Are You Ready For A Pentium Power Trip?

So you thought the 486 DX2-66 would give you all the computer you would ever need. Now along comes Intel, making a big push on the tube to get you to buy a brainy personal computer built around its Pentium microprocessor. Never mind that 486-based computers housing Intel and other companies' chips are relatively cheap and powerful enough to run all the latest gee-whiz multimedia software. Or that for as little as $1,500, you can buy a computer packed with a CD-ROM drive, sound card, and other features that make techies drool. If you can squeeze just a little bit more out of your budget, you can afford a Pentium.

Is Pentium worth it? With prices falling as quickly as they have, it's certainly worth considering more machine than you need--or think you need--right now. Intel insists that "all PC software runs best on a Pentium processor," with "faster response time" and full-screen video. Of course, it's one thing to say that the new Pentium chips are speedier; it's another to get across what the horsepower means in practical terms. That's why, in stores such as CompUSA, Intel is demonstrating how long it would take to do basic tasks using a 60-Mhz Pentium processor as compared with a 486 DX2 chip.

For example, a Pentium owner running 3D Home Architect from Broderbund could display a three-dimensional view of a house and then zoom to a kitchen view in around 13 seconds. The same task takes roughly twice as long with the 486. Indeed, independent tests by National Software Testing Laboratories, which, like BUSINESS WEEK, is owned by McGraw-Hill, confirmed a discernible speed advantage on Pentiums. NSTL found that a 60-Mhz Pentium's performance is roughly 30% faster than a 66-Mhz 486 machine.

SWEET SPOT. For more mundane software, the speed difference might not matter. In a less formal test, I didn't detect much of difference playing solitaire on a Pentium, as compared with the 486 33-Mhz machine I use in the office. The 386 SX 16-Mhz dinosaur I still crank up at home was a different matter. NSTL tests on Windows applications such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Lotus 1-2-3 found that Pentiums outpaced 486 DX2s by about 40%. Generally, programs that rely on intensive graphics can take advantage of the Pentium's so-called "floating point processor" and perform even faster.

Pentium machines have gotten to mass-market pricing levels more quickly than earlier-generation models did. By Intel's account, it took the 386 DX computer systems, introduced in 1985, five years to drop from $8,000 to $2,000. The 486 DX chip took four years to strike that level from a starting point of $5,300. But the Pentium, which was born in 1993 with around a $4,000 price tag, has taken just a year. In fact, many Pentium systems that run at speeds of 60 Mhz cost in the $1,800 to $2,200 range--a sweet spot for some buyers.

ADDED ATTRACTIONS. Some of the newest Pentium PCs, which run at 75 Mhz, 90 Mhz, and 100 Mhz, are also approaching tempting price levels. In November, Gateway 2000, which sells a popular line of computers by mail order, unveiled the $2,500 P5-75 Family PC, a 75-Mhz multimedia Pentium, complete with a 730-megabyte hard drive, 8 megabytes of random-access memory, and a bundle of CD-ROM software that includes the Microsoft Encarta '94 encyclopedia and Microsoft Cinemania '95 movie guide. For an extra $400, consumers can trade up to a 90-Mhz model, with a 1-gigabyte hard drive.

Intel's attempts to usher in the Pentium age mean lower prices for all PCs. A quick glance at the classified ads shows full-fledged 486-based multimedia computers--machines propeller-heads would have killed for only a year or so ago--are selling for as little as $1,450. With at least a $1,000 difference between an entry-level 486 and a top-flight Pentium, consumers can reasonably ask the question: Why splurge now? One answer is that ever-popular multimedia and "edutainment" software place greater demands on a home computer than word processing or spreadsheet programs exact on an office system. Software publishers write programs with the latest technology in mind. "There's so much more you can do with the extra horsepower" of a Pentium PC, says Tom Zito, chief executive of Digital Pictures, a software developer in San Mateo, Calif.

Buyers who skimp too much on price may come to regret their decision. "I've seen, over and over again, people who end up getting less memory or buying a lower system," says Richard Zwetchkenbaum, research director at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. "And within a very short amount of time after their purchase, there is remorse that they didn't buy better."

COOL RUNNING. Those who choose not to pay the premium for a Pentium won't feel deprived with a 486, though. The machines still run most programs at a fast enough clip to satisfy all but the most power-thirsty users. "It's not analogous to when Windows came out and the 286 was just plain and simple inadequate," says Mike Feibus, a principal at Mercury Research, a market-research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. The next-generation Windows 95 is designed to run smoothly on the 486. Of course, Windows 95 users should benefit from the extra processing power of a Pentium.

One major player isn't even offering a mass-market Pentium now. Compaq Computer, which produces the popular Presario line, is holding off until early next year. The company believes most consumers will strike in the $1,500 to $1,800 range. "It's difficult to justify to your spouse why Johnny or Susie needs this horsepower today when they can do most of what they need to for hundreds of dollars less," says Kevin Bohren, Compaq's vice-president for desktop PC marketing.

Also on the long-range horizon are computers built around competing microprocessors. An immediate alternative to Pentium for Apple Computer diehards are muscular Power Macintoshes, based on the PowerPC chip that is jointly produced by Apple Computer, IBM, and Motorola. But the partners are only now agreeing on a common hardware design for all PowerPC-based machines that will not hit the market until 1996. For people buying an IBM-type computer, Advanced Micro Devices and Cyrix are also coming out with Pentium rivals next year.

Many experts advise consumers who want a Pentium PC to consider the latest 75-Mhz, 90-Mhz, and (if you can find them) 100-Mhz versions. The older 60-Mhz Pentium chips were plagued by concerns over heat buildup. The new versions use lower-voltage, cooler-running technology and are better designed. The computers they're in boast more generous hard drives and other more powerful components. "The 90-Mhz Pentium is going to last for years," says Feibus.

Buyers who opt for a speedy 486 instead of a Pentium won't likely be visiting the PC scrap heap any time soon, either. Meanwhile, those who put off buying a computer of any kind now because they expect Pentiums to be better and cheaper in six months will probably be right--$2,000 tomorrow will surely buy a more robust computer than $2,000 does now. Compaq will have jumped in, and Intel will continue to drop Pentium prices. But that's a convenient excuse for not buying anything; there's always something better just down the pike. Indeed, for people who want their kids to run nifty multimedia educational programs or who need to cart work home from the office, now is as good a time as any to take the plunge.

         How Five Multimedia Pentiums Stack Up
      KEY:  ***** EXCELLENT   **** GOOD   *** AVERAGE   ** FAIR   * POOR
      GATEWAY         *****   $3,798  90 Mhz with 1-gigabyte hard drive,
      2000 P5-90                      16 megabytes of RAM.  Comes with 17-inch,
                                      high-resolution color monitor and software
                                      that includes Microsoft Office and Microsoft
      ZEOS            *****   $3,365  90 Mhz with 730.8-megabyte hard drive, 16
      PANTERA 90                      megabytes of RAM. Includes SmartSuite
      DELL            ****    $3,140  90 Mhz with 540-megabyte hard drive, 16
      DIMENSION                       megabytes of RAM.
      XPS P90
      PACKARD BELL    ***     $2,300- 90 Mhz with 850-megabyte hard drive, 16
      EXECUTIVE                2,500  megabytes of RAM.  Includes front-end
      5190CDT                         Navigator software.
      AST ADVANTAGE!  **      $2,199  60 Mhz with 540-megabyte hard drive and 16
      ADVENTURE                       megabytes of RAM. Comes with gobs of software
      8060P                           including Microsoft Cinemania, Lotus
                                      Organizer, and Quicken for Windows.
      GATEWAY         System is well-suited for a home
                      office. Large tower chassis offers
                      ample room for expansion.
      ZEOS            Excellent sound system features a
      PANTERA 90      powered subwoofer. Provided best
                      disk drive and CD-ROM performance.
      DELL            Slower video than others tested
      DIMENSION       impedes game play. Provides
      XPS P90         space-saving minitower chassis.
      PACKARD BELL    Comes with collection of games
      EXECUTIVE       and multimedia titles, but overall
      5190CDT         performance is average.
      AST ADVANTAGE   Low price but slower processor
      ADVENTURE       than others tested.
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