It's neck-and-neck for small MMX-makers as Intel's lead evaporates

Now another important component is about to take a price hit, so we can look forward to
lots more power at last year's prices-or less.


Intel Corp.'s Pentium MMX chip will be a boon to heavy multimedia users as well as
average buyers who'll find bargains on non-MMX systems because of market pressure from
next-generation microprocessor introductions.


This is indeed happening. Intel recently admitted to feeling pressure on its non-MMX
chips from small competitors Cyrix Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc., whose
introductions in the past have lagged behind Intel's. The downward price pressure until
now has always come from Intel's own ramp-ups.


That's about to change. AMD's K5-PR166, which runs at less than a 120-MHz clock rate,
performs a bit faster than Intel's 166-MHz Pentium. It also runs faster than the Cyrix
6x86-P166+, and it matches 200-MHz Pentium performance on some applications.


The disparity between clock speed and performance confuses buyers. Intel designates
chips by clock speed, but Cyrix and AMD have found it more useful to name their chips
after comparable Intel products.


The fear that MMX would be proprietary to Intel turns out to be unfounded. Other
chipmakers' processors get the same multimedia commands, so after years of playing
catch-up, the field looks level for AMD and Cyrix. Their chips match Pentium performance
and easily beat Intel's prices.


Intel's Pentium II, code-named Klamath, the next-generation microprocessor for most
Microsoft Windows users, didn't even beat AMD's K6 to market. As of mid-April, there were
no detailed Pentium II specs on Intel's http://www.intel .com World Wide Web site.


But AMD began shipping 166-, 200- and 233-MHz K6 MMX chips in quantity on April 2. This
was an important feat for AMD, whose failure to deliver the K5 on time had burned Compaq
Computer Corp. and some other PC makers.


As of mid-April, no leading maker had signed on to build K6 PCs, but some are sure to
take the plunge. They're unhappy with Intel as the sole source of high-end PC
microprocessors.


Even if no big PC vendor wants to risk annoying Intel, the mere availability of the K6
prior to release of the Pentium II will force Intel to rethink its pricing. If AMD's
supplies and quality prove adequate, this could be historic: a small competitor of Intel's
gives birth to a new PC generation.


How will this affect your summer buying plans? First, the highest performance chips
will quickly settle out at a lower-than-expected price, because Intel will feel immediate
pressure on its new line.


Rumor says the Pentium II was supposed to be higher-priced than the current Pentium
Pro, but it may not deliver any performance improvement for high-end users.


Second, PC makers will struggle to keep prices in line with last year's, even when they
load systems with as much as 32M of RAM. Although 1G drive prices can't fall much more
because of assembly, testing and marketing costs, drives in the 3G to 5G range will
continue to drop, with higher-capacity drives dropping the most.


Unless there's some unexpected interruption in chip supply, the best buys this summer
and fall will be fast, high-end PCs with large amounts of RAM and hard drives in the 5G to
10G range. Low-end, non-MMX Pentium PCs with 16M RAM and 1G drives will turn into
close-out deals.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.


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