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Dell aims Rambus at mainstream, but questions remain

The PC giant aims to push Rambus-style memory deeper into the mainstream with a new, relatively low-priced corporate computer, but analysts are still debating the memory technology's fate.

Dell Computer will push Rambus-style memory deeper into the mainstream today with a new, relatively low-priced corporate computer, but analysts are still debating the memory technology's fate.

The company today will introduce the OptiPlex GX 200, a business desktop that features Pentium III processors and Rambus memory. Starting at $1,149, the new OptiPlex will be one of the least expensive Rambus-based PCs on the market. Dell is selling the computer, which comes with 64 MB or more of memory, for about the same price as similarly configured Optiplex systems containing standard memory.

Dell's Web site reveals that these Rambus-based systems will be about the same price as OptiPlex computers using ordinary, and typically less expensive, memory chips.

Still, analysts are wondering how quickly Rambus memory will move into the mainstream, as well as how much of the market it can penetrate. As reported earlier, broad acceptance of the high-speed memory design has been plagued by numerous problems.

First, bugs and manufacturing issues delayed the release of Rambus PCs several times last year. The parts to build Rambus systems came out in November 1999, but a scarcity of Rambus-based memory meant that few computers containing the chips could be found.

Although supplies have increased, Rambus chips still cost much more than ordinary memory, prompting most manufacturers to stick with tradition despite performance benefits.

A 128MB Rambus-based memory module at retail, for instance, can cost $600 to $800, according to Mario Morales, an analyst at International Data Corp. The same unit with standard memory might cost $210.

Dell remains the largest proponent of Rambus in the PC market. The company historically has been more enthusiastic than the other big PC makers about pushing Rambus.

"If there is one problem for the adoption rate for Rambus memory, it is the cost," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. "It is still pretty much a Dell thing."

The outlook for Rambus could become even hazier when Intel later this quarter releases its 815 chipset. The 815 contains a system bus that runs at the same speed as the system bus on the Rambus-centric 820 chipset. However, the 815 will work with ordinary memory. A system bus is a data pathway that connects a processor to memory.

The chipset should allow computer makers to enhance overall performance without the high cost of switching to more expensive memory, analysts said.

"In the current environment, the 815 is going to be a very popular product," McCarron said.

Dell, for its part, is seeing broader acceptance of Rambus technology. All of the company's current workstations incorporate Rambus memory, according to one spokeswoman, and it is being used in high-end consumer systems as well.