After many delays, Rambus PCs are released

The timing is bittersweet, but PC makers finally announce computers using the much-delayed, next-generation Rambus memory.

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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
LAS VEGAS--The timing is bittersweet, but PC makers today finally introduced computers using the much-delayed, next-generation Rambus memory.

The launch is sweet for manufacturers looking to Comdex: Closing the millennium offer customers better performance, particularly on commercial desktops and workstations. But it is bitter because of the long delay getting Intel's 820 chipset, which is essential for making Rambus memory work on desktop PCs.

Compaq Computer, Dell Computer and IBM today introduced new workstations at the Comdex trade show here using the 820 and another chipset, the 840, though the chipsets still aren't shipping in volume.

The biggest effect of the 820 delay is lost revenue from Rambus systems, some of which had been announced before Intel's scheduled Sept. 27 launch date, PC makers said.

Intel delayed the chipset at the last minute, leading to destroyed motherboards and embarrassment for companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell, which were already touting Rambus systems. Motherboard is an industry term for a computer's main circuit board.

Peter Glaskowsky, analyst with MicroDesign Resources, estimated that manufacturers produced 100,000 to 1 million motherboards based on a defective "three-slot" specification.

The problem was a major setback for Rambus, one of Silicon Valley's most talked-about companies, thanks in part to Intel's endorsement. Rambus memory promises to be faster than the current standard, called SDRAM, but costs more and has been beset by delays, glitches and marketing mistakes.

Before the delay, Hewlett-Packard had introduced its next-generation commercial PC, the Vectra VL600, which the company now hopes to ship later this month. Compaq is expected to begin shipping its new AP550 and SP750 this month. The Rambus memory workstations use the 840 chipset and come with a 733-MHz Pentium III or, in the case of the SP750, a Pentium III Xeon processors.

Despite the 820's release and the October introduction of the 840 chipset for use in workstations and servers, PC makers said low volumes would hamper their ability to ship many Rambus-based systems this year.

The supply of the 840 is tight but getting better, said IBM workstation worldwide product brand manager Doug Oathout, who added that Big Blue would ship 820-based systems in early December.

IBM found out about the 820 problem about three weeks before the official product launch. Big Blue hadn't gotten very far into production and only had to scrap a "couple hundred" motherboards of inventory as unusable, Oathout said.

Compaq and Dell, which nearly simultaneously discovered the original problem, also halted production quickly, limiting its impact.

The 820 problem burned IBM, forcing it at the last minute to change to a competing chipset from Via Technologies for some new PCs. Big Blue since has taken a more cautious approach to Intel chipsets, said a source close to the company.

Although Rambus offers compelling benefits to people performing memory-intensive work such as video editing, IBM still has an open mind to other memory systems such as double data rate (DDR) and SyncLink. "There's some great technology out there," Oathout said.

The 820 allows computers to communicate with Rambus memory at a peak speed of 1.6 gigabytes per second--twice the rate of mainstream PCs today. The 840, with two memory channels, has a peak speed of 3.2 gigabytes per second, but costs more. Both chips enable use of AGP 4x video cards.

Dell and IBM both said supplies of the new Coppermine Pentium III chips are tight. "The 733s are delivering, and they are very tight," Oathout said, though he expects the supply to loosen very soon.

IBM's E Pro workstations use the 820 chipset, and its M Pros use the 840. In addition, its 820-based 300PL desktop computer uses Rambus, the company said.

Dell introduced the 840 chipset in its midrange Precision Workstation 420 model today, a spokesman said. With 128 MB of memory and a 600 MHz chip, the price starts at $2,609. Dell also introduced a sound dampening system to cut down on the howl of the high-speed hard disks often found in workstations.

Volume shipments of the 420 systems from Dell, will begin by the middle of December, the spokesperson said.