ISSUE 518: The high tech office- Sept
The many varieties of PCs can do what's necessary
If you're looking to buy a new desktop
computer, good luck trying to make any sense of the ads.
Oh, if you know you want to buy a Mac, it's relatively
easy. One of Apple Computers Inc. interim CEO (aka iCEO, get
it?) Steve Jobs' first tasks was to make sense of a convoluted
and confusing product lineup, and he's succeeded pretty well.
There's one model of consumer desktop, the iMac, and
one model of professional desktop, the blue and white G3s, which are in
the process of being replaced by new grey-
on-grey G4 powerhouses. The pro-models come in a range of proces-
sor speeds, but choices are pretty straightforward.
If you're a PC user, however, just figuring out the
varieties of processors can be on a par with ordering from a large
To start with, the literally thousands of PC brand
names include processors from three different companies. There are
multiple models and a range of speeds available for each model. And
note that speed alone is not particularly useful in comparing different
processor models. Two different models may both run at, say, 400 MHz,
but that doesn't mean they're equally powerful. The good news is that
even today's low-end models are pretty powerful machines.
Here are capsule summaries of the major PC processor
families to help you unravel the mess.
* Cyrix, the smallest of the crowded field,
was recently sold by owner National Semiconductor to Taiwan's Via
Technologies. The company produces low-cost processors destined for
budget-priced models. Its current model, the M II is sold with a number
that the company claims reflects its "equivalent performance," rather
than its actual speed. The M II-433, for example, runs at 300 MHz.
Independent testing suggests that the "equivalent
performance" rating is somewhat exaggerated, however. The M II also
offers weak floating point and MMX performance, making it weak as a
game-playing system. Despite this, computers powered by M IIs could
perform just fine for many small businesses.
While a year or two ago, Cyrix processors were found
in low-end models from several major manufacturers, such as Compaq,
today they are less evident.
* AMD has come from behind to challenge Intel
in a number of areas, but has not always been able to deliver as much
product as it had market for. Their K6 family of processors includes
the original K6, and the K6-II and K6-III models. While all these
models share some of the weaknesses of Cyrix's designs, they are
overall more powerful and have gained a healthy share of the retail
market, initially for desktop units, but now also in an increasing
number of notebooks as well.
Many of the well-known manufacturers are shipping
models built around K6-II or -III processors. At the same processor
speed, Intel's Celeron outperforms the equivalent K6-II, but the newer
K6-III will beat both. K6-II or especially III systems make quite
acceptable computers for most business and home uses.
AMD's latest offering is the Athlon, formerly known as
the K7. It's the first clone processor to outperform Intel's mainstream
product line. Effectively, it's more power for less money than Intel's
Pentium-III, making it a possible contender for workstation or
entry-level server computers. Athlon does not support Intel's new SSE
instructions, but neither does much software, making this a non-issue
for now. As well, because this is a new model, motherboards supporting
it are rare. As a result, Athlon-based systems are not yet common.
* Intel has, up until the Athlon, set the pace for the
PC market and still controls the majority of units sold. The company's
"Intel Inside" advertising campaign was extremely effective. Up until
recently, many major enterprises limited their purchases to Intel-based
Intel's Celeron is aimed at lower-end machines.
Initial Celerons were underperformers that were hard to recommend --
the model deserves the "most improved" award, with current models
offering a lot of speed and power for the price. To keep the Celerons
from eating into the market for Intel's higher-priced processors, the
models are limited to a bus speed of 66 MHz and do not include the
multimedia SSE instructions. However, virtually all business and home
users can work happily on a Celeron-powered machine, including the
Intel is slowly phasing out the Pentium-II series,
first in desktops and later in notebooks. It's being replaced by the
Pentium-III, a similar set of models offering higher clock speeds and
the SSE instructions. As
a result, the Pentium-III is now In-
tel's mainstream product line (at least for desktops -- notebook
versions should be appearing soon). Frankly, unless you're into
video-editing, Web site creation or you're a serious gaming enthusiast,
the P-III (as well as AMD's Athlon) is overkill. Get one as a status
symbol, perhaps. *