SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Personal computers are a lot like cars -- buy the newest model today and in two years it will be nearly obsolete.
That "built-in" obsolescence can be so frustrating to buyers that some just postpone a purchase rather than buying and repenting later when the newer models come out.
But the buying decision may be a bit easier in the future because Intel Corp. and Acer America Corp. have come up with what some are calling an "insurance policy" for personal computer buyers.
Later this year, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel will introduce a new chip that will let 486SX computer owners easily upgrade their machines to include all the features of the more complex 486DX-- and it will operate twice as fast. And San Jose-based Acer America has given its 486SX customers the option to upgrade to a 486DX, using its "Chip Up" technology.
The 486SX -- which is still not a big seller -- is the "entry level" 486 processor, without the DX's mathematical processor.
Although upgrades for personal computers have been around for years, Intel and Acer have put a new twist on the idea. Instead of buying an expensive board, computer users can now boost the performance of the computer simply by plugging in a new microprocessor.
Intel's new product, which still isn't named, easily fits into an existing socket on the motherboard of the computer and starts running immediately, with no switches to change or boards to fit in. In fact, Intel designed in an "idiot pin" so users can't make a mistake when putting in the chip.
The chip is a new design of the 486DX specially created just for upgrades, although some expect Intel to sell the chip to computer companies as well.
"Computer users told us they were looking for a way to rejuvenate their machines," says Dennis Carter, marketing manager for the 486 line at Intel. "By the time their computers were a couple of years old, the new $2,000 machine on the market had better price performance, and they wanted a 'mid-life kicker.' "
Acer's computer customers can buy an off-the-shelf 486DX and drop it in a specially designed slot to upgrade their computers to full-fledged DX machines, including the math processor capabilities. Unlike Intel's new chip, though, this upgrade won't make the computer run any faster.
But Acer's director of product marketing, Olend King, says that for the cost of a 486DX made by Intel, which is about $200, a customer can get an essentially "new" computer that is worth $600 to $800 more than an SX model.
"A lot of people are buying our 486SX machines and then upgrading when they need to do more complex computing such as financial analysis or computer-aided design," he says. Some of Acer's customers have upgraded their SX systems just one week after buying, Mr. King adds.
Intel's new chip will be priced at less than $500, and customers will be able to buy it at electronics and computer stores. Intel will make mid-life products available for its future chips like the upcoming 586, Mr. Carter says.
Industry watchers think this painless upgrade option will be a hit with experienced users who are eager to keep up with the pace of technology innovation but don't want to always buy new computers. "This is going to be a big deal," says Michael Slater, editor of the Microprocessor Report in Sebastopol, Calif. Mr. Slater predicts that single-chip upgrades will become very popular.
But will dropping in a new microprocessor substantially improve the computer's overall performance?
In the past, traditional upgrade boards didn't really do much for
an older computer because just boosting the speed of the microprocessor didn't do anything for the surrounding peripherals such as the disk drive or the graphics chips, which were often much slower.
So the end result for the user was only a minor increase in performance, and often at a very high cost -- $1,000 or more.
But Intel's chip was re-engineered just for this purpose, Mr. Carter says, so it solves many of the past problems.
Even if there is a performance increase, some analysts wonder ** whether the upgrade will be worth the money to a user.