Have you heard the latest in PC jargon?
- By Michael Cheek
- Oct 20, 1997
A couple of years ago, government PC buyers and specifiers had to pay attention only to
the basics: processor, hard-drive capacity and RAM. Components such as video, monitor and
network interface cards were secondary as long as the PC could run a word processor and
Today's PCs require the user to know as much jargon about PCs as about government and
more technobabble than an episode of "Star Trek." Minor nuances matter. In fact,
Pentium II processors handle data so fast that desktop bottlenecks now are the fault of
subsystems--memory, drives and video accelerators.
This tutorial will acquaint you with the up-and-coming PC lingo and will let you gaze
into our crystal ball at the PCs that will be on the market by early next year.
Processors continue to be the heart and soul of PCs, and they're getting more
specialized. Intel Corp.'s Pentium family remains dominant by targeting specific
processors for desktop PCs, mobile PCs, servers and high-end workstations.
The 300-MHz Pentium II, which became available late last month, follows earlier 233-
and 266-MHz versions. This is Intel's fastest chip, building on the Pentium Pro design and
adding MMX commands and memory space.
A Pentium II processor has a special casing that looks like a Sega or Nintendo game
cartridge. It fits into a motherboard slot called Socket 1. At present, no upgrades are
available for Pentium II processors.
Many vendors now sell entry-level Pentium II servers, not because Intel aimed the
Pentium II at the server market, but because bulk pricing makes it attractive. But the
limitations of a maximum of 512K Level 2 cache memory and two processors leaves the
Pentium II with no real future in the server market.
Industry analysts have found single- and dual-processor Pentium II and Pentium Pro
servers give essentially the same performance. The Pentium II is the faster chip, but that
has little effect on file or application server operations.
MMX is an Intel specification that stands for multimedia extensions. MMX chips have 57
extra commands wired into the CPU for efficient video, graphics and sound processing.
Other processor makers such as Advanced Micro Devices Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., and
Cyrix Corp. of Richardson, Texas, also fabricate MMX chips--the AMD K6 and the Cyrix
6x86MX. Intel's chips deliver slightly better performance, whereas the clone chips sell
The 6x86MX at a maximum 225-MHz clock speed probably will hit the market in the last
half of 1998.
AMD's K6, now available in 200- and 233-MHz versions, will achieve 300 MHz by the
beginning of next year.
When the GCN Lab staff reviewed a Digital Equipment Corp. system with a 166-MHz K6, we
found it slightly more powerful than its Intel counterpart [GCN, June 30, Page 1], and it
seemed compatible with applications. Most software code, however, still doesn't take full
advantage of MMX commands.
Cyrix's 6x86MX, code-named the M2, will have versions for mobile as well as desktop
In the first half of 1998, Intel will bring out a processor, code-named Deschutes, for
desktops and high-end portables. It will be a Pentium II with faster clock speed and lower
Motherboards are like the orchestra, and the chip set is the conductor. Every orchestra
needs a conductor to keep things moving at the right tempo.
A PC's chip set is comprised of system, memory and bus controllers. Pentium II
computers shipped earlier this year had Intel's older 440FX chip set, which lacked some of
the features planned for the new processor and motherboard.
The more recent 440LX chip set supports synchronous dynamic RAM, error-checking and
error-correcting RAM, the Accelerated Graphics Port and new hard-drive protocols.
The long waits for PC boot-up are going to get shorter, thanks to power management
methods that drop some desktop components into suspend mode. The new boot method is called
In the spring of 1998, Intel plans to release a new 100-MHz bus and a 440BX chip set.
The current Intel system bus tops out at 66 MHz; Cyrix has a motherboard rated at 75 MHz.
Increases in system bus speed should translate into big performance leaps. Intel plans
350- and 400-MHz processors for the new boards.
RAM, the dynamic kind, is the most common main memory in PCs. Now DRAM is starting to
give way to extended data out DRAM, error-checking and error-correcting RAM and
synchronous DRAM, not to mention fast-page-mode DRAM.
EDO RAM boosts processor speed with an active output buffer that removes the wait for
the next processor cycle. EDO is gaining popularity, and PC makers are looking at ECC, the
next step up. SDRAM is gaining on them both.
As a PC buyer, you should make certain you're getting high-quality EDO, ECC or
synchronous memory. Also remember that RAM comes in two sizes: single or dual in-line
SIMMs are slowly vanishing from new PCs, primarily because SIMMs have to be installed
in pairs. To add 8M of RAM to a SIMM motherboard, you must fill two slots with 4M each.
DIMMs don't have to be paired. You can install one at a time of any size. Also, DIMMs
tend to be faster and are usually the ECC or SDRAM variety.
Intel is eager to promote memory technology that can make processors run better. Its
440LX chip set contains SDRAM, which can support bus speeds up to 100 MHz or even 200 MHz.
EDO RAM cannot support bus speeds higher than 66 MHz.
Last year, most desktop systems came with 16M RAM standard. A steep drop in memory
prices has made 32M RAM standard this year. Look for 64M or even 128M in 1998.
Like CPU chips, RAM is specialized for certain uses and speeds--for example,
synchronous graphics RAM is for video cards. Generally speaking, if you have a system with
DIMMs as the primary RAM and at least 4M video memory of some sort on your graphics
accelerator card, you're in good shape.
Graphics and video deserve an illustration. Say the Palooka County Interstate (PCI) bus
rolls along at an average of 33 miles per hour. It makes three or four stops, sometimes
more, picking up passengers to go downtown to the Regional Allegheny Mall (RAM).
The Allegheny Green Parkway (AGP) bus speeds along at 66 mph, stopping just once to
pick up a bunch of commuters before sprinting to the mall. Which bus makes more trips and
is more efficient? If you said the AGP bus, you're correct. This is a simplified
explanation of how the Accelerated Graphics Port works in the newest PCs. Intel developed
AGP as part of its 440LX chip set.
Most video graphics cards are installed in a 33-MHz PCI bus, which means that 33
million cycles or events occur on the bus each second. But most PCs have more than one PCI
card slot, and all PCI cards share the same bus, so the 33 million events are divided
among the occupied slots.
In contrast, AGP cycles go it alone at 66 MHz with direct access to RAM.
You'll likely hear a lot about 3-D video cards next year. The third dimension matters
more on high-end workstations than on average desktops, but as applications and the World
Wide Web demand more out of video cards, 3-D performance will become an issue for users.
The leading 3-D video standards are OpenGL and Direct3D. OpenGL is more high-end and
found on Microsoft Windows NT workstations, while Direct3D is more common on Windows 95
Storage terms such as Ultra ATA may sound new, but ATA dates back to the first hard
drives of 286-era PCs. Remember how we called them AT machines? AT stood for advanced
technology, which in those days meant the first 16-bit desktop systems.
Hard drives back then were known as ATA, or AT attachment, drives. They stored a
maximum of 504M and transferred up to 3 megabytes/sec. These drives also were known as
IDE, for integrated device electronics.
As PCs got faster and demanded more hard-drive space, ATA-2 appeared, also known as
Fast ATA or Enhanced IDE.
This industry standard speeds up transfers to 16.6 megabytes/sec, and capacity can
reach almost 8G. A lesser-known extension was ATA-3. ATA-4 or Ultra ATA is getting all the
Ultra ATA drives transfer as much as 33.3 megabytes/sec. Some drive makers expect the
capacity to go as high as 19G.
Ultra ATA's transfer speed relies on direct memory access, called Ultra DMA/33. This
means the hard drive can directly access RAM banks, bypassing the processor. Ultra ATA
rivals a high-end SCSI drive in performance, but its main advantages are low price and
good chip set support.
All this adds up to faster drive performance and faster overall computing. But the
motherboard's chip set must support Ultra ATA and Ultra DMA/33 to gain these advantages.
You can upgrade an existing PC with an Ultra ATA drive if you purchase an interface card,
just now appearing on the market.
For years, we've stored our data on PC disks formatted for a 16-bit File Allocation
Table. FAT acts as an index to the data on the disk.
When you save a file, its data probably won't be stored consecutively on the disk.
Rather, it will be written in segments, which may or may not be close together. The File
Allocation Table records the different positions as the data is written. When you open
that stored file, the operating system looks at the table, finds all the segments and
opens them up as one complete file.
A hard disk is a data container comprised of smaller containers called clusters. When
only part of a cluster is filled by a file segment, the rest of the room in the cluster
can't be used to store another file.
This is the phenomenon you've probably heard referred to as file fragmentation.
Utilities are available that not only sequentially rewrite files but also reduce the
number of partially filled clusters. The bigger the drive, the larger the clusters.
The Windows 95B and Windows 98 operating systems, discussed below, both feature a
32-bit FAT, or FAT32. Because bigger drives mean bigger clusters, the largest drive
addressable under 16-bit FAT is a 2G drive with 32K clusters.
On the smallest drives under FAT16, clusters are 8K. Under FAT32, the smallest clusters
are 4K, and there is no limit to drive size. Any drive larger than 32G gets 32K clusters.
What do all these numbers mean? Cluster sizes under FAT32 are smaller, so less drive
space is wasted and disk performance improves.
Peripherals have always been a second thought after you choose the best basic computer
for your needs. The average office system has usually been short on extras.
That's about to change dramatically. Or rather, the definition of what is extra is
undergoing major revision as office workers begin doing their jobs via intranets and the
Documents increasingly have not only black-and-white text but embedded multimedia
presentations. Java and ActiveX applets enliven the delivery of more and more information.
All this requires office computers to leverage new technologies. Minimal sound systems,
video accelerators and higher data throughput are becoming essential in the average office
computer. Let's take a look at some prognostications for peripherals.
CD-ROM drives are one of the most-purchased peripherals. Demand is at an all-time high
because of easy CD software installation and data archiving.
CD-ROM access speeds have risen, though for most users an 8X CD-ROM drive is
sufficient. CD-recordable drives, which write data to a disk readable on all types of
CD-ROM drives, have moved into the mainstream.
The CD-rewritable format can write as well as rewrite data on a disk. The upside is
that the disk can be updated after it has been written. The downside? Ordinary CD-ROM
drives, with a few exceptions, can't read CD-R disks.
A new kid on the block, digital video disk or DVD, puts much larger amounts of
digitized video on disks the size of current CD-ROMs. DVDs eventually will store up to
17G, though the initial format holds only 4.7G. But this is huge compared with the
On the desktop, a single 4.6G DVD could hold as much data as a seven-drive CD-ROM
tower. The potential cost savings for enterprise archival are tremendous. The roadblock,
however, is the fight now going on over desktop recordable and rewritable DVD formats.
Competing formats for recordable DVD disks will force users and the market to decide
which to accept as a standard.
Sound, USB and FireWire may not affect many users in your office yet. Sound controllers
should be integrated into the average desktop systems you buy, but you don't have to
invest in speakers yet. Chances are that before a new PC is ready for the junk heap, it
will need basic audio.
Two other new technologies coming soon to a PC near you are Universal Serial Bus and
FireWire. One USB interface eventually could replace all the ports at the back of a PC
except the network interface.
Monitor, printer, modem, keyboard--up to 128 peripherals--could be daisychained to the
same USB port for a total throughput of 1.5 megabytes/sec. USB devices will be
plug-and-play and completely hot-swappable. It sounds great, but early adoption seems
FireWire, originally developed by Apple Computer Inc. and Texas Instruments Inc., aims
to replace SCSI hard-drive controllers.
SCSI's theoretical throughput limit is 80 megabytes/sec. FireWire can go as high as 400
megabytes/sec [GCN, June 16, Page 36].
As applications and operating systems eat up more and more drive space, disk-access
speed hugely influences total performance.
FireWire, also known as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' P1394
standard, is the next step to keep desktop disk subsystems from presenting a data
FireWire also can supply an interface for external devices, much as SCSI does now. USB
and FireWire both should become more prominent after the release of 100-MHz motherboards
and new peripherals.
Operating systems certainly won't get any less confusing. Windows 3.x, including 3.1
and Windows for Workgroups 3.11 releases, still is on more desktops than any other OS.
Coming up fast is Windows 95.
To complicate matters, there is a second version of that 32-bit OS known as Windows 95B
or OSR2--an acronym embedded in an acronym. It stands for original equipment manufacturer
Service Release 2.
OSR2 or Windows 95B fixes many of the bugs in the original Win95.
It has some new features such as the ability to convert a drive to FAT32.
Windows 95B comes only on new computers. Although many of the fixes are available for
Windows 95A, there is no upgrade path to OSR2.
Windows 98, expected next spring, also allows FAT32 formatting.
Microsoft is making slight improvements to the graphical interface [GCN, May 26, Page
The most improvements are behind the scenes and basically fine-tune Win95 features.
Originally code-named Memphis, Win98 will tightly integrate the Internet Explorer 4.0
Double-clicking also disappears; one launches a file.
The most anticipated new OS won't come until late 1998. Windows NT Workstation 5.0,
formerly code-named Cairo, adds plug-and-play capability and mobile power management to an
extremely powerful and stable 32-bit OS.
PC97 and PC98, specifications created by Intel, Microsoft and Compaq Computer Corp.,
will let vendors slap Microsoft stickers on their PCs.
This is similar to the Windows 95 stickers found on software boxes or the Intel Inside
stickers on PCs.
When you start seeing them pop up, there is something to keep in mind: Remember that
many of the characteristics described in this article are actual specifications for PC97
or PC98--for example, Ultra ATA, USB, AGP and OnNow.
GCN associate editor Bill Murray contributed to this article.