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Mike Elgan
Mike Elgan

Cheap Power
Intel owns 95 percent of the PC microprocessor market. But all that's about to change.

The trick isn't to make a fast processor, but to make a fast processor cheap.

You can get a 600MHz Alpha-based Windows NT Workstation from Digital-which is much faster than anything based on chips from Intel, AMD or Cyrix. Believe me, I want one. But like most power users, I'm not ready to shell out $10,000 for a PC.

Most of us are willing to spend between $2,500 and $4,000 on a new computer. And for our money, we want the fastest PC possible.

The new 266MHz Pentium II brings cheap power to an unprecedented level. We compare seven of these hot new systems in our special report on page 110. We also review a 233MHz model of the Pentium II, as well as an AMD-K6 system.

The good news about the Pentium II is it's fast. Really fast. It's the first Windows processor that exceeds 500 million instructions per second (MIPS). It sports Intel's new MMX technology (as does the K6), which radically speeds performance on applications that support MMX.

The bad news is there aren't many MMX apps out there. At press time, the number of fully MMX-compatible apps available rounds to zero. Fortunately, MMX chips improve overall performance even on non-MMX-compatible apps.

Later this year, you'll be able to buy systems that feature Intel's hot new Accelerated Graphics Port technology (see Cover Story, May), which, together with high-speed Pentium II chips, dramatically increases overall performance on low-cost Windows hardware.

Should you buy now or wait? Here's my take: There's always something much faster and much cheaper less than a year away. If you're ready to upgrade to a faster system, go for it. These systems are hot, and the price is right.

Intel owns 95 percent of the PC microprocessor market, a market that earned more than $15 billion last year. But all that's about to change, thanks largely to AMD. Dataquest predicts Intel's market share will drop to 75 percent by the year 2000. (Wake-up call: That's two and a half years away.)

Intel used to enjoy a three-year lead over its competitors. But two years ago, AMD acquired rival NexGen, which improved its ability to compete with Intel technology. It also rolled the dice and bet the company on two expensive new "fabs" (microprocessor factories), the first of which is already cranking out new chips. AMD makes hundreds of thousands of chips per quarter. Soon, it will be able to produce tens of millions of chips per year.

Ironically, one of the K6's biggest advantages is compatibility. It's more compatible, for example, with existing Pentium motherboard designs than the Pentium II. It's MMX-compatible. It's Windows-compatible.

Smaller PC vendors appreciate the K6's high compatibility because it requires less work than supporting Pentium II upgrades.

And some of the larger PC companies are fed up with Intel's higher prices and "Intel Inside" campaign, which suggests the chip is more important than the rest of the system. Several of the largest PC vendors are looking seriously at using large quantities of chips from both AMD and Cyrix.

AMD's other big advantage is price. The company plans to sell its chips for at least 25 percent less than Intel's Pentium II. That matters in an industry with paper-thin margins and cutthroat competition. The company is also getting aggressive with marketing, going prime-time with TV commercials during Seinfeld. And future plans call for a version of the chip for portable computers.

Though Intel and AMD will probably stay in the performance lead, the price of Cyrix's M2 chip will likely remain comparable to that of the AMD-K6 when it ships this summer.

Check out our report on the Cyrix M2 on page 54.

Each of the three major chip contenders offers advantages and disadvantages to both original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and buyers. The question is: How important is price?

Do you care if your PC has "Intel Inside?" Or do you just want more bang for the buck? Intel, AMD and Cyrix want to know. And so do I. Drop me a line at melgan@winmag.com.

Contact editor Mike Elgan in the "Start" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe, or at the e-mail addresses here.

Windows Magazine, June 1997, page 07.

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