ISSUE 490: The high-tech office- March
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
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?
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,
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
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. *