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ISSUE 518: The high tech office- Sept 28 1999


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 Chinese res-
taurant menu.

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 computers.

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 Mobile-Celeron notebooks.

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. *

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