ONLINE BUYING

Tired of chip races? Thin clients might give you the inside track

J.B. Miles

I love fast PCs, but I'm weary of the perpetual contest between Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Of Sunnyvale Calif., over which one makes faster processors.

The latest hype concerns the relative merits of Intel's 1.7-GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor and AMD's 1.4-GHz Athlon processor.

Depending on whom you believe, either one of these processors will power the fastest, baddest PCs the world has ever seen. Both companies also promise that by early next year their chips will break the 2-GHz speed barrier.

Down the line we're looking at 64-bit processors and motherboard designs hat make today's screamers look like the 64K CP/M Kaypro I bought almost 20 years ago.

But who really benefits from this ongoing grand prix? Is all this processor speed really getting us anywhere, or is it part of a marketing ploy by the PC industry to make sure buyers keep throwing money at the latest, greatest and supposedly fastest PCs on vendors' shelves?

Information technology managers already know that superfast processors represent only a portion of the PC speed equation. Fast system buses, lots of speedy RAM, capable graphics cards and large, fast hard drives are also required to run intensive applications.

because I write about computers, people often ask my advice on the best PC to buy. I tell them to carefully consider what they'll use it for before stepping into a store or shopping online.

Most of my friends aren't graphics professionals or even PC gamers; they want a PC for basic word processing, Web browsing and e-mail. But despite my advice, a lot of them wind up with top-of-the-line, $3,500 PCs with the fastest Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon chip they could find.

There are plenty of great new PCs out there with Celeron or Duron processors running Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition that sell for $800 or less, with a decent monitor included. Why spend a couple of thousand extra just to claim you have this month's fastest model?

The model you buy won't be the fastest for long. Hardware vendors replace CPUs and motherboards in new models faster than you can say "Pentium 4" or "Athlon Thunderbird." And until software developers rewrite their code to match faster processing requirements, the applications you are using probably can't take advantage of a superfast CPU.

There's another game in town for managers who want relief from the perennial PC speed race. Organizations can realize tremendous cost savings without sacrificing much in the way of speed by using thin clients instead of "fat" PCs on their networks.

Thin clients are networked computers that cost as little as $400. They seldom need repair or maintenance because they don't have hard drives or other moving parts. The server in a thin-client system hods and processes the applications on the network while the clients only send keystroke, mouse and screen refresh information. So there is little or no speed penalty.

Thin clients'using relatively slow 233-MHz or 300-MHz processors and stripped-down operating systems such as Windows CE or a version of Linux'give you the look and feel of full-fledged PCs at a fraction of the cost.

They're not for everybody, though. If you are a home or small-office user, on of them won't do you much good. If your organization runs high-end graphics or compute-intestive tasks, you may want to stick with a fleet of PCs.

But even in that case, you don't have to buy the fastest to buy the best.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at jbmiles@gte.net.

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