For faster computer, take a bus Circuitry: This vehicle brings users a different speedy transport.

August 31, 1998|By Bill Husted | Bill Husted,COX NEWS SERVICE

Buying a PC is easy. Prices are lower than I've ever seen; machines are more powerful and (with rare exceptions) even the no-name machines work fairly reliably.

Yet most folks strain and fret too much when getting ready to buy a PC. They study magazines, ask friends, consult psychics and hang out in computer stores. Truth is - until recently - you could do pretty well by deciding how much you can afford to spend on a PC, then shopping for the most powerful machine you can find in that price range.

If you are one of those fretters I was talking about, do I have good news for you. A new generation of machines hit the market several months ago. And that's made the buying decision a little more difficult. So now you can worry and study and scratch your head without feeling paranoid.

We're going to talk about buses today. And I'll do my best to explain why it's a good idea not to miss the bus.

If you're a computer guru, you'll know all about these new machines already. But if you're a computer guru, you probably ought to be spending your Sundays outside anyway and take a break from all this tech talk. So for the rest of you, let's gather around and talk about why things got complicated at the computer store.

These new machines have faster chips in them. And most new users think the speed of the chip, measured in megahertz, is the only measure of a computer's speed. But speed is just one of the criteria. While these new machines have chips that run at 350 and 400 megahertz, the real speed increase comes from a faster bus. Faster bus? If you're a novice user, the last bus you encountered had a smelly exhaust. The kind of bus we're talking about today is built into the motherboard (the main circuit board of the PC).

To understand how a bus works, let's think of the motherboard as a city. The chips on the board, including the processor chip, are buildings, and the circuitry that ties these chips together makes up the bus. The bus is roughly equivalent to roadways that connect the chips. Until now, buses ran at 33 megahertz, 60 megahertz or 75 megahertz. But this new generation of Pentium II machines uses a bus that runs much faster - at 100 megahertz.

So the story here isn't in the chips. The 350-megahertz and 400-megahertz chips are faster, but - inside - there's no real difference in the way they are made.

The real speed increase comes from the speed of the bus. And like a broader roadway, this 100-megahertz bus means data will travel faster inside the circuitry of the PC.

You'll pay a premium for 100-megahertz machines. And because they work so much faster, you'll also pay more for the faster memory chips they use. After all, you need a faster chip to take advantage of the faster bus speed.

So now you have a real choice. If you buy one of these new-generation machines, you'll be able to upgrade it with faster chips - as they're introduced - and get speed bonuses just not possible with machines with a slower bus speed.

These new machines really are faster and, if you have plenty of money to spend on computing, they're the way to go. On the other hand, not all of us are fabulously wealthy. And depending on how you use a PC at home, the speed increase from one of these new machines may not be important to you.

For instance, while I have fancy machines here at work, at home I have a really old PC that runs at 125 megahertz. (That's not a typo, it's the result of an old Overdrive chip used to upgrade what had been a Pentium/75.) That home machine is used almost exclusively for checking e-mail, using a word processor and browsing the Web. It's not a perfect machine, but it does all I need right now. And until I win the lottery, it's likely to stick around.

How about you? Who knows what you ought to do. But if you're computer shopping these days, at least you now have some legitimately tough decisions. Enjoy the suffering.

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