Intel's 400 MHz chip means bargains for low-end computers


From time to time, readers ask me why I don't have an online archive of past columns. Some even suggest that I put my old columns together in a book.

While I appreciate the kind words, there's a good reason for not doing so. It would be too embarrassing.

There's an old saying in this business that today's news is tomorrow's fish wrap, and nothing gets older faster than technology reporting. Take the little piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago on $1,000 computers.

I described in detail what buyers could expect for a grand, and on the day I wrote it, I told the truth. By the time it got into print a couple of days later, Intel had announced its new generation of high-end, 400-MHz Pentium II processors, and PC manufacturers were ready with a new generation of barn-burners for the Maserati crowd.

So how does this this affect the lowly, $1,000 home computer? Well, inventories of formerly high-end PCs suddenly became inventories of mid-range PCs. And the old mid-range computers became low-end computers. In other words, every computer on the shelf was suddenly a bit closer to perceived obsolescence than it was the day before.

This kind of change used to take a couple of months to work its way through the supply chain. But with new processors emerging every few months and everyone jittery about too much inventory, the "bubble-down" occurs much faster today. It took me by surprise this time.

There's another force driving down the price of PCs. Retailers and manufacturers are anticipating Microsoft's release of Windows 98. This could occur in June if everything goes according to schedule - or sometime in the next millennium if the Justice Department and a pack of state attorneys general try to block the release with an antitrust suit.

Not surprisingly, resellers want to clear out inventories of computers loaded with Windows 95 before machines with the new operating system roll in.

Given those pressures, within a week after my column appeared, many retailers had lowered prices and were selling much better computers for $1,000 than they had been a week before.

Folks comparing what they saw in my column with the computers they saw in stores undoubtedly thought I was fool (an all too common sentiment) - or congratulated themselves on finding the deal of the century.

So now that I've admitted to bungling the low end, it's time to discuss the cause of my embarrassment, Intel's new 350 and 400-MHz Pentium II processors.

First things first. If you've always wondered what that "MHz" abbreviation means, you, it's the raw measure of a processor's speed. It stands for megahertz, or millions of cycles per second. Theoretically, it takes one cycle of a processor's clock to execute a single instruction. The faster the chip can be driven, the faster it can run programs. A 400-MHz processor is running at 400 million cycles per second.

To put this into perspective, the first computer I bought in 1983 ran at just under one MHz, and the first IBM PCs ran at 4.77 MHz. So these new babies are fast.

The 400-MHz Pentium is theoretically about 20 percent quicker than its fastest predecessor, and Intel has boosted the chip's speed with a new set of supporting chips (known as "BX" for some reason) that increases the speed of the computer's system bus from 66 MHz to 100 MHz.

The "bus" is the circuitry that allows the processor to communicate with the rest of the computer system, a highway within the PC that plays a major role in performance.

Processors always run faster than the system bus, which means means that PC's have a built-in bottleneck. The bus can't feed information to the processor as fast as the processor can handle it. This is one reason why raw increases in processor speed don't always translate into real increases in the speed at which computers can run programs. Even with the new 100-MHz bus, the latest generation of Pentium processors probably won't result in much more than 15 percent gain in overall speed, which translates into marginal gains in real performance.

So why are the new Pentium II processor such a big deal? A good question. Even before the latest Pentium release, high-end computers were so fast that very few programs could make them breathe hard, and most of those programs were games and high-end graphics applications for designers, photo editors and engineers. For word processing, spreadsheets, Web browsing and other mundane tasks, you don't really need that much horsepower. Even Microsoft concedes that there's nothing its software inventory that can tax the new chips.

On the other hand, it's always a good idea to buy the best technology you can afford - it means your computer will last longer. Software publishers will eventually catch up with the hardware makers.

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