ISSUE 405: THE HIGH-TECH OFFICE--Alan
Clone CPUs increasingly worth investigating
as alternative to industry-standard Intel
You've gasped at the duel of the computing
platforms (Mac versus PC). You've winced at the ongoing office suite
wars (Microsoft Office versus Corel WordPerfect Suite
versus Lotus SmartSuite). Welcome, now ... chip conundrums!
If, like 90 per cent or so of computer buyers, you've
settled on the so-called 'Wintel' platform (Microsoft Windows on an Intel-type
processor), you're now faced, for the first time, with a real choice
between CPUs -- the computer chips which are the closest thing to a
brain in our beloved computers. (Let's agree to ignore philosophical
questions such as 'Can computers think?,' okay?)
As the 'Wintel' name suggests, Intel represents the
vast bulk of the CPUs. Alternatives have been around for years, but
most of these contender chips have been relegated to the niche market
of lower-priced, lower-powered clones circa Intel's last generation.
Here, among the low-end desktop machines (and some notebooks), the
modest power requirements of these previous-generation chips have been
But now the competition has powered up. Companies such
as AMD and Cyrix are challenging Intel at the high end
with new products directly competitive with Intel's newest, fastest and
most expensive products. Meanwhile, industry-standard Intel is fighting
back with a wider-than-ever range of CPUs.
The silicon donnybrook is enough to cause chronic
confusion among would-be buyers. If you seek new hardware, however, you
should be aware of the alternatives:
* Well-seasoned CPU-cloner AMD has brought out a new,
fast K6 processor which includes AMD's version of Intel's MMX
multimedia extensions. It has the speed and power to rival some of
Intel's best, but at a competitive price. All in all, it's much more
interesting than AMD's previous K5 generation. The K6 chip is now
carried in Digital Equipment systems and some other major
manufacturers'. (For your information, Digital is now suing Intel and,
needless to say, is trying to avoid using Intel products.)
* Cyrix has teamed up with IBM to attack Intel
on two fronts.
The MediaGX chip is aimed at low-priced machines such
as Compaq's Presario models. Although the chip allows
manufacturers to save money by including multimedia and system
functions right on the CPU, this approach can limit the future
expandability of these machines. At the high end, the 6x86MX processor
(formerly known as M2) is firmly aimed at discomforting Intel's new
Most companies rate their CPUs by the chip's
clock-speed; the faster, the better. However, Cyrix claims its chips
are more efficient than Intel's, and thus advertises its models as
having the legs of the equivalent Intel model. For example, the Cyrix
6x86MX-233 actually runs at 188 MHz but (according to Cyrix) is
competitive with 233 MHz models from Intel and AMD. (The 6x86MX is
mostly found in lesser-known brands, particularly those from U.S.
mail-order companies.) As a potential buyer comparing clock-speeds, be
ready for some confusion.
Like AMD's K6, both Cyrix models feature multimedia
extensions. While this will be of more interest to home-game players
than business users, support for this feature is beginning to show up
in newer business applications such as the Presentation program in
Corel's new WordPerfect 8 suite.
But industry-standard Intel isn't taking it lying
down. Intel now offers four distinct lines of CPUs. In response to the
heightened competition, it's also cutting prices on some models:
* Standard Pentiums (without the MMX extensions) are
being slowly dropped from the Intel lineup. Thanks to the recent price
cuts, however, these Pentiums can represent good value for business
buyers as few business applications benefit from these multimedia
extensions. If you don't need it, why buy it?
Clocking in at up to 233 Mhz, MMX Pentiums are Intel's
main line for home and office PCs, but Intel is trying to move the
market away from even these enhanced Pentiums to its more powerful
* Last year's Pentium-Pro remains a powerful option.
In some circumstances it may provide more power, for a lower price,
than the newer Pentium-II. However, the Pentium-Pro also lack MMX
support and works best with fully 32-bit operating systems such as OS/2
or NT. Still, it's a good choice for network servers, such as those
running Windows NT.
* The Pentium-II is Intel's latest. This silicon
screamer has the highest speeds currently available (up to 300 MHz),
MMX enhancements, and full-speed support for Windows 95 as well as NT.
However (there's always an however), and unlike all the other CPUs
mentioned (from both Intel and competitors), these models don't fit
into a socket on the computer's motherboard. Instead, the Pentium-II is
on a card that fits in a special socket -- thus forcing manufacturers
to redesign motherboards for this newest generation, and thus
ultimately also boosting the system's end price.
As well, the first generation of Pentium-II machines
uses an older version of Intel's support chipset; potential buyers may
want to wait a couple of months for products featuring the 440LX
chipset to appear. This chipset will allow these CPUs to run at their
full potential and thus avoid the inherent and relative slowness of the
current 440FX chipset.
In the past, many business buyers have played it safe,
sticking to 'Intel Inside' products and known brand-names. But just as
clone-system names have proven to be cost-effective purchases in both
home and office, clone CPUs are increasingly worth investigating -- in
both the high-end and the more modestly priced systems.
More choice makes life more complicated, but the
result may be more powerful systems for less cost.*