Pentium Iii: Enough Already?

Yeah, it's a lot of speed for the money. A lot of speed you can't really use

How do you sell superfast computers when the slowest and cheapest PC on the market is fast enough for most people? That is the challenge facing Intel as it rolls out its latest and greatest processor, the Pentium III. Intel's answer appears to be clever marketing, a bit of hype, and aggressive pricing.

When Intel brought out new chips in the past, they went into desktop systems priced well above what had been the top of the line. Not this time. Faced with a softening consumer market and competition from the soon-to-be-released K6-3 chip from Advanced Micro Devices, Intel wants Pentium III computers priced to sell. Dell Computer, for example, offers a 500-MHz Pentium III Dimension XPS T for $1,775, without monitor, and a 450-MHz version of the same machine for $1,640. A similarly equipped Dimension V powered by a 400-MHz Pentium II costs $1,475. With careful shopping, it may be possible to find a Pentium III PC priced lower than a similar Pentium II unit.

The problem is that you can buy the same Dimension V with the cheaper, but not necessarily slower, 400-MHz Celeron processor for just $1,363. As a result of Intel's pricing, I expect Pentium II consumer desktops to vanish within weeks, leaving just the IIIs and the Celerons.

In trying to persuade customers to upgrade to the Pentium III, Intel and the computer manufacturers face a tough dual challenge. First, they have to sell people on the need for more speed, then they have to convince them that the Pentium III delivers.

PLAYING? Home and business applications such as word processing, E-mail, and financial management run just fine on a Celeron, and a speedier chip won't make you type faster or think faster. Intel promotes the new chip as providing a better Web experience, but unless you have a cable modem or other high-speed connection, you probably won't notice. Using a 500-MHz Micron Millennia, I found Intel's own demo site to be much less impressive viewed with a Pentium III machine on a 56k dial-up connection than with Pentium II Dell Optiplex on our office network. High-end games, complex image manipulation, video editing, and speech recognition can use all the power you can throw at them. And beyond sheer speed, they will benefit greatly from new processing capabilities built into the Pentium III. But these activities remain outside the computing mainstream.

Unless software is rewritten to take advantage of those capabilities, the Pentium III offers only a very modest speed improvement--at most 10%--over existing chips. A complex image transformation in Adobe Photoshop 5.0 took 1 minute 12 seconds on a Micron Millennia with a 500-MHz Pentium III and a mere 15 seconds longer on an otherwise similar 400-MHz Pentium II.

Intel made a similar promise of enhanced capabilities when it introduced the mmx Pentium two years ago, but software makers never delivered. To avoid a repetition, Intel has worked closely with software developers to get Pentium III-enhanced products to market quickly. A preliminary version of UbiSoft's Laura's Happy Adventures I looked at showed real promise, particularly in smoother and more realistic 3-D motion. Whether that improvement will be enough to sell upgrades remains to be seen.

Apple Computer, by contrast, faces no difficulty in convincing the target audience for the new Power Macintosh G3 of the need for speed. These computers, based on the PowerPC G3 chip, start at $1,599 for a 300-MHz version and $2,519 for the 400-MHz. They are designed for Mac's power-hungry core constituency of graphic artists and multimedia-content producers. Unlike the cheaper iMac, the translucent blue and white G3 desktops have lots of expansion room. In addition to Universal Serial Bus ports for accessories, they feature FireWire connectors for hooking up digital video cameras and other devices requiring very fast data transfer.

Whether mainstream buyers are ready for all this speed or not, computers are only going to get faster. Intel recently demonstrated a Pentium III running at 1 gigahertz, and production Pentiums and PowerPC chips should hit 750 MHz by the end of this year or early next. Now, all we need is software that makes the power genuinely useful.

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