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 a benefit.

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 generations.

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 products.

* 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.*

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