Navigating The Pentium Clutter

For now, the P-II is great for corporate desktops but overkill for most home PCs

In most industries, the launch of new product lines is carefully planned to keep markets orderly and avoid confusing consumers. Then there's the computer business.

On May 7, Intel took the wraps off one of the industry's worst-kept secrets, the Pentium II microprocessor. This was the second major processor line launched by Intel this year and means that personal computers built around four distinct families of Pentiums are now on the market. It's hardly surprising if consumers are having some trouble figuring out what to buy.

There's no question about what the Pentium II brings to the mix. It combines the raw computing speed of the Pentium Pro chip introduced last year with the multimedia abilities of the MMX technology that Intel began adding to its regular Pentiums in January. In addition, it is much faster than the Pentium Pro when running older DOS and Windows 3.1 programs.

HEAVY-DUTY. I didn't run any formal performance tests on the 266-megahertz Pentium II Dell Dimension XPS I tested. But it felt like the fastest Intel-based machine I've ever used. To get some quantitative assessment of just how fast, I timed how long it took to apply a special effect to a photo in Micrografx Picture Publisher. The Pentium II Dell completed the operation in less than 10 seconds whether using Windows 95 or NT. A 200-MHz Pentium Pro computer running NT took 16 seconds, while a 200-MHz MMX Pentium with Win 95 took nearly twice as long. An old DOS word processor that barely crawled on the Pentium Pro flew on the Pentium II.

People who do heavy-duty image editing need really fast machines, but how do the rest of us decide which processor to choose? In coming months, Intel will probably make it easier by narrowing its offerings. The non-MMX Pentiums will likely disappear, except for budget laptops. The Pentium Pro, too, is apt to fade away from desktop machines, finding its niche in servers and exotic multiprocessor workstations. And except at the low end, the only choice for laptop buyers will be the MMX Pentium, since a version of the II suitable for mobile devices is unlikely before next year.

For the moment, Intel sees the Pentium II going mainly to corporate desktops, while the MMX Pentium should be the chip of choice for home users "due to its wide availability in consumer mainstream price points." But Intel's customers aren't necessarily going along. Dell, for example, launched the Pentium II in its home and small business-oriented Dimension line rather than in its corporate OptiPlex series. And a loaded 266-MHz Dimension fetches $2,700 without a monitor, which is expensive, though not prohibitively so, for the home power user. Gateway 2000 offers a 233-MHz version with a 17-inch monitor for $2,649.

For most customers, Intel's advice is sound. The Pentium II offers more power than they need, and a 266-MHz system will cost about $400 more than a similarly equipped 200-MHz MMX Pentium. But if you're into demanding uses--or if you plan to run Windows NT--the II (or its somewhat less expensive functional equal, the Advanced Micro Devices K6) may well be worth the extra cost.

By the end of this year, it's likely that, except for a few budget models, desktop computers will range from 166- MHz MMX Pentiums to the 300-MHz Pentium IIs. (Among Macintoshes, there has been a similar acceleration, with the range going from the 180-MHz PowerPC 603e to the 300-MHz 604e.)

REALLY SIMPLE. What are consumers supposed to do with all this power and speed? After all, a faster chip doesn't let you type faster in your word processor, and Internet performance has far more to do with the speed of your modem connection. There are a handful of applications, such as videoconferencing and photo editing, that can benefit from raw power. But the real benefit will come when software developers use the power of really fast machines to make them really simple.

Imagine voice commands, for example. Instead of speaking such phrases as "Microsoft Word; file; open; letter-dot-doc," which require memorizing a series of mouse clicks, users can eventually use natural-language commands such as, "Get me the letter that I wrote to Mr. Smith this morning." This sort of simplicity takes a tremendous amount of processing power that is now tantalizingly close. When more powerful microprocessors make computers smarter, as well as faster, we'll all be winners.

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