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High-performance PCs born of new chips

PC makers prep a generation of higher-performance desktops that should sell at midrange prices. The PCs come courtesy of new processors and chipsets from Intel and AMD.

PC manufacturers are prepping a new generation of higher-performance desktops that should sell at midrange prices.

The PCs, due later this month, will come courtesy of a new generation of processors and chipsets from chipmaker Intel and its rival Advanced Micro Devices.

The Intel and AMD silicon, including several higher-performance Intel Pentium 4s and an Athlon XP, promises to boost the performance of a broad range of PCs, priced from as little as $800 on up to about $1,500. Not only are the microprocessors faster, but the chipsets inside these PCs work to more rapidly shuttle data between components, too.

And the chips and chipsets are expected to sell for only a slight premium over existing hardware, not the larger increase that might have been seen in better times, said Toni Duboise, desktop analyst with ARS. That makes it easier for manufacturers to tout performance PCs to the low-price crowd.

However, even though the new chips promise a jump in performance for only a small increase in price, the transition isn't likely to create an immediate groundswell of new buyers, analysts said.

That's because, among those buying PCs right now, many are opting for notebooks or choosing desktops in the sub-$800 range. And though a small number of people are purchasing desktops priced over $1,500, there's not a lot of activity in the middle, analysts said. Still, over time consumers and businesses may begin to gravitate toward these machines because of the disparity in performance between what they own now and what these new systems offer.

"The gap between what is sitting on your desktop now and what's available out there is getting bigger and bigger," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. "There have been some very significant jumps in what you would call a base PC. So, if you have any tendency toward upgrading at all, this is making it more tempting."

Intel will make the debut of its newest desktop chipset--the Intel 865 chipset, also known by the code-name Springdale--near the middle of May. Meanwhile, AMD is expected to deliver its new flagship processor, the Athlon XP 3200+ at about the same time.

Intel baked several enhancements into the 865, including a faster 800MHz bus--which accelerates the speed at which data travels between the processor and system components such as memory--and dual channel 400MHz DDR SDRAM or Double Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic RAM. The chipset will also sport a faster built-in graphics processor. The 865 is similar to a

As a result of the enhancements, the 865 could lead to a significant rise in performance for lower-priced PCs. A new PC could debut that offers a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 with Intel's hyperthreading technology, the 800MHz bus, 256MB of DDR SDRAM, at least a 40GB hard drive and a CD burner for between $800 and $900.

Right now, a PC fitted with a 2.53GHz Pentium 4, 256MB of DDR SDRAM, a 60GB hard drive, a CD burner and a DVD drive as well as a 17-inch monitor and a 1-year warranty costs about $988 from Dell Computer. The price is before shipping, which is normally about $99, and it excludes rebates or other special offers. The newer system promises to deliver more performance for about the same price.

Flexibility
The 865 chipset will spawn such a large number of desktops because of its flexibility. It will be available in a wide variety of configurations.

The most popular is likely to be dubbed the 865G, which will include built-in graphics, along with the 800MHz bus. It should also support Intel's current 533MHz bus and 400MHz bus speeds.

Most manufacturers will adopt this version of the chipset because it will let them build a wide range of different models from the same basic design. A single product family could include a low-price Celeron desktop, a midrange Pentium 4 machine and a top-of-the line model, for example.

Intel will also likely offer an 865PE, which supports the three bus speeds but does not include built-in graphics, making a separate graphics board necessary. Some manufacturers use this chipset in more expensive desktops, which typically offer separate, high-performance graphics boards and so don't need integrated graphics.

Still, many manufacturers will continue to use Intel's current 845 chipset for their lowest-price Celeron desktops for the time being. These PCs typically sell for between $500 and $800.

Because the new chipsets offer a faster bus, Intel will also issue new Pentium 4 processors. The chipmaker is expected to deliver them at speeds of 2.8GHz, 2.6GHz and 2.4GHz. The chips will incorporate the 800MHz bus and Intel's hyperthreading technology. A 3.2GHz Pentium 4 is expected at a later date.

Hyperthreading grants a performance increase to desktop users who perform multiple tasks at once, or for applications that are tuned to take advantage of the technology, which lets a single processor do more things at the same time.

Meanwhile, AMD's new Athlon XP 3200+ will come with a 400MHz bus for the first time. It will require some chipset re-engineering. But the real change will come in September when AMD launches its next-generation desktop chip, the Athlon 64.

Who's in?
The first few new desktops will hit shelves as the summer "Dads and Grads" retail-buying season kicks off. Most every manufacturer should have theirs in place for back to school.

Although the new machines promise big performance gains, analysts are somewhat skeptical that PC buyers will flock to get a new PC just because it has the latest components.

Chances are they won't, said Stephen Baker, analyst with NPD Techworld.

"I still think that, if you look at what people are buying right now, those (new processors and chipsets) aren't the kind of features that are going to get people buying again," Baker said. "The fact is that people are buying Celerons and Athlon XP processors at entry-level prices right now."

NPDTechworld tracks sales at retail in the United States. U.S. retail, which is a sizeable chunk of the overall PC market, saw the average selling price for a desktop, sans monitor, decline over the past several months, to a low of $717 in February.

Meanwhile, only low-price and very-high-end PCs are selling much, creating a soft spot at the midpoint of the market, where sales have been slow. The new generation of desktops could bring some life back to the midrange of the market, Baker said. But he expects that average selling prices are still likely to stay fairly low.

Ultimately, customers buying the brand of their choice and the processor of their choice will be hard pressed to find a new PC that doesn't perform well for their intended application, the analysts said.

"All in all, it's going to be a pretty substantial performance improvement," McCarron said.