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Intel concedes memory issue, as expected

Bowing to pressure from computer makers and memory manufacturers, Intel formally commits to producing more chipsets that will work with standard computer memory.

PALM SPRINGS, California--Bowing to pressure from computer makers and memory manufacturers, Intel formally committed to producing more chipsets that will work with standard computer memory, a move that could further stem the rush toward Rambus.

Until today, Intel's position has been that all of its future chipsets would support Rambus memory, which limited the horizon for using standard memory, or SDRAM, in Intel-based PCs. The change had been expected.

Intel will now come out with a chipset that will work with 133-MHz SDRAM, said Pete MacWilliams, an Intel fellow, at the Intel Developer's Forum.

"Our OEM [original equipment manufacturers] and DRAM [dynamic random access memory] vendors asked us to do this," he said. "There is a strong desire to use 133-MHz SDRAM."

To Rambus or not to Rambus has been a major issue for computer makers for over a year, and lately the tide seems to be moving away from the new memory technology even though Intel has maintained all of its future chipsets would support Rambus. A chipset is the group of companion chips to a PC's main processor.

Rambus-style memory provides performance advantages for PCs over standard memory. However, Rambus memory is far more expensive and thus less attractive to PC makers and memory manufacturers, two industries currently obsessed with keeping costs to a minimum.

Projections on the price difference between standard memory and Rambus have ranged from 20 percent to over twice as much, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64.

Intel's first Rambus-centric chipset, the 820, comes out September 27, said sources. Computers using it are expected to follow soon.

The Rambus revolution also has been subject to other stumbling blocks. Many manufacturers have say they are having difficulty getting adequate "yields," the amount of saleable processors from a given microchip wafer, and note that Rambus chips from different manufacturers may not be compatible. (See related story)

The move was widely expected, and analysts said that the results could be minimal.

Intel will likely ensure that its 133-MHz SDRAM chipset is relatively unimpressive, speculated Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources, especially compared to Rambus parts. As a result, few computer makers may pick it up.

One likely consequence is a marketing push from rival Via Technologies. The Taiwanese chipmaker has already produced a chipset that works with the faster 133-MHz SDRAM. While performance advantages of this particular part may be minimal, it has a bigger number. Intel's chipsets only use 100-MHz memory.

"They have a good opportunity to use it as a marketing message," Glaskowsky said.

The chipset may also delay the full-fledged acceptance of AGP 4X, a new version of the graphics bus on the 820 chipset. It is unclear whether Intel will include AGP 4X support on the 133-MHz SDRAM chipset, said Brookwood. If it includes the feature on the 133-MHz memory chipset, this could eat further into the attractiveness of Rambus. If it doens't, AGP 4X may not take off.

MacWilliams, however, added that the new chipset will not likely impact the adoption of Rambus.