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HP's first Rambus PC debuts

Hewlett-Packard today unveiled the Vectra VL600, its first PC using next-generation Rambus memory technology.

Hewlett-Packard today unveiled the Vectra VL600, its first PC using next-generation memory technology.

The VL600 exclusively uses Rambus, a better performing memory slated to replace SDRAM.

But recognizing PCs are increasingly becoming commodity products, HP executives downplayed Rambus and other hardware technologies and emphasized bundled extras that differentiate the Vectra VL600 from competing corporate PCs.

The company is betting these extras, which also mean more revenue for HP, will woo corporate technology buyers. As the margins of profit fall on PCs, manufacturers increasingly look to other revenue sources associated with system sales.

The VL600 comes with a new version of HP's TopTools management suite, which supports a wide range of plug-in modules. A technology manager would use the free utility for monitoring PC functions or making changes affecting the corporate network.

HP isn't the only company with a free suite of management tools, Compaq Computer and IBM offer similar utilities. But HP hopes to stand out with for-fee plug-ins, such as a utility for inventorying Y2K ready systems or installing new printers on all customer PCs simultaneously.

TopTools is available for other HP PCs, as well as workstations and servers.

Other extras include a smart card reader and innovative power failure device that fits in the CD-ROM bay.

The VL600 is HP's most configurable corporate PC to date. Customers can choose either a CD-ROM, CD rewritable or DVD drive, storage up to 27 GB, and more powerful graphics accelerators.

But more configurable systems also mean potential headaches for technology managers. Typically "corporate customers want consistent platforms that are easier to manage," said Ken Bosley, HP Vectra product manager.

Following the lead of Compaq and Dell, HP introduced with the VL600what it calls a "software image stability program." The program assures a nine to 12 month life cycle for the new Vectra, without major software or hardware changes.

HP would not disclose pricing on the Vectra VL600 in advance of Intel's expected September 27 announcement of a Rambus chipset. The VL600 uses the new chipset and its built-in support architecture for Rambus.

But HP, like other PC manufacturers, faces potential hurdles with Rambus, which would appear slower running some applications. "Rambus would appear to be better for running more streaming types of applications, but there have been benchmarks showing it's slower on some applications, like [Microsoft] Office," said Shawn Willett, analyst with the Aberdeen Group.

Office productivity applications are among the top uses of corporate PCs, said analysts.

"HP needs to come out with some benchmarks showing what applications where Rambus has a clear advantage, because right now the picture is kind of murky," said Willett.

HP also introduced new PC workstations today, the Kayak XM600 and XU800, which offer a choice of Rambus or standard SDRAM.