough oomph for most business uses.

If you've just got to have the latest and greatest, go ahead and buy a P-III system now. But the alternatives should be good enough (and more affordable) for most of us. And remember that today's expensive and red-hot computer will be replaced by faster and cheaper models within a few months. *

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan