Once again, Intel has increased the stakes in processor performance. By the time you read this, the chip company, which has already cornered 85 per cent of the world processor market, will have launched the Pentium II. And about a dozen PCs sporting the unit will be available.
A new processor from Intel is as regular an event as the changing seasons. However, this one is slightly different: more than just an upgrade, it is the most important new processor from Intel since the Pentium itself. The Pentium II will power top-of-the-range PCs for businesses and homes until the turn of the century.
The Pentium II has come at just the right time. Many users due to upgrade Pentium or 486-based PCs were holding off for the arrival of Windows NT 4.0. With the Microsoft operating system now established, they can replace those machines with Pentium Pro or Pentium II models and switch to NT.
There will be plenty of Pentium II machines to run new NT applications: Compaq, Dell, Digital, IBM, Fujitsu and Packard Bell are just a few of the suppliers which have announced their intention to produce PCs based on the new microprocessors. They are expected to cost between $3,000 and $4,000.
Users who baulk at spending this much on a desktop can take heart from the fact that 166MHz Pentiums will become considerably cheaper. In fact, prior to the launch of the new Pentium models, Compaq had already initiated an orgy of price cutting and special promotions.
Initially available with processor speeds of 233MHz and 266MHz, Pentium IIs operating at 330MHz and 400MHz will be on the market by the end of the year. Not only will the Pentium II speed up existing applications, it will also boost multimedia-based programs: Intel?s MMX multimedia technology is embedded in the processor.
Pentium II processors could also bring affordable video-conferencing to the desktop, especially if video- conferencing features are included in Windows as standard. Intel has developed a new bus ? the Dual Independent Bus ? which will allow other components inside PCs to take advantage of the faster-running processors.
Andy Grove, Intel?s chief executive, says the Pentium II heralds the arrival of the next generation of business applications. He has demonstrated network PCs running on 233MHz Pentium IIs. The new microprocessors have also been touted for power-hungry applications such as data mining. However, experts have pointed out that their limited memory-addressing capabilities will hinder their use in this area. Top-end database servers will need access to more than the 512Mb which Pentium II processors can currently address.
No new Intel product would be complete without the obligatory bug scare; and the Pentium II is no exception. Even before the chip had been launched, reports were circulating that its floating-point unit was floating a little too much. There is also competition from AMD, whose K6 chip has been favourably compared with both Pentium Pro and Pentium II processors.
The PC industry won?t worry because the Pentium II is just what it needs. The chip will restore margins, encourage the growth of multimedia applications and provide a platform for the development of larger programs with features such as 3D graphics.
This is good news for users. The Pentium II will deliver that all-important price performance advantage. In addition, standard processors and cache configurations set by Intel will also mean that manufacturers can bring products to market quicker than before, giving their customers faster access to the latest technology advances.
John Lamb is contributing editor of Business Computer World.
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