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Intel benchmarks show little advantage to Rambus

A new series of tests show Rambus memory does not necessarily outperform cheaper, standard high-speed memory.

A new series of benchmarks have emerged that show Rambus memory provides less oomph than cheaper, standard high-speed memory.

And the odd part is that the tests come from Intel, the major proponent of Rambus.

In benchmark tests conducted by Intel, computers equipped with standard high-speed memory and Intel's 815 chipset outperformed similarly configured PCs with Rambus memory and the corresponding 820 chipset from the company.

The results have already reinvigorated the debate over Rambus, one of the semiconductor industry's most polarizing topics. Mountain View, Calif.-based Rambus designs fast computer memory. While proponents have maintained that Rambus-based memory can boost PC performance, detractors have said the benefits are minor, especially in light of its high cost.

Rambus' stock is also extremely volatile, bouncing from $14 to $135 over the past 52 weeks.

In this latest round, the detractors appear to have the upper hand. A 933-MHz Pentium III computer with 128MB of PC 133 memory, or standard high-speed memory, edged out a 933-MHz computer with 128MB of Rambus memory in 11 out of 14 benchmarks. Computers with standard PC 133 memory outdid Rambus on all six productivity benchmarks, which test computers on how they run business applications. Standard memory also outdid Rambus when it came to running most multimedia and 3D applications.

The results were similar for computers containing 866-MHz chips and slower.

Although nearly all of the test results were close, Rambus effectively loses in a tie. For years, Intel has maintained that Rambus will provide superior performance.

The performance issue is critical because Rambus costs much more than standard memory. Computer makers have said that Rambus costs them twice as much or more to include in computers. At retail, Rambus memory can cost at least three times as much as the same amount of PC 133.

The benchmarks indicate that Intel "wasn't completely forthcoming" when it said that Rambus provided superior performance for the Pentium III over PC 133, said Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst at MicroDesign Resources. "I think it is pretty clear that PC 133 does give substantial performance benefits."

Intel didn't go out of its way to highlight the contrast. The benchmark results are posted on different pages on Intel's Web site. Intel also tested the 820 chipset and Rambus memory with its 1-GHz Pentium III, but it did not test the fast chip with the 815 chipset and PC 133 memory. The contrast between the results was first collated and reported by Semiconductor Business News.

Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research said the tests in some ways reflect the effort Intel has put into the 815 chipset. "It quite likely will be one of the most, if not the most, popular chipsets in Intel's history."

Nonetheless, the results will also reflect on Rambus. "It seems somewhat intuitive that this undermines the momentum behind Rambus," said McCarron.

"The benchmarks speak for themselves," said an Intel spokesman.

Although it may be tarnished by these results, the Rambus debate is far from over. Later this fall, Intel will release the Pentium 4, a 1.4-GHz chip that will contain a 400-MHz bus. The Pentium 4 bus, the main data conduit for the processor, is three times the speed of the bus on the Pentium III and, as a result, will be able to take advantage of many of the promised features of Rambus.

"When you look at Pentium 4, you really need something like Rambus," said Glaskowsky.

The price disparity will also begin to abate. By that time, Double Data Rate (DDR) DRAM, a version of PC 133 that runs at twice the speed, will be coming out. Although DDR chips will be cheaper, the relative density of DDR chips, combined with other factors, could make DDR a more expensive alternative.

In addition, Rambus has been suing DDR manufacturers, claiming that its patents give it the right to earn royalties from DDR. So far, Toshiba and Hitachi have signed settlements with the company.

In other Intel-Rambus matters, Rambus confirmed that Intel is still eligible to qualify to buy 4 million shares of Rambus stock at a sharp discount.

Under an agreement signed in 1996, Rambus issued Intel a warrant to purchase 1 million shares of Rambus at $10 a share, vice president Avo Kanadjian said. Due to a recent four-to-one split, Intel can now pick up four million shares at $2.50 a piece, far less than the $87-plus price Rambus fetches today.

To earn the warrants, however, Intel will have to meet certain criteria, he added. At least 20 percent of the chipsets sold by Intel in two consecutive quarters within a given year will have to be geared to work with Rambus memory, he said.

So far, Intel has not had a single quarter where its Rambus chipsets have hit the 20 percent mark, he said. On the other hand, the 12-month tolling period has not yet begun. The starting date for the 12-month period has yet to be set by Intel and Rambus.