Don't spend until chips make sense

July 19, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

A colleague stopped by the other day after spending a frustrating Sunday looking through the computer ads.

"My eyes are going blurry," he said. "I see computers with Pentium II's, Pentium III's, Celerons and all these different AMD K6 chips with twos and threes after them, and all these different numbers after the chip. How important is all that stuff, and how do I know what to buy?"

It isn't easy, I told him. There's a lot of technobabble afoot. In fact, I can't remember a time when buyers had a choice of PC's with so many different processors. And yes, the processor you choose is important -- but it's not the only component that determines whether you're buying a good computer. A fast hard drive, a good video board and extra memory are just as important as minor differences in CPU speed and design.

Still, the microprocessor is the heart of your PC. It's the chip that puts the "compute" in computer. On the whole, machines with faster, more capable processors will perform better than computers with lesser processors. And those capable processors will cost more. The question is how much processor you'll really use. So here's a quick guide:

If you're looking for a Windows PC, there are two companies making most of the processors -- Intel and AMD. Intel produced the basic Pentium design used in 80 percent to 90 percent of the world's PCs, and it sells three distinct lines of processors for the home and office desktop. In recent years, AMD has produced a variety of compatible chips. In fact, the competition between the two companies has become so fierce -- and prices have dropped so fast -- that both companies have been hurting financially. You and I are the beneficiaries of the fight.

When you look at a typical PC ad, you'll inevitably see the name of the processor's manufacturer (both Intel and AMD market their brands aggressively), then the name or code number of the chip, followed by the chip's speed rating.

Intel offers the Celeron, Pentium II and Pentium III, while AMD markets chips with designations of K6-2, K6-3 and Athlon.

The three lines don't match up exactly, which is one reason the marketplace is so confusing. And some PC makers mix and match. IBM uses AMD K6-2 chips in its less-expensive Aptiva computers and Intel Pentium III processors in its top-of-the-line models.

Whatever the make and model, speed is measured in megahertz (MHz), or millions of cycles per second. A cycle refers to the amount of time it theoretically takes the processor to carry out one instruction. A chip running at 400 MHz can theoretically carry out 400 million instructions a second. So, let's say you see a PC advertised with an AMD K6-2/450 processor. That means the the chip is running at 450 MHz. Faster is better, up to the point where the cost increases faster than performance.

In the $1,200-and-below range, you'll generally find PCs using the AMD K6-2 processor or the Intel Celeron. The K6 was a smash success in this market for AMD because it offered processing power that was close to Intel's Pentium II line for substantially less money. PC makers flocked to it and almost drove Intel out of the low end of the market. Intel responded with the Celeron, a stripped-down version of its more expensive Pentium chips. The original Celeron was a dog -- too late and too slow -- but the chip's second incarnation is a much more efficient design. In fact, it's so good that I think it will completely replace the Pentium II, leaving the company with a much less confusing lineup.

You can buy a fast, capable PC using either of these chips -- leave the arguments over which is better to techies. They provide more than enough horsepower for word processing, spreadsheets, database work, Web browsing and other chores. Depending on what video card they're paired with, they'll also play most games well, but if you're looking for absolutely top performance with entertainment titles, step up a notch.

Intel's Pentium II line is the oldest of the bunch but still a decent buy for the money. By Intel's own benchmarks and independent tests, a Pentium II will outperform a Celeron with a similar speed rating, but only by a fraction. It's better at some of the complex number crunching required for graphics than either the Celeron or the lower speed AMD K6-2 chips, but AMD's K6-3 can outperform the Pentium II line at the higher end.

See, I told you it was complicated.

At the top of the heap is Intel's Pentium III, introduced this year with the usual $300 million ad campaign. It's basically a beefed-up Pentium II with new built-in instructions for the complex calculations required by 3D graphics software, high-performance games, speech recognition and other advanced multimedia work. You'll see more software that takes advantage of these improvements over the next year, but if your demands on a PC are modest, the Pentium III may not be worth the price.

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