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By GCN Staff

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Parsing the computer show

In much the same way you can tell a bit about environmental conditions from the local farmer's market, so too can you decipher what is happening in the IT world by your local computer show.

Here in the Washington D.C. Area, we have the MarketPro shows. Most weekends, representatives from a few dozen regional computer shops gather, set up folding tables and sell their wares at some fairground or armory.

It's an interesting hothouse environment. If you go to these local computer stores themselves, you'll find prices comfortably above most GSA Schedule pricing. Get these vendors together in the same room, though, and more than a few price wars break out.

Better yet, the weekly congregation also reveals what products are actually taking off. At GCN, we point the way to new technologies that could be used in your shop. But the local computer shows show what is actually selling. Space on these tables is limited, and good ideas alone don't put food on the table.

For instance, back in 2000, we knew Advanced Micro Devices Inc. was going to be big because even though no tier-one PC company was using AMD chips yet, they were selling like hotcakes at these shows. Most vendors had a wide range of AMD processors and only a handful from Intel Corp. The hobbyists who attended these shows knew the deal--Simply put, AMD offered more cycles for less money back then.

Of course, observations you may make at these small events are not fool-proof indicators of industry-wide trends, but they are good pointers to what may be coming down the road. Here's what we spied:

*32-bit CPUs are dead, dead, dead: It is really surprising how difficult it was to get a 32-bit CPU at the show. We owe an apology to Symantec Corp. for doubting its assertion that the 64-bit desktop computer market is finally here. The 64-bit bit processors and machines were everywhere and, in fact, 32-bit machines were a bit of rarity! There is now no real premium for 64-bit microprocessors and, given the fact that 32 bit apps can run on 64-bit machines, there is not much reason to buy a 32-bit computer instead of a 64-bit one. We found a few 32-bit barebone computers (a computer with just a motherboard, processor, memory and box) for just under $200, but a 64-bit equivalent could be had for as little as $40 more. In fact, one vendor offered to sell us a 64-bit machine for the same price as an out-of-stock 32-bit model we asked about.

*Intel is waging a comeback: Over each sales table are paper or cardboard signs listing prices of various processors, hard-drives, memory, and so on. A few years ago, AMD got much of the real estate on these signs. The Pentium 4's just weren't happening. This time, we're saw more Intel, mostly thanks to its Core 2 Duo line, which is going up against the AMD X2 dual-core processors. There is a still a slight premium for Intel, but it is not prohibitively large.

*Dual-core processing is becoming affordable: Prices for multicore processors have dropped significantly over the past six months or so. At the show, we could get a Intel E4300 Core 2 Duo and motherboard together for as low as $226, or a AMD X2 3600 and motherboard for $152 (All prices quoted are in cash).

*IDE on its way out; long live SATA: We originally came to the show for an IDE hard drive, but they were tough to find. This was a dramatic change from even a few months ago, when both were plentiful. A few vendors had some 160GB, or 320GB IDE hard drives, but clearly Serial ATA is the way to go now. This means you have to make a real hard decision about every IDE drive you buy from here on out, and don't even think about buying a computer without SATA support. If you do, you'll be sorry three years from now.

*Today's sweet spot for dual-core processors seems to be somewhere just under 2.2 GHz: Every good PC builder knows about the sweet spot. It's where you can get the most value for your money. Take a close look of the price sheets over each vendor's table. Typically, for commodity products such as hard drives and processors, the models available are listed from oldest to newest, from slowest to fastest, from cheapest to most expensive.

Usually the newest and fastest being offered comes with a hefty premium, often a few hundred dollars or more. So if you want to be a fool with your money, knock yourself out with that $1025 2.93 GHz Core 2 Duo 'Extreme' edition. Especially since the 2.13 GHz Core 2 Duo will run you only about $232 here.

But being a cheapskate doesn't pay either. Sure you could spend $77 for the least expensive AMD X2 dual-core processor available, a 3600+, with a clock rate of 1.8 GHz. But for an extra $26 you can get a 4200+ with 2.2 GHz, a not inconsiderable boost for a relatively small outlay of additional coinage.

The trick is to go as far down the list as possible before it starts to hurt you pocketbook. The more you can pay, the more your longer (in theory) you'll be able to use your system before it starts seeming unacceptably slow. These days the 4200+ for $103 is a great deal, but another $19 will get you an additional 200 MHz, and another $17 after that'for the 4800+--will double your on-chip L2 cache, from 512 Mb, to 1024 Mb.

After the AMD 4800+, though, the price hikes get steeper and the performance hike starts to flatten out a bit. The 2.6 GHz 5000+ is $30 more, and the 3 GHz 6000+ $110 more.

On the Intel side of the house, the $232 Core 2 Duo 6400 (at 2.13 GHz) seemed to be the optimal price/performance point. Jumping up to the next step available here, a 6600 2.4 GHz, will cost you an additional $95.

80 will get you 320: Speaking of sweet spots, for as long as we could remember, the sweet spot for hard drives seemed to hover around $80. At various times, drives with 20GB, 80GB and 160GB all came with that $80 price-tag. We guess that was about as much as most people would be willing to pay for that extra storage. Today's show revealed that that $80 would get you about 320GB, in either SATA or (if you could find on) IDE.

*Perhaps we hyped PCI Express way too early: We wrote glowingly of the new PCI Express bus, though if this show is any indication, motherboard manufacturers still use plain old PCI for most I/O duties'the PCI Express are reserved for video cards.

*DDR II is now less expensive than DDR: Not a good sign for DDR Mark 1: 512 Mb of DDR 3100 will run you $30, and while 512 Mb of DDR II will cost only $28. And the price differentials are greater for 1 Gb modules. In economic terms, this means DDR is finally on the way out, and purchasing the vintage DDR will increasingly come with a premium. In terms of future-proofing your new system, this means you should choose a motherboard that runs DDR II.

*Cathode Ray Tubes monitors are dead too: Especially when you can get an Acer 19-inch Liquid Crystal Display monitor for as little as $189, or a Viewsonic VA712B LCD for $149.

*Hardly anyone buys software in boxes anymore: There wasn't much software to be had here, except for $7 CDs of shareware collections, or copies of Microsoft operating systems. By the way, the OEM (read: non-supported) Windows Vistas are out. One vendor offered Vista Home Basic for $92, Vista Business for $143 and Home Premium for $192

*400 watts now seems to be the mid-range standard for power supplies: Or thereabouts. It has been inching up from 250, or 300 watts in the past few years. So much for thinking green. --Posted by Joab Jackson

Posted by Joab Jackson on Apr 21, 2007 at 9:39 AM


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